by Russell Blatcher
To fully explain the importance of this song to me, a confession is required at the beginning. Once I was unfaithful to Bob. Some Dylanologists try to establish their credentials by declaring many years of unbroken devotion to the man and his music. So I am, I suppose, presenting my lack of credentials - at times my attention to Dylan has been criminally casual - and for many years I ignored him completely. On the face of it, there is no reason for anyone else to be interested in this kind of personal history, but I will sketch it out briefly, because, I think, it demonstrates the power of this artist's work, even over the sceptical.
I first encountered Dylan around 1968 when someone played me Highway 61 Revisited. As funds allowed, I began the process, familiar to many, of working through the back catalogue. The first time I bought an album on the day it came out was New Morning, which really did feel like a new beginning to me, and still does. I was unaware of whatever Dylan community existed then, and, anyway, was by no means exclusively focussed on him. However, Blood On The Tracks was, and remains pivotal to my life from more than just musical perspectives. Certain songs on that album helped me understand situations in my own life (I refer specifically to marriage).
In 1976 The Sex Pistols and The Clash finally shattered my previous, almost exclusive, focus on U.S. music. For a couple of years I was no longer watching for the next Dylan release with bated breath. I could see my favourite performers live, in small venues rather than fields or arenas, without travelling vast distances.
I did however buy the Japanese import of Dylan live At Budokan. This was when the first crack came. Those florid lounge arrangements appalled me. Flutes! for Christ's sake. I couldn't understand it.
Then the born-again conversion stories started to emerge. I was even more vehement about Christianity then than I am now, and I cast him out. I didn't even think about him or follow his career until well into the CD era. The foolishness of this is now obvious, but I felt at the time that Dylan had let me down, even though I never listened to the crucial albums from that period.
When I finally switched to CD, I cleared out all my LPs, so was left almost Dylan free (I had some tapes but, aside from Blood On the Tracks and Blonde On Blonde rarely played them). On its release, I bought Biograph on CD, to fill some of those gaps, but found the playing order of the tracks really infuriating, and didn't play it often. A little later the Bootleg Series 1-3 came out. This half began my Dylan rehabilitation, except that I still assumed that the period after my schism was a wasteland - there was not enough (or I did not pay enough attention) on Biograph or Bootleg Series 1-3 to convince me otherwise.
A little while later, wandering around the stalls at a Trans-Pennine CD Fair, I spotted a beautifully packaged 3 CD set of unreleased Dylan tracks, live and in the studio. The Genuine Bootleg Series. The fact that the entire third CD covered the very period I had neglected almost stopped me buying it, but not quite. Initially I only played the first 2 CDs.
Eventually, however, I did play the third CD. The first 3 tracks are:
Bloody Hell! What Happened? I was stunned, especially by the third track. Track after track after track, I brook no arguments here, there is not a single cut on that CD which is not a masterpiece, most of them unreleased, or unreleased versions superior to those that were. That was the moment when I became a self-appointed Dylan scholar. My first assumption was - If these are the out-takes, what must the official releases be like? Much self-flagellation followed, as I realised I had foolishly missed out on some of this great man’s best work. So for the second time I began working through the back catalogue.
Of course, I then found that the picture was not so clear. Much as I loved some of the missing albums (Shot Of Love and Slow Train Coming in particular) I kept coming back to that 3rd CD, and in particular to the 3rd track, Caribbean Wind. The song had appeared on Biograph, but I had hardly noticed it. Why? I went back to that version, and found it laughable, especially the sniffing wind noises. It was clear why it had been left off Shot Of Love. But what had happened? Putting those two recordings side by side, I found a mirror of my heresy and re-conversion: on the one hand, the Dylan I abandoned; on the other, the one that dragged me back.
