Bedroom, Melbourne, late. Summer of 2010-2011
I first heard Red River Shore lying in the dark, night after night, drifting off to sleep. For Christmas 2010 the family had given me the two-CD version of Tell Tale Signs, the Bootleg Series Volume 8, and there it was: disc one track five. A track Dylan left off 1997’s Time Out of Mind.
I’m probably asleep by track five of most of my bedside CDs, regardless of how good the albums are (such as Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs and Gurrumul Yunupingu’s first two albums), but there are not too many opening verses like that of Red River Shore. I sat up in bed, turned up the volume. Put my ‘good’ ear, the left, close to the CD player.
Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shooting by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark
To be where the angels fly
Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I’ve never wanted any of them wanting me
‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore
Dylan laments a lost love who may have only ever existed in his imagination. He wanders and wonders if he’ll ever see the girl again. He sings about dreams drying up.
Well, I went back to see about it once
Went back to straighten it out
Everybody that I talked to had seen us there
Said they didn’t know who I was talking about
Well, the sun went down on me a long time ago
I’ve had to fall back from the door
I wish I could have spent every hour of my life
With the girl from the Red River shore
It’s a quiet, melancholy song with a soft Tex-Mex backdrop of dobro, guitars, and organ. Then towards the end of the seven minute lullaby, the gentle lilt of a soft accordion gives you a little hope. That first summer I heard Red River Shore I regularly fell asleep feeling a little better, if a little sadder, about the world.
The way I feel about Red River Shore is reflected in the way Paul Kelly writes about Frank Sinatra. In How to Make Gravy (the 2010 book, not the 1996 song), Kelly describes how on the night of Sinatra’s death he listened to the Sinatra album In the Wee Small Hours. You could possibly apply part of Kelly’s description to many a melancholy song or album. I was probably reading How to Make Gravy around the time I was listening to Tell Tale Signs and Red River Shore. Indeed How to Make Gravy may well have been another 2010 Christmas present.
I’ll confess here and now that I don’t know much about In the Wee Small Hours – or Frank Sinatra – but I’ve now got a good reason to seek out the album.
Here’s part of what Paul Kelly says:
“The night of the day Frank died, 14 May 1998, I waited ‘til the children were asleep, poured myself a whisky, shut the door to the back room, put In the Wee Small Hours on nice and loud, lay down on the couch and turned out the lights…
“It’s a record that requires concentration in order to mine its deep lode of riches, and each time I come back to it over the years I’m struck by the concentration brought to bear on its making. You can feel the fierceness of its aesthetic, the uncompromising realisation of a vision…
“You lie in the dark as Frank sings of loss and try to pay attention to all the little exquisite details…but after a while you find yourself drifting off and thinking about your own life and all its losses, how life over time is simply a series of losses: loss of parents, of friends, of love, of possibilities; loss of innocence and your children’s innocence…
“…Loss’s sphere grows wider now, and included in it is all possibility. You reflect on all you’ve missed – how much of your life you’ve forgotten, how much has streamed by you, how paltry the haul in your little net. There are books you haven’t read, the ones you read but don’t recall, the history you don’t know, the languages you haven’t learnt, the music you haven’t heard, the songs you haven’t written…that beautiful stranger you saw in the street the other day who you’ll never know.”
Paul Kelly’s story about listening to Frank Sinatra is from pages 484 to 490 of How to Make Gravy (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin 2010.) The story was also published in Best Australian Essays 2011 (Black Inc Books 2011).