Positively Van Gogh

Music collecting takes on many forms. For some, the collecting attraction is about the physical object itself; to be the only one or one of a select few to obtain a copy of a certain record. Collectors can focus on a certain type of recorded format, such as the search for old-time 78s as documented by Amanda Petrusich in her wonderful book Do Not Sell At Any Price. The format varies as other collectors are interested in 45s, LPs, ten-inches, vinyl records in different colors, cassettes, and even CDs.

Other music collectors — such as this post’s author — do not concern themselves with the format, but rather want to compile as much as possible from a certain artist; the more rare the recording the better as those usually have the most alluring stories. One example is from the Biograph box set released in 1985. Bob Dylan did a series of interviews with Cameron Crowe reflecting on his life and work to that point. Crowe shares this story, as an aside in the larger narrative of Dylan’s career:

“It’s an interesting footnote to music history that along an early English tour, Dylan would visit the home of John Lennon and the two would pen a song together. ‘I don’t remember what it was, though,’ said Dylan. ‘We played some stuff into a tape recorder but I don’t know what happened to it. I can remember playing it and the recorder was on. I don’t remember anything about the song.’”

Let’s repeat this for the audience in the back row: BOB DYLAN AND JOHN LENNON CO-WROTE A SONG IN THE MID-SIXTIES AND RECORDED IT. To date, this recording or even remembrance of the song exists only in this Dylan interview. No recording or even scrap of paper has ever emerged. Because of the historical considerations of these two artists creating together in this specific time period, it’s hard to point to other examples more captivating for a music collector.

A recording with less history attached, but with significance nonetheless was first described in No Direction Home, The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, a 1986 book written by Robert Shelton. Shelton was a music critic for the New York Times in the 1960s and wrote a review of a Dylan performance in 1961 that announced Dylan to the world. It was one of the prime motivating factors in Dylan receiving a recording contract with Columbia Records. Shelton would go on to befriend Dylan, interviewing him several times during Dylan’s turbulent 1966 tour. Those interviews and interactions would eventually be published 20 years later in No Direction Home.

During Shelton’s time on the road with Dylan, he recorded an impromptu performance by Dylan with Robbie Robertson on guitar in a Denver hotel room on March 12, 1966. Only two days after the final recording sessions for Blonde on Blonde and just as he is kicking off the crazed 1966 tour, Dylan shows off to Shelton two songs recently recorded for the new album, “Just Like a Woman” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Even more appealing was the reveal in the book that Dylan played songs for Shelton that were never performed before or since, either in the studio or on stage. Shelton’s recordings from that Denver hotel room were eventually copied and shared and copied and shared and copied and shared before finally making their way into the hands of bootleggers, who distributed them to the extreme edges of the music collecting markets.

On the various bootlegs there is one song that received an assortment of titles: “Definitively Van Gough,” “Spuriously Seventeen Windows,” or “Positively Van Gough.” The final name is what stuck when Dylan’s camp released it as part of the dump of music on The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 to protect copyright in Europe for Dylan’s recordings in that time period. Not on Spotify or Dylan’s official YouTube channel, it can still found on unauthorized YouTube postings. Here’s part one of the recordings:

Dylan starts playing the song before stopping and restarting in a new key. Dylan’s guitar playing is consistent with his style during the acoustic sets of the 1966, a jangly strum which matches the evocative images of his songwriting in this time. The melody is a cross between “Visions of Johanna,”Fourth Time Around,” and a demented lullaby. The first verse establishes the setting:

When I’d ask why the painting was deadly
Nobody could pick up my sign
‘Cept for the cook, she was always friendly
But she’d only ask, “What’s on your mind?”
She’d say that especially when it was raining
I’d say “Oh, I don’t know”
But then she’d press and I’d say, “You see that painting?
Do you think it’s been done by Van Gogh?”

