, , , , ,

By my count, Bob Dylan has written or co-written 657 songs. So what are my chances of predicting which songs will be used in Conor McPherson’s upcoming play based on Dylan’s work?

This is special, because Dylan doesn’t let just anyone use his music.

Well… first we need an idea of how many songs will be used. McPherson says 16-18, and we know that there is a medley of two songs, so let’s go with 17. If the play is 160 minutes plus a 20-minute intermission (3 hours), and the songs average 3 minutes, there would be 51 minutes of music, which leaves room for almost 90 minutes of dialogue. I gather that it’s a “play with music” rather than a “musical,” which is interesting in itself–will the songs be a kind of choral commentary on the action? Or will they move the action forward? An interview in The Guardian with The Old Vic’s artistic director Matthew Warchus suggests the former: “It works rather like a ritual or a church service in that there is dramatic dialogue, story and then you become airborne for a moment in the Bob Dylan music.”

McPherson’s plays tend to run about 2 hours exclusive of intermission, so 90 minutes is about right: to cut the time allotted for the non-musical elements any further would be difficult, because this will be a complex play with more characters than he usually writes. The “choral commentary” also means that the acting cast will not necessarily be required to sing. (Darn, and here I was hoping to hear Ciarán sing Lay Lady Lay… Jim Norton has a lovely baritone voice, ideal for a Hendrix-like All Along the Watchtower.) On the other hand, Debbie Kurup will surely sing, given her blockbuster reviews as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes.

We already know three of the songs, because The Old Vic has released workshop recordings:

Sweetheart Like You (from Infidels, 1983)/True Love Tends to Forget (from Street Legal, 1978) (medley)
You Ain’t Going Nowhere (from The Basement Tapes, 1975)

Additionally, Express.co.uk revealed three song titles, which I wish they hadn’t done. Someone must have leaked these: Like A Rolling Stone (from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965), Forever Young (from Planet Waves, 1974), and Make You Feel My Love (from Time Out of Mind, 1997). The reporter listed four, but the fourth one, Time Out of Mind, is one of Dylan’s albums, not an individual song.

Finally, I’m going to assume that Girl From the North Country is one of the songs, even though there’s no guarantee of that. But I hope it is, because it’s my favorite Dylan song.

In my initial run-through of all the lyrics, before seeing the Express article, I had tentatively marked Like a Rolling Stone as a choice, and definitely Forever Young, so I give myself a pat on the back! That’s seven songs accounted for, and leaves (assuming no other medleys) 10 chances out of 650 to guess the remaining songs. Therefore I have a 1.5% probability of getting one song right, or odds of 10 : 640. Don’t like my chances? Let’s see what can be done to improve them.

First of all, the play is summarized this way on The Old Vic website:

Duluth, Minnesota. 1934. A community living on a knife-edge huddle together in the local guesthouse. The owner, Nick, owes more money than he can ever repay, his wife Elizabeth is losing her mind and their daughter Marianne is carrying a child no-one will account for. And, when a preacher selling bibles and a boxer looking for a comeback show up in the middle of the night, things start to spiral beyond the point of no return…

McPherson “insists that this will not be a greatest-hits jukebox musical, but will feature tracks from Dylan’s less well-known back catalogue – including some of his material from the 1980s.” (interview in The Independent). There’s more along these lines in an RTÉ interview: “There is a strong gospel element in Dylan, when he comes out with this stuff where he is just singing about Jesus, I’m pressing on to the higher calling of my lord. In some ways you start to suspect that he didn’t change at that point, that actually he just revealed who he was… Wow! Okay! It kind of all makes sense.”

Conor McPherson. Photo: RTÉ.

Therefore I think we can count on at least a couple of songs from Dylan’s “Christian trilogy” Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love, or perhaps the later songs with Christian content. Then too, Dylan’s catalogue includes a number of songs with references which postdate the 1930s. I have ruled out most of these songs, even though it would be feasible in performance to omit some of the anachronistic verses, or ignore them for the sake of artistic license.

McPherson has said that there will be “five that everyone will have definitely heard.” To judge from the Billboard charts, Sweetheart Like You and Like A Rolling Stone fit that category, so I expect perhaps three more hits or widely covered songs.

Here are my comments on the songs already revealed (with the caveat that things could always change before opening night):

Girl From the North Country and Like A Rolling Stone: In the past, McPherson and certain other playwrights of his generation (O’Rowe, McDonagh) have been criticized for Mamet-esque female characters who have little agency or are constructed from a masculine perspective. This play includes a welcome focus on female characters: two of the three leads are women (and McPherson’s new television show, Paula, features an unusual, non-stereotyped female lead). But how will this development in McPherson’s work interact with Dylan’s catalogue, which consistently filters the female through a masculine lens?

Denise Gough as Paula in the new BBC Two series. Gough worked with McPherson, Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds onstage in his play The Birds (2009), which also had interesting female leads.

Dylan is sometimes accused of outright misogyny, and while certain lyrics amusingly support this view (“Hell is my wife’s hometown”), I wouldn’t go that far. Still, it’s fair to say that (1) in his early work especially, he’s unsentimental about romance and quick to criticize women’s flaws; (2) the flaws tend to correspond to gender stereotypes (“She fakes just like a woman”). The song Girl From the North Country is the flip side: the narrator adopts a sentimental, tender and protective stance toward an idealized woman. Dylan actually took folk material (Scarborough Fair) that was cynical about recapturing a past romance, and transformed it into a romantic ballad of masculine yearning, tailor-made for Johnny Cash.

Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
That’s the way I remember her best

Like A Rolling Stone, on the other hand, is one of Dylan’s bitterest critiques of a woman. The narrator gloats over her misfortunes: once rich, arrogant and superior, she is now penniless, homeless and (he hints) soon will be forced to sell herself.

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People call say ‘beware doll, you’re bound to fall’
You thought they were all kidding you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
How does it feel, how does it feel?

What interests me about this song is that it doesn’t depend on a female gender stereotype. Change a few words, and it would fit a man as easily as a woman (though there is that tricky internal rhyme of “call,” “doll,” and “fall”). It’s possible that the song is intended to shed an ironic light on the narrator, whose cruelty could only be rooted in a stinging rejection by this same woman, back in the day. (Having reviewed some of Dylan’s other “critique” songs, I vote against irony, but the question is bound to arise for any female listener.) How McPherson will use these songs to illuminate the play is hard to say. Girl From the North Country could introduce or end the action on an elegiac note, while Like A Rolling Stone could apply to any of several women in the cast (Mrs. Burke, Mrs. Neilsen, Katherine Draper), or perhaps even to a man.

Dylan in Manchester, England in 1965, the year Like A Rolling Stone was released. Photo: Mark and Colleen Hayward.

Sweetheart Like You/True Love Tends to Forget (medley): The workshop version from the Old Vic website gives some interesting clues to McPherson’s method. He doesn’t approach Dylan’s music as inviolable scripture, but feels free to cut verses (the most incisive and currently relevant lines from Sweetheart, for example, are omitted: They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings/Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king). There is also a loosening of Dylan’s rigidly gender-bound perspective: in the workshop version of Sweetheart, successive verses are sung by a woman and a man. Significantly, the singer and subject in True Love switch genders, so that now a woman is singing about a man:

I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes
When he’s near me, he’s so hard to recognize
I finally realize there’s no room for regret
True love, true love, true love tends to forget.

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (from Greatest Hits Vol 2, 1971 and The Basement Tapes, 1975): This is a great song about being stuck someplace without momentum. Dylan wrote it while recovering from a bad motorcycle accident, but it would take on new meaning in a scene (for example) about being jobless. The narrator speaks ironically to himself:

I don’t care
How many letters they sent

Morning came and morning went
Pick up your money
And pack up your tent
You ain’t goin’ nowhere
Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow’s the day
My bride’s gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair

The Old Vic workshop version of the song again alternates female and male voices, creating a universalizing effect.

Dylan had perfect musical chemistry with The Band (here with Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, 1974).

Forever Young: This is a tender song about parenthood, a lullaby Dylan wrote for his firstborn son Jesse in 1966. In the play, Marianne Lane is pregnant, and the father unknown. Might the song be reimagined as a mother’s lullaby, expressing her wishes for her unborn child?

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you

Bob Dylan with his son Jesse in 1968. Photo: Elliot Landy(?)

Make You Feel My Love: This play could address several kinds of love: the youthful, yearning kind, the parental kind, and the love between spouses who have been together for a long time. The plot teaser says that Nick Laine’s wife is “losing her mind,” suggesting that she has some kind of mental illness or dementia. Few things are more painful than watching a loved one suffer like that, and not being able to help. So I thought that Make You Feel My Love might be for Nick:

When the evening shadows
And the stars appear
And there is no one there
To dry your tears
I could hold you
For a million years
To make you feel my love…

I’d go hungry
I’d go black and blue
I’d go crawling
Down the avenue
No, there’s nothing
That I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love

The comments from people who listened to Billy Joel’s version of this oft-covered song are revealing. A woman said, “There’s nothing like the sound of a woman singing this,” and that Adele “really made this song her own.” Some male readers vehemently objected. One wrote, “This is written from the point of view of a man and is meant to be interpreted by a man, to deliver the thoughts and feelings of a man. Maybe sexist but that is the truth – no woman can do justice to this piece. The text is meant to express the man’s devotion to protecting his woman.” I agree that the song arises from a masculine impulse. There may be limits to how much gender-switching one can do with Dylan’s music.

Ciarán Hinds at the London premiere of “Bleed For This.” He will play Nick Laine.

Next, here are my ten guesses, each marked with *. Wish me luck.

*Shelter From the Storm (from Blood on the Tracks, 1975): In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1, Dylan wrote, “What I recall mostly about Duluth are the slate gray skies and the mysterious foghorns, violent storms that always seemed to be coming straight at you and merciless howling winds off the big black mysterious lake with treacherous ten-foot waves.” From one of Dylan’s strongest albums, Shelter is a song about reaching a safe haven, whether it’s found in a place or a person. The narrator may or may not be Jesus, and the unnamed woman who gives sanctuary may or may not be a goddess, but the spiritual element is strong.

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

The play is built around a guesthouse, which after all can be read as a metaphor for earthly life, the place where we all sojourn for a time. But is the guesthouse the place we need to seek, or the one we need to escape?

Album cover for Blood On The Tracks–the Long Suffering Husband’s favorite Dylan.

*Father of Night (from New Morning, 1970): In Chronicles Volume 1, Dylan discusses a meeting in the late 1960s with poet Archibald MacLeish. MacLeish asked him to contribute songs to a play he was writing for Broadway, based on the Stephen Vincent Benét short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” According to Dylan, “He wanted songs in it that made some comment to go along with the scenes.” The collaboration didn’t work out, but the episode seems to have had a powerful impact on Dylan. I wonder if the idea stayed in his mind, and decades later caused him to favor an implementation in reverse: someone will write a play using his music. Dylan did write a few songs from titles suggested by MacLeish, and ended up releasing them on his album New Morning. I chose Father of Night, because it makes me think of the rural Midwest, the big, dark night skies full of stars that you can’t see in the city.

Father of night, father of day
Father, who taketh the darkness away
Father, who teacheth the bird to fly
Builder of rainbows up in the sky
Father of loneliness and pain
Father of love and father of rain

It’s a hymn, reportedly based on the ancient Jewish prayer tradition of Amidah, which often includes mention of God’s rainmaking. It would work well in a play about the natural environment and religious background from which Dylan emerged. Alternatively, there is the social environment: Dylan writes about the mining industry in Minnesota, and its collapse, in North Country Blues (from The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1963). But I like the simplicity and universality of the central figure in this song, whom the lyrics apostrophize as “Father of black, father of white.” I imagine it sung by a woman.

Debbie Kurup plays “Mrs. Neilsen.” All b/w cast photos from The Old Vic website.

Cover art for New Morning.

*Dignity (recorded for the album Oh Mercy in 1989, released on Greatest Hits Vol. 3 in 1994): Men of Nick Laine’s generation, born in the late nineteenth century, would have vivid memories of the horrors of WWI (Archibald MacLeish, by the way, was a WWI veteran). During the Depression, many veterans were left jobless and destitute. In 1932, thousands of them protested by camping out in Washington in shanty towns called “Hoovervilles.” President Hoover ordered the US Army to drive out the men and their families. Dylan’s song Dignity reminded me of this situation, as well as the Depression era songs Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? and Remember My Forgotten Man.

Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?

Blind man breakin’ out of a trance
Puts both his hands in the pockets of chance
Hopin’ to find one circumstance
Of dignity

Wounded veterans march home in a frame from the song Remember My Forgotten Man in the film Golddiggers of 1933, starring Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell.

*Hurricane (from Desire, 1976, written with Jacques Levy): This song is pure dynamite. It’s about a boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was charged with a triple murder in 1966 and incarcerated. Dylan met with Carter in prison and wrote about the racism and injustice that led to his conviction. Partly due to the publicity from the song, Rubin won a new trial, but he was again convicted. A decade later, a judge overturned the conviction on the grounds that it was based in racism.

Rubin Carter (shown here in 1958) spent almost 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Photo: Wikipedia public domain.

Hurricane would be anachronistic in a play set in the 1930s, but I have chosen it anyway because it raises some issues that are central to the making of a play using Dylan’s work. If the play is to be representative of Dylan, it has to address social justice either directly or indirectly, and especially the central problem of justice in America: race. Dylan’s early songs include one called The Death of Emmett Till (1963) and one called Only a Pawn in Their Game (1964) about the killing of Medgar Evers. Both men were lynched, a form of terror common throughout the US during the 1930s, including in Duluth, Minnesota.

On the other hand, I don’t think a play like this can succeed artistically if the author’s first priority is to “be representative” of Dylan. It has to be an independent work, and an issue as powerful as race could easily overwhelm any other point the author wants to make. What to do? I don’t have the answer, but I notice that the cast for Girl From the North Country is racially diverse. Nick and Elizabeth Laine are played by white actors, but their daughter Marianne is played by a black actor, Sheila Atim. One of the characters in the play is a boxer, and I wonder whether he might be played by Arinzé Kene (“Joe Scott”). Using colorblind casting could be a way of responding to the question of race, even if it doesn’t become a central issue in the play. This song, or another one dealing with race, could work the same way. In any case, here are some unforgettable (and still very relevant) lines from Hurricane:

Number one contender for the middleweight crown
Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down
When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road
Just like the time before and the time before that
In Paterson that’s just the way things go
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
’Less you wanna draw the heat

Arinzé Kene and Sheila Atim.

Besides all its other attractions, Dylan’s studio recording of Hurricane has a stunning, eerie part for violin, performed by Scarlet Rivera.

*When He Returns (from Slow Train Coming, 1979) and *Pressing On (from Saved, 1980): The play features a preacher/Bible salesman, to be portrayed by Michael Shaeffer (“Reverend Marlowe”). He could be a true believer, an Elmer Gantry type con artist, or both. For him, I chose a powerful gospel track, When He Returns, from Dylan’s first explicitly Christian album.

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God
For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
It is only He who can reduce me to tears
Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn
Like a thief in the night, he’ll replace wrong with right
When he returns

Cover art for Slow Train Coming by Catherine Kanner, who illustrated Dylan’s concept. The album features Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) on guitar.

I have a soft spot for this one because Slow Train Coming was the first Dylan album I myself bought. In 1979, I was fourteen and I knew so little about Dylan that I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce his name (was it Dy- like “die”?). But I had heard Blowin’ in the Wind and Mr. Tambourine Man, so I decided to invest my meager funds in his latest effort. Because I didn’t have a lot of preconceptions, I gave it a fair listen, and I was impressed with songs like Gotta Serve Somebody and When He Returns (though less so with Man Gave Names to All the Animals).

Dylan was already writing gospel under other names long before his conversion to Christianity. If this were a “jukebox” musical, I would pick the gospel-flavored I Shall Be Released, from The Basement Tapes, which turned out to be my favorite Dylan album. As for Pressing On, I admit I chose it because Conor mentioned the lyrics in an interview, but it would make sense in the play as a song of hopeful determination, a counterweight to You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. You can hear the power of it in Dylan’s 1980 Toronto performance: 

Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind
Say, “Prove to me that He is Lord, show me a sign”
What kind of sign they need when it all come from within
When what’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been?

Here Dylan is completely absorbed in the gospel idiom. I’m sure this all came as a shock to his most enthusiastic fans, many of whom are white, highly educated, and secular “left-brain” types. But Dylan was born Jewish in 1941 (therefore excluded from the upper echelons of white privilege), is self-educated, and works intuitively rather than analytically.

Michael Shaeffer plays Reverend Marlowe.

