Soon after midnight: Bob Dylan’s other world

By Tony Attwood (updated slightly on 10 April 2015)

“Come on out the dark is beginning” (Can you please crawl out your window?)

Oh how many many years is it since Dylan observed, “ain’t it just like the night to play tricks…” and here we are all these years later being taken once again into Dylan’s dark night time world.

Dylan’s strange worlds – be they painted at night or day – are worlds where the normal laws of logic and reality don’t apply any more.  They are alternative places where weird people exist doing strange things in odd ways.  The lands where the “Sweet pretty things are in bed now.” Trying to understand them, trying to judge them, is pointless, because these are different lands, the land of night where the normal rules of logic, justice and the constitution break down.

For medieval man the dead were as much part of this world as the living – they simply came out at night while the living had the world in the day.  The fairies, the demons, the witches and the rest, the creatures of the night, the inhabitants of the woods were as real as the animals, plants and people who inhabited the day time world.

That’s what ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is all about, the other world where the rules of our world don’t hold sway any more.

Dylan has, through a myriad of songs, shared with us his image of exactly this sort of other world, inhabited by all these strange people.  For such people, and “There are many here among us” different rules and different realities apply.  Indeed quite a few of them “feel that life is but a joke.”

And here once again we have entered into this other world.

This time however it is misleading because the music doesn’t give us the clue we are looking for.  Dylan is playing a game.

But to be sure, it is soon after midnight, when all the creatures of the night come out.  This is not about the start of a new dawn, a new day, but a celebration of the night.  The fun of the night, the wildness of the night creatures, and the fear that they bring.

Seen in this way it is quite understandable that this song takes us into the dark side of things with a do-wop 1950s beat and the absolute goo of

I’m searching for phrases,
To sing your praises,

because Dylan is singing in praise of the night time and all that it brings forth, good and bad.  They are out there – and Dylan’s always told us this.  “Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl, Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.”  Remember?  Now…

They’re lying there dying in their blood,
Two-timing Slim
Who’s ever heard of him,
I’ll drag his corpse through the mud

This is Dylan showing us that nothing is what is seems, and the world we think we see simply ain’t the world that there is.  Open your eyes and you can see something very different.

In a sense this highlights the problem of the protected middle classes in their sheltered worlds, and the academics in their ivory towers who don’t see the other world that is out there, the parallel world running alongside our world.  They don’t see the world in which there are people selling postcards of the hanging.

This other world can be found in so many places.  From the attempted quietness of Johanna’s room, to the craziness  of the Buick 6 where  “I need a steam shovel mama to keep away the dead I need a dump truck mama to unload my head”.

The underworld, the other world, in this song as in so many Dylan songs, is real, and is out there, and if we half close our eyes or perhaps enter our dreams, or go to the bits of the city we wouldn’t normally go to, or venture out to the edge of town to see the forgotten mining families and poverty stricken farmers we can find it.  It is soon after midnight, when all the creatures of the night come out.

Thus this is not about the start of a new dawn, a new day, but a celebration of the night.  The fun of the night, the wildness of the night creatures, and the fear that they bring.

The moon is out – for in this sort of world we need the moon to be out so we can see a bit of what is going on, and then have the moon dramatically slip behind the clouds and all the mysteries start to happen.

One interesting parallel that goes on here is between the lines of Mississippi such as My heart is not weary, it is light and it is free, and here My heart is cheerful, it’s never fearful.   

There are a number of such parallels but I don’t think they should be taken as direct linkages between the two songs.  These are songs of a very very different hue – Mississippi about the way society has evolved, and what the state does in the name of liberty, and this song about the underworld, the world that justice and reason passes by.

So I feel that because this is about the mythical world of night creatures we should not be trying to take everything seriously and literally.  The phrase  “Down on the killing floor” for example could mean anything from a woman having control over a man (an old blues meaning of the phrase), to hell, to a shooter video game.

But the point is it doesn’t matter too much what it means.  This is a portrait of the world of the night; he’s singing the praise of the night time, and all associated with it.

A gal named Honey,
Took my money,
She was passing by,
It’s soon after midnight,
And the moon is in my eye

And of course in the world of the dark, the world of the fairies, nothing is as it seems  The beautiful woman is not as she seems; of course she isn’t, the world is lit by the moon not the sun.  This is the land of the creatures of the night.

But the singer can move there readily without fear because he’s seen far worse than this, he’s been “all boxed in nowhere to escape”.

I’m not afraid of your fury,
I’ve faced stronger walls than yours

So Charlotte and Mary are there in this midnight world, that is where he is, exploring, listening to the chirp and the chatter.   Maybe its Gotham

They chirp and they chatter,
What does it matter,
They’re lying there dying in their blood,
Two-timing Slim
Who’s ever heard of him,
I’ll drag his corpse through the mud

But in this strange frightening environment, he’s perfectly ok, and he’s come and found what he was looking for.

And I don’t want nobody but you

Musically the do-wop beat never varies and the contrast between the creatures of the night and the simple boppy music lulls us along.  The chord sequence is everything we might expect from what we hear in the opening chords, and indeed the first verse.   The three major chords and the subdominant minor – nothing surprises us here.

We hear the verse twice, this is the A section.  Then the B section, ending on the dominant chord, before we are back to the A section.  This is classic ternary form with classic chord sequences.  Everything is constructed to give us a feeling of normality – because the world Dylan describes here is perfectly normal for the creatures who inhabit it.

The world of day, the world of night.  Quite different but if we try we can move between one and the next, and in so doing, we can learn a lot as we travel.

Just one thing before you go however.  Play the song one more time and just listen to the very very end.   There’s the chord you expect and this extra twist just at the last second.  Just to remind us that for all the niceness of the music, we really are in this other world.

Index to all the songs reviewed on this site.

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3 Responses to Soon after midnight: Bob Dylan’s other world

  1. Matt says:

    Soon After Midnight is a religious song about his love for Jesus Christ.

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Matt – ok that is a fair view, and I have seen it written elsewhere, but it would be helpful if you could expand the argument in order to show why it should be seen as this, as opposed to anything else.

  3. Steve says:

    Honey, Charlotte, and Mary are Hookers. Dylan is at a whore house soon after midnight. They brought in the hookers and he chooses one. He loves or at least enjoying one of the hookers. Two timing slim is a their shady pimp or some shitty ex-boyfriend that Dylan has, or is thinking about taking care of for the girls. Song ends, Dylan is finally going to get what he paid for, or maybe the murder is going to take place, but he is happy with his decision.

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