Another One Lost In The Stacks

One evening during my late-1980s sojourn in North Dakota, my pal George and I got out our guitars. Casting about for something we both knew, we decided on Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” We found a key and wrangled a decent tempo into an introduction, and we began to sing.

I began to sing:

Clouds so swift and rain fallin’ in.
Gonna see a movie called Gunga Din.
Pack up your money, put up your tent in the wind.
You ain’t goin’ nowhere.

At the same time, George was singing:

Clouds so swift.
Rain won’t lift.
Gate won’t close.
Railings froze.
Get your mind off wintertime.
You ain’t goin’ nowhere.

We stopped, confused. And we compared notes. The version of the song he knew came from two sources: The Basement Tapes, the 1967-era recordings made by Dylan and The Band in upstate New York (released in part in 1975), and the Byrds’ acclaimed 1968 country rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

“Where’d you find yours?” he asked me.

The lyrics I was singing, I told him, came from a version Dylan did with Happy Traum, released on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume II, a 1971 release.

I went to the record shelf and pulled down the greatest hits album, which I’d had since 1972, and The Basement Tapes, which I’d had only a brief time (and obviously hadn’t internalized yet), and headed to the stereo. We spent half an hour listening to the two versions of that very good Dylan song, sorting through the lyrical changes.

And then we turned off the stereo, picked up our guitars and dove into “She Belongs To Me,” since we knew the same version of that one.

The scene in my living room came back to me this week as I made my way through two books that are treasure chests for fans of Bob Dylan: Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973 and Still On The Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2006. The books by Clinton Heylin came out in 2009 and 2010, respectively, and, taken as a whole, list – as chronologically as possible – the six hundred songs known to have been written by the Bard of Hibbing through 2006.

For each song, Heylin notes where sets of published lyrics can be found, lists the known sessions at which Dylan recorded the song, catalogs the albums or singles on which the results of those sessions were released, and finally presents the date and place of the first-known public performance of each song.

Following those headers, Heylin goes into vast detail – where available – about each song, from the writing and recording to a brief public performance history. The project is amazing in its scope, but to me, some of the most interesting portions of those entries are the times when Heylin tracks the multiple changes in song structure and lyrics before the recording of a song is ever finished.

We know that Dylan has many times revised songs already recorded: “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is one example; a better one might be “Tangled Up In Blue” which has gone through multiple metamorphoses since its first appearance in 1975 on Blood on the Tracks. But the changes in those two cases (and in many others) came after those songs were already out and about.

Changes during the creative process are much more difficult to track, I would think. But Heylin digs deeply into the available copyright lyric sheets, demo tapes and session tapes to track the development of Dylan’s songs, finding many times that melodies, arrangements and lyrics would go through change after change, version following version. And not always, Heylin isn’t afraid to say, for the better. On occasion Heylin calls out Dylan for lessening the quality and power of songs by the alterations; similarly, he’ll note that Dylan’s tendency to revise can result in a better work.

One example of the former is Heylin’s rough assessment of “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love),” a track released on 1985’s Empire Burlesque that began life during the sessions for Infidels in 1983 as “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart” (a version of which showed up on one of the Bootleg Series CD sets). In assessing the 1985 version, Heylin calls the added chorus “corny,” the backup singers “annoying” and the production “overbaked.” Whether one agrees with that specific assessment or not – and I’m still pondering it – Heylin’s books, stuffed as they are with details about the evolution of Dylan’s work and of his creative process through the years, are fine reading.

I also find myself intrigued by the entries about songs that Dylan has written and then utterly ignored for his own recordings, leaving them to either wither entirely or be picked up for cover versions by other performers. There are enough of those nuggets listed in the two books that I’m tempted to go back through the two volumes and make a list of cover versions I need to find.

One such version was already on my shelves: Song No. 352 in the chronology is a tune titled “Coming From The Heart (The Road Is Long),” written by Dylan and back-up singer Helena Springs during a tour of Australia and the Far East in early 1978.

Heylin writes: “On the evidence of the . . . audition-tape recorded on their return to L.A. in early April, Dylan may have been considering cutting the song for Street-Legal, where it could well have become as big a radio hit as ‘Baby Stop Crying.’ [As Heylin notes elsewhere, that track was a Top Five hit in Europe.] Otherwise, why attempt a full-band arrangement a mere fortnight before they began recording said album?”

But the song didn’t make it on the album and in fact, Dylan has never recorded it. And Heylin notes that Dylan performed the song just once in concert – an October 31, 1978, performance at Minnesota’s St. Paul Civic Center, which can be heard here – and then handed the song off for cover versions.

Heylin says, “And so this mighty fine song was demoted to demo-tape status, from where it was temporarily rescued by the Searchers, making their first album in many a moon. Their (rather rare) eponymous 1979 LP features the entire song given the full pop-harmony monty it assuredly deserved.”

I read that and thought: I think I have that album, the Searchers’ 1979 record. And in fact, it sits on my shelves, having been played once and then filed. I have to admit that I didn’t notice Dylan’s name on the label; had there been writing credits on the jacket or the inner sleeve, I likely would have noticed his name among them. The song – listed simply as “Coming From The Heart” – evidently made little impression on me when I got the album during the late 1990s, but that happens.

So I went and took another listen to it this week. It’s a good song; Heylin is right about that. But I find the production to be a little thin-sounding. Nevertheless, here it is:

The Searchers – “Coming From The Heart” [1979]

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3 Responses to “Another One Lost In The Stacks”

  1. porky says:

    Those Searchers LP’s (Sire put out two) were loaded with neat cover tunes and turned a lot of heads; the group was trying to reclaim their place in a world that was ransacking their heyday for material.

  2. Paco Malo says:

    Excellent essay, whiteray.

    I just want to mention another great Dylan track that was only recently saved from collecting dust in the vaults. The haunting “I’m Not There”, an unreleased Basement Tapes song, surfaced as the title track to Todd Haynes’ 2007 musical film based on the life and work of Dylan.

    I can’t recommend “I’m Not There” (the song and the film) highly enough to Dylan lovers.

  3. Enjoyable read. And thanks for this Dylan song – I swear I’ve heard it somewhere before, but maybe that’s because it has one of those McCartney melodies, like “Yesterday,” that sound familiar the first time you hear them,

    Despite the raw performance and recording I prefer Bob’s version – he’s in fine voice, clearly diggig this memorable melody.

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