Trouble in Mind: a song Dylan clearly cared for, but never played in concert.

By Tony Attwood

I know that the original versions of most of the books I write are nothing like the final outcome.   It takes the writing of the book to get a feel for the whole project – and I always find that final feel is utterly different from the feel I had at the very start.

There is no way I would ever consider myself to be on the same planet as Dylan when it comes to creativity, but it is perhaps a little reassuring to hear that he too could sometimes have problems at the start of a new series of recordings just as I do at the start of a new book.

The first session of what was to be Slow Train Coming was held on April 30 1979 and according to reports it didn’t go well.  Much of the day was dedicated to recording “Trouble in Mind,” and eventually it was cut from the album.  Reports suggest there was considerable argument about how the process would work, even if Dylan should be wearing headphones…

According to the producer of the album Jerry Wexler “Bob began playing and singing along with the musicians.   We were in the first stages of building rhythm arrangements; it was too soon for him to sing, but he sang on every take anyway. I finally persuaded him to hold off on the vocals until later, when the arrangements were in shape and the players could place their licks around—not against—Bob.”

The song that gave them all the trouble is available (see the link below) for us to consider.  A blues piece in a minor key using the sequence E minor, G, A minor, C, D, A minor, but it is the lyrics that are most curious not the music.

The beginning and end are personal “I got to know, Lord, when to pull back on the reins” in the first verse and “Lord, keep my blind side covered and see that I don’t bleed,” at the end.  We are also back in the Old Testament again, but this time mixed with The Epistle to the Ephesians.

But the rest is all non-personal stuff, and I think the heart of the matter comes with the line “He’s gonna make you a law unto yourself” – He being the Devil.  And I guess that is what all this comes down to.  Dylan is taking the religious view that one cannot simply be a good person and try to do the right thing, by oneself.  One has to do it with the Lord as Jeremiah reports:

I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshiping what their hands have made.

Thus we have the contradiction: two people can both live moral and thoroughly decent lives, helping not hurting, being kind and good, but if one of them does it through the Lord then he/she will go to heaven, and if the other has chosen the wrong god or has no religion, he/she will burn in eternal hell.

So it all builds up to the final verse…

When my life is over, it’ll be like a puff of smoke
How long must I suffer, Lord, how long must I be provoked?
Satan will give you a little taste, then he’ll move in with rapid speed
Lord, keep my blind side covered and see that I don’t bleed

Which is basically a plea for help; a view that I, as a man, can’t do this by myself, I need you beside me.


Which is pretty much where the song starts out as well,

I got to know, Lord, when to pull back on the reins

As such the chorus is the key to the whole piece:

Trouble in mind, Lord, trouble in mind
Lord, take away this trouble in mind

Which seems to me to say, I’m a bit screwed up here, can’t get my mind straight, so I need someone to help me solve the problem – or rather not just someone, but the ultimate Lord.

There is a recognition that the individual can make choices, but because there is the eternal fight between good and evil, man can’t make his own choices on his own.  He’ll get mixed up because Satan is always messing with him, so he needs to choose God.

Here comes Satan, prince of the power of the air
He’s gonna make you a law unto yourself, gonna build a bird’s nest in your hair
He’s gonna deaden your conscience ’til you worship the work of your own hands
You’ll be serving strangers in a strange, forsaken land

It is a very bleak view of mankind, and our ability to be good simply through our own efforts.  We are in the end the playthings of the gods, but with enough decision making left to be able to choose one way or the other.

Much of the song though is fairly ordinary – the “don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it” sort of thing that parents say to their children when they are afraid that the kids are getting in with “the wrong sort”.

Well, your true love has caught you where you don’t belong
You say, “Baby, everybody’s doing it so I guess it can’t be wrong”
The truth is far from you, so you know you got to lie
Then you’re all the time defending what you can never justify

From a poetic point of view, from my own personal point of view, the ending really does work (although I am told it was deleted from the single version of the song), and the final line

Lord, keep my blind side covered and see that I don’t bleed

really ought to be much more recognised than it is as a great Dylan line.  But elsewhere, for me, the song is just a blues.  The deep intensity of feeling that Dylan clearly had in writing the piece just doesn’t make it on the long journey between the studio and my head.

And maybe in the end Dylan knew this too.  He’s never played it in concert.

Recent Posts

And elsewhere

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Trouble in Mind: a song Dylan clearly cared for, but never played in concert.

  1. Peter Hyatt says:

    Well written article. “Trouble in Mind” is fascinating and would have been interesting to hear it live.

  2. whalespoon says:

    If this song had ever become a staple of his live shows, my guess is that Bob would have been continually rewriting it as in the case of “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Simple Twist of Fate.” It has some great ideas and great lines, but always leaves me feeling unsatisfied. My guess is that it does the same for Bob, which is why it was not included on the album.

  3. Mike johnson says:

    There is a live recording of this, which I have. It is from a concert at Fox Garfield on November 16, 1979. As far as I know it’s the only live recording, and very powerful it is too.

  4. Mike johnson says:

    Whoops, I wrote Fox Warfield. Thank the auto correct for that mistake!

  5. Jonas Svensson says:

    The last verse is the one not used on the original single but was later included on a Brazilian release. Although, to my ears, these sound like two different takes, so perhaps the last verse was not cut at all, it was simply not sung on the take that made the single. As Dylan sung just about all the songs from Slow Train Coming and the yet-to-be released Saved albums it is surprising that this was never even tried out live. There are several unreleased songs that were done a couple of times, so why not this one? I guess he just didn´t like it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *