By Tony Attwood
If you have ventured into the Dylan songs in Chronological Order section of this site, you may have noticed two things.
First, that it only goes from 1962 to 1969, and second that whereas in 1967 Dylan kept up his previous output by writing 20+ songs of note in that year, as far as I can tell he wrote only one song in 1968 and seven in 1969.
Thus after over 20 songs of importance in 1967 ranging from the staggering brilliance of This Wheel’s on Fire, I shall be released, and Too Much of Nothing in close proximity, to the overwhelming All along the watch tower and the eternally puzzling As I Went out one Morning and the curiously difficult to fathom, I pity the poor Immigrant, the writing stopped.
The reason that most people (but not everyone) accept for this drop in output is the motorbike crash, and I’m not really wanting to debate the ins and outs of that, but rather I’m interested in noting how Dylan came back to writing after the pause.
1967 ended with a fairly ordinary fast blues (Down along the cove) and a love song I’ll be your baby tonight which we’ve actually looked at twice (second thoughts are at I’ll be your baby tonight – the two reviews will be combined as one in the forthcoming book “The Songs of Bob Dylan 1962 to 1969” based on the reviews on this site).
Anyway, what we got in the following two years is Lay Lady Lay which as far as I can tell was written in 1968 and then in 1969…
- I threw it all away
- To be alone with you
- One more night
- Country Pie
- Tell me it isn’t true
- Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You
- Living the blues
So, what do we make of “I threw it all away”?
I once held her in my arms
She said she would always stay
But I was cruel
I treated her like a fool
I threw it all away
Dylan is singing about the end of a love affair being all his fault; an interesting issue for me to focus on so soon after writing a review of Ballad in Plain D
But Plain D was written in 1964, and it is a confusing song – for there it was everyone else’s fault for the most part, and only his (partially) at the end. Here, in I threw is all away it is his fault from start to finish. And that motif of cruelty by him towards the woman is interesting and new too. He never admits to that in Plain D.
And whereas the metaphors and images of Plain D are ground out unconvincingly with the “friends from the prison” business, here it is quite different for here the imagery truly does ring true.
Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through every day
Indeed it is not just a sparkling image, it has an immediate flashback to the “the mountains of Madrid” in “Boots of Spanish Leather”. I am not sure if that was how it was meant to be, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that every time Dylan uses a piece of imagery we need to be looking for earlier occurrences to trace the images back and forth. Perhaps I should say instead that I had that flashback to Spanish Leather when I first heard I threw it all away the song, and because of that I still do. If you don’t, fair enough.
But I also found myself thinking about Plain D and wondering if this was the song Dylan wished he had written when in Greece, creating enough material to be recorded in one night for the Another Side album. That is not to say he could have written the piece at that time, but maybe when he did write I threw it all away he was still thinking of the same situation, but in a calmer, mellower way. Maybe the motorcycle accident, or whatever it was that caused the hiatus in his writing, caused this new, more reflective approach.
Musically there is a real link between Lay Lady Lay and I threw it all away. There’s a gentleness in both although lyrically they are different, and there is a great desire to explore both the melodic line and the chord structure.
Indeed for a period it seems, lyrics, melody and chords were all of equal significance. Dylan the poet was not exactly taking a back seat, but rather riding alongside Dylan the musician.
These two songs (Lay Lady Lady and I Threw it all away) were the only two songs that were written ready for Nashville Skyline, and inevitably many if not most commentators have speculated as to who it is about, just as I did, contemplating it as a far gentler self-blaming take on Plain D. But maybe it is not about anyone. Maybe Dylan just found the phrase “I threw it all away” in a book, or in a film, or maybe it simply popped into his head, and recalling the gentle rolling style of Lay Lady Lay he developed the song.
On the album it works with a very simple accompaniment, guitar, percussion, bass and organ. And indeed for this level of self-blame and longing about lost love, you certainly don’t need any more.
