Mama, You Been On My Mind triumphs under scrutiny. By John Waters
I wouldn’t, in normal circumstances, go so far as to assert that any of Bob Dylan’s songs is his best. That would risk being too big a statement. But if you put a gun to my head this very moment and demanded that, on pain of death for getting it wrong, I name his best song, I feel I would have a fighting chance of surviving if I mentioned Mama, You Been On My Mind.
The strange thing is that I don’t think of it as a song. It’s deeper than that. Of course, there are versions of it that turn it into a song, including some horrendous duets Dylan did with Joan Baez. But there is a version in existence in which the song lives in a different way, as something more than the sum of its parts, as something so special you have to wonder why it is only to be found in one apparently throwaway version on the Bootleg collection, just one of many interesting tracks that got left to one side.
The sleevenotes with the Bootleg Series tell us it was recorded in the middle of 1964. They also mention the several versions Dylan was to do with Baez – when Dylan would “ham the song up unmercifully”; and the solo version Baez released – ridiculously called Daddy, You Been On My Mind – on her 1965 album, Farewell Angelina. The solo recording that features on the Dylan bootleg was presumably made before this, perhaps in 1964 or even earlier. The note also mentions several other versions of the song that Dylan recorded or participated in. One, a “rather ponderous version as a Witmark demo with piano accompaniment in the summer of 1964”, another with George Harrison in 1970, in a New York session of which nothing was ever released. We are told that he performed the song live several times.
If you search for it on YouTube, you get people who sing the song and don’t tell you it was Dylan that wrote it. You get people who sing it so badly that you wonder why they bother. You get Dylan and Baez cheerfully murdering it. You get a Johnny Cash version in which he inexplicably changes the lyric, including the opening line, arguably the greatest in all of popular music, for reasons unstated but worth speculating about. But if you want to hear Dylan sing it as it was meant to be sung, you need to get the Bootleg Series and expect to be playing nothing else for a week.
Dylan wrote, recorded and released lots of songs. Many of them are carried by stories or statements or riddles or simply clever hooks that make you wonder about the immense sense of irony that resides within this man, this poet, this seeker, this joker. For half a century he has been standing on the edge of the world looking in, reflecting or refracting some things that caught his eye, uttering them in ways that always suggest a stab at truthfulness, then moving on as though unsure what he has done. Almost none of his songs are finished, and some are no more than begun. Some of them seem to go on forever and others seem to end before they get to the chase – containing “too much and not enough”, as he put it himself, coating their subjects in words as though to convey the inadequacy of description.
But this song, this statement, this riddle, this joke, has something more in it than the others. It has Dylan in it in a way that the rest of his songs do not. Dylan is a storyteller, a creator: there is no need for him to be present in his songs, and there are no reasons for us to jump to the conclusion that we have glimpsed him in any or all of them. At any given moment it might be him or not, probably not.
There is a character in this song, but I don’t suggest this character is Dylan. It might be, but it doesn’t really matter. The voice is Dylan’s and he gives this voice to the character as he does in many other songs. There is a baldness and clarity to the delivery that suggests it is Dylan talking. His voice carries none of the affection it sometimes has when he is trying to find the right pose or attitude for a song. Anyone who has read his autobiographical work, Chronicle, will know that he likes to lay false trails and blow up existing understandings. But there is a trueness here that is difficult to avoid. His voice is up close in a way that it rarely is. It is as though he has stopped to get real, if only for a few moments. The song, if it can be called a song, is great because it is not a song. There is no real hook to hide behind. It has no chorus, just the repeated title line. Moreover, the song is itself concerned with laying false trails, about the duplicity that lies behind the word and the note and the face and the name. Deep down, he has said more than once, nobody’s got a name.
And yet the song that is not a song is, in another sense, banal. It is a kind of love song, on the surface of things a throwaway afterthought about a relationship that ended some time ago. Except that it is not throwaway. It is not an afterthought. It is a cry from deep within the heart of one who has loved too much and lost not just the love but also the capacity to face that loss. It is the plea of someone whose life has been stilled by the fallout from desire and the encounter with its limits. It is a song about the way human longing has the capacity to leave you crippled if you direct it at the wrong target. The song doesn’t say this, but shows it.
The delivery of the song is clear and straightforward. He gets right into it, with just the merest couple of bars of introduction on the guitar. His voice , when it enters before you expect, is not in any way Dylanised. He is not, you instantly know, about to make a big announcement, or tell a funny story, or stand back from somebody else’s life and embark on a long narrative. There is an urgency about the beginning that seems to infuse the song with an energy that never leaves it, even at the end, even when it is over.