In my trawling through the Dylan literature, I found the endless unresolved debate of bootleg versus official release and of Dylan's apparent inability to put the best tracks on his albums, especially in the 80s. Clinton Heylin has much to say on this issue and it is difficult to refute some of it. But how could Dylan leave this particular song unfinished, and must we accept his decision? Is my devotion to it an insult to the artist? After all, I feel that only one song in the entire canon can be placed above it.
Being a scholar is a less carefree life than being a mere listener, or a fan. There is a constant struggle to get the chronology of the recording schedule into your head. In the jazz world, sooner or later an artist's complete recordings (including out-takes), in chronological order, with sumptuous and exact notes are there for those who need them enough to afford them. The Columbia box sets of Miles Davis are currently the best example. We are a long way from that position in Dylan's case and cannot reasonably expect to see such releases in his lifetime, so we have to struggle on piecing the picture together from a wide range of sources.
It is ironic that the official and bootleg sources are largely speaking mutually exclusive, though for different reasons Most of the bootleggers view it as a point of honour not to use released material and the record company are restrained by Dylan himself. I have often considered trying to construct for myself, say, the complete Freewheelin’ or Blood On The Tracks sessions in the order recorded. But until Columbia co-operates the complete picture is always elusive.
I have many times caught myself, part way through a Dylan CD, frantically leafing through a selection from my Dylan library, checking recording dates, personnel, studios etc, etc, but not listening to the music. The problem becomes even worse with live shows. I don't know how many shows from the 65-66 tours I now have - but I sometimes think their proliferation dilutes the ecstasy I felt when I first got hold of Guitars Kissing And The Contemporary Fix.
Because of Caribbean Wind's impact upon me, it became essential to understand more about the power of that version of the song. I filled in the missing music from 1978 to date. I read Heylin, Williams, Scaduto, even Spitz. Then I focussed in upon finding out everything I could about the song itself. I was convinced that, apart from Visions Of Johanna, it was the most important Dylan song. I think Blood On The Tracks is his most important and powerful album, but it's power derives from the masterful combination of the songs. None of the individual tracks, not even Idiot Wind (regardless of version), stands out alone as Visions Of Johanna does from Blonde On Blonde, or as Caribbean Wind does from ... well, nowhere.
For those who (unlike me) had their eyes on the Dylan ball at the time the first glimpse of it came in a November 12th 1980 audience tape of the only live performance of this song. Clinton Heylin writes: "The shock of recognition that greeted this song when Dylan fans got to hear the audience tape of this November 12 show is hard now to convey" (The Recording Sessions [1960 - 1994], page 140). 'Shock of recognition' applies perfectly to my experience on all kinds of levels.
Paul Williams (as ever) comes closest to expressing the power of the song. Bear in mind that he is referring to the November 12th version, not having heard the October version when the book was written:
I first needed to properly understand the provenance of the song, by which I mean, where it came from. Initially this meant where and when it was recorded. But even this is much harder than I imagined it would be.
The lavish booklet that came with The Genuine Bootleg Series describes the track as follows "recorded at Rundown Studios, Santa Monica, October 1980". Heylin lists a session described exactly thus, which includes the track. However, aside from Yonder Comes Sin, all the tracks are annotated (in Italics) as not in circulation. And yet, in the text he refers to "a recently emerged studio version" and says, "an eminently enjoyable mono "board" tape exists of this performance". I was ready to accept that the GBS track must be the Rundown rehearsal from October 1980, but the GBS track is in stereo. Reading the Heylin chapter through again, I see that it is possible that he is referring to the concert performance. Ambiguity always sits at Heylin’s elbow in this volume. The only recording I know of that show is an audience tape, not a soundboard. Once again ambiguities pile upon ambiguities.
There are, I'm afraid, some errors in parts of Heylin's book, which appear to derive from inadequate proof-reading rather than poor scholarship. The use of italic or bold typefaces to indicate a recording’s release status (uncirculated, circulated, officially released) is particularly prone to typos. Also he seems sometimes to be deliberately vague, perhaps to protect his sources. In the quote above the use of “exists”, suggests his knowledge is second hand. Furthermore his discursive, scathing style in the commentary, while entertaining, rarely elucidates matters such as these, which is exactly what I hoped for from such a book. To be fair, Michael Krogsgaard concedes:
Once again only Sony/Columbia can resolve this with the release of full recording information with CO numbers etc.
In the end I know of only 3 recordings:
So the mystery of the song begins even with the time and place of the recording. It would appear that the most powerful performance, both lyrically and musically, is a first time rehearsal which, despite much later work, was never finished, certainly never bettered. The arrangement from the Warfield show remains unchanged, but the band cannot match Dylan’s passion. The Biograph version reveals all the frustrations of unsuccessful studio tinkering both with the music and the lyrics, and Dylan himself admits that he lost sight of what he was trying to do in the first place, and so dropped the whole thing into his (very large) rejects box.
This conforms to the facts as presented by Michael Gray, in Song & Danced Man III, page 448. It was the presence of the lengthy section on this song, which persuaded me to buy that bulky tome, despite my opinion of the price. I thought that perhaps all my questions would be answered by one of the foremost Dylan scholars.
The spoken introduction to the November live performance suggests why Dylan was unwilling later to compromise with the released version of the song:
The subtext of this is clear: Dylan sees no distinction between his recent work and the more revered back catalogue. One of his hopes for this song was to prove how much the maligned 'gospel' work was a seamless part of his whole body of work. He was mixing the impact of his earlier metaphorical poetic style of lyrics with the sheer musical power he currently commanded, especially in live performance. If you need convincing of that power, try the Massey Hall Toronto recording from 19th April 1980.
As I implied above Michael Gray's analysis of the song, while interesting, is not in the end illuminating. I fear that he sees the October 1980 version as incomplete. I will attempt to refute that view here. Gray prefers the official release, even praising the "pleasing noise, with it's hissing like waves", which I find makes the recording ludicrous. Also he often prefers those changes in the lyrics which are the most regrettable. I might doubt my own judgement here, in an area that is so subjective. But there are Paul William’s trenchant remarks about "fake Dylan – clever phrases with no story to tell" (page 190). There is Clinton Heylin’s judgement “This lame version of a once-great song” (A Life In Stolen Moments, page 226). Most of all there is Dylan's own admission in the Biograph notes. I will quote what he says in full:
There are multiple contradictions within these remarks, but he twice says the inspiration was gone, and the aural evidence bears this out.
One very valuable element in Gray is his transposition of the lyrics (of all 3 versions). I had tried this job soon after I got GBS, but unless you have the right audio equipment, this is a road to lunacy.
With a PC and the NERO Burning ROM software transcribing lyrics is a much easier job using the Wave editor. I don't want to take this too far, but in one area of doubt, I was able to confirm my aural impression by comparing the wave shapes of individual words. As I write this, I keep going back to the Wave Editor window to check individual lines and words, which are so much easier to find and replay, when using that software.
I therefore checked out Gray's transcription of the October 1980 version (which he calls the rattlesnake). While the bulk of it is correct, there are one or two crucial errors, which reveal an anomaly in his approach to transcription. There are two opposite approaches to this type of job. On the one hand there is a completely phonetic approach, showing every slurred vowel and hesitation, reflecting every elision and stumble. On the other hand one can deploy presumption and extrapolation to deduce the 'intended' or formal text behind the ‘imperfect’ spoken/sung delivery. How one chooses from this dialectic is a function of the nature of the source and one's intended use for the end product, but the choice must be consistent. Gray's is not.
