Sign on the window: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

One of the great problems with writing about Dylan, as opposed to, say, TS Eliot or Brahms, is that while I grew up with all three, Dylan was a choice – something that I opted to make central to my vision of the world from my later teenage years onwards.  The others I had to study as I took my A Levels at school and went on to train as a classical musician.

That makes the Dylan songs part of my consciousness, my world view in a way that Eliot and Brahms are not, and as I return to some of these songs from the earlier days I am instantly taken back to the entanglement of life from when I first heard each song.

Take “Sign on the window”.  It has that line “Brighton girls are like the moon”.  Which for a British guy who has just spent three years at the University of Brighton in Sussex (England), is a trifle confusing.

I still don’t know which Brighton he’s talking about and why.  Is that New Brighton in California, which has a sandy beach (Brighton in Sussex has a famous stone beach), or Michigan, or Colarado, or Monroe County New York or… well, I don’t know.  I’ve been to the States a number of times, New York, Florida, New Hampshire, Virginia… but never bumped into a Brighton, USA.   But hey, its a big place.

Anyway, there I was, I’d finished being a student, and was back in Dorset, teaching, thinking about what went right and what went wrong in my Brighton years, wondering what I was going to do with life now that it involved all this rather annoying “work” stuff, and why wasn’t everyone offering me fortunes to write music or books, or put in a turn or two as a dancer?  And meanwhile here’s Dylan singing about Brighton.   And now centuries (well years) later, I can’t get these thoughts out of my head, for I have to admit it, there were a couple of ladies from those days who I still remember, even now.

Brighton girls are like the moon.  Oh yes indeed.  Whatever happened to them?

And it’s not just me.  Lots of people say that they associate moments in their lives with songs of the moment.  Its commonplace – and it sure as hell gets in the way of writing a decent review.

But such is my task, so here goes…

The first thing is the key.  It is in the key of F sharp.   Look at a keyboard (or if you can’t, look at a picture of a keyboard) and you will see the black notes arranged in groups of three and two.   Some keys use lots of those black notes, some don’t.  The key of C major uses none at all – it just has the white notes.   F sharp major uses all the black notes plus two white notes.  (Every major and minor key uses seven notes – its in the rule book which was written sometime in the 17th century).

Irving Berlin (who wrote God Bless America, Cheek to Cheek, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Blue Skies, Easter Parade, I got sun in the morning and the moon at night – I was brought up on all these, my dad used to play these on the piano), wrote almost totally on the black notes, mostly in F sharp.

He was a self-taught musician, and quite a few self-taught musicians do this.   As Irving Berlin said, in 1962, “The black keys are right there, under your fingers. The key of C is for people who study music.”

Dylan it seems has the same idea.  Certainly his instrumental performance on this recording is one of his best – although as any trained musician will tell you, that repeating of certain chords over and over at the end of some phrases really isn’t right at all.  But still, he’s Dylan, and I’m not, and only one of us wrote all these songs, so what do I know?

Ron Cornelius who played guitar said, “His piano playing’s weird…because his hands start at opposite ends of the keyboard and then sorta collide in the middle—he does that all the time—but the way he plays just knocks me out.”

The only problem with this sort of composition is (as the always informative Dylan Chords web site puts it) “F# major, possibly the worst conceivable guitar key.”  But there are capos which overcome the problem.

So what have we got?  A piece written in the piano as the greatest of all the American songwriters wrote – on the black notes.  And he’s contemplating the past and how the world works, and what’s right for him right now.  It is real Irving Berlin country.

Just compare Berlin’s “Sun the morning” with the last verse of “Sign on the window”

Got no diamond, got no pearl
Still I think I’m a lucky girl
I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night

Got no mansion, got no yacht
Still I’m happy with what I’ve got
I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night

If you have never done this sort of wishing a bit (not desperately but a bit) that you could change your life, take a different stance, undo some mistakes, take a new turn, go back and find the girl (or boy) you walked away from then maybe you can’t understand.

I know a lot of people who say they haven’t done it, and don’t understand me when I talk about it.  Indeed I seem to have spent my entire life doing stuff, and then wishing I’d picked up other opportunities and done other stuff and then…

What I am trying to say is that all that thinking affects the way you see the world.

So I think Dylan is saying, all this has happened, I’ve been through good times and bad times, and I’m doing a bit of re-thinking here, and actually it is a bit odd because I am coming back to the sort of thing that I used to think was old-fashioned, and nothing to do with us any more.

In such a context we tend to remember the end of the song.  But the opening verse is easily forgotten in the overall piece, but just pause, if you will, and take a look and a listen again.  Don’t go on, don’t sing the whole song in your head.  Don’t play the music.  Just read these words.

Sign on the window says “Lonely”
Sign on the door said “No Company Allowed”
Sign on the street says “Y’ Don’t Own Me”
Sign on the porch says “Three’s A Crowd”
Sign on the porch says “Three’s A Crowd”

Where are you now?  Lost?  Alone in a crowded bar?  Sitting there on your own?  Wishing for old times.

(As an aside: a while back I wrote a song called “Old Times” which has the lines,

It was just like old times
But we never had any old times

through which I try to represent this wistfulness we get from thinking of the past.)

Of course we know the context of the rest of the song, but still, I would say that is a stunning and remarkable opening to a piece of music.  A unique opening to a piece of music.  I don’t know another piece that starts like this.

Then the verse that I took with me through life…

Her and her boyfriend went to California
Her and her boyfriend done changed their tune
My best friend said, “Now didn’ I warn ya
Brighton girls are like the moon
Brighton girls are like the moon”

However, at this point Mr Dylan and I part company.  For here everyone, musician and non-musician alike, will recognise that something changes in the music.

All the chords up to this point have been pretty much what we might expect.  They are all the chords that fit within a classical analysis of what is allowable in such a piece, plus one blues chord – the flattened seventh.  It is all coherent – by which I mean it all sounds like it is part of the same piece.

And then…

Suddenly we change key from F sharp into D (which is a bit like moving from speaking Esperanto into Swahili – the two are utterly unrelated and incoherently different), and before you know it we are in B, which is related to the world of F sharp and we are back in our original key.   The lyrics are

Looks like a-nothing but rain . . .
Sure gonna be wet tonight on Main Street . . .
Hope that it don’t sleet

Crash, bang, clunk – imagine a manual gearbox on a car with the clutch gone.

In a sense it works, the world has gone wrong, the woman has left, and as his mate said, “these Brighton girls just change, change and change again.”

Phase in, phase out, and then we are retreating from the world and in the idealised pastoral future.  Forget the horrors of Hollis Brown’s rural world, forget that they are selling postcards of the hanging.

Build me a cabin in Utah
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me “Pa”
That must be what it’s all about
That must be what it’s all about

It isn’t what it is all about of course.  But it is one way of living.

And yet…

Years later I sit writing this in my study, looking across to the tall trees in my garden swaying gently in the breeze.  Beyond, hidden now by the trees but visible in winter, the village church, some 500 years old.  The bells still chime on the hour (but always two minutes early).  I can go for a stroll to the river.  No trout, but its a fast flowing stream with a little bridge and weeping willows.

I have three daughters, who don’t call me “Pa” because that’s not too common in England, but they call me “dad” and my seven grandchildren call me “Granddad”, and hell, after all these years of trying to make something of myself, I have to admit it.  There’s a lot in what he says.

I wanted to change the world, and I really tried.  I mean I really, really tried.  But ultimately the meaning in life comes from sitting in this room, hearing the birds singing in the trees, thinking about my children, and doing what I enjoy doing – writing about Bob Dylan.

So it goes.

Index to all the songs reviewed.

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1 Response to Sign on the window: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Martin Weiss says:

    I am a Messianic Jew ( a Jewish believer in Jesus as Messiah- see Isaiah 53!)- but I wasn’t in the winter of 1970, when I visited Janis Burger in Brighton, a suburb of Boston- this album had just came out, and we listened to it constantly. And for me, “Brighton girls are like the moon” became a reality- she ended our relationship.

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