By Tony Attwood
Dear Landlord was the last of the John Wesley Harding songs to be written, save the two final songs on the album, which sound so very different from all that has gone before; “I’ll be your baby tonight” and “Down along the cove”.
Dylan had taken us all the way through the songs that called out people who one way or another seemed to be needing to be called out. (Or if you take another view, all the songs involving God, His saints, and the conversations between them and the mortals).
And now this final song of the mainstream selection on the album seems to have a passing flashback to Woodie Guthrie who wrote
What make the landlord take money?
Why, oh why, oh why?
I don’t know that one myself.
Goodbye goodbye goodbye.
This song “Why oh Why”, is in essence a children’s song but it ends with
Why couldn’t the wind blow backwards?
Why, oh why, oh why?
‘Cause it might backfire and hurt somebody and if it
hurt somebody it’d keep on hurting them
Goodbye goodbye goodbye.
You can see the full lyrics here.
I doubt that Dylan consciously took the Guthrie song as his base, but we do know that Dylan has an intimate knowledge of all of Guthrie’s work, so the phrase may have taken root.
We also know that Dylan’s songs on the JWH album were written very quickly, all of them, except the last two, by Dylan’s own account, having the lyrics written first, and then the music added. Then after Dear Landlord there is an absolute switch to I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, and Down along the cove, two songs that have no connection musically with all that has gone before and which, according to Dylan, these were the only two songs in which the music and the lyrics came to him at the same time.
Here’s the chronology of Dylan’s writing for the period surrounding Dear Landlord
- I am a lonesome hobo
- I pity the poor Immigrant
- The Wicked Messenger
- Dear Landlord
- I’ll be your baby tonight
- Down along the cove
It is, all things considered, a very curious, sudden and dramatic drawing of a line. A movement from “Please don’t put a price on my soul” to “Close your eyes, close the door” in a matter of days, or perhaps just a week or two at most.
Why did this change happen? Why suddenly stop talking to, or about, or with the Almighty and the disenfranchised of the earth, why stop pondering the deepest questions that mankind can ponder, and instead start talking to a passing lady, telling her that tonight they will be together?
It is the sort of question that never arises if you consider each of Dylan’s songs individually in isolation, but is exactly the sort of question which does pop up when the songs are considered in the order they were written.
The most commonly told story about Dear Landlord is that it was an attack on Al Grossman, Dylan’s manager from 20 August 1962 until 17 July 1970. However Dylan is quoted in Heylin as saying that Grossman wasn’t on his mind when he wrote the song – although looking back later he agreed that there was a fit. So maybe sub-consciously it was an attack on Grossman, but nothing more.
Bob Dylan also said, in an interview with Cameron Crowe of Rolling Stone, it “was really just the first line… then I just figured what else can I put to it.” So he starts with
Dear landlord please don’t put a price on my soul..
and then see where it goes.
Dylan’s admission is very much in keeping with how many of the songs appear to me: lines that emerge and around which a partial story or commentary is woven, but without all the linking together of the themes that would make a coherent structure. They are, in fact semi-abstract paintings.
The point here is that this approach is the exact opposite of the one considered by many commentators who take each phrase as having a particular deliberate meaning which, if we work hard enough, we can resolve.
Yet to write in that way the composer would need a lot of time and consideration, carefully plotting that the Landlord is God, and from there on who everyone else is. Carefully crafting each line. As a painter it would mean carefully crafting each image or swirl because the thickness and colour of each line means something. Or putting images on the paper in a specific colour because each image has a particular meaning.
So we’ve now got three theories. Dylan himself saying that he just came up with a line and then worked some words out from there. A possible subconscious link with a Woodie Guthrie children’s song, and a complex view that has hidden meanings throughout which by careful analysis can be disentangled.
There are indeed recognisable characters within these songs, but for me they always exist within the mists, so their meanings, position, intention, their past and future, are never completely clear. It is as if we turn the TV on part way through a drama, and watch a few minutes of it, and then turn it off, without ever knowing the whole construction of the plot, or indeed the background and motivations of the characters.
