This Wheels on Fire. If you’re memory serves you well, you’ll know this is a masterpiece

By Tony Attwood

Where to begin?  Where to begin?

This song is so utterly amazing, so un-Dylan, yet so Dylan – undoubtedly because of the input of Rick Danko.  As I understand it from reports of what Danko has said,  Dylan wrote the lyrics, and both men wrote the chorus together.  Although Danko has not said (at least as far as I know) it seems both from this report and from simply listening to this song and comparing it with Dylan written pieces, he wrote the chords and melody for the verse.

When I started this series of reviews, I wanted to put this right at the top of the list, the first song, but two things got in the way.  First I couldn’t find the words to express what I wanted to say about this and second it is so untypical that it seemed the wrong place to start.   So, some 85 reviews on I have the feeling maybe I can write something meaningful now.

The version I am referring to throughout is the Basement Tapes version recorded in 1967 and appearing in 1975.  But by the time it came out what we knew (or at least those of us from the UK) was Julie Driscoll singing it with Brian Auger and The Trinity.  It was not only a hit, it was a cultural classic of 1968.  Indeed in many ways for some people it was 1968.   There is also the later re-recorded version with of all people Ade Edmondson, the actor and husband of the wonderful Jennifer Saunders (although Ade Edmondson is wonderful too), which became the theme tune of Absolutely Fabulous – a stupendous hit of a TV show in the UK, largely because of the  stunning script writing of Jennifer Saunders, perhaps the most talented comedy writer of the era.

But back to the music.

Two things shock and knock you out on hearing this original version.  One is the sheer absolute power of that opening line “If your memory serves you well” – so powerful in fact that some people refer to the song by that line and mistake that for the song’s name. 

 And then there is that extraordinary chord change: Am to B diminished.   Nowhere else in Dylan do you find this.  In fact I can’t think where he uses a diminished chord at all other than here.    The chord is removed in other versions, which is one reason why it is vital to return to this version of the song to hear it as created.

Indeed the chordal sequence is utterly unlike anything else in Dylan, alternating between A minor and C major.    As for the delivery – ok the timing wanders a bit, but this was never meant to be a definitive recording.  But who cares about timing, this track is utter perfection in terms of its expression of Dylan at his prime and pomp.  For once every word is vital, important, all-powerful, demanding attention.  No one can say “If your memory serves you well” in that way without grabbing you by the throat.

This is the height of the Songs of Disdain theme which in popular terms is highlighted by “Like a Rolling Stone”.  Except, in this one case, Dylan is saying, “No you don’t, we are staying together, you don’t get away from me that easy”.   This is Dylan knowing who he is, where he is, what he wants, and getting it all into one song.

If your memory serves you well we were going to meet again and wait
So I’m going to unpack all my things and sit before it gets too late
No man alive will come to you with another tale to tell
But you know that we shall meet again if your mem’ry serves you well

Now that you’ve met me there is no escape.  OK you might not have waited, but that’s not a problem at all because you and I are bound totally in eternity to each other.

This wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Best notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode.

What imagery is this!  What incredible feelings it brings forth.  Dylan, the man who had walked away so often, whether it was on One Too Many Mornings,  or It Ain’t Me Babe, is not walking this time, because this time the two lovers cannot be broken apart.

If your memory serves you well
I was going to confiscate your lace
And wrap it up in a sailor’s knot
And hide it in your case
If I knew for sure that it was yours
But it was oh so hard to tell
But you knew that we would meet again
If your memory serves you well

It is the power in that line repeated first and last that makes this so astoundingly overwhelming.  The lace is the woman’s way of making herself appear more alluring, and here for a second we are almost back into the territory of Elvis Presley, Little Richard rock n roll songs where the woman is never trusted because she will go off with the next man who comes along with a faster car, smarter jacket…

Compare and contrast Wheels on Fire with something like “My Baby Left Me” to see the difference.

And that is the theme that takes us into the next verse.  The singer says that the woman asked for the situation to be sorted, because she had failed to sort it herself.

But there is more – just listen to the singing, the way the words are pushed out so that no a single word or meaning is lost.  Just listen to the opening of this verse – power pours out from it.

If your memory serves you well
You’ll remember you’re the one

OK could she forget?   But now he’s spelling it out.

That called on me to call on them
To get you your favours done
And after every plan had failed
And there was nothing more to tell
You knew that we would meet again
If your memory served you well

He’s pulling her back in, and reminding her – I’ve done this for you, there’s no backing out now.

