In 1971, Bob Dylan was interviewed by his friend Tony Glover, though the conversation was not published until 2020. Dylan was direct in his answers throughout and provided an interesting perspective on the relationship between two of his albums, 1967’s John Wesley Harding and 1969’s Nashville Skyline:
“The songs of John Wesley Harding were all written down as poems, and the tunes were found later….On Nashville Skyline, just the opposite. The tunes existed first — so that would change things, ultimately. … If you were to isolate the words [of Nashville Skyline] for a minute, and just think of the sound of the voice, the sound of the music and the vocal — suppose you couldn’t understand English at all and you just heard the sound of it — the sound of it would be pretty much what the words are. You know, a lot of dreamy kind of stuff, nice, pleasant, soothing type of music, I’d imagine.”
It’s an apt juxtaposition by Dylan, especially when comparing the high poetics of, say, “I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine” with the countrypolitan charm of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You”:
The pairing of steel guitar and piano opens the song, then a countryfied electric guitar takes over as the song reaches the main chord progression. When Dylan sings the first line —“Throw my ticket out the window” — immediately, we can hear the union of music and vocals as Dylan described in the interview with Glover. His vocal delivery has the dreamy/pleasant/soothing sound unique to the year 1969 when Nashville Skyline was recorded and the performance at the Isle of Wight Festival. The vocal sound truly melts into the musical accompaniment. Although Dylan puts aside the lyrics in his description of the Nashville Skyline sound, the opening line itself fits the approach for the album as well. There’s a joyful, carefree spirit to those words which match the dreamy escapism of the song.
It’s a simple song capturing the gleeful feeling of casting off responsibility. It’s not revolutionary, but rather a temporary pause to the duties associated with the outside world. Dylan sings tonight I’ll be staying here with you. The narrator knows he will have to return to the road at some point, but for tonight at least he can be with the woman he loves. Dylan also recaptures the train theme he used for the 1965 song “It Takes a Lot to Laugh It Takes a Train to Cry” which was previously explored on Recliner Notes. Where the train metaphors in the earlier song represent the push-pull of a power dynamic within a relationship, the train references within “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” sees Dylan joining the ongoing tradition of country music songs featuring trains.
The masterful construction of the song creates a build that captures the feeling of celebration. After the first bridge when Dylan sings “I find it so difficult to leave,” there’s a build of musical tension before Dylan releases it all when he starts the new verse with the line “I can hear that whistle blowin’!” It’s sung with such pleasure and abandon. The vocal delivery of that moment matches the notion behind the lyric. As a train whistle releases steam to make the sound, so too does Dylan release the musical tension within the chord progression. He does it again later in the song after the second bridge which doesn’t have any vocals, and he signs the first verse again with “Throw my ticket out the window.” After each of these lines, there’s a measure of no vocals, just the instruments playing. Dylan is allowing for space between the lines so that the “dreamy” sound of the band is able to shine through. The outro of the song sees the band bring the song to a close — or the train into the station — but with the pause at the end, there’s a hope that Dylan will jump back in and sing “Throw my ticket out the window” one more time so the song will keep going and going.
A few years after the recording of Nashville Skyline, Dylan put together the Rolling Thunder Revue. In retrospect, it was clear that he wanted to open up his repertoire and pull from different aspects of his song catalog when compiling a setlist. The 2019 release of Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings included recordings of Dylan and the band trying out different tunes before hitting the road. The collection includes the following rehearsal of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You”:
In this recording, we can actually hear Dylan taking requests from the band. Dylan asks, “You mentioned one — ‘Tambourine Man’ — what was the other one?” The response from the band member is inaudible, but Dylan replies, “Oh, I know which one you mean.” He starts playing a truly soulful piano part before singing, “Throw my ticket in the wind.” It’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” at a much slower tempo than the studio version, but so powerful to hear Dylan singing it in this informal setting. Dylan being Dylan, he has already adjusted the lyrics starting with the opening line. In this rendition of the song, he has removed most of the train imagery, save for one exception. In the last verse, he sings:
I can hear that lonesome whistle blowin’
I can hear the semi-trucks going’ through
If there’s a cowboy on the plain
Then let him have my train.
It’s as if Dylan is handing the train imagery of the original version of the song away to the cowboy on the plain. He needs it more than me, Dylan seems to be saying.
Another line that stands out is when Dylan sings, “Take my head out of the sand.” It could be an allusion to his relative lack of audience engagement in the early 70s, which changed with the 1974 tour with The Band. His excitement for the carnival show that is planned with the Rolling Thunder Revue is evident and is reflected in the line about coming out of a self-imposed exile, “my head out of the sand.”
The excellence of the band that Dylan assembled for the Revue is on display in this recording. Scarlet Rivera adds her darkly romantic violin to the background. She begins tentatively in the first verse, but then grows to full accompaniment as the song progresses. The harmonies by Rob Stoner are gorgeous as they will be throughout the tour. Dylan comments on Stoner’s high, lonesome harmonies when the song ends saying, “‘Cause you got that voice.” Unfortunately, Dylan leaves behind this slower, piano-forward arrangement of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” That’s a loss because it has a stirring and expressive feel.
Dylan and company did play “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” when the Rolling Thunder Revue hit the road after the pre-tour rehearsals. A recording of the song was released as the first track on 2002’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue:
Though it wasn’t the opening number at that particular performance, it would have been the natural welcome with its rousing musical accompaniment and Dylan’s impassioned vocals. In the time since the rehearsals, Dylan built on the improvised lyrics and created a whole new rewrite of the song. The new set of lyrics reflect Dylan’s experience as a touring performer and directly acknowledge the relationship with the audience. The first line is “Throw my ticket in the wind,” and the fans roar at the line as it speaks the realization that they are finally at the concert and don’t need to worry about getting in the doors anymore. Dylan addresses the audience further by singing, “’Cause you got to understand / That tonight I’ll be stayin’ here with you.” The meaning of the song has morphed from a casting off of responsibility for a sexy fun night into a message of solidarity with the audience.
Once again, the next verse shows Dylan speaking directly to the audience. He sings, “I could have left this town by noon / By tonight I’d been to someplace new,” which demonstrates the experience of going town to town as a traveling musician. Why does he put himself through this ordeal? Dylan answers that question by singing, “But I was feeling a little bit scattered / An’ your love was all that mattered.” The song is a clear love letter to the audience. Further, Dylan sings in the bridge:
Is it really any wonder
The changes we put on each other’s head
You came down on me like rolling thunder
I left my dreams on the river bed.
The crowd roars with approval when hearing the words “rolling thunder” as Dylan beautifully incorporates the name of the show into the text of the song. Then as the Revue band hits the peak of the song, Dylan practically screams the line “I can hear that lonesome whistle blowin’.” The audience goes absolutely nuts as both they and the musicians let off the steam of a lonesome train whistle.
This is not the first instance of Dylan retrofitting one of the songs from his catalog as a commentary on the relationship between the performer and the audience. During the 1974 tour, the song “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” from 1966’s Blonde on Blonde sometimes served as the opener of the concert or the closing, and then, in some instances, even opened and closed the show:
The song’s original presentation on Blonde on Blonde looks at a failing relationship with the understanding of a separation that could happen at any moment. But in the concert setting as in the performance above from the live Before the Flood album, it also works as a description of the temporary relationship between a performer and an audience during a concert. Once the concert concludes, the audience goes home and the performers go their way. With Dylan, it’s hard to know if this is a positive observation or a slightly pessimistic viewpoint by choosing that song for that tour. However, it’s clear from the Rolling Thunder Revue rendition of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” that Dylan is embracing the connection he has with the audience, celebrating the shared communion over music with all who have gathered.
Image: Unknown author, 1956, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.