For an example, consider the use of apostrophes where sounds are elided. In some places Gray gives us apostrophes where there is no elision ("she'd" where Dylan clearly pronounces "she had"). In others he incorrectly expands elided sounds ("But it's only the silence in the buttermilk hills that call", when what is sung is "But it's only the silence 'n' [i.e. and] the buttermilk hills that call"). The second example shows why this is so crucial, for he has changed the meaning of the line. This is particularly ironic as he makes a big issue (page 456) over an "error of grammar" here, which in fact is only caused by his mishearing the line (see later analysis of this verse). If my discussions of the syntax of the original version seem over elaborate, it is because I need to dispel the view that Dylan’s lyric (the first version) is incoherent, confused or even (pace Mr Gray) ungrammatical.
There are other issues, which I will examine shortly, but first, here is my version of the lyrics. The differences from Gray are only minor, so I have simply placed an asterisk against the lines I heard differently to him. I have only indicated elision where it is severe (e.g. 'Bout for About). I have extrapolated as little as possible, even when what was 'meant' to be sung seems fairly clear, for reasons which will also be expanded later.
Gray tries to clean up the transcription too much. This is a very early rehearsal of a song only just written- possibly sung from a hand-written lyric sheet. Despite the overbearing (Gray strangely characterises it as “neo-moronic”) confidence of Dylan's vocal delivery, there are a number of obvious slips - in the 6th line of the 2nd verse he says "due" twice: "he had due payments due". The final chorus comes close to breaking down completely. In the 2nd line of that chorus, he comes in so late that "From the circle of ice" becomes "..ircle of ice".
Such 'errors' are the occasional result of Dylan's incomparable mastery in the delivery of a line, freely expanding and contracting the lengths of syllables to achieve his distinctive and powerfully rhythmic delivery. This performance is one of the best examples of that skill (as Gray acknowledges). Lyrics on the page can come nowhere near describing the effect of the pauses and ululations with which he sings "nearer to the fire" in the chorus. Because Dylan is so brave (reckless, even) in his willingness to go out on a limb in singing a line, he can, when a song is very new, trip him self up. He follows the approach to music avowed by Miles Davis:
This is the truly creative artist’s approach in any form of art. It is all too rarely found in popular music. If you have any doubt that Dylan works this way, try sampling performances of a single song through the course of one of his current tours. It becomes particularly clear when an audience tries to sing-a-long with say, Like A Rolling Stone. Just as they strive to hit every beat as it was on the original recording, Dylan is striving to avoid it, and create the song anew. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he fails.
This can be a difficult lesson for some listeners. When the Grateful Dead played Dark Star at Bickershaw, I first realised that what I had revered and converted into a symphony, note by note, by endless playing of Live Dead, was no such thing to Garcia and the band. It was different every time (often very different). Such an approach makes the very idea of a “perfect take” of any song impossible. This is the underlying cause of Dylan’s manifold difficulties in the studio; a structure dedicated to a concept of music that is anathema to his artistic philosophy. Of course, the very existence of any means of mechanically recording music undermines true musical creativity because it splits the artist from their audience, but also fools the latter into thinking they can own the music.
Dylan and the other musicians must have known how close they were to a great take of this song. In the Biograph notes, Dylan hints that some outside influence intervened to prevent its completion: "you won't quite finish it for one reason or another". His career is littered with songs abandoned for this reason. Another good example is Abandoned Love. Compare the bootlegged live version in a small club with the version that finally dribbled out of the studio. But in some cases songs did emerge triumphant after a long studio gestation, over months or years (e.g. Visions Of Johanna and Mr Tambourine Man).
But Dylan says he "can't remember why he started it". This remark is revealing of his song-writing ambitions. The songs must have a purpose, a 'why'. Without the 'why' Dylan the artist is rudderless, and cannot choose what to do about the lyrics, the arrangement, and the tempo. This, I am convinced, is when Dylan the vacillator appears - when he doesn't know the why of the song, he can't control it, and tends to defer, often disastrously, to the opinions of others. When he really knows, nothing can stop him: think of his insistence that Al Kooper's organ be brought forward in the mix of Like A Rolling Stone, regardless of Tom Wilson's opinion of Kooper's chops.
