By Tony Attwood
I have noted earlier in this series that Dylan had, during the early part of the 1960s, developed a range of different themes on which he could write meaningful, telling and beautiful songs. The whole notion of Dylan as a “protest singer” was completely wrong in fact, because he was so much more than that. Protest was only a minor part of his writing, and simply represented one of half a dozen themes within Dylan’s work.
Indeed not only was he amazingly diverse in his choice of subject matter, he was in 1964 still expanding this, introducing songs about individualism.
Such was his diversity by the end of 1964 that if anyone did wonder about it, they would surely have thought “he can’t go any further can he?” And the opening song of 1965 would have added to that notion with the beautiful song of farewell (one of Dylan’s favourite themes), Farewell Angelina. The problem was however that because most (perhaps all) critics of the era only looked at the songs individually, rather than as each song as the continuing exploration of a particular theme or idea, they not only failed to pick up the themes that Dylan liked, but also failed to see the fact that “Angelina” was simply another song (albeit a brilliant beautiful song) in a series of explorations of the “songs of farewell”.
But if that is what we thought, then we were in for a shock, because the next composition was Subterranean Homesick Blues which gave a new musical form to be used with the musical equivalent of the Beat Poetry of Dylan’s pal Allen Ginsberg.
Until this point contemporary “protest songs” were stuck in the style, sound and structure of songs from the pre-war era. They were in short, folk songs. While the Beat Poets had gone forward and created a new form of poetry, music had been stuck. Indeed it can be argued that while “Times they are a changing” made a very significant statement of belief in terms of the mood of young people, musically it was stuck way back in the past.
Then, in one moment Dylan turned this situation upside down, and so added yet another mode of music to his already extraordinary output.
Although Dylan followed this with a return to his familiar blues theme with Outlaw Blues he also delivered within the song a side-swipe at those who criticise his musical output.
And then, as if that were not enough (which it would be for many a writer) Dylan turned the love ballad upside down by adding to the form a set of metaphysical lyrics. And we should remember that love ballads had never until this point being a serious part of Dylan’s work – he’d done plenty of lost love songs, and songs of leaving, but love songs were thinner on the ground.
In fact Dylan gave us not just one love song in Love Minus Zero but also a second in the form of a 12 bar blues with She Belongs to Me before reverting to one of his most favoured themes of lost love with It’s all over now baby blue.
Then just to show us that the notion of beat poetry having a music of its own was not a simple one-off Dylan delivered Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream – taking Motorcycle Nightmare even further in terms of the realms of the crazed world.
After that, and I have the feeling it was just to make the point, Dylan pronounced that
Well, I woke up in the morning
There’s frogs inside my socks
Your mama, she’s a-hidin’
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearin’
A Napoleon Bonaparte mask
Then you ask why I don’t live here
Honey, do you have to ask?
With On the Road Again we really have now reached the world of the pop surreal – yet another Dylan form, and the second he has invented in the space of six months.
This theme continued with Maggie’s Farm which you will recall begins
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I wake in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Dylan clearly loved his new invention of surreal lyrics, and expanded this now into surreal titles starting with It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry (also known as the Phantom Engineer), which combines the surreal with the every day. It is as if he is saying that our world is in fact surreal, it is just we are so used to it we can’t see it any more.
Don’t the moon look good, mama
Shinin’ through the trees?
Don’t the brakeman look good, mama
Flagging down the “Double E?”
Don’t the sun look good
Goin’ down over the sea?
Don’t my gal look fine
When she’s comin’ after me?
We don’t quite know where we are, but somehow it feels normal, even if it ain’t.
My guess is that at this moment Dylan realised that he could go anywhere, and create any type of song. In fact, he had created so many styles and approaches he probably thought he could go on creating them for ever, and certain he now he had one more to give us – a completely new approach which generated some of the most powerful songs Dylan was ever to produce: The Songs of Disdain. In the near future we were to get “Positively Fourth Street” and “Can you please crawl out your window” but for the moment Like a Rolling Stone turned popular music upside down, and inside out.
For it not only introduced a new approach to the old “lost love” theme, this extended the form of the popular song beyond belief. And it was long. Much longer than a pop song. Indeed it couldn’t be a pop song – because pop songs were two and a half minutes long.
