Going, Going Gone

When I first got together with my then-girlfriend-now-wife, she introduced me to the band Son Volt. Their first album Traces has a front-loaded first half, which includes the absolute gems “Windfall,” “Live Free,” and “Tear Stained Eye.” The simple chorus of “Windfall” is a perfect match-up of words and melody that resonates with the listener for years: 

May the wind take your troubles away
May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel
May the wind take your troubles away

After playing Traces for me, she said, “Now, you really need to hear this.” It was called Switchback, a 1997 promotional EP that Son Volt had put out as a teaser for their upcoming album called Straightways. It’s funny that bands in the 90s had to put out additional releases in order to promote a future release. No matter because Switchback contained what she said was her favorite Son Volt moment, the bridge for the song “Going, Going Gone”:

The harmonies shared by lead singer Jay Farrar and the accompanying vocalist Jim Boquist in the bridge of the song are so heart-breakingly beautiful that you hope the bridge will go on and on, subsuming the rest of the song, making you forget that any other song ever existed. Subverting the old joke that plane engineers should build the entire plane out of the black box since the black box will never be destroyed in an airplane crash, in Son Volt’s performance of “Going, Going, Gone” we know that they should build the entire song out of the bridge.

Listening to Switchback, I immediately said, “I know this song. It’s a Bob Dylan song!” and pulled out my copy of Planet Waves to share that version with her.

Planet Waves is not among my favorite of Dylan’s albums. While containing some strong moments, everything about it feels rushed, from the writing of the songs to the performances with The Band to even the naming of the album. Apparently, the original name of the album was to be Ceremonies of the Horseman, drawn from Dylan’s 1965 song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” Dylan must have thought titling an album from a song written nine years before would not reflect well on his current music, so went with Planet Waves instead. But what does that mean? Is Dylan and The Band’s music on the album so strong that you can’t resist it’s pull, similar to the tractor beam from Star Wars?

At the time of the recording of Planet Waves in late 1973, The Band was in a trough of sorts having released an album of covers called Moondog Matinee earlier in the year. The highs of Music from Big Pink and The Band were behind them by a few years. Record sales were not what they once were, and the reviewers weren’t nearly as kind. Dylan himself was not in a much better place. The last album of full original songs was New Morning from three years earlier (not counting the soundtrack work of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid explored in earlier posts here and here). The Band and Dylan agreed to get back together for a big United States tour in 1974, and, at some point, someone decided that an album should be released before the tour began. Thus began the rushed nature of Planet Waves.

“Going, Going, Gone” is the second track on Planet Waves. The song opens with an acoustic guitar, played by Dylan, slowly asserting minor key chords. Robbie Robertson’s electric guitar comes in with a jagged, strangled lead part. This minor key intro sounds like the beginning of a noir movie, with an uneasiness of tone. The music shifts to the verse, and we’re back to a major key. The interplay between the members of The Band during the verses is masterful: Richard Manuel’s piano is playing off of Garth Hudson’s organ, who is responding to Robbie Robertson’s lead electric guitar. Despite my saying that the music sounds rushed on Planet Waves, it’s not here. They are locked in as a unit with a musical setting sympathetic to the mood of the song, and demonstrating why they are as good as any Dylan backing band.

Dylan’s writing in the verses of “Going, Going Gone” is filled with cliché after cliché: “There’s not much more to be said;” “I’m closin’ the book;” “And I don’t really care / What happens next;” “I been walkin’ the road / I been livin’ on the edge.” Are the clichés intentional? Perhaps the narrator has been pushed so far that he is left with nothing but banality and bromides as he contemplates leaving his lover. This use of cliché by Dylan recalls something that he told Jonathan Cott in a Rolling Stone interview in November 1978:

“Right through the time of Blonde on Blonde I was doing it unconsciously. Then one day I was half-stepping, and the lights went out. And since that point, I more or less had amnesia. Now, you can take that statement as literally or metaphysically as you need to, but that’s what happened to me. It took me a long time to get to do consciously what I used to be able to do unconsciously. It happens to everybody. Think about the periods when people don’t do anything, or they lose it and have to regain it, or lose it and gain something else. So it’s taken me all this time, and the records I made along the way were like openers – trying to figure out whether it was this way or that way, just what is it, what’s the simplest way I can tell the story and make this feeling real.”

