Spanish Is the Loving Tongue

Colorkr1136 wide d38a28b51808c805cd8b38dc97460adf9dbb3d04 s1100

One of the most surprisingly interesting, and moving, moments on Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks comes on the third disc, when, a few songs in, you suddenly hear the zzzzz of a tape recorder starting up. Apparently the engineer had just realized that something was going on worthy of being recorded.

So we come in near the end of the first verse of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” This is not one of Dylan’s originals: it’s an early-20th-century cowboy poem that was set to music in the 1920s. Almost everyone has recorded it, and Dylan seems to have loved the song deeply. He has played it many times in concert over the years — as YouTube amply demonstrates — and recorded two versions in studios. One of those, done when he had stopped smoking and found that weird crooning voice that you hear, most famously, on “Lay Lady Lay,” just might be the worst recording of his entire career. I can’t even bring myself to link to it.

Here, when the recording engineer flips his switch, Dylan is playing guitar and is accompanied by the bassist Tony Brown and the pianist Paul Griffin. Griffin, by the way, is a remarkable figure. He played with Dylan on his great trio of mid-60s electric albums — you can see him with the whole band here, and there’s an unfortunately tiny photo of him and Dylan here — but he turns up all over American pop music, and often very distinctively. Yes, that’s him on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” but that’s also him on Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By”; that’s him playing electric piano on Steely Dan’s “Peg,” and, perhaps most famous of all, that’s him on “American Pie.” What a career.

Anyway, here he is with Dylan again. Bob has, I suspect, just launched into “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue,” and Griffin and Brown are finding their slots in the song. I’m sure Dylan had no thought of putting it on his new record; he just loved the song and started playing it. And it’s magnificent.

“Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” is a thoroughly inauthentic song. It’s not a real cowboy ballad; it’s belated, imitative. Like “Loch Lomond,” a 19th-century parlor song pretending to be an ancient Scots ballad, it’s completely fake and completely wonderful. And here, fooling around in the studio, Dylan finds something deep inside the song — something emotionally real and raw and utterly compelling.

Dylan and his wife Sara were going through their divorce at this time, and it is almost universal to hear Blood on the Tracks as a breakup record — perhaps the greatest breakup record ever made. In his liner notes for this collection, Jeff Slate notes that Dylan has disavowed such an interpretation, claiming that he got his lyrical ideas for the album from reading Chekhov stories. Slate treats that disavowal as definitive. Please. Blood on the Tracks is the greatest breakup record ever made, and the pain of that divorce is etched into every song. It’s also etched into many of the takes and rehearsals here: I defy you to listen to the first four cuts of disc 1 — two takes of “If You See Her, Say Hello” and two of “You’re a Big Girl Now” — and conclude that they arise from thoughtful reflection on Chekhov.

And all that pain makes its way into this performance of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue.” Brown quietly accents the melody with his bass, and Griffin finds a wonderfully appropriate groove, like a barrelhouse piano player who’s had too much to drink and is noodling through an old tune before heading off for bed. It’s relaxed and meditative; it sounds almost designedly unprofessional. It perfectly suits the deep melancholy of Dylan’s voice, which gives itself over unreservedly to this sentimental old song and makes of it something unforgettable.

the contingency of collaborative art

Big day for me yesterday: More Blood, More Tracks arrived. It’s extraordinary — could be the best of the bootleg series, but then I might well think that, since I believe Blood on the Tracks to be Dylan’s masterpiece, and one of the great achievements of American music.

On the first disc — the six of them closely follow the order of recording — Dylan plays solo, and there are some harrowing moments there. At one point Dylan is playing “You’re a Big Girl Now” solo, and it’s a totally devastating performance. But you keep hearing the buttons of his vest clicking against the back of his guitar as he plays. Somebody later asked the engineers why they didn’t stop him, and the chief engineer said that they just couldn’t. “We were awed and freaking out and scared. It was intense.”

But then on the second disc he brings in Eric Weissberg and his band (called Deliverance, in those days, because they had played in the great film of that name). At one point you hear the engineer ask what Dylan wants to play next, does he want to continue with what they’ve been working on? Dylan replies, “No, the one we’re gonna do is,” and he starts strumming and wordlessly singing the tune to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Suddenly the band kicks in: drums and bass, then, quickly, an organ fill, a little electric guitar — and it’s magic. They’re in a perfect groove. It’s butter. But of course they have to stop, because they’re not recording yet. Dylan says, “Okay, we’re about ready,” and the engineer starts the tape, and the band tries to get right back into that groove they were in, and for about thirty seconds they’ve got it — and then it falls apart. They do another take, but this time it’s too fast. On every take someone messes up. Finally, Dylan gives up in frustration.

And that’s it for Eric Weissberg and Deliverance. From then on Dylan plays basically with a string band (guitars, acoustic bass, mandolin, with a few occasional additions). The recorded version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” is a great song, but I really think that the full-band version could’ve been even better — if they had been able to get that groove back. But it didn’t happen. And then Dylan took the whole recording session in another direction, which was surely for the best — I can’t think of any other songs on the album that would have benefitted from adding drums and electric instruments, and I can think of several that would have been greatly compromised by that kind of sound.

But the whole sequence is a reminder of just how contingent recording music is — of the number of elements that need to come together to create a certain vibe and mood; of the constant danger of those elements not coalescing, which might leave the whole project teetering on the brink of failure; of how that failure might be the fortuitous opening to something new and better; of layers and layers of possibilities lost and new possibilities gained. To a guy who does most of his creative work alone, it’s scary and fascinating.