When I Paint My Masterpiece (1971)

Though the title of this song points towards the future, everything else in it is about the here and now, with a singer busy hurrying, dating, dodging and wasting time, and that’s just in the first ten lines.  The action is on display with the words that rhyme with “masterpiece,” those being “niece” (Levon sings”pretty little girl from Greece,” not “Botticelli’s niece” as the bobdylan.com lyrics state), “geese,” and “police.”  The content of the song hinges on the date with this girl, and being outdoors, running, sailing, flying with and through nature, and rebellion mixed with danger what with the need to dodge lions, cope with a frightening plane ride, and avoid police who hold down a newspaperman eating candy” (for eating candy?).

The song uses an alternate rhyming pattern with some delightful rhymes “Coliseum” with “see’em,” “memory” with”rhapsody,” and “gondola with “Coca-Cola.” However, there are exceptions to the pattern in the 5th and 7th lines of verses 1 and 3.  Also, the song consists of 4 verses of 8 lines each, with the third verse as the exception at only 2 lines containing the memorable “gondola”/Coca-Cola” rhyming couplet.

So it’s not a perfectly symmetrical rhyming or consistently structured  masterpiece. What of it?  This is a song about making claim to creating a future masterpiece, but for now there’s a whole lot of living to do, filled with some fears and memories, but mostly fun and anticipation, and little yearning: “Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola.”

Masterful, however, is how Levon sings it. The song seems made for him, and probably was.  Below is a live version with Dylan singing it, and the studio with Levon at the helm singing it in his own way of singing a rhapsody.

 

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Unbelievable (1990)

Stars are far, unbelievably so. This comes across in “Unbelievable” when “star” and “far” pair up for the rhyme in the first verse:
It’s unbelievable, it’s strange but true
It’s inconceivable it could happen to you
You go north and you go south
Just like bait in the fish’s mouth
Ya must be livin’ in the shadow of some kind of evil star
It’s unbelievable it would get this far

Unbelievable, too, is the notion that you could be living under an evil star, unless superstition is your thing.  But if it is, Dylan undercuts it beginning the next verse:

It’s undeniable what they’d have you to think
It’s indescribable, it can drive you to drink

If I start believing that I’m living under an evil star, I think I will have a drink; indeed it would mean I’ve taken bad things that happen to me a bit too far, maybe as is done when we think of those lovers in Romeo & Juliet as “star-crossed.” Maybe not such an unbelievable literary reference what with the rhyming “sonnet” like couplets taking up all the end of line terminal rhymes.  When Romeo and Juliet first meet, their first words to each other form a sonnet.
Here’s DiCaprio and Danes pulling off that trick:
Yes, unbelievable, strange but true, inconceivable even . . . love and fate, that is.
Dylan’s official video of “Unbelievable,” with a much different kind of romance and Juliet, and fate, maybe even with a name . . . Jack?

“Soon After Midnight” (2012)

Tempest‘s “Soon After Midnight,” is the only Dylan song with “midnight” in its title.  It took him fifty years to get it in one.  It also is part of the chorus of the song, “It’s soon after midnight,” “It’s” added to force an internal rhyme.

Something else is going on with it though in terms of rhyme as the song progresses freeing it from just the internal repetitive rhyme.  “Midnight” is used four times in the song; the last three times, Dylan uses the words, “”eye,” “mink,” and “think,” to rhyme with both “i” sounds found in “midnight.”

My favorite line in the song is “And I’ve got a date with a fairy queen.”  Now this could just be plans to read Spenser’s epic (though it’s not capitalized), but as far as real fairy queens go, Titania fits the bill.  In this song, she works, too, with an “i” sound that matches “midnight”‘s, the way an internal rhyme might.  But she’s not there or her name isn’t, so her name is a rhyme not there, but there if “fairy queen” lets her enter your mind.

The whole song for me is a bit dreamy, the ways things are in A Midsummer night’s Dream, where nothing is at it seems, especially Bottom’s Dream.