Planet Waves falls within the timeframe that Dylan is describing. Perhaps he is half-stepping here and the lights are out. The exception is the bridge of “Going, Going Gone.” It is certainly one of the “openers” characterized by Dylan as exemplifying the true emotion of what he is trying to say. The words of the bridge are:

Grandma said, “Boy, go and follow your heart
And you’ll be fine at the end of the line
All that’s gold isn’t meant to shine
Don’t you and your one true love ever part.”

Yes, there are more clichés, but the vocals by Dylan and Rick Danko – one of the great high harmony singers in rock ‘n roll – erase any triteness in those commonplace expressions. Besides, those words aren’t the narrator’s words; they are Grandma’s. She is imparting truisms that are desperately needed by the narrator. Seemingly contradictory, she is saying that the narrator should do what he has to do, yet recommends not to part from his “one true lover.” Contradictions aside, the sense of desperation of the bridge is all too obvious in the vocals by Dylan and Danko. They are reaching for something with these vocal lines, knowing that if they are able to grasp understanding by gaining the golden balance of the harmony, that they “will be fine at the end of the line.” The bridge is the emotional core of “Going, Going, Gone” as well as all of Planet Waves.

Recently, I came across a live version of “Going, Going Gone” by Bob Dylan at Fort Worth, TX on May 16, 1976:

(Though labelled “Vincent Van Gogh” in the video display above, the link will take you straight to “Going, Going Gone.)

This is from the spring 1976 version of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Whereas the 1975 version of that tour has yielded two movies and two separate Bootleg Series releases by Dylan, the 1976 has mostly been left alone. The one exception is the Hard Rain live album, which was immediately panned by critics.

By all reports, the 1976 version of the Rolling Thunder Revue had a different, stranger vibe. The tour was playing in larger venues in the American Southeast and West, and ticket sales were not as good. On this leg of the tour, instead of playing songs off of the newly released Desire, Dylan was focusing more attention to songs from Blood on the Tracks, which had been released the previous year. “Going, Going Gone” connected with specific themes from Blood on the Tracks such as the end of a love affair and was resurrected for this tour and given new life.

The Fort Worth performance of “Going, Going Gone” is ragged, but beautiful. We hear Dylan trying out an opening riff with descending chords and the backing band tentatively joining him at first. It’s unclear if Dylan is playing this riff for the first time for them, but they lock in quickly. The power and drama of the song builds as the band stops and starts to add tension. Mid-song, the band comes back to the opening riff – not dissimilar to the chords from Desire’s “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” – and plays it over and over again with Scarlet Rivera’s gypsy violin swooping in and out leaving the listener completely disoriented.

For the opening verse of the song, Dylan leaves the lyrics alone, but completely rewrites the subsequent verses. The new second verse is as follows:

I’m in love with you baby
but you got to understand
that you want to be free,
so let go of my hand.

The writing here is interesting in that the narrator seems to be convincing his lover to break up with him. I love you, but you don’t want to be with me, so please break up with me. The narrator is playing some passive aggressive mind games! The next verse is another new set of lyrics:

I’ve been sleeping on the road
with my head in the dust.
Now I just got to go
before it’s all diamonds and rust.

This is Dylan at his trickster best. He is writing – perhaps off the cuff – about a post-breakup scenario, “sleeping on the road” and the narrator’s “head in the dust.” But the key line is “diamonds and rust.” That is a reference to Joan Baez’s big 1975 song “Diamonds and Rust”:

Baez was always known as a master interpreter of songs with her singular voice. “Diamonds and Rust” was her grand writing statement from the year before this performance of “Going, Going Gone.” A scan of the lyrics and a little understanding of their history, it’s obvious that the song is about Bob Dylan and the push-pull of their past love affair. Baez later confirmed in an interview that the song was about Dylan. For Dylan, he must have known the song was about him.

Back to Fort Worth, May 1976: Joan Baez is one of the other featured performers as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. So here is Dylan onstage as his own marriage is not doing well (he and Sara would divorce the next year), singing a song about lovers parting, and he includes a reference to a song about his own part in a love affair WHILE JOAN BAEZ IS THERE WATCHING OFF STAGE. Right after Dylan sings the “diamond and rust” line, you can hear Dylan break up in laughter while singing the chorus. He knows what he’s doing, and he can’t help but laugh.

Photo by: Matt Pogatshnik

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