Gates of Eden: two revised renditions & the meanings behind Bob Dylan’s masterpiece

At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true.

If you have never heard this version above, do give it a listen – the differences between this version and the album version are subtle but they add something which after so many years of listening to the album version are quite a shock.

The problem with the CD version of “Bringing in all back home” is that if you have never owned the LP you don’t quite get the absolute division between sides 1 and 2. Side 1, all pop and bop and laughter, love songs, funny songs… OK that is over simplifying the situation, but it is the essence of the music.

And then Side 2, that almighty sandwich in which the bleak solitude of Gates of Eden, and the monument to individualism (It’s Alright Ma) exist between the lighter Tambourine Man and Baby Blue.

With such an extraordinary brilliance of writing existing at so many different levels, these four songs cannot be separated in terms of greatness, but “Gates of Eden” stands out in one regard because it is the definitive statement from Dylan in terms of what he was doing then, and as it turned out what he continued doing through his writing career.

The line, “At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true” refer to the girlfriend’s dream, and dreams were on Dylan’s mind then as now – the album contains the bizarre dream about Ahab and his ship and seemingly everything else that can be crammed in, Love Minus Zero has its own dream like imagery, and Subterranean Homesick Blues if not a dream exists part of the time as if from another world. Dylan never lost his interest in dreams – from Bob Dylan’s Dream on Freewheelin, through to Series of Dreams which turned up on the 3rd volume of the Bootleg series, and even on to the dream-like sequences of “Things have changed.”

This is not a unique interest. Dreams were the inspiration for art and poetry through the 20th century – as was the reinterpretation of reality in dream-like ways. If we think of the stark black and whiteness of “Gates of Eden” in these terms we think surely of Picasso’s Guernica that final masterful statement of what the world has come to.

But while Guernica was Picasso’s final statement of greatness before the long, long decline into being a servant of the Communist Party, with Dylan we are still at the start. The dreams are still fresh, although none the less frightening.

It’s a song in 6/8 – more commonly associated with Celtic folk than the torments of Dylan’s subject matter. And so extraordinary is the reach of the song that it is a shock to return to the words and be reminded that this is a strophic song with each verse of just four lines. (Although some versions in print split the lines in half, musically we have four phrases of four bars – the classic 16 bar song. It is a four line song.)

Here image after image hits us, even over 40 years after its creation. One could print the whole song as an example, but to take just one line, try this as an assassination of contemporary life: “friends and other strangers”

As chilling a group of four words as you can find – this is isolation supreme.

But more than anything else this tells us what Dylan is writing about now and in the future. Yes there are love songs, yes there are songs about his ex-wife, yes there are the political songs, but mostly these are the songs of the sub-conscious where images pile on top of images, leaving the individual acting in a world that makes no sense, isolated, alone, “leaving men wholly totally free to do anything they wish to do but die”.

From this inferno, there is no escape.

This extract from the 1988 version again gives me shivers – I can hear the original version from the album in my sleep, each change here send shivers through my entire body as if a long lost friend has returned more beautiful and more frightening, more fragile and more gentle than ever before.

Between October 1964 and March 2001 Dylan played the song 217 times on tour.  He has not played it since.

Original review 2008; updates 2018.

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

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  1. In the Fall of 1964, I was reading William Byrd of Westover’s book titled, ” A Journey to the New Eden” written in the middle and late 17th century in the colony of Virginia. I was reading for a course in”Colonial American” history at UCLA. and it also included Byrd’s “Secret Diaries” in many, many volumes. I also had been reading Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper”
    Thus it was a shock to me that Dylan’s
    “Gates of Eden”was written shortly thereafter. William Byrd was describing. among other things, the surveying of what was to become the “Mason-Dixon Line” So I felt at the time that Dylan was reading “over my shoulder”!
    The reference to the “pauper” and the Prince and the Princess was an acute reference to Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth’es “weird” dialogue in Mark Twains’ book which I had read in early ’64.
    It was Elizabeth who as England’s Queen founded the Virginia Colony.
    It might be noted that it was in November 1964 that LBJ was elected in his own right and began his Vietnam War. The “Cowboy Angel”????

    I could go on, but . . .later. Mel Kinder, Santa Cruz, California

  2. Breathtaking performance – Dylan’s guitar work, usually unremarked upon, denigrated if remarked upon has always been right on the mark in his acoustic work, especially so here. This is a song that has left me befuddled, but – the older I get the more I get – funny thing. Dylan may not want the label, but his prophetic works are unsurpassed.

  3. Note the pun –
    the fore-est (foremost) four-legged horse~like cloud that the cowboy angel is riding
    as in:
    ‘fore’, ‘fore-er’, ‘fore-est’

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