Things have changed: the meanings behind Bob Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

Dylan’s commentary on being dislocated from the world, while being within it – here but not here – spreads across a multiplicity of his songs. It wasn’t there at the start – Times they are a-changing dripped with a certainty that runs across so many early songs.

The problem with Times though was that that most famous of Dylan songs was itself out of time with the rest of the album which so very clearly said that times were absolutely not changing, and that the horrors of (for example) rural poverty and exploitation, or racism and injustice where stuck within Amercian society and politics.

So how did things change?  Well, only because the singer used to care, but now can’t even be bothered to do that.

Indeed this is what Dylan said so clearly when he got his Oscar – he called it a song that “doesn’t pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature”.

Of course musically, from the development of his surreal imagery which arrived with his use of rock instrumentation in Dylan’s work, we have found change. But in terms of human nature, from the moment that Hollis Brown pulled the trigger and the night which started playing tricks when you are trying to be so quiet, everything was always falling apart.  There were happy, jolly interludes of Country Pie and the like, but the feeling I get now having had Bob Dylan in my life, throughout almost all of my life, is that when he has written his best works, Dylan has been telling us how it is.  Sometimes caring, sometimes not.

In these songs just how often do we hear him sing “What’s going on?” – either using that phrase or something akin to it. And if ever that line feels like it should be within a song, it is within “Things have changed”.

A worried man with a worried mind
No one in front of me and nothing behind

is enough to make it clear where we are going – or rather to be clear that we have no idea where we are going. And just in case you missed it we find immediately that the singer is talking about a woman “drinking champagne, Got white skin, got assassin’s eyes”.

Assassin’s eyes? What are assassin’s eyes? Of course we don’t know, because she comes from another world – the dislocation is complete, but we are quite sure that one look and that will be it.

Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose
Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose

Of course it will – this is not the real world. In this world people come and go, talking but saying nothing. The past has not yet happened yet. The future was yesterday. I am you, you are him, he is not.  TS Eliot kicks his verse into Dylan’s subconscious one more time:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

 And of course he should be in Hollywood, be taking dancing lessons, be dressed in drag. He should, because here there is nothing to prove.  But the trouble is, everywhere there is nothing to prove – the yellow fog surrounds everything.

The voice is tired, the accompaniment controlled and well rehearsed, the pulse moderate, no attempt at any sort of virtuoso performance, no unexpected chord changes, because it is not the individual musicians that make the point – the point is the situation, the world gone wrong. In such a world you can hold onto the constancy of the music because there is no other constancy.

Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet
Putting her in a wheel barrow and wheeling her down the street

Of course: where else would you put a woman with assassin eyes as the yellow fog curls all around you, and the cultured classes speak while saying nothing?

And then, just in case we think we have got the hang of this, if we really think maybe something makes sense…

Mr. Jinx and Miss Lucy, they jumped in the lake
I’m not that eager to make a mistake

‘Mr. Jinx’ was a cool cat in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Pixie and Dixie. Today Mr Jinx is available as a tooth mug, a ringtone download, a ceramic jug, It is perhaps just a passing moment from the cartoon, or it is the reflection on the fact that both in the original and the current examples Mr Jinx was not real. Except the distinction between real and unreal doesn’t exist. I don’t want to be so unreal that I fall into the lake. Maybe the wheelbarrow was a better idea.

And the music continues, using its three chord routine with simple accompaniment. The singer doesn’t get excited. There is a continuum. It is just that the continuum doesn’t make a blind bit of sense.

And the music continues, using its three chord routine with simple accompaniment. The singer doesn’t get excited. There is a continuum. It is just that the continuum doesn’t make a blind bit of sense.

And the music continues, using….

Postscript added in 2016: if you want to hear a different version of the song try this one


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2 Responses to Things have changed: the meanings behind Bob Dylan’s song

  1. Warren says:

    THINGS HAVE CHANGED My interpretation is different. I believe Dylan has given up exposing war and high-level corruption in his lyrics. Why? Firsly because he understands and fears the powers that be are operating covertly now to remove anyone who poses a direct threat to their dogma. He would be a high-profile target these days if he spoke out as he used to. “I’m locked up tight, I’m outta range.” – saying and doing nothing controversial, and thus protecting himself from danger. Secondly, he sounds too tired and old to be passionate about those things he did in the past.

    He’s playing it safe now,and he’s too jaded to care enough about those issues that may put him in danger. “I used to care, but things have changed” Try listening to it with this in mind.

  2. Was talking to a 25 y.o. programmer about his business. He’s in extracting data f/ the net and assembling predictive models f/ it. That means figuring out how to sell you something by what you post. He used the word ‘amoral’ several times as in, “Data models are amoral.”
    Bring up a youtube of Woodstock. Would any of those kids have used that word? No, things have changed. They are gone man.

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