There is no affectation or attitudinising. If Dylan is here an actor, then he is playing it straight, right down the middle, adopting a tone that is clearly calculated to avoid any intimation of irony or pretence.
That is the singer’s voice. But, behind the voice of the singer, just behind it, is the voice of the protagonist, the character, and he has an unmistakably different tone. He is deeply, unbearably, sad.
Somehow Dylan manages to convey this without himself seeming to be sad, without being so sad, for example, that he is unable to sing.
Most of the song is delivered in a voice that is downbeat, and yet energised. What Dylan achieves here is in theory impossible: he conveys a sense of he detachment of melancholia without compromising the clarity of his performance. Most of this is already there in the way the song is written, in the long vowels of key words and phrases – “hazy”, “narrow”, “sorrow” – and in the way some of the lyrics’ more defensive assertions have the tinge of doth-protesting too much. There is, also, a sense of him having to work hard to maintain the delivery, something between the lines that suggests a series of renewals of a level of energy and determination that is requiring a big effort. This creates a double effect, which folds back into the mystery of the character, communicating that he’s putting up a front. It doesn’t really fool anyone, but still it suggests a kind of courage. You know how low he has been brought; you understand about his hopes and how frail he knows them to be; you follow his journey through them and come to the same conclusions as he has himself. It suggests honesty, but of a strange, translucent kind that shows underneath the duplicity of the intelligence that is framing the statement.
The clue is in the first lines: perhaps, as I say, the greatest first lines (and here there is no need for the gun) in the history of pop songs that are not pop songs. Say it any way you like: “Maybe it’s the color of the sun cut flat/And coverin’ the crossroads I’m standin’ at”.
What did he say? Rewind and play it again. “Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat/And coverin’ the crossroads I’m standin’ at”.
The sun cut flat? Where in heaven or earth did that come from? It is a line that is either handed straight from heaven or dredged from the depths of a killer hangover. Something about the slight-ly ex-agg-er-at-ed slow-ness of the delivery suggests the latter, so that, as well as doing its more obvious job, it summons up the state in which it was created. It is an unbelievably beautiful line, but somehow it sounds excessively sentimental or something, coming from the mouth of this character, of whom we know nothing yet but what he has just said. Even as he delivers the line we feel his self-consciousness in delivering it. And yet we are stuck by its beauty. It is too big a line for almost anyone to sing, which is perhaps why Johnny Cash mangled it and buried it deep in the song.
But we want to know who is saying it, because already there is a story, and an unleashing of speculation. We are with this character at the crossroads and can feel his sense of dislocation, his distorted perspective, his idle gazing at a world that suddenly reveals itself in a strange new way that might almost make him smile at the strangeness of his perception. And we know that the crossroads presents him with a dilemma that he must fairly immediately resolve.
The words are “poetic”, but, as in all great poetic lines, they dissolve immediately into an image. The clouds suddenly drift away and bathe the scene in sunshine. We see him standing there, in the sunshine, at the crossroads, a little dazed but peaceful with it. And yet, with a consciousness slightly altered by something-or-other.
He is speaking to someone, but as yet we don’t know to whom. It could be me, you, the listener, but the words are too self-conscious for that. They suggest a shared history of some kind, perhaps a history of similar moments of concelebrated strangeness and beauty and beautiful strangeness. The line is too shocking and too odd to be delivered as the opener to a song intended to address the hearer directly. You don’t speak like that to the first person who happens along the road, not even if you’re Bob Dylan, perhaps especially if you’re Bob Dylan. This man is speaking as though to himself, but perhaps through himself to someone who lies deep within his memory and imagination but who weighs heavily on his mind.
The third line, coming after the opening couplet, changes everything, and yet also relieves the tension of the questions raised by the opener. It is a rethink, a step backwards from the impulse that led to that first blurt of poeticism. He has gone too far, risking betraying his hand. The line has revealed too much of his inner life, tapped too clumsily into the store of nostalgia that has caught him here as warmly as the sunlight. So he steps back a little from the excesses of his opening gambit:
“Or maybe it’s the weather or somethin’ like that…”
He is not, after all, a poet, or at least he has not after all been moved to poetry. He pulls his hand back closer to his chest, hoping it is not too late. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this too is part of the story of shared moments, shared ironies, shared mockeries of pretensions and sentimentalities. Perhaps he is not catching himself just in time, but rather deepening the parody of the love that has been rattling around his consciousness after – perhaps, perhaps not – a period of forgetting.
“But Mama, you been on my mind”.
“Mama”. It is deep and personal. This is no “baby” song, no “honey” song”, no “sweet thing” song. There is history here, deep history, shared and understood in all its depth. There is a specificity here that seems to address someone in particular, someone to whom the connection is profound, heavy, primal.