Songs are no worse for this; this is not to denigrate Dylan’s writing, for writing in this way takes a particular level of genius. If everyone could do it, everyone would.
And besides there is no rule that says we have to be able to make sense of them. There is no law that says we should not be left to work out one of the multiplicity of possible meanings for ourselves. No law that says the composer has to be saying something coherent any more than a Picasso painting has to be about something. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
That Dylan himself didn’t think too much of the song (influenced perhaps that he knew perfectly well he was working to a formula – most of the songs as I will show below are constructed in a very similar manner – quickly writing enough songs to fill the album) is enhanced by the fact that he then left this song for 25 years before performing it in public, which suggests that he too wasn’t quite sure what it was all about.
As for the “formula” on the album, John Wesley Harding, As I Went Out One Morning, I dreamed I saw St Augustine, All along the watchtower, Drifters Escape, Lonesome Hobo, Poor Immigrant, Wicked Messenger, Down along the cove.., all have the same construction as Dear Landlord. That makes ten out of the 12 songs have exactly the same formulation: three verses with no chorus, no “middle 8”.
Now one might think that is a coincidence but Dylan wrote the lyrics to those songs straight one after the other as the Chronology Files show. This makes the notion that Dylan expressed, that he was simply writing the songs because he had to create an album; he just wrote the lyrics in the same format and then set about adding music to each one (except for Down along the cove, for which Dylan has said he wrote the music and the lyrics together.)
But to be clear, that doesn’t make it any less worthy as a set of compositions. The fact that the songs have entertained and stimulated so many people over such a long period of time shows that even when writing to a formula in order to be able to write quickly, Dylan was able to write excellent material.
But it does give us an insight into what happened next, because after writing Down along the cove Dylan more or less stopped composing. After six years of non-stop composition during which he created perhaps 300 songs of which over 100 are utterly brilliant and most certainly still celebrated today, Dylan stopped. In 1968 he wrote Lay Lady Lay, and that was it. and in 1969 he wrote seven songs that are still remembered, but none of which are generally considered to be among his better works.
In short the evidence is that the songs for the JWH album were the final push, using up most of the final levels of creative drive that Dylan had, and for which Dylan was forced to use a fairly standardised system of writing (although because of his huge ability, we don’t really appreciate this in listening to the album). All the songs sound different because the music is so different, but the variation that we saw in earlier times between, for example the first six songs of 1965
- Farewell Angelina
- Subterranean Homesick Blues
- Outlaw Blues
- Love Minus Zero
- She Belongs to Me
- It’s all over now baby blue
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream
was not there.
Looked at this way one can see how similar the style of writing is, if one steps aside from the notion that each line actually means something, and sees it as Dylan saw this song (when he said he just found the first line and worked on from there). Under this interpretation the songs on JWH are by and large made up of interesting images that don’t quite collide and leave us guessing what the meaning might be.
As listeners we strive for understanding, for the world to make sense, but it just doesn’t quite happen, so we come back and listen again and again and find a multiplicity of meanings. It holds us entranced as to the possibilities – and that is Dylan’s genius.
Thus there is nothing wrong with this at all; being able to create songs like this that don’t have exact meanings is indeed an art form in itself, and something that is far harder to do than one might imagine.
So this is not an explanation of these songs that is meant to denigrate Dylan’s writing, but rather to put forward the viewpoint that maybe there isn’t an exact meaning in each song, but rather they are semi-abstract pieces which enthral us because the meaning is unclear… because there is no ultimate meaning.
In this particular song there is the feeling of wanting equality, of recognising each other’s pain, but with each having his “own special gift”. The Drifter is still here, but he’s not down and out, but now more of an equal with the Landlord.
We also have the argument that the Landlord is a metaphor for God, but this doesn’t quite fit with
I know you’ve suffered much
But in this you are not so unique
The argument then is that God (the Landlord) is willing to give eternal life under certain conditions. But quite why Dylan should make this quite so obscure and why he should then deny it, is not explained by those propagating this explanation.