It’s a household that can afford to have its own staff, such as a cook, who takes pity on the narrator, who must be an outsider. This establishment also boasts a collection of artwork. In this song, Dylan is mixing class and wealth as seen through his own surrealist lens. The opening lines in particular are heavy with significance. The narrator can’t shake a painting that he sees in the house, a “deadly” painting. What makes a painting deadly? Is it what’s being depicted, the color choices, or perhaps the painter’s specific technique? The narrator himself asks this question about a deadly painting, but “Nobody could pick up my sign.” The song continues with the second verse:

The cook she said call her Maria
She’d always point for the same boy to come forth
Saying, “He trades cattle, it’s his own idea
And he also makes trips to the North
Have you ever seen his naked calf bleed?”
I’d say, “Oh no, why does it show?”
And she’d whisper in my ear that he’s a half-breed
And I’d say, “Fine, but can he paint like Van Gogh?”

We learn more about the cook named Maria and her son and who “makes trips to the North.” It’s a beautiful piece of writing, suggesting a hint of something exotic, similar to Dylan’s allusions to “the farm” in two other songs from this same time period as explored previously on Recliner Notes. Maria asks the narrator, “Have you ever seen his naked calf bleed?” The narrator responds: “Oh no, why does it show?” It appears that everyone in this verse — Maria, her son, the narrator — are in the business of interpretation and reading signs, but no one is able to come out ahead. Maria ignores the narrator’s question and the narrator pushes on further: “Fine, but can he paint like Van Gogh?” It’s a great line, completing the rhyme in a humorous way. In the recording, Dylan himself joins in on the laughter responding to the line, showing that he is not immune to his own work. This is a reminder that the big surrealistic songs of the mid-60s such as “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna” were sometimes greeted with laughter by audiences. No wonder as Dylan’s wordplay in this time period combines the tragic, the hallucinatory, and the comic all in one song. Bigger audiences would have responded to “Positively Van Gogh” in the same way as the group of three men’s laughter in this Denver hotel room.

When the laughter dies down, Dylan breaks off playing to provide instruction about the song, presumably to Robertson, as he says “The tune is gonna come, man.” We have already heard a slight change to the chord structure in the second verse as Dylan inserts a minor chord which wasn’t in the first verse. It’s a hint that “Positively Van Gogh” is far from a completed work. It continues with the third verse:

I can’t remember his name he never gave it
But I always figured he could go home
Til when he’d gave me his card and said, “Save it”
I could see by his eyes he was alone
But it was sad how his four leaf clover
Drawn on his calling card showed
That it was given back to him a-many times over
And it most definitely was not done by Van Gogh.

The well-heeled milieu that the narrator has found himself in is displayed once again as the central image of this verse is a card of introduction provided to the narrator. The offhand way in which this purposefully unnamed character says of the card — “Save it” — is supposed to convey this man’s abundance of resources. But the narrator picks up that this man’s show of wealth is a false front, not unlike the old movie sets of a house’s exterior with no actual house behind. The card has been returned to the owner over and over again. The four leaf clover image on the card was “most definitely” not a painting by Vincent Gogh. Dylan is sticking his pin into the balloon of high society, demonstrating the type of desperate characters who make up this world, receiving no respect from others within the circle but still allowed into the clique.

The next verse displays again that Dylan hasn’t quite finished the song as the words don’t fit the meter of the melody. He elongates a few chords to ensure that a line is completed. No matter as the verse gives us a line by presumably the narrator’s host at this gathering. She says of the unnamed man from the previous verse, “He’s a straight, but he’s a very crooked straight man.” It’s an intriguing bit of writing by Dylan as he plays off of the double meanings of the adjectives. Also, the hostess begs the narrator to “go easy” as if she knows the narrator’s capacity to make a big show of this “crooked straight man.” This exchange indicates that there is a larger relationship between the hostess and the narrator, one that is only being hinted at in these lines. Despite Dylan’s extremity in his songwriting at times — even this verse has a rhyme of “Marilyn Monroe” and “Van Gogh” — he also demonstrates his restraint in “Positively Van Gogh,” alluding to unspecified relationship dynamics and histories between the narrator and the hostess, pulling in the listener even more. 