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal
And anyway, just how viscous do you want your rock songs to be? Or, in terms of the next song, just how weird?
I wrote in my review of Tombstone Blues
Just how surreal do you want to be? Just how far can the three major chords that make up the blues be taken? Consider just one line: “The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse”.
and I can’t put it more clearly than this, with Rolling Stone. Dylan at this time was totally wound up with disdain (the other side of the coin of the songs of farewell with which he started the year) and at this point it all came pouring out in one go.
As I find myself saying so often in reviewing this period of Dylan’s life, half of this output would be enough to satisfy a lifetime of composition by most songwriters, but Dylan hadn’t yet reached the two other greatest triumphs of the year, the first of which he now composed in terms of Desolation Row
Yes of course it is a protest song (what else can it be when it starts “they’re selling postcards of the hanging”) but it is also a development of a theme within Rolling Stone, that it is not the world that is the issue, but rather it is how you see the world, how you react to the world, what you do within the world, as witness the comment about Ezra Pound and TS Eliot.
Eliot was clearly on Dylan’s mind at this time, for he returned to the issue of Eliot’s private life vis a vis his poetry in “Waters of Oblivion” the following year, with a more subtle but more viscous attack. Here he appears to touch on Eliot’s remoteness from the everyday world. April might be the cruellest month, but the 20th century is the cruellest era.
Desolation Row, like Rolling Stone, is a defining element in Dylan’s extraordinary career, not just because of what the song is, in its original form, but because of the reinterpretations possible. Rolling Stone, because of its solid four square beat, is hard to re-work. But Desolation Row can have any sort of musical interpretation. Indeed hearing Dylan perform it as a dance number was one of the most extraordinary moments for me in any concert hall anywhere. The message was plain – we are all just dancing our way to oblivion.
After composing such masterpieces Dylan, perhaps not surprisingly, turned back to his earlier new theme, the songs of disdain, in short order writing Can you please crawl out your window? and Positively Fourth Street.
And then just to remind the world (or maybe himself) of where he came from he returned to the blues with Highway 61 Revisited – the very title of which celebrates the blues and Robert Johnson, but in a way that we have never heard it before.
And so one again I find myself thinking that thus far we have what would have been enough for a lifetime achievement by most writers but was in fact just one year from Dylan, and he still had five songs to go. He gave us a song of surreal decline from the real world into alcohol and drug abuse with Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues a lost love song with a difference (as in come back to me when you’ve had enough of being away from me, with Queen Jane Approximately) and another song of disdain, but this time about an art critic/academic (Ballad of a thin man).
At this point Dylan appears to turn around to have a bit of fun at the Beatles’ expense with I wanna be your lover before giving us what many consider to be his supreme musical achievement Visions of Johanna
Through this incredible year Dylan has developed a whole stream of new approaches to popular music, creating a form that would give a musical outlet for the visions of the beat poets, the songs of disdain, a musical form for surreal poetry, and a political commentary far broader than anything that could ever have been conceived before with Desolation Row – enough in fact for a lifetime’s work, and then suddenly we got Visions.
Visions is a different kind of song, and it is an approach to song writing that Dylan utilised for years to come – the equivalent of the painting that hints at the world it portrays but without giving us the totality of the reality it looks at. The best title I can come up with is the music of suggestion. Not a very wonderful title, but for the moment it will have to do.
In Visions we never quite know – everything is seen through a mist, as the very opening lines about the night playing tricks describes. It is a new use of rock music, a new style, a new approach, and indeed a new vision. Visual artists had been doing it for years and years, but now here it was in rock music.
The significance of this moment cannot be over-estimated, for across the years many, many commentators have tried to take individual Dylan lines and give them specific meanings – especially those commentators seeking to give Dylan’s work from outside the overtly Christian period, specific Christian meanings. But here, in this first atmospheric song, it is quite clear there is no meaning, there is a picture, a description of a personal world, not an explanation of the rights and wrongs of the world.
It turned out to be an approach to music that Dylan would return to time and time again across the years. From later years, “Things have changed” is a perfect example – indeed its line “I’m in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood” tells us exactly what this type of song is about. We can think of “Tell Ol Bill” in the same way: music as a picture.
It was, in short, a lifetime’s achievement in one amazing, incredible year.
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/ It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century