So for me the argument by (for example) David Weir which says, “The song itself is made up of the speaker’s words to God as he attempts to force God into keeping his side of the bargain, while finding excuses for reneging on his own side of it,” really does take me beyond the territory I cannot claim to know anything about. But David Weir’s commentaries are extremely informative and worth reading, so I think the problem of believing that this is what Dylan was really saying is with me, not him.
This argument relating the songs to pacts between God and humankind is one that crops up a number of times in analyses of the album. But where I fall out with the line by line interpretations of the song is with sections such as
When that steamboat whistle blows
I’m gonna give you all I got to give
For me the image that is produced is the leaving of town, the man moving on from his past – an image that is replicated in so much of Dylan’s writing – not least on this album. Leaving town is everywhere in Dylan, from “One to many mornings” to “Drifter’s Escape”.
So for me these lines are simple, – when it is time for me to leave, I will give you whatever I have got left, be it a wave, or a prolonged kiss, or a hug, or the money I got from selling all my possessions.
Should I be seeing “The whistle” as a symbol of “death”? Well, maybe, but I just don’t. I just see it as a semi-abstract work in which the guy moving on, getting the boat down the Mississippi looking for a better world and a better life. Yes it could be the equivalent of the ferryman in the Underworld taking the souls from this life to the next, but there’s no real evidence I can see that this was on Dylan’s mind at the time.
So the thesis that “The song can be seen as a representation of human nature in all its pompous stupidity. Believing he’s capable of deceiving God, the speaker succeeds only in presenting himself as a pleading, bitter, self-pitying, cunning, sycophantic, self-deprecating, tactless, patronising, devious, argumentative, condescending, self-aggrandising, briber and blackmailer,” is not for me, but it is a thesis and the point can be argued.
Musically the song borrows a musical moment from “Tears of Rage” only here puts that moment right at the start with the jump from the chord of C to the totally unrelated E7 across the first and second lines.
By “I’m going to give you all I got to give” we have modulated into B flat – one hell of an achievement in a three verse song. From C to A minor is one thing, but then to go to B flat… one can only say “wow”, for this is a song where much of the art and much of the attraction comes from the music, as much as, or even more than, the lyrics. And Dylan’s not finished there because he actually ends up in D minor. It is a veritable musical tour de force.
No wonder that after taking in all these different keys and complex half resolved images he just wanted to get back to the musical simplicity of “I’ll be your baby tonight” and the “Cove”
But before I leave this I must mention an alternative approach (as from the Every Bob Dylan Song site) which suggests…
“the “landlord” in a universal context, in terms of somebody that you look up to and feel some sort of debt to, whether it be a parent (“I know you’ve suffered much/but in this you are not so unique”…eh? eh?) or a boss or whoever….
“It also, probably unintentionally, captures the current state of our society, constantly working around the clock to pursue a life just outside of our grasp, full of “things we can see but just cannot touch.”
This approach goes on to say that the song describes the three branches of our lives: constant satiation, constantly pushing yourself, always feeling like you have to do bigger and better and finally the harmonic mean between the other two, in which you lead a life of comfort and happiness,
The same review adds, “In the lyrics of the song, you can hear one of modern humanity’s deepest struggles, the desire to please those we look up to or owe something to, and just how hard doing that can actually be.”
Here’s another… from the same critic…
“Dear Landlord, Please don’t put a price on my soul” sarcastic: dear leftwing critic AJ Weberman please don’t put a contract out on my poetry, murder my poetry, as in “put a price on someone’s head” by making the message Communistic. Also don’t make it into a book that sells for a fixed price “My burden is heavy” “burden” the central meaning or theme of my literary work, its effect, essence, core, gist is “heavy” laden with meaning, ponderous, not Marxist rhetoric “My dreams” my poems that are exceptionally gratifying, excellent, and beautiful “are beyond control” are beyond understanding.
Please don’t dismiss my case
I’m not about to argue
I’m not about to move to no other place
Now, each of us has his own special gift
And you know this was meant to be true
And if you don’t underestimate me
I won’t underestimate you
It doesn’t really fit with
When that steamboat whistle blows
I’m gonna give you all I got to give
but then, most of my life never makes much sense anyway, so I can go with that.