The recording continues with Dylan singing the next verse, but the tempo is altered:

That arrangement doesn’t work, so Dylan tries a different key, singing in a lower register. Dylan isn’t happy with that approach either so begins showing Robbie the lead guitar part. He fumbles through it, messing up a few times before finally breaking off and saying, “Very funky.” He realizes his mistake, “No, not very funky, very sweet.” Glad we cleared that up! Dylan continues singing the next verse:

It was either her or the straight man who introduced me
To Jeanette, Camilla’s friend
Who later on falsely accused me of stealing her locket and pen
When I said “I don’t have the locket”
She said “You steal pictures of everybody’s mother I know”
And I said “There’s no locket
No picture of any mother I would pocket
Unless it’s been done by Van Gogh.”

Jeanette is the focus of this verse and we are told that she is “Camilla’s friend,” not that we know who Camilla is at this point. Jeanette alleges a theft of a locket and pen on the part of the narrator and doubles down on the accusation by saying, “You steal pictures of everybody’s mother I know.” This is truly a bizarre indictment, but seems to be a way for Dylan to create a locket-pocket rhyme. Dylan and Robertson play guitars for a stretch before the recording breaks off. The final piece follows:

Dylan says, “This is a great part here. All about Camilla.” Finally, the mysterious Camilla! Dylan sings the following:

Camilla’s house stood on the outskirts
How strange to see the chandeliers destroyed
While [???] beneath the velvet carpet
Of fox hunts and love far before.

That’s all we get about Camilla before we lapse back to listening to Dylan going back and forth with Robertson about the guitar part.

So what to make of this song in total? It’s fascinating to peek into Dylan’s process at this point in time. Dylan seems to be singing from words that have been composed previously as it doesn’t appear to be him making up words in the moment. An indicator is that he is struggling to fit the meter of the words to the melody he has chosen, which would not be happening if he was purely choosing words off the top of his head. The composition has a narrative as each verse builds off of the previous verse. It feels as if Dylan wrote more than what he sang in the recording because he never finishes the last verse, even though assuring those listening that it’s a “great part.” He’s happy with the words he has composed but is still tweaking the melody and the chord progression each time he begins the song again during the recording.

How would the song be altered in the studio? Would it have been a full band performance? Would he have kept it as a two-guitar song similar to “Desolation Row”? How much more was written? Were there 15 more verses about each of the people in the house? We will never know as there is no record of Dylan taking up the song again. Perhaps the paper with the lyrics was lost in the madness of the 1966 tour. Or, maybe Dylan didn’t want to return to it because it reflected a dark time for him. What we do have of “Positively Van Gogh” provides us with insight of the post-Blonde on Blonde period of which only it, “Tell Me, Momma,” and a few other stray recordings are preserved. “Positively Van Gogh” indicates that the extended song form with heightened, spectral imagery and wordplay would have continued if not for the motorcycle crash, the fall, and the break when he would take his songwriting in a new direction.

Curiously, ten years later, Dylan returned to the idea of Vincent Van Gogh as the central image in a song:

This performance of “Vincent Van Gogh” is from May 3, 1976, on the spring leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue. It’s a duet between Dylan and old running mate Bob Neuwirth about the troubled life of Vincent Van Gogh. Dylan’s website attributes the song to one Robert Friemark, but according to Dylan sleuth Les Kokay, the author’s name is incorrectly spelled. It should be Robert Freimark, who was Neuwirth’s old art teacher. Regardless, it’s an inconsequential song, seemingly only written for the payoff pun of “Now where did Vincent Van go?” Dylan performed the song with Neuwirth 17 times during the tour, never performing the song live again, or officially releasing it. 

Both “Positively Van Gogh” and “Vincent Van Gogh” — despite its shortcomings — are welcome recordings to the music collector. They represent the ability to connect symbols in both songwriting and performing impulses from two very different moments in Dylan’s career. Though the treasure is “Positively Van Gogh.” Not only is it yet another example of masterful Dylan songwriting, it is also valuable and enticing for historical considerations as it provides a glimpse of possibility for Dylan’s direction at a particularly critical moment in his biography.  But as musical collectors, we can’t stop here. The perpetual promise of more is the driver. Who knows what else is out there waiting to be discovered in an archive or unboxed in the Dylan equivalent of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Could it be a complete performance of “Positively Van Gogh”? Or, perhaps the lost Dylan-Lennon collaboration? For the collector, the possibilities are infinite. 

Image: Vincent van Gogh, Rain, 1889, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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