Telegraphing the Future

Johnny Cash’s cover of “Sea of Heartbreak” fades out with the guitarist in his band (the Heartbreakers) locked on the familiar, insinuating riff from Bob Dylan’s “I Want You.”[1] Cash’s endgame mixes up his story of lost love with fanship. It’s a rootsy, Prousty lesson in counterpoint that hints what Dylan’s song owed to Don Gibson’s 1961 hit, even as it bows to what Cash’s old friend found down by the “Sea.” (Check “Don’t Think Twice” and you’ll hear how much Dylan liked going there.)

“I Want You’s” undaunted chorus and undeniable melody (with its not unsophisticated eight chord progression) tends to work even on folks who aren’t heavy Dylan fans. OTOH, it’s also Christopher Ricks’ favorite Dylan song. The professor of Dylan digs the way the singer’s explanations—“I did it because he lied, because he took you for a ride, because time is on his side…”—break down to a horndog’s imperative: “because…I want you, I want you, I want you so bad.” I was too young to get all of Dylan’s randy side when I first heard “I Want You,” but now his confession brings me back to my own neediest stretch. It all began and ended with a brownskin jeune fille named Désir—who will always be untouchable in my mind (and not just when I see her coming after me ((finally)) one summer day, sun-burnt black in a yellow dress). Some purgatorial seasons after this poor boy had bought my Haitian heart every rose on the Upper West Side, we shared a 100 mile kiss on a bus and a night-and-day trip in her bed where I spent (like a Victorian) thirteen times. What counts for infinitely more, though, was how she made my atheist ass pray when I was desperate to win her. As I think back on this goy in love, I’m flashing on a Hebraic verse in “I Want You” inspired, perhaps, by the name of Dylan’s beloved, Marianne Faithful. Dylan nods to exemplars of his own faith invoked by Jewish mystics—“the saviors who are fast asleep”—and melds the messiah’s return—“open up the gates for you”—with other climaxes.[2] A tease that reminds me how I once dropped to my knees during a now-or-never-more-than-ever night begging Him (whom I’d never believed in up until then) to let me have my desire.

There’s a cover of “I Want You” that brings home how far I (and thou?) are from revelatory neediness of youth. It’s a track by a Taiwanese group, Trio Mei Le de Dao, on From Another World (2014)—a world pop collection of Dylan songs curated by a French producer who got musicians from Silk Road nations (mainly) to record Dylan covers “on native instruments, in their own languages.” This Euro attempt to make Dylan over into an avatar of a global tradition feels less than authentic when compared to, say, Johnny Cash’s deep dive into “Sea of Heartbreak” and its tributaries. While Iranians and Indians do fine by devotional Dylan and “Rainy Day Woman #12×35” is perfect for a Romani brass band, there are nada tracks. A Burmese take on “I Want You,” for example, turns the song into muzak avec farting pipes and pissy cymbals. But the Taiwanese instrumental version of “I Want You” justifies the whole project.

It has pipes too, though, from the top the tune is plucked with beautifully on a Chinese zither (a “Zheng cithara”). The arrangement builds slowly, more like a chamber piece than a pop song, yet it actually rocks in the middle. Percussive sticks hit it and quit before the beat sounds too square and the thing swings until the song’s first resolution. The band’s done, but the zither returns for a spacy, ghostly coda. Quiet notes echoing from this Eastern end seem to soundtrack a post-love wars state—suffused with the ether of desire yet distant from the power of old ardors. (Dylan, who noted recently “passion is a young man’s game”[3], has lines on Tempest that are on point:

“You got too many lovers wailing at the wall
If I had a thousand tongues, I couldn’t count them all
Yesterday I could’ve thrown them all in the sea
Today even one may be too much for me”.)

When I listened to the Taiwanese “I Want You” yesterday, the code in the zither’s coda seemed even clearer. Just before the last stroke and hover on the strings, a run of single notes clicked in my brain like a telegraph wiring truth of a time past romance. Is my future tapped out? Don’t answer that but do listen to Trio Mei Le de Dao.

Addendum: The YouTube version is slightly truncated. It leaves out a final pause and the zither’s last twangst but that wire comes through…


1 Those sixteenth notes were originally played by Nashville session musician Wayne Moss, per Wikipedia/Wilentz.

2 Sam Buntz suggests: “[Dylan] is saying that he wants this girl as bad as some people want the Messiah to come.”

3 “Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young and you don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.”