We, the eavesdroppers, can only listen up. But he has said pretty much all he wants to say already. The rest of the song amounts to no more than tinkering with the statement. He has come out with it and he hopes that it has landed lightly. He is prepared for a rebuff but is willing to take that chance, because the prize, we already intuit, is something he cannot live without.
Is this too much to say yet? I don’t think so. The words on their own are ambiguous. It could be just a piece of empty rhetoric like you get in lots of pop songs, a hollowed-out recollection of the feeling behind the pain. And yet… the sincerity that rises form the clarity of the delivery makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that we are listening to someone confessing to a great love, but in a roundabout way that reserves just the merest possibility of a denial that we also intuit is vital to the dignity of the speaker.
The history, though, whatever it is, is telling him he can be prepared for a rebuff.
“I don’t mean trouble, please don’t put me down or get upset”.
We gather a greater sense here of what is at stake, the scale of the risk being taken. He hopes that enough work has already been done to prevent any of the possible responses he has referred to. But he has, it seems, some reason to hope: is there some spark left that has been awakened sufficiently to leave aside, for a moment or two, the obvious reasons why no communication should even be contemplated?
“I am not pleadin’ or sayin’, “I can’t forget you”.
A lie, two lies. He is pleading and saying he cannot forget her. That is what he has come to say, or what he is rehearsing in his mind for the moment when he may get to deliver these lines for real.
“I do not walk the floor bowed down an’ bent but yet…”
There is a joke here, but without humor. The mood and the situation it relates to are too tense for laughter and yet there is a shared moment of laughter somewhere behind this line. He has strayed again into that irony they have possessed together. It refers to a caricature of his personality – or just possibly hers – drawn from their period of happy togetherness. It is a way of recasting his plea, so that it seems not so much a plea as a playful recollection.
He states his need, having prepared the way to make the statement ever-so-slightly deniable. He knows that his trick is unlikely to be missed, but it’s the nearest he can come to begging without self-abasement. She will know what he is doing but, because he has spoken within a code that belongs to them only, there is a chance that the chord will draw her towards him rather than repel her.
But then he rethinks. He has gone too far. The rebuff he anticipates may well be coming. He remembers that she is free to live life as she pleases, and that this has implications which he must take into account. He seems to become conscious that any intimation of jealousy may present a problem, and he has to nail that straightaway.
“Even though my eyes are hazy an’ my thoughts they might be narrow/ Where you been don’t bother me, or bring me down with sorrow”.
Don’t get me wrong, someone else in that situation might have said: this is just a polite, casual intervention. Not that bothered, really, so nothing to worry about – unless, of course, you happen to be thinking along the same lines as I would be if I were serious, which of course I … may not be.
Except that his choice of words, and the way he sings them, again suggests that he is, indeed, being brought down with sorrow. Behold the paradox: they are, from a poetic point of view, carefully chosen words; and yet, in the human context, they ask that they be heard as a succession of garbled thoughts blurted out on a sudden impulse. But really, of course, the plea is as carefully constructed as the poem.
Obviously, he’s taking a punt and hoping there’ll be some reciprocation, but that’s not something he wants to say straight out.
We can hear him saying it and yet he is not saying it. We hear it behind the words. We look into his two minds and reconcile what he says with what we have already gathered about his intentions. He’s not jealous, he says. It don’t bring him down “in sorrow”. But because he has uttered these words, chosen from among a range of possibilities, we understand the nature and depth of his sorrow and jealously.
He goes further, much too far: “It don’t even matter, where you’ll be wakin’ up tomorrow”. As if he could utter this without first thinking it. As if he could think of it without the thought consuming him completely.
“Mama, you’re just on my mind”.
A sense of exhaustion strikes us. Everything is coming out wrong, but she knows what he’s saying. He has a sense of the simplicity of things: that really the only thing that matters is the plea. If she wants him back, then she’ll say Yes; if not, the rest of the words don’t matter at all.
Then, suddenly, he surrenders, as though he has intuited that his mission is futile.
“I’m not askin’ you to say words like ‘yes’ or ‘no’ /Please understand me / I have no place I’m calling you to go”.
No, of course not. He has been simply remarking, in fascination, that she has suddenly come into his mind. The sense we get of his awareness of the inadequacy of his every effort to clothe his begging in words tells us of the scale of his pessimism. There is nowhere else to go but deeper into his confession, deeper into the hopelessness that he now expects. What began as a plea now becomes an almost final acknowledgment that their life together is history.
“I’m just whispering’ to myself, so I can’t pretend that I don’t know / Mama, you are on my mind”.
