Mr Tambourine Man: the origins, the music, the meaning, the death knell

By Tony Attwood

He is affection and future, the strength and love which we, erect in rage and boredom, see pass by in the sky of storms and the flags of ecstasy.

He is love, perfect and reinvented measure, miraculous, unforeseen reason, and eternity: machine loved for its qualities of fate. We have all known the terror of his concession and ours: delight in our health, power of our faculties, selfish affection and passion for him,—he who loves us because his life is infinity…  (Rimbaud: Genie)

I have listened to Mr Tambourine Man too many times, and at the same time tried to see what Dylan saw in Rimbaud’s poetry that made him want to divert his creative attention to the lad.  And now, all these years later I think, yes, ok.  OK.  But no more.  Just OK.

The swaying motion on the bank of the river falls,
The chasm at the sternpost,
The swiftness of the hand-rail,
The huge passing of the current
Conduct by unimaginable lights
(Rimbaud: Motion)

Unimaginable lights sounds like a forgotten verse from Tambourine Man and these two selections from Rimbaud are what I would guess Dylan had read in the run up to writing Tambourine Man.

Dylan was, by all reports, doing what many creative people do, at the time, experiencing the new in order to stimulate the creativity.  Enough people have written about Dylan’s world at this time without me trying to summarise it, but it seems Tambourine Man comes out of this experimentation and his fascination with this French teenager who wrote his own brand of poetry, and then aged 20, stopped, dedicating himself instead to being a libertine.

The Tambourine Man himself is the wanderer, based we are told on Bruce Langhorne (who played the lead guitar on the song), who actually did have a large tambourine, and it is based on walking the streets at night.  As Dylan is quoted once as saying, “You get a little spacey when you’ve been up all night.”  Eventually he used the line in “It takes a lot to laugh”, and much more successfully than the images are used in Tambourine Man, in my opinion.

I’m not trying to criticise this notion of staying up all night to get inspiration, for indeed I’ve regularly used novel experiences myself to stimulate my own modest creativity, in particular going alone to jive clubs that I don’t know, where indeed I don’t know anyone, in towns I don’t know, knowing it will force me to ask for dances, pushing myself in other people’s secure world stepping out from safety, being exposed as the outsider.  But these jive clubs are not like Mardi Gras which is where I gather Dylan was.  Maybe one gets a different notion there.

Not (as I always say at these moments) that I am trying to suggest I am an artist of merit, but rather that I have written enough and met and talked with enough other minor artists to know that is what a lot of us creative types do.  We look for novel experiences to stimulate the imagination.

But… but for me it doesn’t have any of the depth of Baby Blue, which ended the second side of Bringing it all back home.  I can still listen to Baby Blue and hear it with a freshness and interest, but not Tambourine Man.  Somehow it remains stuck in the time when it was written, whereas Baby Blue reaches out far beyond that moment into the present day.

So why?

Is it that I don’t like the Pied Piper?  Quite possibly so, because the whole concept is one of losing control.  I don’t want to hand over to the Tambourine Man and let him take me, but I often want to say, “If that’s how you feel, it’s over” (as in Baby Blue).

So I want the novelty of experience, but not by handing myself on to another and saying “take me”.  Not at all.

But whatever I say, let us not forget that “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” were recorded at the same time as Tambourine Man.  It would be ludicrous in the extreme not to recognise such an astonishing output, and what does it matter if so many, many years on I don’t want to listen to the Tambourine Man’s call any more? Not a jot.

As for the music, I can do no better than take what Professor Wilfred Mellers noted: that the song is in the key of D major, but sounds as if it is in the Lydian mode. (The modes were the precursers of our major and minor keys – you can hear the Lydian by going to a piano and starting on G, moving upwards, playing just the white notes).

And forgive me while I pause on Wilfred Mellers.  He was Professor of Music at the University of York in 1970 and was the first senior academic to show a serious interest in what I was trying to do as a young musician/writer/dancer.  It was his belief when no one else wanted to know that kept me going in my search for a place in the arts.

Professor Mellers wrote an astonishing array of books including the classic Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music which gives a lot of insights into some of the music Dylan heard early on, Twilight of the Gods: the Beatles in Retrospect (1973) (the first major academic book on the Beatles music), and A Darker Shade of Pale: a Backdrop to Bob Dylan (1984).

But back to the main point…

I don’t have any dispute with the standard interpretation that Dylan hasn’t slept all night and follows the Tambourine Man who may or may not be real.  The Tambourine Man is inspiration, we follow him because he can take us somewhere good.

I guess my question is, “does it still say something to us now?”  Which is also my issue with Rimbaud – does he say anything now?  The answer to the latter is no, not much, which is why he remains such a minor poet.

Tambourine Man in fact, for me has become a historic marker.  Whereas so many of the songs that I have gone back to and reconsidered still have an enormous driving power and force for me, irrespective of whether I have played the songs regularly over the years or no.  But for me the Tambourine Man’s days have gone, perhaps mostly because the chorus is just not very interesting.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

The image of the first verse is powerful, the empty streets alone, after a night time awake, was powerful indeed in 1965, but really only for its novelty and its appositeness to the time.  Maybe because I was just 18 when I heard it, maybe because as I left home and started out as a student I was free to stay up all night, without anyone giving me a frown.   And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming is indeed a powerful imagination of the streets one walked through on the way back from a party.  But only the first couple of times.

And of course because of my utter love of dancing even then cast your dancing spell my way was and remains a key line for me – but really that is my point.  I got the lines because I lived the lines.  And the really great music of Dylan does so much more than that.

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day,  for example, is unbelievably powerful and moving to me, and I’ve never been there.  That is true poetic power.  Mostly Dylan can do it, but here…

Now looking back there are some lines in Tambourine Man that are indeed fascinating anew.   It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing is perplexing – a literal shadow of a man or woman passing by or a metaphorical shadow?  But as fast as I think of that we are back to the chorus, and quite simply I don’t want to hear the chorus again.

Maybe that is the problem – the chorus isn’t strong enough to be sung so many times.  All the interesting bits – even if they are faded now after so many hearings – are in the verses.

And when I say that I find “smoke rings of my mind” a hackneyed phrase, you are probably going to close never to return.  I’m sorry, but hackneyed is what it seems now, and I fear it felt that way all those years ago.  It is just a set of words, illuminating nothing much.  So very flower-power.

Same with the foggy ruins of time, and the twisted reach of crazy sorrow… what is it saying?  Nothing much – or at least nothing much any more.

And here I think I see why I don’t choose to play this song these days.  Whereas I have never ever finished exploring Visions of Johanna because the images and the inter-relationship between the three characters in the scene are endlessly intriguing, I really don’t want to forget about today until tomorrow.

That’s just sleep, or a drug induced hallucination.  I want life.  I want more of life.  I didn’t want oblivion then, and I certainly don’t want it now that I am in the latter portion of my life.  Just compare that ending of Tambourine Man (Let me forget about today until tomorrow) with the ending of Johanna

The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain

I can contemplate one forever, the other now seems too trivial to consider.


Index to all the songs reviewed


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mr Tambourine Man: the origins, the music, the meaning, the death knell

  1. Love the blog – I’m a 23 year-old newcomer to Dylan, exploring his songs and toying with the meanings much in the same way as you do in these great posts.

    Appreciate your view on Tambourine Man – but for me, it’s so much more than just a hallucination, or a drug-trip relived.

    “Though I know the evening’s empires
    have vanished from my hand
    left me blindly here to stand
    but still not sleepy”

    This to me speaks of a crumbling fantasy: a momentary drug-delusion perhaps, but also the disillusion of the very basic, fundamental fantasies which form the bedrock of our lived experience. It’s those moments when the blinders are stripped from our eyes, and the towers we build, and use to navigate through the world are suddenly no more, leaving us alone, haunted and in despair. Dylan’s tone of voice throughout this – almost carefree, ‘high’ even – gives the song a very eery feel, I think.

    “im ready to go anywhere
    im ready for to fade
    into my own parade
    cast your dancing spell my way
    I promise to go under it”

    Again, these lyrics could refer to dropping acid or smoking pot, but also I feel, touch on those moments when life takes us away, when the rug is pulled from under our feet and the wheel taken from out of our hands. It’s tripping in the most basic sense of the word: those moments when life catches us by a stunning surprise, and we can do nothing but follow our instincts, even as they begin to appear alien to us. This could be falling love, but it could be the dreamy-eyed gaze of the wanderer in a new home, or the artist dancing, without a single inhibition to the tune of a muse. There’s so much in all of these lines to speak about – they say so much to me on every single level, and Dylan’s lyrics I think succeed in the many faces they wear and show at the very same time. ‘Ready for to fade into my own parade’ – there’s a, powerful and I think deeply political anti-egoism to this line which blows me away everytime I hear it. To recognise the sprawling parade of one’s own ego, and to fade from it willingly, into the spell of something stronger and infinitely more promising.

    “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
    down the foggy ruins of time
    far past the frozen leaves
    the haunted frightened trees
    out to the windy beach
    far from the twisted reach
    of crazy sorrow
    yes to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
    silhouetted by the sea
    circled by the circus sands
    with all memory and fate
    driven deep beneath the waves
    let me forget about today until tomorrow”

    These lyrics are for me, the best lyrics I’ve ever listened to – I don’t really know what to say about them, they just say too much for me to even begin! The haunted trees of our memories, the howling sorrows left by the marching sweep of time, and for us all, despite everything, to somehow remain with one hand waving free – does anything encapsulate what is to be alive better than this?! Simply breathtaking!

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Cassious we are of different generations, and yet can both find insight and meaning in these works – that says a huge amount.

  3. geno kristen says:

    utterly breathtaking, your analysis is how all musicans and artists have felt listening to bob dylans work through the ages

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *