Bob Dylan in 1973: moving into the second round of unadulterated genius

By Tony Attwood

Forget, if you can, Planet Waves as an album, and look at this collection of songs composed in 1973 in the order they were written.  Once you have, I think you may well find the critics’ views of Planet Waves completely at variance with what you have heard.

Indeed if ever there is a year where the songs Dylan gave the world should be heard in the order they were written, it is this year.  If ever a year should be seen as a new beginning it is this year.

Here is what you would get in terms of the order of writing…

  1. Knocking on heaven’s door
  2. Never say goodbye
  3. Nobody cept you
  4. Going going gone
  5. Hazel
  6. Something there is about you
  7. You Angel You
  8. On a night like this
  9. Tough Mama
  10. Dirge
  11. Wedding Song

(Just in case you’ve lost your copy, the track order from the album as released on LP format is at the end of this piece).

First I have to say I think this is a knock out set of songs on any account.  And when it is remembered that we have just had two years in which Dylan wrote very little, it is an extraordinary outpouring.  OK there is no utter masterpiece as along the lines of a handful  the songs of Dylan put out in 1963 to 1965, no “Johanna”, no “Desolation Row”, no “Rolling Stone” – but such productivity could never come out of nowhere.  A bit of a warm up was needed – and as a warm up for what was to come in the following year, this collection is incredible.

Especially as these songs came after such – a long hiatus, for even the year of the New Morning songs only had a limited number of highly memorable works.

Now take a look at the topics covered – and in this list I know I am simplifying the meanings of the songs for a moment, but I hope you will stay with me on this a moment longer.

  1. Knocking on heaven’s door – love
  2. Never say goodbye – love
  3. Nobody cept you – love
  4. Going going gone – self confessions, the end of self
  5. Hazel – love
  6. Something there is about you – love
  7. You Angel You – love
  8. On a night like this – love
  9. Tough Mama – on being full of life
  10. Dirge  – disdain and self hatred
  11. Wedding Song – rejection of labelling, setting oneself free

If you have read my reviews of Dylan year by year through the 1960s you might recall that I mentioned how he would jump from writing a song about one of his favourite themes straight into another and another.   1965 took us through songs of farewell, beat poetry as rock, blues, love, disdain, surrealism, political protest… one after the other.  And that was what it was like all the way through from 1962 to 1967.   Then Bob stopped.

Taking the songs that were recorded by Bob or others, after around 20 songs that should be remembered, each and every year, we got

  • 1968: one song
  • 1969: eight songs (including the Nashville Skyline songs)
  • 1970: thirteen songs (including the New Morning songs)
  • 1971: three songs
  • 1972: one song and instrumental music for Billy the Kid

Now we get the road back to the old days.  Dylan, I think, sets out to write, or perhaps by chance happens to write, a whole series of love songs and then after three songs becomes self-reflective with “Going”.   Then back to love, not just the love of a woman but the love of life itself.

Until later, suddenly everything changes and we have two extraordinarily different songs at the end of the year.

The point is that Dylan isn’t yet able to or willing to or wanting to jump from concept to concept, topic to topic, over and over again over and over again, as he did before.  But this jumping was at the very heart of his compositional skills.   He doesn’t do it through this year but he is finding himself able to do it to some extent as the year of writing comes to a close.  He is back to the Bob Dylan that we knew in the early days, before Self Portrait.

Also I would say that if we compare these 11 songs with the quality of songs from 1969 and 1970, the last two years in which he wrote more than a handful of songs, there is no comparison.  As works of art these songs really are at a so much higher level than the songs of 1969 and 1970 which although having moments that could readily be seen as the highlight in the writing of most composers of popular songs, really don’t match Dylan’s earlier output.

Of course we’ll all find interesting songs in 1969 and 1970, but these new songs of 1973 really do require a complete focus on where Dylan was going and what he was doing, whereas some of the songs of the 1969/70 vintage really can be appreciated from the first hearing, without any issue of deeper analysis.

That is not to say that songs have to be complex to be good, but the fact is that Dylan made his name by taking popular and folk music into dimensions that the forms had never been used for before.  Here he ends by taking us on another journey into previously unexplored arenas.

Thus I do think that analysing this year is of fundamental importance when looking at the progression of Dylan’s art, because of what comes next.  And indeed I can’t believe there are many Dylan fans who have studied such matters who do not see 1974 as one of the great highlight moments in Dylan’s compositional life.

My point is that Dylan is unlikely to have been able to produce the monuments of 1974 without the introductory year of 1973 and quite probably he wouldn’t have produced the music of 1973 without having the break we have noted in the years before.  This is not to diminish the works of 1973, but rather to say they were great works in themselves which also served as the preparation for Tangled up in Blue and the rest.

Seeing the songs in the order written over these few years shows us a man who had somewhat lost his way as a composer, taking time out, and then deliberately setting out to explore once more where else he could take the musical form in which he worked.

And that is what 1973 is.  A year of exploration producing some extraordinarily interesting, beautiful and challenging works, which are of great value in themselves, and which is followed by a year of writing masterpieces once again.

For those of us there at the time who thought “New Morning” was ok, and that it was nice to have another Dylan album, and then wondered if really, that was about it in terms of Dylan the great originator, the great lyricist, the creator of new forms within the genre, the emergence of the Planet Waves songs was a great relief.  The master could still turn it on.   And the amazing thing is, at the time we just didn’t realise how much he could turn it on, once again.