 

Here’s panama hat adorning Bob on piano and singing it live in Chicago, 2014.

Shooting Star (1989)

Dylan opens “Shooting Star” at a concert in Rome during a 1991 tour saying that this is a song about “watching people pass you by.  They seem to come out of nowhere and pass you right by. ”  In Chronicles, he writes about how writing the song involved a coming out of nowhere: He calls it [t]he kind of song you hear when you’re wide awake in your head and see and feel things, but all the rest of you is asleep.” I take both of these comments as meaning that anything can be a shooting star, people, lyrics, melody, sound, etc; anything can enter your world, the world, shoot into you and then out, but trigger thoughts you weren’t planning to have, thoughts about a you, a me, and regrets, about some you and me:

Guess it’s too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say

The rhyming in verses 1, 2, and 4, comprising three fourths of the song, have a strict pattern of a/b/c/b/d/b/a/b.  The b sounds in verse one are triggered by “you,” in 2, by “me,” and in 4 by “away,” the slipping away of the star, like how rhymes slip in and of a song that has rhymes.

The third verse is remarkable for what it shoots into the song, namely the last fire truck from hell (what a peculiar image that is), and things heard for the last time, the sermon on the mount, the last radio.  The rhyme pattern in it is a/a/b/c/d/d/c; it’s a pattern that breaks a pattern, both with the rhymes and the number of lines, 8 for the others, 7 for this one.  It is a verse that within the song comes from nowhere, and then passes right by.  It has a shooting star effect within a song about a shooting star, or all that jolts us into some recognition, memory, self-reflection.

The June 6, 1991, performance in Rome is below.  It’s a lovely one.

Red River Shore (1997?)

This haunting and painful song, left off of Time Out Of Mind, but released for Tell Tale Signs in 2008, has a tight rhyming structure, a/b/c/b from beginning to end, typical ballad stanzas chosen for a ballad of lost love. 16 stanzas keep to this rhyme scheme, eight of which, in an alternating pattern have end rhymes with “shore.”  The sound of those rhymes with “shore” dominate the song, consistent as the water that laps on a river shore.

For sure, many  words rhyme with “shore,” many there that Dylan does not use, “bore,” “core, “four,” and so on, so many more (“more” being another, part of “anymore,” again, used twice.) Curiously,  he repeats two of the rhymes in the  course of those 8 “shore” rhyming stanzas.  Stanza 2 and 14 repeat “door”/”shore,” 6 and 16 “anymore”/shore.  So that makes them linked at least by sound.  Or is there more? Does Dylan want us to tie something together with them?  Here’s 2 and 14 together:

Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I’ve never wanted any of ’em wanting me
Except the girl from the Red River shore

Well, the sun went down on me a long time ago
I’ve had to pull back from the door
I wish I could have spent every hour of my life
With the girl from the Red River shore

In the first, the singer is inside his own cabin, with women outside it wanting him.  In the second, he has to “pull back from the door,” a door shut to him, wishing for (wanting?) the girl he could never have, or at least never again.  The 8 lines do tell a story of its own.

6:

Well, the dream dried up a long time ago
Don’t know where it is anymore
True to life, true to me
Was the girl from the Red River shore

16:

Well, I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
Except the girl from the Red River shore

In both of these, uncertainty is present, not knowing where the dream went, not knowing if a certain language is used anymore, one that convinces a lover to leave for another lover, the language of love, wooing, courting, the kind associated with poems? In 6, dreams vanish, in 16 so can a person–not being seen at all, but somehow this Red River girl was true to him, maybe only up to that point of their story (from stanza 6 on, we only look back at the past), but maybe true in some other way that 16 ends the song suggesting, that to be seen by a loved one even when no one else can or cares to, is to be remembered, never perhaps forgotten.

But some other truth pervades, one tied to how he defies the last words she says to him, “Go home and live a quiet life.” This balladeer is restless, roaming some countryside, the minstrel, forever caught in love’s thrall, far from quiet, far from home, on a never ending tour.

Nobody Cept’ You (1973)

This is one of my favorite Dylan love songs.  The lyrics have the feel of “Most Of The Time,” but inside this song is a much different world.  Whereas in “Most” pain overshadows how he feels mostly, which is at most “halfway content,”  in “Nobody” all is diminished in the face of love.  Or rather with lyrics like this,

I know somethin’ has changed
I’m a stranger here and no one sees me
’Cept you, yeah you

everything else that makes him feel diminished diminishes.  She inspires the phoenix in him, born again through the ashes that life appears set on reducing him to.  The fire reference in this verse supports this:

You’re the one that reaches me
You’re the one that I admire
Every time we meet together
My soul feels like it’s on fire
Nothing matters to me
And there’s nothing I desire
’Cept you, yeah you\

The rhyming pattern is consistent and then not.  It is ‘cept for the last two verses. Besides the bridge, the first three rhyme a/b/c/b/a/b/e (‘cept for the first which keep the “a’ rhyme going in the fifth line); the last two verses are exceptions, too, with 8 and 9 lines respectfully, and with a rhyme scheme of a/b/c/d/b/c/e/f and a/b/a/c/a/c/d/c/b. So the structure keeps the whole ‘cept thing alive.

The last verse has the most exceptions.  First it combines wording from the opening bridge:

Nothing much matters or seems to please me
’Cept you, yeah you
Nothing hypnotizes me
Or holds me in a spell
Everything runs by me
Just like water from a well
Everybody wants my attention
Everybody’s got something to sell
’Cept you, yeah you

Even better though is how “you” and “me” combine in the last verse.  In the bridge, it’s mostly about “you.”  Elsewhere, it’s mainly about “me.” No separation of bridge and verse in this one. (I prefer to say the rest of the song separates them ‘cept this one.)  In the last verse, “you” and “me” run rampant together, as if this is a world worth staying in, the world of just “you” and “me.”

 

Girl From The North Country (1963)

Rhymes alternate in this classic song to an abab cadence, but Dylan is more dedicated to the b-rhymes than he is to the a’s.  The a’s have echo rhymes (long/long) or imperfect rhymes (ends/winds) or no rhyming (all/night), so on one level the rhymes fade but on another they don’t.

The best rhyme for my money is storm/warm.  That rhyme will never fade for me.  Somethings just never fade, as an image of a loved one.  Unlike the girl in “Trying To Get To Heaven,” whose “memory grows dimmer” and doesn’t haunt the singer “like it did before,” this girl from the north country just can’t be shaken.  Most of the time Dylan keeps to his rhymes, but all of the time he let’s us see her; her image is vivid with that warm coat he wants her wearing and that long hanging hair that flows down to her breasts; we can fill in the rest, and what we fill in won’t shake us either.  Anyone ever caught in love’s thrall keeps such images with them forever, and usually they are affixed to a place like a north country fair.

But not so fast. Cormac McCarthy in All the Pretty Horses has John Grady not think about Alejandra because “he did not know what was coming or how bad it would be . . . he thought she was something he’d better save.”  Perhaps the images we keep conjuring keep fading more and more each time we do.  But songs like this one keep such images forever fresh, forever young.

According to my twitter pals, Ian Wilkinson and Phil, this delightful video of the song is from a February of 1964 Canadian TV special.

“My Wife’s Hometown” (2009)

A way this song works is that Dylan does not give us any details of his wife’s hometown or any of his depictions of hell.  Instead, he invites us to picture either or both from our own sentiments and thoughts.  Dylan had several marriages, some on the sly, but the one to Sara Lowndes went quite public despite the couple’s efforts to live an undisturbed private life. Sara was born in Wilmington, DE. Is that the target of Dylan’s disgust?  I don’t think so; again, I think it’s whatever our own wives’ hometowns are and whatever visions of hell we want to associate with them.  My wife’s hometown is quite hellish, especially during rush hour.  In other ways these hometowns have been hell for us Dylan wants us to bring to the song, so we can feel what he means, full of both comedy and tragedy.

Like many of the songs on Together Through Life, it has a see-saw sway to it brought to our ears by way of David Hidalgo’s accordion.  In that it has a bluesy sound, and the couplet rhyming maintains the cadence and the blues effects.  Some of the ending rhymes tell there own story within whatever story that the lyrics are weaving, as in, “run/someone/down/town” and “dry/eye/around/town.”  And maybe this is relevant because our associations with home towns and hell are equal to whatever the narrator’s story is.  We are together in this, whatever it is, together through life.

The most puzzling line of all is the second one, “I just came here to hear the drop of cymbaline,” with its vague “o” rhyme “doggone” with “drop,” and “cymbaline” with “thing.”  The rest of the rhyming (my favorite “worse”/”curse”) is perfect and simple.  “hear” and “hear” are homonyms and they provide an internal echo rhyme, but Dylan brings place and sound together with the phrase.  The spelling of “cymbaline” with the “a” is peculiar, perhaps tied to a Pink Floyd song with that title, but not to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  This but not that–“there’s reasons for this and reasons for that,” “plenty to remember, plenty to forget,” . . . but some things are certain, like the day they met, and his love for her.  Sneaky romantic Bob; those lines seem hidden among the heavy deteriorating morass the town is and has become, hell and in a broke state and a dry county.

Home town, home town . . . the final fading words like a lingering invitation or goodbye, her home town or his, its ours, and all that our memories bring to them.

“My Wife’s Hometown” from Together Through Life

 

 

 

“What Was It You Wanted” (1989)

There aren’t many Dylan song titles that are questions.  “Can You Crawl Through My Window”, “Where Are You Tonight”, and “Who Killed Davey Moore” come to my mind.  Oh Mercy has two song titles that are questions (so does Street Legal) and so I am attentive to how the question might be answered in the song.  A song like “Blowin in the Wind” has as its title an answer.  The song consists of a series of questions.  “What Was It You Wanted” does the same, but the question is never answered, which is about as satisfying as the nebulous “The answer my friend is blowin in the wind.”

But the song is unsatisfying only if you’re looking for or in need of an answer.  The questions are enough to convey the central message in the song–it’s all about the singer knowing that something was wanted, that if there was any love at all in the relationship key to the song it was all about taking, not giving:

What was it you wanted
When you were kissing my cheek?

Did somebody tell you
That you could get it from me

Why do you want it
Who are you anyway?

Do you want it for free
It’s all about wanting, again, not giving, or not wanting to give.
Not wanting in anyway is the rhyme structure of this tightly constructed 8 line per verse (7 of them) song.  Every 2nd and 4th lines rhyme, as do the 6th and 8th.
On “Oh Mercy” Dylan was back asking questions, digging deep, and writing poetry.  Perhaps after too many years of absence the Muse had returned, asking Bob, “What was it you wanted”? But now she was willing to give.
Here’s the original studio recording . . . such ambiance.

 

 

“Wedding Song” (1973)

I know a few people who have chosen this song for their wedding song.  And but for a few lines that might be too specific with his relationship with Sara Lowndes it can work for any couple.  The tone is of a dirge though, (“Dirge” precedes it by three songs on the album); there are happier and more upbeat sounding tunes on this recording.

And the rhymes are mostly perfect and the structure is rigidly patterned, 8 verses with 4 lines each and a consistent abab couplet rhyming throughout.

The best rhymes are earth/worth, bend/again, and goes on/gone.  But I like what Dylan does with the opening verse rhyme see/me and how it unites with the homonym “see” with “me” in the last verse.

The 6th verse announces a departure from protest songs,

It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large
Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge
’Cause I love you more than all of that with a love that doesn’t bend
And if there is eternity I’d love you there again

though he would pick up that finger-pointing purpose again, despite not wanting to “remake that world at large” (a great way to put that personal protest by the way) two years later on Desire with “Hurricane.”

The women in Bob’s life let some of his best poetry and rhyming surface.

Here’s a live video of the song from 1974 in Seattle: