Til I fell in love with you: the meaning of the music and the words

By Tony Attwood

It is a strange connundrum: Dylan puts at least one 12 bar blues song onto every album, which suggests this is the key to his roots, this is the music he loves.  And yet it is the 12 bar blues that are so often ignored by reviewers looking for the very essence of Dylan’s music.

So when we come to Time Out of Mind we think of Love Sick and Not Dark Yet maybe, but not of Til I fell in love with you the classic 12 bar blues.   And it is the same through all the albums.

Time Out of Mind is an album of being weary with the world and life – you don’t even have to listen to the words to get the picture.  Just play the opening of Standing in the Doorway; it oozes disengagement with the world.

I got no place left to turn
I got nothing left to burn
Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow

By the time we descend to Til I fell in love with you this is more than disengagement, this is falling apart; and the cause this time is not the reminiscence of things past but rather the total lack of self, following the start of the love affair.  He loves her so much, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.  Did I mention that it hurts?

Indeed so desperate is the situation that Dylan is waiting if not for divine intervention, at least divine protection.  Divine protection from love, now there’s a thing.

The attitude to women is however not the sort of rural idealisation of the New Morning songs, or the warmth of I want you nor even the relaxed enjoyment of I’ll be your baby tonight.

This is the old blues of perfidious womanhood betraying honest hardworking men.

But there is also the old blues concept of life going on, you just have to suffer it, that is how it is.  Life does this to us, and we can’t do anything about it, except of course in the traditional blues manner have faith in the Lord.

Or maybe in music.  For the piece moves on to the thought that  “If I’m still among the living, then I’ll be Dixie bound.”   Down the Road to the Southern States, the home of the blues, Highway 61, New Orleans.  At least there people will understand.  Or anyway, I’ll have the music.

The jagged chord at the very start, played over and over punches at our nerves from the first second.  During the first verse, it overpowers us as the first sound we hear and then slowly fades into the background – but always there.  Our nerves are on edge.

And as if that were not enough, as an opening

Well, my nerves are exploding and my body’s tense

is about as hard as a blues song, or come to that any song, can get.  You want a punch in the face?  Here it comes.

I’ve been hit too hard, I’ve seen too much

Incidentally, that line and the following line (Nothing can heal me now, but your touch) both turn up on “Marchin’ To The City” which was recorded in the same sessions but dropped from the album.  It is on Tell Tale Signs, and I’ll come back to it in the near future.

So, we kick off with desperation, and then we find the resolution is no resolution.

Nothing can heal me now, but your touch
I don’t know what I’m gonna do

She’s got the power, he’s sucked in, and has no idea how to escape.  Oh this really is the blues.

This song, with its continuing images of the world falling apart (it won’t even rain, damn it, when he needs it to), is part of the descent from desperation to utter total despair and then a complete sense of giving up, that marks out the first seven songs on Time Out of Mind.

Most albums start with something fairly upbeat, but this album starts with something jolly and positive, but this album, remember begins

I’m walking through streets that are dead
Walking, walking with you in my head
My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping

Now by the sixth song even the clouds won’t do what they are supposed to.  And, remember, we’ve still got one more bit of descending to do to finally hear that “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.”

Yes it is the world gone utterly totally wrong.

Well, my house is on fire, burning to the sky
I thought it would rain but the clouds passed by
Now I feel like I’m coming to the end of my way
But I know God is my shield and he won’t lead me astray
Still I don’t know what I’m gonna do
I was all right ’til I fell in love with you

That’s a lovely contradiction of the religious message.  God won’t lead me astray, but even so, I still don’t know what to do.

This being the blues, there is no relief for the middle 8, no change of key, no variation in the chord sequence, it is just verse after verse pounding after verse of desperation.

When I’m gone you will remember my name
I’m gonna win my way to wealth and fame
I don’t know what I’m gonna do

That old terrifying fear that no one will come to the funeral, no one will miss us or even remember us when we are dead, so little is the mark we have left on this world.  You never see it more profoundly expressed than here.  And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…

Junk is piling up, taking up space
My eyes feel like they’re falling off my face
Sweat falling down, I’m staring at the floor

This has turned into a horror movie.  This is Edgar Allen Poe.  And so he has had enough.  He resolves what to do, immediately after saying he doesn’t know what he’s going to do…

Tomorrow night before the sun goes down
If I’m still among the living, I’ll be Dixie bound
I just don’t know what I’m gonna do

Because it will be all right if I can just get to the home of the blues.  The singer has just had enough of this world, and the South seems like a paradise, away from it all where somehow imaginary friends will see me all right.

But you know that any moment now he’s still going to say

Well, my nerves are exploding and my body’s tense
I feel like the whole world got me pinned up against the fence

and it will all go around again.

The great thing about this song on the album is that it leads so perfectly into Not Dark Yet that the opening of the next song (“Shadows are falling…”) seems like a blessed relief.  That is quite a musical achievement.

Musically, as I’ve said, it is a blues.  But there is a twist.  If you listen to each line you’ll hear at the end of the line after Dylan has sung his words the electric piano does a chord change like a little comment on what the singer has sung.

So the first line is in E (the classic key of the blues) but at the end of the line that electric piano gives us a quick A/E.  It is one of those little things in music that you maybe never notice, but it gives an extra feel.  Here that feel is of unfinished business.  Nothing is static – it is a musical answer to the line Dylan has sung but not a solution, not a resolution.  A clever twist.

Finally, on the issue of the production, it is said that Dylan didn’t like the Daniel Lanois production of Time out of mind.  I was surprised the first time I heard this, because for me the atmosphere Lanois gets throughout all these songs is a total reflection of where the songs take us.

It appears that Dylan thought the song could go further in other directions.  Maybe so, but history of full of artists who are not always fully able to grasp quite what they have done in one particular work.  That’s not to suggest I know more than Dylan, of course not, but rather it is to say, it is still worth probing issues and challenging everything.

But then, on the other hand, what do I know?

All the songs reviewed on Untold Dylan

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

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