The Well-Tempered Songbook: #48 –You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, Bob Dylan
It was (I thought at the time) a song of love in the summer, when future loss can barely be imagined except as a sparkling plaything for the happiness of now: goodbye as imagined in a world of dragon clouds and lazy rivers and French poetry by the riverside.
I don’t know what year it was, but it was the Summer of Bob.
Maybe I was thirteen. We spent our summers in Maine when we were growing up, and the first few weeks of vacation were always the same grueling chore of mowing the neglected, three-foot grass around our farmhouse with a small, pull-start mower that hadn’t properly self-propelled for years. My brother, Chris, and I would take turns lifting the front of the mower like a dragon jaw and then lowering it slowly onto the next rough push of tall grass. We’d ride that saw-tooth line between stalling the engine and swallowing as much grass as the mower could handle without bursting into flames. Milk pods were smashed in the slow churn and small creatures flew like refugees from the blown cover of ravaged grass.
If it wasn’t your turn to mow, then you’d have to rake the grass into rows, and then gather those rows into scattered piles and cart it all off in a broken wheelbarrow to the side of our vast lawn overlooking the lobstermen’s harbor. We’d force the wheelbarrow to tilt upwards into the top-heavy pile, and kick it over angrily with our foot to dump it when the pile grew too high. It was hot, endless work and it always felt like high noon. Your back always hurt and your hands blistered even with the old gloves, and we hated it. It made the start of every summer a small, predictable hell when all the other kids were stopping by on their bicycles to find out when we’d be done, which was “never” we’d tell them disagreeably, looking towards our Maggie’s Farm Mother who insisted on the yard work being completed.
But that Summer of Bob, Chris had the idea of moving the living room speakers out on to the back porch and letting the sound roll across the lawn where we raked. And for some reason we found the Greatest Hits albums of Bob Dylan that our mother had given to each of us on some prior Christmas and we’d never played – except that first time just out of dutiful politeness. We had been immediately disappointed with the records, the singer’s voice was intolerable, and the double album which was given to me was even worse because it held twice the promise and twice the disappointment. A bust. Two busts. Bit by bit over the next few years the two albums worked their way deeper and further into the milk crate record collection until they were almost forgotten entirely.
Except the Summer of Bob one of the albums was given another try, and then the other album side, and then both albums, and then this odd singer in the blue hairlight with the harmonica contraption started to grow on us. We found we were doing impressions of him to amuse each other over long summer dinners and learning verses that made our mother laugh from the kitchen. The critics write for days about his words and what means what and who’s really who, but the sound of his voice was where our appreciation of Bob Dylan started – or his voices because his sounds are plural, and he has reinvented his sound and his voice with the prodigal restlessness of a Picasso – and with as much success.
We learned his words, his phrasing, his attitude, and his sly humor. We looked up from our raking to watch the harbor flow. We became him singing his songs. We’d head back inside the house dragging grass into the living room to flip the record or replay the same side endlessly. We couldn’t get enough.I try my best to be just like I am, But everybody wants you to be just like them. They say sing while you slave and I just get bored.
And who was this guy? Other than one or two songs, we hadn’t really known his music from the radio. We didn’t know if the songs on those greatest hits albums were from the previous year or two decades earlier. He wasn’t associated with any political movement or leaning. We knew nothing of his celebrity or personal dramas or love affairs. There was no Rolling Thunder tour, no Joan Baez, no scandal at Newport, no Christianity, no flipping snidely through words on flash cards, no myth or image apart from what came through the songs and the voice. That was it. We didn’t know anything except that he was a voice we understood and felt, and his voice spoke for the sensitivity and intelligence of our family.
His songs showed up in parts of our consciousness where there hadn’t been songs before. My brother and I knew we’d found someone special, and we tried to convince our friends on their bicycles to hear what we were hearing, but they couldn’t hear it, not at that point anyway. And so Bob Dylan came into our lives and settled down with us privately and individually, and it felt to us, knowing so little about the actual man behind the songs, that he was born within the walls of our summer home, arriving outside of time, and playing through our old speakers. He took up permanent residence in the memory of that home and our long summers there.
The sound of his voice was at the heart of it. You couldn’t help but imitate it. Its burry edge got under your skin, won you over with its assured confidence and razor-focus, but it always operated on you peripherally somehow, in places you don’t understand, and in ways he probably does not understand fully himself. His is as mysterious and spellbinding a vocal gift as that of Callas or Caruso. It is a strange and enchanted fairy-tale of an instrument, roughly bowed with the raised hair of your spinal chord.
There is more than one great novel where the love of someone’s life turns out to not look at all what the hero of the story expected, and our love for the sound of Bob Dylan arrived in our family’s life like that, hitting us from below, easy and slow, straight on target, so direct, and rolling out over the tall grass that summer. My brother and I couldn’t possibly know that his voice would follow us the rest of our lives, surviving the death of our mother, the loss of the summer house, and now holds at a steady distance, skirting the hilltops, as faithfully as the moon tracking your car.
You are my one true musical fellow traveller. You will know every song on this list but one. That will be #7, the only song in this list added in the last twenty years, but other than that one entry you know the musical landscape of my life, which is a profoundly underrated gift between siblings.
You’ve been on to me for a few months about the title track on Dylan’s latest album, Tempest. I’ve been hearing you ask, but kind of ignoring you, too, and I’ve been noncommittal and unresponsive. I didn’t think I could take any more latter-day Bob Dylan albums. And you know I’ve sworn off the depressing spectacle of seeing him live. The shows pervert his legacy. I’ve told you he’s done, that it’s all just mercenary business now, which is an increasing trend in his public affairs that I don’t like. Collectively it all just puts me in a depressed, middle-aged funk.
Standing in a checkout line a few months back, I’d read something about Tempest in Rolling Stone and they liked it but in a kind of suck-up, predictable way that they like everything of his now. There’s been so much public fawning over recent Dylan from every quarter that it is hard to separate the desire to acknowledge the career from the value of the current work and it’s easier just to block it all out and hide from him.I’ve dined with kings, been offered wings But I’ve never been that impressed
Now they’re dressing him in emperor’s clothes and presidential neck medallions and he stands there stiff and foolish, feigning indifference, and he doesn’t even see it, and he would have when he was younger. I imagine him spending his evenings in the hotel room writing his stage introductions. So that’s how he seems to me: lonely and phoning it in, most of the lyrics bullshit, unable to tie meaning together across two couplets, cynical disdain growing for his audience. It’s just a baseless fantasy, but like all fantasies built on personal intuition, I trust it.
But, anyway, in that Rolling Stone article there were questions about whether Tempest would be his last album, and that had actually jumped out at me. The idea of a last album was kind of a holy shit, wake-up call. I just kind of assumed he’d keep going with whatever. Even if I hated it, it would be out there. They’d keep coming, and here I’d gone and taken my eye off the ball.
And the magazine editors wanted to know if the album title was an allusion to Shakespeare’s last play and was that what he was saying? Was this goodbye? “No,” he rebutted, “Shakespeare’s last play was the Tempest” with a “the” versus just “Tempest” with “no the” so how could I have been saying that? The same frustrating and obstinate contrarian who famously wondered how anybody could “enjoy” Blood on the Tracks. It was the aging genius’ public asshole performance indulged once again. So I’ve grown weary of it all, and weary of him, and sad about the loss of what he was and most of all that there won’t be any more great albums and nothing more from Bob Dylan to look forward to.
But, for all of that, when I sat down to write about Lonesome When You Go this morning, I ended up downloading and listening to Tempest instead. Probably because you’ve kept on me about it and you posted something on FB, too. And I found the song you’ve been on about, the title track, the one about the Titanic. And there he was again suddenly: the old man in the room with his enchanted instrument and trembling hands.The news came over the wires And struck with deadly force Love had lost its fires All things had run their course The watchman he lay dreaming Of all the things that can be He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
Into the deep blue sea
It is sad and beautiful and may turn out to be a final masterstroke in what he’s given everyone, but in some truer way, what he’s given our family, or what’s left of our family.
It felt better to write this than to call you and hear my voice talking about what I think the song means and what it’s really about, because I think it’s pretty clear what and who it is about, and I don’t want to hear myself say anything out loud. I don’t want to bring my harsh, opinionated sound to it. And when the news does come over the wires I hope nobody else brings their voice either. It will be like talking at a wake when silence is the closest we will ever get to what will soon enough be taken from us.
So to answer your persistent question, Chris: I have now heard Tempest, and I’m beginning to prepare myself for the sinking.
I have guided the lyrics of Bob Dylan around my life like trained rose vines; each album dedicated to a season or year. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go was for the year I was a junior in high school, and I sat in the back of a science class memorizing the words from a scribbled piece of crunched up three-hole paper. To this day, thirty some years later, I can recite the song in full. Imagine that.
I learned it while falling in love for the first time – knowing that that love affair was not going to last, could not last, that college was coming, that there would have to be other loves with all that time spreading out before us, and that we’d move apart and break up. But I wanted her to know that I’d memorized the bittersweet words for the anticipated loss of her, which was probably a heartless and oblivious adolescent thing to do, reciting a soundtrack for goodbye like that.Purple clover, Queen Anne lace, Crimson hair across your face, You can make me cry if you don’t know…
It was (I thought at the time) a song of love in the summer, when future loss can barely be imagined except as a sparkling plaything for the happiness of now: goodbye as imagined in a world of dragon clouds and lazy rivers and French poetry by the riverside. When I heard it as a teenager it stood apart, unrelated to the songs around it. It was the odd man out, the happy song, on the great divorce album, tied only to its companions by the fact of their shared and remarkable inspiration. Now, years later, placed at the end of the first album side, after the excoriating Idiot Wind, it looks like the album’s centerpiece in a study of everything that’s been lost, a brutal flagellation for himself and his ex-wife.But I’ll see you in the sky above, In the tall grass, in the ones I love You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.
These last three lines are burned into my mind as indelibly as tattoo. Thirty years later there are still fresh, beaded tracks of blood where Dylan etched the words “in the ones I love,” a whole mystery hiding in that half-line, and not just because it might be referring to the features of his ex-wife in his children’s faces. This isn’t a song about summer at all. It is a song about the long winter. It is a musical obituary.
How could anyone “enjoy” Blood on the Tracks?
The harmonica propels the intro and then again, in reprise, the coda. It dances and sparkles as urgently as a lit fuse. The bass skips along the verses like a joker, glancing from stone to stone, dancing on the hillside, the jester’s cap flopping from side to side, the knees herky-jerky, the blue-eyed boy and mr. death and for the millionth time that mysterious voice of my summery youth spilling out over tall grass and remembered lawn.
It is a creature void of form, this voice of his, casting an inexplicable and elusive enchantment. It evokes a mystery as deep and primal as chimney smoke on a winter’s walk. And while I kick through the brown leaves of midlife and press my face deeper into my collar, somewhere the great Titanic is slowly being brought to kneel on the ocean’s silent floor.