It got its first outing on the Johnny Cash Show in June 1969, and there is a video of that on You Tube, as there is of the version played on the Isle of Wight in August. It is interesting to listen to the two versions which are performed at quite different speeds. Both work well, as in a different way did the Rolling Thunder version which turned up on Hard Rain.
What makes the song be so adaptable to different re-workings is that the opening forces us to give full attention on the melody, as the chords are running through the everyday C, Am, F, C routine (a chord sequence almost as common as the 12 bar blues).
But when faced with the line “But I was cruel” Dylan reflects the sudden change in the story line by jerking us totally and unexpectedly into the chord of A major, and from there to D minor. Whether you know anything about music or not, there is every chance you will find what is happening in the music a bit like being pushed over… you are toppling backwards not knowing where you are going.
And even after that you still don’t know because although the guitar comes back to C, the key chord, it then adds in E minor straight after, which we haven’t heard before, before solidifying in the world we came from.
In other words, we think we know where we are, but suddenly the words, the chords and the melody conspire to jerk us out of our complacency. It is a very hard trick to pull without it sounding horribly false, but Dylan does it superbly, which is why the song works.
Indeed we may note in passing Dylan changes direction within a song very rarely. If you care to take a look at all the songs that came before this one in the Chronology pages it is hard to find any songs that have such a change. Like a Rolling Stone has a different verse from the chorus, but the message, style, and approach are the same throughout. Same with Times they are a changing. Same with Million Dollar Bash.
Only Plain D has a go at changing with the admission of guilt, and it is the failure to make that play out alongside the harsh blame that is heaped upon the sister and mother that as much as anything makes the song fail.
So in many regards I threw it all away takes Dylan into new songwriting country – and it is a sublime success.
Now I doubt very much if any such thoughts were in Dylan’s mind as he wrote it, and he undoubtedly played around with many different chords, lyrics and melody lines as the song progressed But the rise in pitch, and the totally unexpected chord change for “But I was cruel” is utterly perfect for the message; a superb piece of songwriting, and all the more remarkable because Dylan had never used the technique before.
But having found the approach he uses it again in the middle 8, where “it can’t be denied” once again jerks us unexpectedly onto A major. But Dylan wants a sweet, smooth finish to the middle 8 to get us back to the verse structure, and so he does the smoothest of blues type endings by using the chords of B flat, F and G over “take a tip from one who’s tried”.
It is clever stuff, and it doesn’t sound artificial at all; it works very well indeed. Which is presumably why Uncut, in 2002, recorded this as the 34th best song by Dylan. As I say, even if you don’t appreciate the musical technique you can appreciate the song.
But I think it is fair to say that “I Threw It All Away” would not have emerged in this style, or maybe not emerged at all, if Dylan hadn’t first written the songs of John Wesley Harding, which allowed him to explore this new more gentle, more simple approach.
It is a perfectly crafted piece in its own format – and indeed is more than that because it goes beyond what country music normally does. While the nearest most country songs get to a change of key is that sudden jerk up a semitone is a desperate attempt to give the fourth tragic verse a slight edge on the third tragic verse, this throws us around the harmonic department and brings us in one piece out the other side. As I say, it is clever and it sure does work.
So in the end Bob tells us love makes the world go round, which we seem to have heard many times before, but here it is acceptable because of the musical presentation. If you take the “love is all there is” section on its own, it really doesn’t say much…
Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round
Love and only love, it can’t be denied
No matter what you think about it
You just won’t be able to do without it
Take a tip from one who’s tried
… but the music makes it meaningful. The message is simple to the edge of being trite, and it has been said a billion times before, but that doesn’t make this song any less worth hearing, or, if you have a mind to do it, singing. “Denied” takes us to the edge of the cliff but instead of jumping off, “Take a trip” takes us back down the gentle slopes and onto firmer ground.
So if you find someone that gives you all of her love
Take it to your heart, don’t let it stray
For one thing that’s certain
You will surely be a-hurtin’
If you throw it all away