*Guess I’m Doin’ Fine (from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9, 1962-64): Returning to Dylan’s earliest work, this song is about making the best of a hard life. The narrator reflects on all the things he doesn’t have: youth, money, power. Instead he has trouble, but not as bad as some. Even though Dylan sang it as a young man, I chose this for “Mr. Perry,” played by the great Jim Norton.

And I’ve never had much money
But I’m still around somehow
No, I’ve never had much money
But I’m still around somehow
Many times I’ve bended
But I ain’t never yet bowed
Hey, hey, so I guess I’m doin’ fine

Jim Norton and Ciarán Hinds have worked together six times now, four of those with Conor McPherson.

*If Dogs Run Free (from New Morning, 1970): This song scored high in a Rolling Stone readers’ poll of “Bob Dylan’s Ten Worst Songs.” It includes longtime Dylan collaborator Al Kooper playing some “Teddy Wilson riffs” on the piano, and three female gospel singers, one of whom does improvisational scat singing. According to the RS editors, “The song is loose, fun and unlike anything in the Dylan catalog, though clearly a minor work.” I was drawn to the slightly unhinged, experimental feeling it has–like Beat poetry. I chose it for Elizabeth Laine.

If dogs run free, then what must be
Must be, and that is all
True love can make a blade of grass
Stand up straight and tall
In harmony with the cosmic sea
True love needs no company
It can cure the soul, it can make it whole
If dogs run free

Elizabeth Laine will be played by Shirley Henderson.

*City of Gold (1980): Dylan never actually recorded this song for release, but he has performed it a number of times. It’s a gospel number with beautiful lyrics that evoke Paradise. The verses speak of the City of Gold, City of Light, City of Love, City of Grace, City of Peace, City of Hope. It is a more pious, less profane version of that 1928 anthem of hobo paradise, Big Rock Candy Mountain (where there are cigarette trees, lemonade springs and the cops all have wooden legs), but it expresses the same yearning for a safe haven (“where the mighty have fallen and there are no police”). The “City on a Hill” (Matthew 5:14) has been invoked as a metaphor for America by several US Presidents, and Dylan’s lyrics also play with the legend of El Dorado and the image of climbing a very tall tree, as they do in the Brazilian rain forest (“All I need is an axe and a rope/To get to the City of Hope”). Ultimately, though, the city is metaphysical:

There is a City of Love
Surrounded by stars and the powers above
Far from the world and the stuff dreams are made of
There is a City of Love

There is a City of Grace
You drink holy water in sanctified space
No one is afraid to show their face
In the City of Grace

The original cover of Dylan’s 1980 album, Saved. This was later replaced with a less overtly religious illustration of Dylan playing the harmonica.

*Pay In Blood (from Tempest, 2012): Dylan was over 70 when he wrote this devastating song, and clearly he’s lost none of his edge. Multiple interpretations are possible: is the narrator the CEO of a multinational corporation? Dylan himself, in vengeful mode? A miserable sinner redeemed by Christ’s blood? All these have been suggested, but on reading the lyrics I was most reminded of the demonic Mr. Lockhart, that wretched wreck on ice-cold seas, in McPherson’s 2006 play The Seafarer.

Well I’m grinding my life away, steady and sure
Nothing more wretched than what I must endure
I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun
I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done

Sooner or later you’ll make a mistake
I’ll put you in a chain that you never can break
Legs and arms and body and bone
I pay in blood, but not my own

Sean Mahon, David Morse and Ciarán Hinds (“Mr. Lockhart”) in The Seafarer. Photo: New York Times.

I chose Pay In Blood because it provides that touch of horror and the subtle intrusion of the supernatural that we expect in a McPherson play. I also wanted something from Dylan’s recent career to balance out all the early songs.

The cover art for Tempest features a sculpted female figure from the Parliament Building in Vienna, depicted in a lurid shade of red.

Researching this essay made me realize that there is enough material in Dylan’s catalogue for a hundred plays. I had to cut many songs from my list, like the lovely Shooting Star (“Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of you”) and Trust Yourself (“Well you’re on your own, you always were/In a land of wolves and thieves”), which struck me as a song more women should hear. The decision to award Dylan the Nobel Prize has been criticized by people who don’t think song lyrics are real poetry. What rubbish. Song lyrics were the first poetry.

Screenshot of Dylan from the video for Things Have Changed (2006).