“This dream of you” Dylan’s revelations on the source and the meanings

By Tony Attwood

On 13 April 2009 the English newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, published an interview with Bob Dylan by Bill Flanagan in its Culture section which included two sets of questions with reference to This Dream of You.

In the first section the interviewer says,

This Dream of You has this wonderful South of the Border feel, but at the same time, I detect echoes of Sam Cooke, the Coasters, the Brill Building, and Phil Spector.

“Were those records from the 50’s and 60’s important to you? Did you try to capture some of that flavour in This Dream of You?”

Bob Dylan replies,”Those fifties and sixties records were definitely important. That might have been the last great age of real music. Since then or maybe the seventies it’s all been people playing computers. Sam Cooke, the Coasters, Phil Spector, all that music was great but it didn’t exactly break into my consciousness.

“Back then I was listening to Son House, Leadbelly, the Carter family, Memphis Minnie and death romance ballads. As far as songwriting, I wanted to write songs like Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. Timeless and eternal. Only a few of those radio ballads still hold up and most of them have Doc Pomus’ hand in them. Spanish Harlem, Save the Last Dance for Me, Little Sister … a few others. Those were fantastic songs. Doc was a soulful cat. If you said there was a little bit of him in This Dream of You I would take it as a compliment.”

I think that gives us quite a clue as to how to place this song – by listening to Spanish Harlem and Save the Last Dance and as I will hopefully show in a moment, at least one other Doc Pomus song.

Indeed, to me there is an extra hidden clue here, and one that has not particularly been picked up by other commentators of the song.  (Although I am always worried when this happens, in case no one else has mentioned it for the simple reason that it is soooo wrong, and I am making an idiot of myself.  But we shall see.)

Despite Bob’s comment about the 70s onwards, there was a period in the 1970s and 1980s in which Doc Pomus wrote songs with people such as Dr John.  Also interestingly at the same time Doc Pomus was working with one of Bob Dylan’s favourites, Willy DeVille.

Pomus is quoted as saying the songs of that era were for “…those people stumbling around in the night out there, uncertain or not always so certain of exactly where they fit in and where they were headed.”

Immediately I was reminded of Dylan’s phrase…

“For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse
And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe…”

So we find Doc Pomus writing…

Sometimes I wonder
Just what am I fighting for?
I win some battles
But I always lose the war
I keep right on stumbling
In this no-man’s land out here

Now compare with Dylan.

How long can I stay in this nowhere café
‘fore night turns into day
I wonder why I’m so frightened of dawn
All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you
Which keeps me living on

And later Doc gives us…

I keep on fallin’ in space
Or just hangin’ in mid-air

and again

If it ain’t dead
Maybe in the here after
Instead of tears
I’ll learn all about laughter
But meanwhile I’m stuck out here

Later in the interview the question is posed about where the location of the song is, and Dylan comments

“…if you have those kind of thoughts and feelings you know where the guy is. He’s right where you are. If you don’t have those thoughts and feelings then he doesn’t exist.”  In short, if you appreciate the position of “…those people stumbling around in the night out there, uncertain or not always so certain of exactly where they fit in and where they were headed,” then you get this song.

So it is all about the feelings.  If you have loved a woman who is popular you can feel “Save the last dance”.  If you have felt lonely and lost, stumbling around in the night, not knowing where you fit in, then you have lived this song.  If you have never felt that, no you can’t.

The interviewer, persisting, and seemingly not really getting what Bob is saying, then says “The character in the song reminds me a lot of the guy who is in the song Across The Borderline.” 

Dylan replies, “I know what you’re saying, but it’s not a character like in a book or a movie. He’s not a bus driver. He doesn’t drive a forklift. He’s not a serial killer. It’s me who’s singing that, plain and simple. We shouldn’t confuse singers and performers with actors. Actors will say, ‘My character this, and my character that.’ Like beating a dead horse. Who cares about the character? Just get up and act. You don’t have to explain it to me….

“The more you act the further you get away from the truth. And a lot of those singers lose who they are after a while. You sing, ‘I’m a lineman for the county,’ enough times and you start to scamper up poles.”*

So the singer and the song become entwined, not because the singer is singing about his own experiences at first but because he gets to understand and become part of those experiences through singing the song.

