Drifting too far from shore: a Dylan song with a rather bad press

By Tony Attwood

That Bob Dylan was struggling artistically in the mid-1980s is not a matter of much dispute, although there are some who consider Knocked Out Loaded to be a seriously misunderstood album.

In one sense I am in this camp – although only in one sense.   Dylan was struggling to find a new direction at this time not least because in recent years his direction had been so clear.  Now he was lost.  He was telling the world about salvation and redemption, and every bit of inspiration was there for him.  Now he needed to find a new voice – and that is not as easy as it might sound.

Indeed he had done so much and visited so many musical places, what else could he do?  Where was the next journey to go?  He’d gone from folk to rock.  He’d entered surrealism and impressionism, and then gone to country music.  He’d worked the blues and celebrated the 50s rock n roll.  He’d done a collection of often obscure three verse short stories on John Wesley Harding, and played about with old time favourites like Alberta.

But now what?

When that question hits any artist (and there are probably only a handful of artists in any art form that have not faced some serious downtime – Shakespeare for example simply packed it all in and went back to Stratford never to write again) it is so difficult to find a resolution – and indeed either it comes or it (in many, many cases) doesn’t.  So Dylan had another period without inspiration, but he didn’t take the opportunity simply to move away and sit with Zen monks, travel the world with his children, learn to play the saxophone or journey to the antarctic or do anything else that would take him away from it all, that we know about.  He wanted to tour and as a result, he released an album.

And on that album, aside from releasing other people’s songs, he tried experimenting to find a new sound or a new approach.  And we got “Driftin too far from shore”.

It is, I think most agree, quite simply an experiment that didn’t work – but as we know, Dylan has never been that able to decide what works and what doesn’t.  He spent forever thinking Blind Willie McTell didn’t work (presumably because the song isn’t actually about Blind Willie), when in fact most of us think it does.  There are many other such examples among his abandoned pieces.

What he couldn’t quite see is that this sort of declamation of lines, some of which are taken from movies, with a curious backing arrangement, just doesn’t come off, unless those lines are truly inspiring of themselves.   Even the title of the song was taken from Hank Williams, and some of the lines came from movies – but without any real connection or grand leap of the light which in other compositions would leave us all gasping.

Nevertheless Dylan did in fact stay with the song playing it on stage 14 times in the year from June 1988 onwards, but then even he gave up.

And certainly when we look at the lyrics on their own they are, basically, just odd.

I ain’t gonna get lost in this current
I don’t like playing cat and mouse
No gentleman likes making love to a servant
Especially when he’s in his father’s house

I never could guess your weight, baby
Never needed to call you my whore
I always thought you were straight, baby
But you’re driftin’ too far from shore

But also there are moments where the message really does give us a sense of what Dylan was wanting to say, and where he manages to put that across in a poetic way…

You and me we had completeness
I give you all of what I could provide
We weren’t on the wrong side, sweetness
We were the wrong side

That’s quite good, but it’s hardly original.  And where Dylan was original (for example by taking the cover of Spicy Adventure Stories and putting that on the album) it is all very hard to understand the implication.  It looks like he just saw it and said, “stick that on the cover”.

Rolling Stone went along a similar line of thinking (although somewhat more acerbically) when they suggested in a retrospective that “Bob Dylan’s career hit a lot of low points in the 1980s, but the lowest was probably the release of 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded. The title basically says to the world, “Here’s some shit I slapped together while drunk.”

In Chronicles Dylan said of this period in his work, “I had no connection to any kind of inspiration… My own songs had become strangers to me. It wasn’t my moment of history anymore. Try as I might, the engines wouldn’t start.”  Which is a much more succinct way of saying it all.

Part of the problem is that although sampling lines from movies can work, but it tends only to work when there is inspiration and creativity around to take the sample and mould it into something new and exciting.

For example there is a western called “Bend of the River” in which Arthur Kennedy  says, “I figure we’re even. Maybe I’m one up on ya.”  So Dylan says

I didn’t know that you’d be leavin’
Or who you thought you were talkin’ to
I figure maybe we’re even
Or maybe I’m one up on you

It could be insightful, but mostly it just seems to be a line Dylan remembered and threw in.  Again randomness can work – but somehow, somewhere there needs to be more.  And more is what there doesn’t seem to be.

In fact even the title “Drifting Too Far from Shore” comes from a gospel album, which Dylan has said that he was very familiar with.

Only the chord sequence offers the hope of something fresh; it runs Ab9, Bb (ie A flat 9th to B flat major) which is interesting but then repeated four times before we get a row of Eb to Bb.  It’s not inspiring stuff.

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