This leaves the dilemma about Caribbean Wind. Is it an unfinished scrap, or a great performance of a great song? Clearly I think it is the latter. But to prove that I must be able to demonstrate 'why' he wrote it, so I can demonstrate how well he succeeded. This seems particularly presumptuous, when Dylan has said himself that he couldn't remember. But as a mere fan, or scholar, I can use techniques of analysis, which might be damaging or impairing to an artist (remember that John Lennon claimed to be afraid to learn to read or write music because it might undo the process by which he created songs). I see no point in struggling with the meanings or references in individual lines, unless you can pin down the song as a whole. Songs of great power, must be underpinned with an important message - the 'why' of it's creation.
I concur with Paul Williams that one impetus towards rewriting Caribbean Wind was to disguise references to some specific incidents in Dylan's own labyrinthine love life. This follows a pattern set on Blood On The Tracks. The primary motive is not just privacy - this is part of the process by which Dylan universalises the song. He is not interested in writing autobiography. But sometimes the elimination of the personal also eliminates both the passion and the power of the song. This is what he is obliquely referring to in the Biograph notes, which also thankfully, gives us a starting point for understanding the song. To get this kind of clue from Dylan himself, is rare.
What he says is, I believe, a metaphor for how he writes, so I will quote it again:
"Living with somebody for all the wrong reasons" is the why of this song, the why he wrote it, the why he recorded it and the why he struggled against the odds to complete it. This theme is then fed into a dream, where it is mixed with another context, to produce the screenplay of the song. I find this song, like Hurricane, very film-like in its presentation. The output of the process embodies the theme, but transforms the raw material. Tobacco is grown on St. Vincent, and Dylan may well have watched women pickers there, but he is really only giving us a metaphorical picture of the song's creation, the reason for the special flavours which permeate it. Geographical locations become mere symbols for the state of mind of the protagonists.
My summary of the ‘plot’ of the lyrics would go as follows. Please note that I do not make Dylan the narrator. While this can lead to some clumsy sounding sentences, using “the performer”, it is essential that we avoid the many errors which flow from confusing the narrator with the author.
Gray maintains that in the first version, the girl is the performer, but he is being overly simplistic about the grammar and (all interpreted) punctuation:
He assumes that the third line is an adjectival sub-clause, descriptive of the subject of the sentence in the previous line ("She"). But in fact that sentence can easily end with the line, and be followed by a new one. So, in my interpretation, the first two lines of the song describe the girl, and the next two describe how and where the performer first sees her and her sinister boyfriend. Gray introduces a non-existent "me" into the fourth line ("Talked me in the shadows"), that shreds the syntax and seems to further confuse his understanding of what is happening.
I don’t want to labour the point generally, but it is worth explaining, for just the 3rd and 4th lines, how I think the syntax works. In the 3rd line the words “I was” are elided. “Talked in the shadows” is an adjectival clause, descriptive of the narrator, who is the subject of the sentence. Again the “I” is elided. So we have the full sense of the lines expanded to “I was playing a show in Miami, in the theatre of Divine Comedy. I talked in the shadows, where they talked in the rain”. This provides a syntactically feasible reading of the lines. Elision is inevitable in poems or song lyrics, and is bound to increase ambiguity. This reading of the lines gives me an evocative picture of the performer, standing in the shadow of a theatre’s stage door, ostensibly listening to one member of his party, but surreptitiously watching the other couple on the pavement talking in the rain.
In the rest of the verse we follow a no doubt commonplace evening for the performer. After a show as he sets off with the favoured few allowed not only backstage, but also into his party for the night. The performer notices that the girl's partner is only too aware of his interest in her:
I cannot understand Gray's objection to the second line, which he finds “bathetic”. He is happy, however, to see Dylan cut out many of the best lines of the original: "the revisions, which all seem reasonable in the end"(page 455). A single replacement line from the Biograph version can blow a big hole in that assertion, namely: “Were we sniper bait? Did we follow a star?”