Planet Waves: how the songs were presented on the album

Side one
No. Title
1. “On a Night Like This”
2. “Going, Going, Gone”
3. “Tough Mama”
4. “Hazel”
5. “Something There Is About You”
6. “Forever Young”
Side two
No. Title
1. “Forever Young”
2. “Dirge”
3. “You Angel You”
4. “Never Say Goodbye”
5. “Wedding Song”

 

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 1973: moving into the second round of unadulterated genius

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Indeed, Dylan would later sing ironically,”I can’t help it if I’m lucky”, but he really knows luck has little to do with art…that it requires hard work and prepartion to produce ‘good works’ and there is required sometimes a break in which to get it back together again; to enable one to maintain one’s artistic output at a high level: Christ, you know it ain’t easy, the critics are waiting to crucify me:

    “In this age of fibre glass, I’m searching for a gem”

    As he often does, Dylan mixes his metaphors and compares his love of writing music and lyrics to a woman; indeed, an encounter with what he considers to be a ‘genuine’ female can turn out to be an inspirational muse.

    At the same time, TS Eliot’s poetry comes in handy-dandy as well:

    “If you see dear Mrs. Equitine/
    Tell her I bring the horoscope myself”
    (TheWasteland)

    The fortune-teller is speaking about a woman
    covered in a facade of fibre cement, and the fortune-teller wants to ‘foresee’ that she gets paid
    for her work when delivered; luck is going to
    have little to do with it.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    That is, Dylan, disgruntled with Columbia, switched to the Asylum label and created ‘Planet Waves.” Columbia responds spitefully with the release of an album of Dylan ‘out-takes’.

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    As the title ‘Planet Waves’ suggests, Dylan returns to and digs deep into the well of the Romantic transcendentalist nature poets who do not shy away from the darker aspects of the human condition; all is not sunshine and dancing daffodils; Dylan reworks their themes.

    “To stop without a farmhouse near/
    Between the woods and frozen lake/
    The darkest night of the year”
    (Frost: Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening)

    “Twilight on the frozen lake/
    North wind about to break/
    On the footprints in the snow/
    Silence down below”
    (Never Say Goodbye)

    “And cut and peeled a hazel wand/
    …..It became a glimmering girl/
    With apple blossoms in her hair/
    Who called me by my name and ran/
    And faded through the brightening air”
    (Yeats: Song Of The Wandering Aengus)

    “Hazel, you called and I came/
    Now don’t make me play this waiting game”
    (Hazel)

    “All that’s gold does not glitter/
    Not all those who wander are lost/
    The old that is strong does not wither/
    Deep roots are not reached by the frost”
    (Tolkien: All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter)

    “All that is gold isn’t meant to shine/
    Don’t you and your one true love ever part”
    (Going, Going, Gone)

    “For ever warm and still to be enjoyed/
    For ever panting, for ever young”
    (Keats: Ode To A Grecian Urn)

    “May your heart always be joyful/
    May your song always be sung/
    And may you stay forever young”
    (Forever Young)

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    So Mr. Attwood is absolutely correct that the songwriter/musician prepares himself well for ‘Planet Waves’ notwithstanding that Tony understresses the double-edged lyrics of Dylan’s love songs, the Blake-like forebodings therein.

    Other possible sources of inspiration include:

    “We often said imperishable things/
    Those evenings illuminated by the burning coal/
    ….And drank the nectar, the poison of your breath”
    (Baudelaire: The Balcony)

    “Build a fire, throw on logs/
    And listen to it hiss/
    And let it burn, burn, burn/
    …..There’s more frost on the window glass/
    With each new tender kiss”
    (On A Night Like This)

    “Had built a bower upon the green/
    As if she fromher birth had been/
    An infant of the woods/
    …………No more of this for now, by thee/
    Dear Ruth, more happily set free/
    With noble zeal I burn”
    (Wordsworth: Ruth)

    “…..and then there was Ruth/
    ….Don’t have to look no further/
    You’re the soul of many things/
    I could say that I’d be faithful…./
    But that would be cruelty….”
    (Something There Is About You)

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    “I could say it in one sweet easy breath/
    But that would be cruelty/
    And to me it surely would be death”

    too sounds like a reworking of:

    “I drank the nectar, the poison of your breath”

    with Beaudrlaire perhaps being a bit more literal and Dylan singing somewhat more figuratively.

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    In one version of ‘Tangled Up In Blue”, Dylan sings:

    “And she opened up a book of poems/
    And she starts quotin’ to me/
    It was either written by Charles Baudelaire/
    Or some poet from the thirteenth century/
    And every one of them words rang true/
    And glowed like burning coal”.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dante writes of ‘burning cells” in his Divine Comedy.

  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    And then there’s Dante’s shiney-eyed muse, Beatrice:

    “She turned her eyes toward me/
    And with that look a mother gives to her fevered child and began:
    ‘All things observe mutual order among themselves/
    And this is the structure that makes the universe
    resemble God'”.
    (Dante: Paradise, The Divine Comedy)

    “You angel you/
    You got me under your wing/
    The way you walk and the way you talk/
    I swear it would make me sing”
    (Bob Dylan: You Angel You)

  9. Babette says:

    All brilliant thoughts come from doubt or despair. He had both in the invironment he had chosen in such a young age. The board was clean for some years. His fantasies about paradise in a silent rural area were only fantasies. He was angry and disappointed.
    A long holiday had come to an end.

  10. Larry Fyffe says:

    All brilliant thoughts?? Maybe ‘most’, ‘many’, ‘some’ or ‘few”…..but certainly not “all”.

  11. Eugene Schubert says:

    Good job man, I appreciate the work you did year, enjoyed your year-by-year break down. Peace !

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