Bob Dylan in 1969: everything is lovely

By Tony Attwood

Dylan wrote just one song in 1968 –Lay Lady Lay after having averaged around 18 songs of note and importance a year across the rest of the decade.  It was by any standard a great song, although it was delivered late – so late in fact that it couldn’t be included in the film that commissioned it.  (Mind you the film didn’t seem to suffer).

But such things happen, and Dylan clearly deserved a year out.  And we could all hope that Bob would return in 1969 revitalised and ready to deliver a few new masterpieces – another Desolation Row perhaps, a venture into a new form maybe, some more enigmatic pieces of the “Drifter’s Escape” and “All along the Watchtower” variety.  Maybe even more Visions.

We certainly did get something new – something that certainly Lay Lady Lay did not prepare us for.   What we got was a further exploration of rural music – this time with a country flavour.   But it was an album that didn’t have any of the enigma of John Wesley Harding.  There was no re-writing of history, no chance of arguing over references and meaning.  It’s a “life is nice” album.

What Dylan had done with JWH was give us tales from the old days but with a depth of mystery that can still provoke arguments.  But here Dylan stripped out the enigma, and instead took as his starting point “I’ll be your baby tonight” but then perhaps thought that was a bit too complex and simplified it further.

There is of course on the album the duet with Johnny Cash, which is of importance in music history, and certainly adds an extra level to “Girl from the North Country,” but as an opening statement on an album from a man known for always giving us something new, this was something old.  An interesting something old, but not what Dylan was known for.

“Nashville Skyline Rag” isn’t what Dylan is known for either.   True it allows the album’s musicians to have a bit of fun, but does it add anything or make us think or give us something new?  No.  That doesn’t make it a poor song, because there is nothing in the rule book that says that Dylan has to give us something new each time – it is just a bit of a surprise that the man who has made his name out of taking the blues, pop and rock in new directions chooses to visit an old direction.

Dylan wrote the songs for the album, and little else at this time.  Some love songs, a bit of lost love and some trivia – here they are

  1. I threw it all away
  2. To be alone with you
  3. One more night
  4. Peggy Day
  5. Country Pie
  6. Tell me it isn’t true
  7. Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You
  8. Living the blues

There are some classic Dylan moments in the year’s compositions – and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is a lovely song, but it seems a bit of a let down, in that across two years all we get are nine songs and an instrumental.

Maybe the conclusion is that Dylan was too content.  Maybe he needs to be hurting, full of despair and disdain, deep in dismay to write great songs.  Maybe as others have said, his musical style and approach are just not suited to the total fulfilment of happy family life in the rural countryside.   But if (again as others have said) Dylan had given us an album of mysticism amidst the olden days, and albums of hurt and pain, so now he wanted to offer an album about being happy then ok he did that.  It just doesn’t seem to work for me (and honestly I am not endlessly miserable).

Dylan seemed very happy with his modest output across the last two years of the decade – an output that had nothing to do with what was happening in the country at large, and nothing to do with breaking new ground.   But then, there is nothing in the rule book that says that every album has to reach out to new territory.

But if it is a case of judging the music by having the luxury of historical perspective, then much of the music of these two years must be seen as a failure.  Every minute of every day I am certain there are many people who are playing tracks from the previous Dylan albums, or just singing the songs to themselves, or quoting them.   But how much of these two year’s output is still played, and still quoted?   I suspect not much.

However, maybe that’s just me.  Maybe I just want every year to be 1965.

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

These files put Dylan’s work in the order written.  You can link to the files here

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11 Responses to Bob Dylan in 1969: everything is lovely

  1. jose says:

    You gotta be jokin´…Nashville Skyline is a great album and its greatness grows as years go by. Just think about those horrible Sinatra covers he recently did and you will find the answer to your concern…

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan references the Bible a lot, ie, depicting himself at first as the young Samson taking over from the old El(v)i(s) who has become too complacent. That the way things can go if one is not watching over the metaphorical Ark of God.

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    *Samuel….sorry.

  4. Johnny Mack says:

    I am not boasting here but there was a time,not too long ago when I could lie in bed and serenade my wife with every song on the album in exact track order.(I hummed the Rag)She was usually asleep by the third or fourth song but I always persevered to the end.
    Yes Bob.

  5. TonyAttwood says:

    Jose you could be right and I could be completely wrong, but it would be good if you could say why it is so good.

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    You’re right from your side;
    He’s right from his ……I said that.

  7. Jose says:

    Tony, Nashville is a great album because shows a then unknown side of Dylan as a songwriter and singer. Who could have predicted before this album that he was able to go country&western? Another proof of Dylan genius and unpredictability…

  8. patrizia says:

    Tony Attwood, let’s go! You have to read the interview made by Newsweek 14 apr. 1969 after the exit of Nashville Skyline to Dylan.

  9. TonyAttwood says:

    Just so everyone can get the reference Patrizia, in Newsweek Dylan is quoted as saying…

    “These are the type of songs that I always felt like writing. The songs reflect more of the inner me than the songs of the past. They’re more to my base than, say, John Wesley Harding. There I felt everyone expected me to be a poet so that’s what I tried to be. But the smallest line on this new album means more to me than some of the songs on the previous albums I’ve made.”

  10. Larry fyffe says:

    Yes indeed, but no man is an island, and Dylan later returns to addressing the troubled world outside of himself while at the same time being concerned as an artist to create things anew, injecting low and high ‘poetics’ into his musical innovations.

  11. Larry fyffe says:

    Not to mention competition in the music industry.
    Not only the Bible, the poem ‘Lapis Lazuli’ by WB Yeats warns him that “Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out”.

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