This time, the final line is in the continuous present tense: you ARE on my mind. It is the true title of the song. There is nothing casual about it.
You are. On my mind. You will always be. On my mind.
“Whispering” is exactly right. Except that he’s not whispering, he’s rehearsing to whisper. He’s going through all the feelings he can find in himself, all their contradictions as well as all their implications, in all their intensity and grief, following them to see where they lead, and judging how things will look after it is all acknowledged and understood. And yet he is engaging with the subject of his plea as surely as if she were listening right now. But, listening in, we already understand that this is the final rehearsal for a show that will be cancelled.
The harmonica comes in, lonesome as an unwitnessed rainbow. It is given a limited space in which to summon up the feeling that has so far only been gestured towards. It fills out the meaning of the song in a way that, the way the words have been going, is impossible to state in any other way.
But when the voice returns it is with a new resolve. He has sung the requiem of their love and now prepares himself to turn and face reality without it. He does this in the usual way, by straying into recrimination. He wants her to think about what’s she’s let slip from her grasp. Does she understand what she’s thrown away? For his part, he has finally come to understand that his play has failed, that the history is too heavy and lingering for it to come to anything. A slight bitterness is present, but it is subtle and traceable to his passion, which by definition is a form of flattery. There is no toxicity, or not much.
“When you wake up in the mornin’, baby, look inside your mirror/You know I won’t be next to you, you know I won’t be near”.
That “baby” is interesting and strange. It reduces her, reduces what they had – petulantly, perhaps, because he knows there’s no hope, no chance. Or is he still trying? Is he trying to invoke the threat that is implicit in the idea that he has already begun to think less of her? Yes, there is the merest sense of an attack on her character, which he insists, in a sly and subtle way, is bound up for him with the way she was when they were together. And yet, there is also this tenderness, this feeling we get that his sadness is for her as much as for himself, which redeems the line and him, which allows us to give him the slightest benefit of the doubt even as our sense of his duplicity grows stronger.
Does she understand all this?
“I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear as someone who has had you on his mind”.
It is, at one level, a defeated line, a further stepping-back from the hope of the early verses and from the insinuated impatience of the recent lines. It’s all been just an exercise in information-gathering, set off in a quiet, idle moment. But, by the way, does she know who she is as well as he does? Can she hope to exist without what they had? He’d just be curious to know the answer to that, and that’s all he really wants to say.
On mature reflection, to say that this is Dylan’s best song would indeed be a ridiculous overstatement. But still, it could seem to be, because something else is happening, something that happens to some extent in every moment when a song is being sung but which here happens all but completely. This Something is the way the song, as well as being sung, seeks to sing the intention behind itself, to coax or force its meaning out of a performer who knows what it is really about.
It is not necessary for the song to be sung by its author for this to happen. The “intention” of a song is not something fixed, but something to be discovered, perhaps repeatedly and in different ways, because, though fluid and elusive, it exists as something concrete and real. The “intention” of a song is like the destination of each of us, unknowable but inevitable, and ours only.
Everyone has a song in him – if not to write, then perchance to sing. Any of us may have the potential to take a song that has never seemed great and make it so, for three or four minutes, to transform something that had seemed pedestrian into something majestic and true beyond its words or notes.
The authors of songs sometimes do this with their own songs. But very often they don’t. They write something good or great or promising-but-not-quite-whole, and do their best in performance to take it over the line that nobody can see. Sometimes someone comes along and finds something in a song that the author never imagined was there.
But in this version of Mama, You Been On My Mind, something different and deeply unusual is happening: Dylan is singing the song as it was born to be sung, but almost despite himself. All the other versions of the song he did were distractions from this one. In this, we understand why the song was written because we understand that it is not possible to write such a song without having experienced what it describes.
He has gone to the crossroads where the song was conceived. It is as though the idea of singing the song like this has just occurred to him, and he is aware of the heaviness it brings about in him but has decided, on an impulse, to let it happen, to let the song “song” him in terms of his mindset and intention in writing it, to re-enter the process of writing it, but this time as a singer, to let the song rediscover in him the feelings it grew from. He has re-entered the moment of the song’s creation and stayed right to the end, pursuing each and every one of the loops of involution from which it emerged. He has done something that cannot be improved upon, that cannot be repeated. It is hardly surprising that he subsequently treated the song with such casual disrespect, for what else was there to be found in it by anyone?
At the very end of the recording, as the final guitar chords slow to a standstill, is a cough that is almost too tight to the final notes to be edited out without leaving a scar. It might be someone in the recording booth with Dylan or it might be Dylan himself. Either way, it fits, because it seems to sound like a full stop might sound if full stops were in the business of making sounds.