Headlining this week’s instalment of 200 Sad Songs is Bob Dylan, longing for his missing bae. But underneath his casual bluster what is he really saying?
“If you see her, say hello”, begins Dylan’s most emotionally bare song, and an underrated gem from his catalogue. “She might be in Tangier”, he adds hopefully, which is a hilariously specific place to seemingly just pull out of the blue, which suggests one-to-five of the following options.
a) He has thought about this a lot, and narrowed down the location accordingly, landing on Tangier as her likely place of escape.
b) Dylan’s proto-parents William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and co. would often live in Tangier for months at a time, and he suspects one of those beat-writers of having stolen her. Or suspects she is following this well-worn pilgrimage and blames himself – because Dylan is definitely the type of husband who bangs on about Kerouac a lot.
c) She left an address and a phone number behind, and Dylan knows all too well that she is there, but he isn’t chasing after anyone, as he is both the weatherman and knows which way the wind blows.
d) “She” is actually poet Alan Ginsberg, last seen floating in the background of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues clip, who Bobby misses a lot.
e) Dylan just found out about Tangier, and has begun weaving it into/hearing it in conversations in that way you do when you learn a new fact/word and then see it everywhere.
Of course, the answer is a blend of b) and f) “It’s a pretty-sounding/looking word which happens to rhyme with ‘hear’ and represents an exotic, far-flung location”. But whatever his reason for picking Tangier (he refers aloofly to having heard she was there, although this is clearly a lie), he never resolves her whereabouts – not that it’s too important to the story. She has left, and Dylan misses her.
This is the most personal song in Dylan’s hefty, but often emotionally-removed, catalogue. Jakob Dylan, who actually lived it, has the best take on Blood On The Tracks, the album this song is on, calling the record “the sound of my parents fighting.” If that’s the case, If You See Her, Say Hello is the sound of Jakob walking into the lounge room and witnessing his father crumpled and crying holding a photo of his mum. It’s the most openly heartbroken the usually bulletproof Dylan has allowed us to see him, and it’s all the more effective when put in the context of the rest of his recording output. It’s also a rare example of his most powerful lines being the most stark. Dylan is obviously an amazing wordsmith, but this often clouds things, entire albums describing the edges of things rather than focusing in. “We had a falling-out, like lovers often will” is all he will say about the split, other than alluding to some real shit going down the night she left (lovers don’t up and leave at night unless real shit went down). She clearly occupies most of his mind, yet he only passes along a “hello” message. You know who I say “hello” to? Most people I talk to.
Also on The Big Smoke
- 200 Sad Songs: #195 Belinda Carlisle – Summer Rain (1990)
- 200 Sad Songs: #196 No Doubt – Don’t Speak (1995)
- 200 Sad Songs: #197 Tom Waits – Martha (1973)
He gives a resigned cap-nod to her independence too, even if that’s the very factor keeping him from being with her: “I always have respected her for doing what she did and getting free”, he sings, and I believe him. It’s heart-wrenching to hear him howl the words, “And I’ve never gotten used to it, I just learned to turn it off”, although Dylan being Dylan – aka: the Jimmy Dean/Dylan Thomas/Dylan McKay/Matt Dillon/Jack Kerouac beat poet, gun-slinging, train-hopping, whiskey-gulping maestro that he is – this song ends with an epic kiss-off, the dismissive, closing line, “tell her she can look me up… if she’s got the time.”
It’s all bluster and bluff though, we know he’d fly to Tangier (or Russia or wherever) if he had any inkling she wanted him back – but she doesn’t.
She wants Tangier.
‘Sydney Is For Strangers’ is a series of interlocking stories about life, loneliness, and searching for love in a big city. The debut book from The Big Smoke writer Nathan Jolly.
When I first told Charlotte I was falling in love with her—dripping with her sweat and wearing her pyjama top on some fan-spinning day in December— I knew I was actually falling in love with her bedroom, and all that it promised.
I knew I’d live in this room for a while as soon as I entered it. Each chipped wall was smeared with shortcuts to this girl I had stumbled into
and decided very quickly about some hours earlier. I’d lied myself back to her bedroom and absorbed the rush of the many, many secrets I saw around me. Postcards, pictures, photos. Every single edge of her bedroom was softened: covered with shag rugs, blankets, woolly jumpers, cushions, crepe paper, stuffed animals. It seemed designed by somebody who never intended to leave, who knew they could safely collapse into any corner and be cushioned and shushed safely to sleep. Of course, this was almost certainly so, but back then I regarded most things as happy accidents rather than nets and nests.
The first morning I woke up in Charlotte’s room, we ate prawn sandwiches because every time it’s hot like this, she feels like seafood. I can’t eat animals with faces, but prawns are “the cockroaches of the sea”, another girl once told me with a screwed up pout at a bowling club buffet; funnily, this thought was the only thing that allowed me to eat them at all. The ice-cubes hadn’t yet cooled the beers left over from last night, but I pressed the ice against my lips and sucked the liquid through, and it felt cool enough.
I was eleven when I first learned to stomach sandwiches—or any uncooked bread—in a way that it doesn’t slide right up and out again; my stomach, throat, and heart working in easy unison to push that intrusive, doughy blob back up into the world that packaged it and convinced my mum it was
healthy for me. The few times I could actually swallow bread, I would spend several long minutes feeling it sinking like a stone and sitting lodged uncomfortably in some unspecified region in my stomach, thoroughly imagined and very, very real.
Every morning for too many tired years, my mother dutifully cut up carrots, washed lettuce (the bag says it’s pre-washed, but you can never be sure) and sprinkled cherry tomatoes in my exotically-shaped lunchbox, which was actually a Tupperware container peppered with the types of stickers that come in school snacks: Olympic swimmers, cuddly product mascots that once starred in ten-second TV commercials; vague, positive slogans about participation and striving. Luckily I hit high school having recently and suddenly mastered the subtle art of bread-digestion, so I never suffered through being the weird salad kid as a teenager.
My food allergies were, thankfully, only behind my eyes, so chips, fruit, and any meat pulverised past the point of recognition and hidden in a pastry house, became my staple diet for years. Every few Julys or so I add a handful of new, exciting things to my grocery cart—mainly because we live in a world that insists we must eat certain adult foods during certain public moments—but my cupboards remain, for the most part, comfortably
I still have a CD of songs I first heard in Charlotte’s room, every single one sharing that same woozy, night-time feeling—that slow, stoned,
seductive thing that some songs just sway to. The type of music you fall in love to, try drugs to, drink too much to, drive too fast to, stay up too late to, lose your voice to, make dangerous choices to. The CD started as a list scratched in a diary one afternoon after I realised two songs in a row had rushed me back into Charlotte’s room and that light lavender-and-weed scent I forever link to her dark-purple throw-blanket, flinging me back under it whenever I catch some combination of that scent in a chemist aisle or a florist.
Good songs are the only real ghosts.
Amazon paperback: http://tinyurl.com/nathanjolly