The chorus (as it should) encompasses the whole span of the song which moves from the heat of Miami and the Caribbean, in the first verse, to the cold of Atlantic City and the Atlantic in the last:
In Dylan's all-inclusive metaphor, the meteorology of the Southern Hemisphere is shaped into the whirling emotions of intimate relationships. He contrasts the cold inflexible liberty the performer is currently 'enjoying' with the threatening heat of passion which the girl represented. "So bold and free" is bitterly ironic, he understands very well how that coldness is the price he pays for his freedom. There is irony in the fourth line also, for "iron waves" will clearly not move, so the movement described is an illusion, and he is locked in the "circle of ice".
In the second verse the performer and the girl move together still under the watchful eye of the gangster - "We got a mutual friend standing at the door". Gray sees this as Jesus, or "someone else altogether", but it is just her partner suspiciously watching her chatting with the big star. This is clear as the verse continues:
“Well connected”, as well as the gangster connotation, also refers to his relationship with the girl. She and her partner are captured by his passion for her, which he knows she does not fully return, so they are both trapped in the snare of her heart. This is one aspect of "living with somebody for all the wrong reasons" to which Dylan refers. The performer’s fear of the possibility of a love affair declining in this way is part of his reluctance to connect with this girl, which is why, in the final verse, he is walking alone in a cold place (literally and metaphorically) still agonising over his choice.
The performer then spends a restless night in a cheap hotel. Dylan's penchant for touring on the wrong side of the tracks is well documented. Perhaps he does it to pick up the kind of colourful ambience deployed here:
As Gray points out the hearing of "Nearer My God To Thee", whether real or imagined, suggests closeness to death. It is followed immediately by his "secret" meeting with the girl, suggesting that she somehow represents a possible salvation from that fate. The final verse places the performer firmly in the cold Atlantic world he has chosen. But the coincidence of the date of that trip to Miami reminds him again of the girl:
The call “Daddy” is a reminder, across time and space of the summons to the intimacy of family life, which he spurned in Miami. The narrator turns again towards that option (“I look that way”), but as he does the call fades to “silence” and retreats to the distant “buttermilk hills”. Notice here how crucial is Gray’s error with this line. “Silence and the buttermilk hills” is the plural subject of the verb “call”. (Gray mishears this as “Silence in the buttermilk hills”, and so pillories Dylan for applying the plural form call to a singular subject). What he sees as a problem, is in fact a superb piece of compressed writing. The voice falls to silence as it flies away into the distance. “Buttermilk” represents the type of pale colours seen in distant hills, due to the intervening atmosphere.
Part of the consequences of rejecting family life is exposure to the cold world with its ever- threatening apocalypses:
A man who chooses the lone, cold path in life is bound to see the wider world in these kind of terms. As in the previous verse, where the meeting with the girl follows and overcomes his fears of death, here thoughts of marriage follow the thoughts of Apocalypse. The obvious contrast is with a happily married man, not so likely to be plagued with such visions:
The performer’s gloom is his recognition of his own nature. He acknowledges how he has missed the possibility of gaining happiness through the love of a woman. Mere mortals can only guess how difficult such relationships are for those constantly in the public eye.
I have tried throughout to avoid making any biographical inferences. We can speculate on how the real Bob Dylan came to such a pitch of empathy with the character he presents in this song, but it will not help us understand its power and beauty, just the opposite in fact.
The third track on the third CD of Genuine Bootleg Series is a great performance of a great song by a great singer and song-writer. That it is represented in his official releases by a version so pale that it verges on parody is tragic, but with this man, that is, I suppose, only to be expected. If a version acceptable to Dylan could have been recorded and released on Shot of Love, using the original lyrics and arrangement, I believe it would have profoundly altered not only that album but also the course of Dylan’s career, in the way that Mr Tambourine Man or Like A Rolling Stone or Visions of Johanna did. So our loss is not the loss of one song, but of many.
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