By Tony Attwood
Bob Dylan’s third farewell ending, in as many albums. Restless Farewell, It Ain’t Me Babe, and now It’s all over, written early in 1965.
Utterly amazingly it seems that Baby Blue, Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden and It’s Alright Ma, were all recorded on the same day. Not enough that one side of one album should contain four astonishing, magnificent songs of this magnitude, but that they should all be recorded on one day is just beyond belief.
The song is unusual for Dylan, with the lyrics starting on the dominant (V) chord, and descending both in the melody and the sequence. But the sequence, like the melody is conventional throughout save that the sub-mediant is heard as a major. In traditional folk it would be a minor chord. The accompaniment is faultless and exquisite. Acoustic guitar, harmonica and bass.
Dylan himself sites Gene Vincent’s Baby Blue as a source of inspiration…
‘When first I met my baby, she said how do you do, she looked into my eyes and said,my name is Baby Blue.’ It is a statement that has made some commentators feel that Dylan is saying farewell to folk, and moving into rock. But that doesn’t quite work. He’s saying (on side one of the original album) hello to rock.
But Dylan here do say farewell in no uncertain terms, for the song starts “You must leave now”, just as in the previous ending song on an album he said “Go away from my window.” It seems that when Dylan tells you to fuck off, you are told.
But the symbols, similes and metaphors are so rich from the start that this is not just “fuck off”. The images exist alongside those of “Like a Rolling Stone”, but the tone is softer yet the rejection is as strong. Yet we only have to consider the lyrics for a moment and forget the music, and the similarities are overwhelming.
And just in case she ain’t got the message, he’s not messing. He is even pulling the carpet away from her. OK he is not totally vindictive, because he wants her to “Strike another match, go start anew” but then that is what we would expect with such a gentle lilting song.
Remember that in “Rolling Stone” we have that aggressive rising chord line while the melody stays in the same place “Once upon a time you looked so fine…” Here the music and the message is gentler, less vindictive, but still clear. Time to go babe.
What links most of Dylan’s farewells is the need to move on and stop thinking that what will be will be. “No it won’t,” says Dylan. It won’t in my life, it won’t in your life, it just won’t. We all take responsibility for our own lives. The vagabond knocking at the door is to be despised as much as baby blue needs to move on. Take control, don’t blame fate.
Thus although he says, “Take what you have gathered from coincidence,” it is not with any thought that there is meaning in coincidence. It is just, well, coincidence. Deal with it, move on. (You don’t get more harsh than that).
So how come the song has such a gentle conventional accompaniment? That is the puzzle.
But try this. The penultimate line of each verse has Dylan straining to the very top of his vocal range. And in that line that reaches the very limits of his voice he sings, in the four verses:
Look out the saints are comin’ through
This sky, too, is folding under you
The carpet, too, is moving under you
Strike another match, go start anew
The apocalypse, the apocalypse, the earthquake, total darkness – that is what those four lines tell us, as the music challenges the very key that we are in – the very essence of our establishment in a world that makes sense.
And we must remember, as I just noted, that these are the lines which use that highly challenging major chord, which ought (in folk music) to be a minor.
Now let’s look at lines three and four – the two lower lines, easily sung with no stretching of the vocal cords and no challenging musical chords…
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
These double lines in each verse are totally about the end, the end of hope, the end of your current life, the end. And Dylan lowers his voice. He’s telling her where to go, but also there is a recognition that although she has to go, he is not here to hurt her more and more. “Look” he says gently, almost kindly, “it is all falling apart. All these people you have messed about with, everyone you have played with, they are all lost too. You can’t go round doing this sort of thing – at least not here. Leave, get yourself sorted. Find your own life. Time to go babe.”
And in the end that is what this stunning, beautiful, amazing song that we first heard almost fifty years ago, is all about. It is about the anger of “get out now” and the softness of “come on love, time to go.” And because it contains in both music and lyrics both elements of farewell it is a total masterpiece. 48 years on (to be exact) it moves me no less than it did 48 years ago, not least because 48 years ago I could only imagine what it was like to go through that scenario. Now, 48 years later, far too often, I know – as I guess many of us do.
And that’s the point: Dylan talks about what many of us sadly experience in this delicate, torturing song. Sometimes it is almost too unbearable to hear. Almost, but not quite.