Born in Time: the often re-written Dylan song with the overpowering image

By Tony Attwood

Born in Time” was written in 1989 and released in September 1990 on Under the Red Sky, but as Heylin points out at great length, and ultimately in mind-blowingly numbing detail, there are at least six recorded versions around, all different, all (apparently) worth hearing.

For what it is worth my view of these various versions of the song is not that Dylan is very specifically trying to make a difference, but rather he is just exploring where this song can go, and then seeing exactly what it can do.   Writers of standard three minute pop songs don’t do this sort of thing, only those who have a lifetime of writing and performance get this far into tinkering with their own work, just to see…

The first point to notice in relation to this song, in my view, is that Dylan’s creative output had overall declined year on year through the 80s.  It’s not an exact drop, but a tendency towards less and less creativity, starting with a high of 21 new songs in 1981 and dropping until by 1986, we have just six songs in a year, and then 1987 being the low point in terms of numbers  (just four songs that we know about from that year) although it was high in quality as the list shows…

1988 was the year of the Wilbury’s with just nine songs created, and no clear indication how much involvement Dylan had in the writing, although I’ve listed all nine songs in the 1980s file.

Then in 1989 Dylan was revitalised with 13 compositions, starting with Born in Time before moving on through some absolute classics such as Series of DreamsMost of the TimeWhat was it you wanted and Everything is Broken and onwards until we reach Man in a Long Black Coat

Thus this song occupies a pivotal spot at the change over from the Wilburys back into writing specifically for himself.  Given the changeover taking place it is not surprising that Dylan spent so much time (in this song at least) changing things around.

When I started work on this site it was never my intention to become encyclopaedic and review each and every version of each song, but rather my aim was to take the main versions of the main songs, and maybe have a few diversions on the way.  So I am restricting myself here primarily to the Tell Tale Signs version (listed as “Unreleased Oh Mercy!” on the two disk set and the Red Sky version – although there is a link to a third version at the end.

The lyrics of course vary from version to version as Dylan does his usual thing of exploring and experimenting.  But what leaps out particularly in reference to these two main versions that I am looking at is just how different the bridge passages are – only the last four lines of the second bridge remain the same between these versions.

In the Red Sky version we have bridge 1 as

Not one more night, not one more kiss
Not this time baby, no more of this
Takes too much skill, takes too much will
It’s revealing
You came, you saw, just like the law
You married young, just like your ma
You tried and tried, you made me slide
You left me reelin’ with this feelin’

And bridge 2 as…

You pressed me once, you pressed me twice
You hang the flame, you’ll pay the price
Oh babe, that fire
Is still smokin’
You were snow, you were rain
You were striped, you were plain
Oh babe, truer words
Have not been spoken or broken

But in the Tell Tale Signs version we have

Just when I knew
you were gone, you came back
Just when I knew
It was for certain
You were high, you were low
You were so easy to know
Oh babe, now is time to raise the curtain
I’m hurtin’.

And then after the instrumental break

Just when I knew
who to thank, you went blank
And just when the whole
fires was smokin’
You were snow, you were rain
You were stripes, you were plain
Oh babe, truer words
Have not been spoken
or broken.

A huge difference.  And what we have here is a truly wonderful song from a man who has been mashed around by this romance but still is there loving her, forgiving her.  All that happens through the various versions is that Dylan reworks just how much forgiveness is delivered in those two bridge sections.

As I mentioned above I have one internet version; I am not sure if this is the one that Heylin thinks is the greatest recording of them all – it certainly has a huge amount to recommend it.

The whole notion of the song is that like dreams, there was no ultimate solidity in the woman for the singer to hold on to.   The problem for the lovers – how can you ever truly know a person, because in essence none of us ever know ourselves – is at the heart of the matter and beautifully expressed.   We have our views, our histories, our morals, our habits, but like dreams we can fade in and out of what we are, bemusing those around us, and quite often fooling ourselves.

The use of the dream theme in the song is magnificent throughout – it is not just with lines such as

You’re comin’ thru to me in black and white
When we were made of dreams

But also the start of the next verse:

You’re blowing down the shaky street

Even the ground starts moving and the picture vibrates as she walks along.  In the end he can’t take it, because he can’t focus enough to make it real

no more of this
Takes too much skill, takes too much will
It’s revealing

He knows that she is not stringing him along, but even so

You tried and tried, you made me slide
You left me reelin’ with this feelin’

But above everything else, she is like an image in a movie, she isn’t real, she is more than real, and as such can’t ever be held onto…

You were snow, you were rain
You were striped, you were plain

He can’t take it, he can’t let go of it, it is all just too much, too overwhelming, too, too absolute… until in the end

You can have what’s left of me

Dylan first played the song in concert in February 1993 and gave it 56 outings before bringing down the curtain on 17 August 2003.

Unusually for Dylan (in my personal opinion) what we have here is a song that is remembered for its melody – a melody built over a simple and oft used chord sequence of

G, Em, Am7, C, Cm, G

The bridge passage has a different sequence, but based around the same idea.

This left Dylan working with the melody (not his strongest suit) to bring the song across, and the lyrics and rhythm (where he can certainly make a difference) changing as things evolve.  The chord sequence (another area where he can spring surprises on us) is left alone.

But what is utterly perfect here is the mood of the piece expressed through the melody, chords, rhythm and lyrics together.   As the song finishes you know the singer is done for, he’s had it, he can’t fight it any more.

You can have what’s left of me

What a wonderful piece of music.  A song that can and has truly made me cry.

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  1. Nice write up about Born In Time. This song holds a special fascination for me. I had not heard the “third” version that you posted here. Many thanks! Could this version be from the (prohibitively expensive) 3 disc version of Tell Tale Signs? Keep up your posts.

  2. excellent research. i was waiting to know sth about this master peice. thank you. please write more about Dylan song. we wait to read

  3. Love the write-up, thanks. I’m curious about your comment about the chord sequence: “simple and oft-used”. I actually think of it as complex compared to very many Dylan songs. By “oft-used”, do you mean within the song, or more broadly? Because I don’t recognise it from anywhere else.

    Ultimately, it’s such an incredibly unique song, and I guess that’s because of the supreme *combination* of chords, melody, rhythm and intriguing words.

  4. Pretty sure Bob sings “homefires” not whole fires.
    I’ve always enjoyed this song…thanks for taking the time to write about it and express your thoughts.

  5. Love this song. First heard it from Time out of Mind on U Tube. It makes me tear up when I play it. Can’t believe it was left off the Oh Mercy recording.

    Thank you for all the links and your comments.

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