You changed my life: why Dylan’s song was left behind

By Tony Attwood

It appears Dylan had quite a large number of attempts in the studios to get this song right, but finally gave up on it, never played it live, and allowed it only to resurface when the first bunch of outtakes appeared on “volume 1-3”.

It is lively, jolly, bouncy and pushes us along, but the message (at least most of the message) is one that we’ve perhaps heard quite a few times – that the world is a pretty evil place full of traps for the unwary, but give yourself to the Lord and all will be well – no matter how late in the day you give yourself over for forgiveness.

But there are some moments in the song which really make me pause and wonder.  Right in the first verse such as, “Working for a system I couldn’t understand or trust”.  Is he saying that he was trapped inside the capitalist system of record production and concert touring?  Inside the profit motive of the corporations?   Well, yes, aren’t we all.  But most of us don’t write protest songs along the way, and then move on.   That (for me, and of course as always this is just my perception) is the key contradiction in terms of Dylan’s “protest” period in which he wrote about how awful things were in songs like Hollis Brown.

Now that is interesting stuff, but unfortunately (for me at least) the point doesn’t get further explored in this song, and I am not sure where it is explored.

And in the next verse

You do the work of the devil, you got a million friends

Well yes Bob we remember

I got a friend who spends his life
Stabbing my picture with a bowie knife
Dreams of strangling me with a scarf
When my name comes up he pretends to bark
I got a million friends.

And the point is… ah well, you see, I am not sure.  Bob had a million friends (probably ironically) and now who is this “you”.  Is he talking to himself?

Then we have the old surreal imagery that Bob used to do so well

The call of the wild is forever at my door
Wants me to fly like an eagle while being chained to the floor

Who does?  How?  In what context?  I can make a million guesses, but a bit of a clue from the writer at this point would be helpful.  It is a hell of an image.  I just wish I knew what it meant!  Are we back with the capitalists making money out of him, and so tying him down to a terrible life of forever having to write and perform?  That doesn’t quite seem to fit…

And so the piece goes on, we’ve got the hang of it, that descending bass line driving us forward in each verse, and then suddenly…

You changed my life
Came along in a time of strife
You came in like the wind, like Errol Flynn
You changed my life

Errol Flynn was a great swashbuckling actor who was fantastically popular until post-war styles changed, and he found there was no need for his type of character any more.  As Wiki puts it he had “a reputation for womanising, hard drinking and for a time in the 1940s, narcotics abuse.”

He was also associated with the expression “in like Flynn” which was (and indeed is still) a sexual term taken to reflect the way women fell for him, and how easy it was for him to seduce them.  He originally called his autobiography “In like me” but the publisher was worried about 1950s repression in the US and called it “My Wicked Wicked Ways” .  The official Errol Flynn web site run by his daughter, however retains the title “In like Flynn,”

So what are we to make of the simile You came in like the wind, like Errol Flynn, which presumably refers to the Lord?   It makes sense in that Dylan’s conversion seems to have been rapid, rather like Flynn’s supposed ability to seduce a woman, but somehow this just seems a trifle inappropriate when speaking of the Almighty.  To use Flynn’s way with women as a comparator to how God converted Bob… it really seems a bit, well… actually I am lost for words.

Having not listened to the song for quite a while and coming back to it now, it just leaves me with a feeling that it is jolly, happy, but… well, but what???  Bob’s been converted, and good for him, but it is almost as if Leonard da Vinci had given up on the notion of painting the Last Supper and instead drawn a self-portrait.  He did of course paint many such, but he also painted the Last Supper and he kept the two separate. One is not to be confused with the other and that seems to be Bob’s problem here.

Unless the song were to be called “Tangled up in God”.

So, for me Bob’s got confused in his purpose.  Yes his conversion to Christianity was quite something, but somehow the song at the end seems to be more about Bob than God.  And maybe Bob thought something along the same lines, but just couldn’t bring himself to cut that last verse in the recording.  After all, it is what makes it – at least for us pagans.

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