By Tony Attwood
Everyone knows about the motorcycle crash year, and I think that somehow a lot of people still think that at that point Dylan retreated and stopped writing songs. This wasn’t the case. Whatever the truth about the bike accident, Dylan kept writing – and writing with huge success. It was later that his muse seemed to dry up completely.
But since we have now reached the year when it all happened again for Bob the Composer, I think it is worth looking at a bit of historical context. The number of songs composed show the total that seem to me to songs of significance of which we have a recording. If you feel I have missed any out, please do shout and I’ll do a review – unless you would like to do one for me.
1967: 22 songs ranging from the Basement songs written for others to record (I shall be released, This Wheel’s on Fire etc etc) plus all the John Wesley Harding songs.
1968: One song, written for a movie, delivered late so it wasn’t used.
1969: Eight songs, mostly country music, few of which can be said to be among Dylan’s greatest works.
1970: 13 songs including the New Morning pieces, which for many critics are modestly successful, but not among his greatest works.
1971: Three songs of which two are considered by some (like me) to be particularly fine
1972: One song (Forever Young) and incidental film music.
1973: 11 songs, including some that have become recognised as paticularly fine works, and perhaps most interestingly, a return to some of Dylan’s themes from the sixties.
Looking at this sequence we can send a wave pattern – a retreat from the world and the desire to write songs, and when songs are written they have none of the ground breaking revolutionary qualities of the work of the early 1960s. But then, just at the end of 1973 a real sign that the old Dylan, as a composer, was awakening once again.
And awaken he did, by doing what he had done at the end of 1973 – returning to the old themes.
Dylan opened 1974 with a return to the old story telling songs that he had honed his composition skills in the 1960s on. Tales of gamblers and travellers. The down and outs, the guys who are outside the law but are good at heart. We think back to Rambling Gambling Willie and Only a Hobo. Dylan had experimented with taking this genre further in 1967 with Drifter’s Escape and I am a lonesome hobo but that year he was minimising the songs, reducing them to a matter of a few enigmatic verses rather than giving us the full on tale.
But now he was back to theme and he gave it everything he had with Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.
Where did that come from? My view is it came out of the end of the previous year, with Dylan thinking – “what did I used to write about? How did I used to do it?” And he found out. I know that sounds simplistic, but sometimes monumental events have simple starts.
And this was a monumental event and no mistake because monuments of true merit tend to bring forth further monuments and that is what we got next with Tangled up in blue.
When I first came across the song it took me a moment to realise what I was listening to – a song equal in merit (at the very least) to the ultimate classics of the 60s. A song I would put alongside “Desolation Row”, “Rolling Stone”, “Johanna”, “One of us must know”, “Fourth Street” “When the Ship Comes In”…. A song, seemingly out of nowhere, taking us into totally new ground.
For me, “Tangled” really, really is that. It has that quality of “Visions” in which you can’t quite get a grip on who is where and what is what or indeed (and this I think was the new element), When is when. It really is an absolute ground-breaking event in the history of 20th century music.
Through this season of writing songs Dylan rarely let the level slip. No matter which way he turned, he seemed to be able to deliver: Shelter from the storm for example is an utterly different song but again Dylan has found a new approach, a new way of exploring the vision.
And he most certainly wasn’t done yet, because we still had the almighty Idiot Wind waiting to burst forth. I’ve made this sort of comment before but I can’t resist running it again: for anyone else a song like “Tangled” would be the ultimate highlight of a writing career. For Dylan it was a return to his highest level of form. But then, just to make sure we got the point, he did it again with another piece that for anyone else would be the all time great achievement: Idiot Wind.
I’m trying hard not to make this just a list of the songs – that’s covered on the Chronology series – but let me just throw in Up to Me. It is one of those songs that still after all these years, sends shivers throw my body. What an utterly amazing brilliant piece of music it is.
So go on, boys, and play your hands, life is a pantomime
The ringleaders from the county seat say you don’t have all that much time
And the girl with me behind the shades, she ain’t my property
One of us has got to hit the road, I guess it must be up to me
If you want to know where Bob was this year, if you want to know what was going on inside his head as he wrote these incredible pieces of music, in one verse the whole “songs of farewell” concept is summed up.
What an amazing song. What an amazing year. What an unbelievable talent.
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
- 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