By Tony Attwood
The idea of making up a list of the ten best opening lines to Dylan songs came to me out of nowhere, and it just struck me as something rather interesting to explore. And immediately I started I knew that people who are kind enough to lend a few moments of their day to reading this site will come up with much better suggestions that I can.
So I thought I’d start it off… and what struck me after two minutes thinking was that it was far too easy to pick the opening of a song just because I liked the overall mood and feel and message of the song, not because of the opening line.
That is to say, the opening line filled my mind with the whole song, rather than having great merit in itself. “Every step of the way, we walk the line” is like this. I love “Mississippi” but looking at that line in isolation I am not sure it is a great line. Very good, and a find opener, but in isolation I am not sure it stands out.
The same problem can occur with discussions of the opening lines of books. But Jane Austen’s, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” (Pride and Prejudice) is magnificent even if you don’t have a clue about the story.
Same with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” (Tale of Two Cities), and “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (1984). They wap you in the face and you have to stop.
Or “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So it goes – these openers stand up on their own. They are the monuments of opening. And because I am writing this I am going to indulge myself with my all time favourite book opening… – it is from “The Crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon.
“One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”
Yes, well, not everyone’s cup of tea, but it does it for me.
So my question to myself was, can I find similar monuments in Dylan’s opening lines which stand alone, irrespective of what comes later.
Here we go…
But first, the question of why I left out one obvious one: “Darkness at the break of noon.” The official Dylan site writes that as one sentence, but … there’s no verb, which may be very pedantic of me, but I want “Darkness at the break of noon shadows even the silver spoon” as the actual sentence.
It could be my number one choice, but I have a real problem with the image – there is too much for my poor brain to take in. Darkness at noon is one thing, the silver spoon with all it symbolises is another, and yes I get it, this end of the world sorts out everyone no matter what power, influence and money you have. But somehow… it is just too much all in one go for me. I guess I want my opening song lines a little less powerful.
But that’s just me. Here’s my top ten.
10: Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside
I find that in this list I want to say “this is so unusual” and I think that applies to every song on the list. The point is Dylan takes us straight into the story. We are dropped into the situation. In the opening we don’t know if the gentlemen are integral to the story or are just part of a background scene. But we have the picture – not men but “gentlemen”, discussing we presume by the riverside. Southern United States? Or could it be the town of St Neots in Cambridgeshire, about half an hour from where I live? We pick our own location and plant the scene there.
9: Nobody feels any pain
As an opening to a pop rock song this is extraordinary. What a statement. Of course the opening line could be “Nobody feels any pain tonight as I stand inside the rain,” but I hear the end of the line at “pain”.
A mere mortal might have got as far as “I don’t feel any pain,” but it is the “nobody” that is all-enveloping. Sometimes I have heard this as a universal statement – “we’ve all stopped feeling the pain”. Sometimes it is just the moment.
8: ‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief.
Loved it from the first time I heard it. Everyone is entangled up in this mess, but somehow we really must be able to solve this. Who are these guys anyway, and how come they are both stuck in there. It is an opening line of the highest level – giving us a situation, and idea and the people.
It is a line that I link to my favourite song on the album – the Drifter’s Escape. But to include the Drifter’s opening lines I need four lines…
“Oh, help me in my weakness”
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away.
And that’s pushing it a bit, but the Drifter and the J0ker and the Thief are all trapped – although thanks to divine intervention the Drifter gets out. The Joker and the Thief are constantly trapped as the song ends
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl.
Maybe the next article should be Dylan’s best ending lines.
7: You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend
“Who starts a song like this?” I guess I want to say this about most of the first lines I’ve chosen, but this has a particular significance.
I have mentioned before in passing that when I did my M.Phil at the University of London my supervisor was Professor Keith Swanwick who wrote one of the very first serious academic books considering pop music, and it was he who said 99% of pop songs are about love, lost love and dance.
This is the announcement of the opposite – what on this site we’ve called the Songs of Disdain.
How powerful do you want your opening line to be?
6: My love she speaks like silence.
I suppose this is the antithesis of Positively Fourth Street, the most adoring, gentle love song, describing the lover who has Zen like qualities, who exists on but also beyond this world.
What Love minus zero does is paint the most gorgeous picture of the perfect woman, perfect that is as long as you don’t want to date a political activist and everything is gathered together in this perfect opening line.
I tried to come to terms with Zen in my 20s but without success, but did get a deeper understanding when much later I was introduced to Tao Te Ching, and I’ve tried to use it as a guiding force ever since. The woman in this line is the woman who lives within the Tao. “Live without possessiveness, act without presumption…” It really is all in that one opening line. A total philosophy encapsulated in six words.
5: The river whispers in my ear, I’ve hardly a penny to my name
When discussing this article with friends before I started tapping the keys, I mentioned this line, and eyebrows were raise. And there is a good question to be asked here because Tell Ol’ Bill has been my favourite Dylan composition for many a long year. .
So am I breaking my own rule about not letting the song influence the choice of line?
I would argue not, because for me that simple opening paints another of those perfect Dylan pictures. I know this guy – but from that one line I know him in some detail. He’s not a down and out, a vagabond, because he appreciates the sound of the river, BEFORE he speaks of his poverty.
In short it is a personal version of “My love she speaks like silence”. As the lover in Love minus zero has perfection through being and non-being, doing and non-doing, so the man by the river has found tranquility and a unity with nature, alongside which we just know, without even going on through the song, that he is still looking, exploring, understanding, reacting to the world. Otherwise what does the river whisper about?
It takes us back to a theme Dylan has touched on elsewhere – the unity with nature that represents a perfect harmony while we still try and live in the real world – all encapsulated in one line.
4: Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
Another challenge because I have always adored Johanna, and indeed am still working on my eternally delayed novel about Louise, Johanna and Little Boy Lost.
But that opening – just look at it on its own. Has there ever been a song like that which throws you into the situation with such determination and such assuredness?
In a sense this is a parallel to Tell Ol Bill because in one line we are set inside the scene – the tricks of the night played on the imagination, the sounds that you never pick up amid the chaos of the day. Only much later in his writing does Dylan complete the journey to harmony by having the river whispering in his ear. Here there is tension – exactly the tension you don’t need when you are trying to relax.
3: If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait
When I first heard this line I just repeated it to myself and said, “What?????” about two thousand times. While the classic pop song tells us who’s who and what’s what from the start, Dylan often throws us straight into stories where we have to work out who the people are. But this is not just people, this is these people’s past, and clearly some sort of disagreement about… who knows.
There is a whole novel packed into that one opening line. We don’t know the people, we don’t know their lives, we don’t know their past, we don’t know why they were going to wait, but Dylan is not going to compromise here. This is it folks, get used to it.
You’re in and your face hits the reality. Thwack! It’s like parachuting into the middle of a city you don’t know, within a culture you don’t understand, and someone instantly says, “Have you got it?”
2: They’re selling postcards of the hanging
I couldn’t believe that as a line when I first heard it as a teenager – and that was long before I realised it was true. 1920 in Dylan’s home town of Duluth. That rather adds to the power.
But even without that knowledge, whoever could have conceived of writing a piece of popular music with such a line. It tells you everything you ever need to know or want to know about the inhumanity of man to man and the glorification that some can seek within that inhumanity.
In this line Dylan has done mankind a significant service, keeping alive a horrific moment so that none of us who admire Dylan’s work will ever be more than a moment away for realising how appalling the life form to which we belong, can be. Civilisation? It endlessly hangs by a thread.
1: Someone’s got it in for me, they’re posting stories in the press.
From the universal of Desolation Row, to the personal of Idiot Wind. I’ve noted above how many times Dylan can take us in one line into worlds that other songwriters never even consider, let alone write a whole song about, and here it is personal. It is the opposite side (I’m not sure how many opposite sides one line can have – quite a few I guess) of “The river whispers in my ear”.
Is it paranoia, or is it true? Most musicians who achieve fame have endless stories invented about them – it is what the popular press does. More so than ever now that we have blogs. But Dylan adds a twist – it is “Someone”. One guy. He does actually move away from the one with “I wish they’d cut it out quick” but that’s a detail, and besides “they” could refer to the press.
I hear it and read it is one person. One person attacking Dylan with wild stories.
I guess because I spend a bit of time writing blogs (I also write a blog about the football – soccer – team I support in England, and English football is full of rumour, false allegations, malicious gossip and endless libels) so I get to study quite a bit of the made up stuff.
And the great thing here, as so often with Dylan, is we are straight into a situation in one line, but because it is just one line, we don’t know the details. But boy, we really want to know.
That’s the ten. If you have been, thanks for reading. I rather enjoyed doing this. I hope you got something out of it too.
Untold Dylan has reviewed 250 Dylan songs, and the reviews continue to be added. The index to the reviews in alphabetical order is on the home page – just scroll down past the latest news.
An index to Dylan’s songs in chronological order of writing (rather than recording) appears here. It currently goes up to 1973, but is being extended regularly.