By Tony Attwood
“Apocalypse soon if you don’t watch out”.
That was how Rolling Stone described this blues song – a song which has had two presentations, each with completely different lyrics and such a different backing that although both are clearly 12 bar blues, they become completely different songs.
In 2003 Dylan re-wrote the lyrics and accompaniment of ‘Gonna change my way of thinking’ from 1979 and then recorded this new version with Mavis Staples, for the album “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan”.
After the re-write Dylan clearly loved the new version as he used it as the opener for numerous shows from 2009 on, and from the reports that are available, did so with a verse and drive that are not to be found on the more sparsely accompanied earlier edition. Certainly the concert recordings that we have back this notion up.
And although this started out as a solid trumpet blast on behalf of Christianity there is a lot of fun and games here to love whether the listener is Christian or not. Indeed I suspect that I have a much easier time with the piece as a non-believer, than those who follow the gospels have. But that’s just a guess.
Take the line, “we‘re living by the golden rule, whoever got the gold rules”. It’s a cheeky interpretation of the New Testament’s golden rule of do unto others as you would be done by. And what is doubly fascinating is that in the very first Christian song Dylan composed “Do right to me baby” he totally got this Golden Rule backwards singing, “if you do right to me baby, I’ll do right to you.” He clearly got back to the source text and resolved matters since then.
But it’s not that Dylan would have misunderstood at that point, after all “do unto others” comes from the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 7: 12) and in terms of Jesus’ saying you don’t get much more pivotal than that: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets”.
I find this such a key moment because Dylan’s expression in “Do right to me Baby” was pure blues – in the blues the man fundamentally distrusts the perfidious woman and she has to prove herself, and even then he still probably doesn’t trust her much. But now as we move on through his overtly Christian period Dylan has got it sorted and understood the message properly. You have to do the right thing first, according to the way you would like to be treated. It makes singing the blues quite a challenge.
As the song progressed so did the message. “Every day you got to give yourself a chance,” takes us that bit further – every day is indeed important and to my mind the people who make the most of their lives do carry this vision inside them. Every day it is important to do the right thing, to be a good, decent person who helps others in need. Every day is a chance for new experiences, broadening one’s horizons, learning from the world around us.
But for me, and indeed for many who have approached this song before me, there is one line that leaps out and slaps me round the face so hard I just have to keep going back to it:
Well don’t know which one is worse
Doing your own thing or just being cool
You remember only about the brass ring
You forget all about the golden rule
For anyone who has any understanding of the 1960s and 1970s the phrases “do your own thing” and “being cool” ring out as part of that era. “Don’t follow leaders” was Dylan’s earlier comment on the former, but it came with a notion of action which is independent, not influenced by social norms, laws, governments, conventions, rather than just doing nothing.
“Being cool” on the other hand was a “live and let live” vision as if there really were no rights and wrongs. A vision that when you consider it, is all very well if it is used for criticising outdated morality, but pretty useless as a way of dealing with murder, child molestation, wife beating, racism… well you see what I mean.
In this simple analysis “doing your own thing” wins hands down because it allows one to make moral choices, rather than blindly following leaders. One’s own thing in the end might be to choose to follow a leader, whether that leader is Jesus Christ, Ronald Reagan, Gandhi, or Lao Tzu. Or not. It is up to you.
Doing your own thing doesn’t necessarily lead to inner emptiness although it can do. Being cool most certainly gives nothing except being cool.
But there is another battle here – that of personal individuality. God, it seems, gave man free will so he has to make a choice. Make the wrong choice and at the time of the Second Coming (or your own death, whichever comes first) you are in trouble. But for people like me who don’t believe in the Second Coming or the divinity of Jesus Christ, there are many other choices, and following the individuality that one has been granted through the randomness of one’s DNA, synapses, upbringing and experience, is certainly one of the most profound. It leads to exploration on the widest scale, and through that the chance, on occasion to do some good things.
But I meander, as is my wont.
Dylan is writing about his own redemption – and through this has led many, many before me to wander off into a whole debate about freedom. For that alone we should be rather grateful. And he’s not just given us the chance to have the debate, he’s given us the chance to note his change of heart.
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
That 1964 warning from My Back Pages hangs like a haze over the Christian songs in which life very much is black and white – you are either for Him or against Him. And how fascinating is it (well, it is to me) that Dylan started singing My Back Pages on stage in July 1978, wrote the original Gonna Change in 1979 but kept on singing My Back Pages on stage until 2012. 260 renditions.
Gonna Change got 79 plays between 1979 and 2011 – the new version coming in, as I noted above, in 2009. What a battle that seems. “Life is black and white – good and evil,” shouts one side of Dylan. “Oh no it isn’t” shouts Another Side of Bob Dylan. For me, as you will have noted, Another Side is where it is at.
In the first version of Gonna Change Dylan is completely clear where he is.
But there’s only one authority
And that’s the authority on high
But he also gives us a fascinating extra thought, the thought that being a Christian doesn’t mean you have to sing religious songs and live a calm and quiet life. Obviously not, for this is Bob Dylan on the never ending tour. So I do love the lines
I got a God-fearing woman
One I can easily afford
She can do the Georgia crawl
She can walk in the spirit of the Lord
Just in case you aren’t too sure, allow me to divert for a moment and fill in the Georgia Crawl bit. Although I would consider myself something of an expert on dance (when not engaged in musical things, and not watching football, the evening relaxation is dancing – at least three nights a week, so I know a bit about its history) I had to double check that my memory of what the Crawl is/was is correct. This is how I see it…
The Crawl was a blues dance with the sort of exaggerated sexual hip movements that many blues dances have – but the Crawl really laid it on thick. It was highly provocative, and not something most of us would want to try after about the age of 35 for fear of doing something nasty to the back. The sort of dance which if you took your nine year old for an evening out, and a couple were doing it, you really wouldn’t not where to look or how to answer the questions.
Blind Willie McTell mentioned it in his songs and there is a song “Geogia Crawl” by Henry Williams which has the lines
I can shake it east, shake it west,
Way down south I can shake it the best,
Doin’ the Georgia Crawl, oh, the Georgia Crawl
The second alternative version of Dylan’s song, the one not on the original LP is here – if you leave the recording running you get two versions.
For the last verse in the version above Dylan sings the first verse again.
Change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules
Put my best foot forward, stop being influenced by fools
However the lyrics given on the official site include this at the end…
I’ll tell you something, things you never had you’ll never miss
I’ll tell you something, things you never had you’ll never miss
A brave man will kill you with a sword, a coward with a kiss
Now that does fascinate me and I really don’t quite know what to make of it. Maybe there is a religious connotation, but if so I’ve missed it.
Heylin describes the whole expedition across the two versions as a horrible mess – from first writing to final total re-write. And yes I think he is right in terms of the lyrics. A lot of the phraseology like the line about the horse and the one about the table are just nicked from older writings, and mostly it doesn’t add up to much for me. But musically, unlike Heylin, I really do like both versions, and find I can very easily divorce myself from any meaning there is supposed to be in the lyrics so that I just enjoy the overall event.
It’s not great Dylan, in my very personal opinion, but it is good blues. And I like a good blues number.
- Index of all the songs on the site
- Dylan’s best opening lines: an index
- How Dylan writes songs, and other articles.
- Dylan’s songs in the order they were written.
- Bob Dylan open discussion group on Facebook. Or go onto Facebook and search for “Untold Dylan”