Piercing the dust
I've been invited to contribute to this farewell edition of Freewheelin in my capacity as "honorary" Freewheeler - I'm humbled.
The last time I listened to Bob Dylan, really listened – having searched for a particular version of a particular song, instead of casually listening to yet another concert – was a couple of weeks ago.
John Stokes and I had met a journalist from "Cambridgeshire Life", a local magazine, and he asked us (in our capacity as committee members of The Cambridge Bob Dylan Society) for our favourite top five Dylan songs. An impossible question, just five songs from 40-odd years of writing. JRS, true to form, just rattled his off - and gave albums where they could be found. He even gave them in order of preference. When the journalist turned to me (Oh, I knew the moment was coming from a long way off - and was dreading it), I didn't know what to say. Lines from Dylan songs often fill my head, during quiet moments, while driving or at work - but a list of only five songs, and in order of preference. I fumbled around a bit and came up with a sort of list, then added quickly, that it wasn’t in any particular order.
One of the songs I chose surprised me. I hadn't played it for ages, but it had been there in the back of my mind, ever present, for such a long time. The song in question is Restless Farewell - a real old-time, from way down in the boots, traditional-style folk ballad that must have been written by someone at least 150 years old. It's of and from the tradition of old music and talks with such depth and strength, that it would take years of experience to have "lived" the song before penning it. But as we all know Dylan was in his early 20s when he wrote it, and if asked now he'd probably say he wrote it in five minutes.
Restless Farewell is a parting song par excellence - each verse set on a different stage with different characters from whom to bid farewell. By the end of the song you get the idea that Dylan definitely wants to go - somewhere, anywhere, probably to an artistic other world, or to the next artistic horizon, leaving his competition and critics behind him. He's definitely had enough of something, or someone. The song ends the album "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and also ends the Quest TV show the month after the album's release - a parting song indeed.
Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract, and bother me.
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face,
And the dust of rumours covers me.
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick,
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick.
So I'll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn.
-- Bob Dylan, "Restless Farewell" (1963)
Back in the days when I used to play guitar regularly (with Steve Beer in Cambridge), we used to play a version of this song, and we'd do it in English folk style, a la Richard Thompson. I really enjoyed playing the song - and it was always worth the considerable effort involved. We did a good version of it as well (or so I now think!); I wish I could find a tape of it, I must have several tucked away somewhere. In my mind I play a version of it still, and merge Dylan's album version with the brilliant "big band" version from the Frank Sinatra 80th Birthday celebrations. His reworking of the song for that occasion was magnificent. On first hearing it sounded too quiet and almost apologetic in tone, but the full stereo soundboard version that circulated later tells the full story in all its majesty. I wonder what Ol' Blue Eyes made of it.
Needless to say, it was the Frank Sinatra tribute version of "Restless Farewell" that I searched out and played on arriving home after the interview. I let it wash over me as I thought back to all the things John and I had said to that poor, unsuspecting journalist, who’d probably never done anybody any harm and only went out to meet a couple of Dylan enthusiasts and to find out what it was all about…
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