Thus the song is not about Dylan’s experiences, any more than Jimmy Webb was a Wichita Lineman or repeatedly needed to get to Phoenix.   But the brilliant songwriter makes the experiences and emotions of those who are in the song become part of his world through writing and singing the song.  We feel the isolation of the Wichita Lineman we feel the isolation of sitting all night in the nowhere café.   It doesn’t mean we’ve done it.

The expression of the opening…

How long can I stay in this nowhere café
‘fore night turns into day
I wonder why I’m so frightened of dawn
All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you
Which keeps me living on

is thus not an expression of what happened to Dylan – it is a fictional story that becomes real for us, and indeed for him, through his performances.

This is the only song on “Together through Life” that was written wholly by Bob Dylan, and not with Robert Hunter.  The theme thus is regret of what is lost, the power of the memories of the past and the feeling of utter isolation, and it is interesting to compare this with the comments on religious belief from Dylan that I quoted in the last article, which dealt with how Dylan writes song.

It is suggested in some reviews that the “you” in the song could be the Almighty or the Son of God, but there is nothing in Dylan’s commentary to suggest that – and in truth precious little in the song to suggest that.  We can take it one way or another, it is up to the listener, but if we want to get an insight from Dylan, we need to follow that though about Doc Pomus and look at his writing.

So I am more inclined to see this as a “film noir” moment – something will happen, we know it, because we are watching the movie, except that Dylan just captures that waiting moment without giving us the rest of the lines, without introducing the characters, without letting us see the next scene.

But those opening lines

How long can I stay in this nowhere café
‘fore night turns into day
I wonder why I’m so frightened of dawn

are themselves utterly evocative (for me at least) of a movie – I can immediately picture the actual scene.  It is the sort of experience that has never happened, will never happen to me, but I can feel it, appreciate it, be part of it, wonder about it.

This is the feeling of the loner, or the drifter, or the man who has run away – that constant theme in Dylan – the man who knows that the next thing that will happen could well turn out to be very bad.  Somehow he wants to stop time, but of course can’t.  It is as Doc Pomus said…

I keep right on stumblin’
In this no-man’s land out here

It is also very much a continuing Dylan theme – as in Highlands where he says

I’m in Boston town, in some restaurant
I got no idea what I want
Well, maybe I do but I’m just really not sure
Waitress comes over
Nobody in the place but me and her

Indeed one could argue that if there is a dominant theme throughout Dylan’s entire songwriting career – a theme that no matter how often he leaves it, he comes back to it –  it is this loneliness, leaving, isolation, fear, moving on, getting stuck, theme.  This inability to escape no matter how hard he tries…

I look away, but I keep seeing it
I don’t want to believe, but I keep believing it
Shadows dance upon the wall
Shadows that seem to know it all

The inability to escape, no matter how hard he wants to…

Everything I touch seems to disappear
Everywhere I turn you are always here
I’ll run this race until my earthly death
I’ll defend this place with my dying breath

In this the dream is the hope which keeps him going, despite it all.  Everything else is temporary.

All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you
Which keeps me living on

But the shadows torment him, and it is interesting that the music takes its most unexpected turn as we deal with the shadows, moving away from the established chords in the key of D major, and suddenly finding ourselves wandering in the very odd sequence of Bm7 diminished, E7, Am, A7 for the line

Shadows dance upon the wall, shadows that seem to know it all.

Dylan recovers for each verse but each time he is still full that same self doubt that asked

How long can I stay in this nowhere café

and now asks

Am I too blind to see, is my heart playing tricks on me

and again

From a cheerless room in a curtained gloom

This is indeed as Bob confessed, his tribute to Doc Pomus and his own return to his ever recurring theme – although as a final footnote we might note that “curtained gloom” is a phrase in a line from Dylan’s favourite civil war poet Henry Timrod who in Serenade wrote

And let the zephyrs rise and fall
About her in the curtained gloom,
And then return to tell me all
The silken secrets of the room.


*Footnote.  I mentioned this comment of Dylan’s about a lineman to a friend, but it wasn’t immediately understood – probably because in England we don’t have the word “linemen”.  Indeed the definition on Google when you type the word in, is singularly unhelpful, as it refers to people who lay railway track, or people who play in a particular position in American football.   In Wichita Lineman it refers to a person who maintains telegraph and telephone lines.  As wiki tells us, “The occupation evolved [in the USA] during the 1940s and 1950s with expansion of residential electrification”.

But I’m sure you knew that.


All the songs reviewed on this site

Dylan in the 1960s in chronological order

Articles about Bob Dylan and his songwriting.

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