The wheel itself could be anything – himself (the singer), or his soul, his essence, his being…. all sorts of things. Everything.  I think Robert Palmer hit it perfectly when he said, “Some have seen it as a piece of rock and roll burn-out bravura, others as a more spiritual declaration. Whatever, its power and immediacy render literal interpretations irrelevant.”

What we know from Danko’s testimony is that Dylan wrote the lyrics, and that the duo wrote the chorus together.  Although Danko has not said (at least as far as I know) he wrote the chords and melody for the verse.

In the reviews one thing that comes up over and over again – the lyrics are chilling.  And how this is true.  If you had to struggle to understand each line that chillingness would be lost.  But you don’t.  They are clearer than anything since Freewheelin’.

In the end the song just goes around and around – you can hit repeat and apart from the slight change of tempo it is a perfect circle.  Each verse could be placed anywhere.  Probably the only thing you can compare this with is “All Along the Watchtower” which achieves the same effect although in a very different way but both have that continuity of expression which make them work. 

“Watchtower” does it through repeating the chord sequence over and over, this song does it through the excellence of the production and the clarity of the voice.  It is a deliberate rhythm which makes me feel that this is the voice that will take me through the burning when anyone who cares or cared turns up after my death to see me off.

But the key point here is that “All Along the Watchtower” and “Wheels of Fire” both speak of something that is not yet concluded – these are songs that are like pictures, capturing one moment in the drama.   This is where the song is so different from (for example) “One too many mornings” or “Sooner or later one of us must know” which speak about it all being over.   Here, it is far from over – indeed it has probably only just begun.

Index to all the songs


  1. I like your review. I guess that there is a whole book of these that you have written. I will have to buy it.
    I have just written a tribute song to Dylan. Hopefully it is worth reviewing someday.

  2. A couple of interesting things to note:

    Nothing Was Delivered, from the same period, also has this claustrophobic, “you and I are stuck here together until this gets resolved” theme.

    Apparently the opening line is taken from (or a reference to) Rimbaud’s “A Season In Hell” and I have always felt that the structure of the song invites one to fill in some variant of “we were going to meet again in hell”

    IIRC Danko said he had music “already written” that he fit the lyrics to, so I’m not so sure about collaborating on the chords

  3. I’m here because Kylie Minogue, of all people, has just recorded a version – and it’s led me to discover your passionate and inspiring review of it. Funny how some journeys through a song’s history can happen.

    Kylie’s version has a pop-twist to it, unsurprisingly, but her phrasing and ad libs towards the end shows me she recognises and respects the history of the song.

  4. Wow, what a great site this is. Thanks for all your work and enthusiasm for Dylan. I loved your line ‘Indeed in many ways for some people it was 1968’. Yep, this song is all I can remember of the 60s, and it is enough.
    And now he’s got the Nobel Prize, along with Obama. There’s something going on here!
    Wheels of Fire is about reincarnation.

  5. ‘This Wheel’s On Fire” contains its fair share of Dylan references.
    There’s William Blake’ ‘Bring me my chariot of fire’ (Jerusalem) and Rimbaud’s ‘Si je me souviens bien’ (A Season In Hell)-‘If your memory serves you well’- as well as the traditional lyrics:
    “Roll roll, roll on, John/
    Don’t you roll so slow/
    How you gonna roll when the wheels won’t roll.”

    “If I remember correctly, my life was a banquet” is what Rimbaud writes.

    In ‘Tangled Up In Blue”, Dylan alludes to Charles Baudelaire, another Symbolist poet:

    “Ah, and we said imperishable things/
    Those eaves illumined by the burning coal”
    (Baudelaire: The Balcony)

    “And every one of those words rang true/
    And glowed like burning coal”
    (Dylan: Tangled Up In Blue)

    Translations from the French can vary a bit, but the fact Dylan mentions Baudelaire in a rendition of the song would indicate a deliberate nod to the French poet.
    Moreover, the quote demonstrates Dylan’s
    consideration of lyrics as being an important component of the total piece of art.

  6. What if the lace is used to bind of the arm, to find an artery to inject heroin?
    That puts the meaning of the song in a completely different light.
    I just wonder. I’m not a native speaker in English though.

  7. I have listened to this song for over 40 years,and whereas I find it a catchy song,I am frustrated about its meaning.
    As literature goes,it is too abstruse. The connections from stanza to stanza are airy fairy. The stanzas on their own are easily understood but the refrain, “This wheel’s on fire” ,while dramatic in its imagery comes in out of the blue without any real connection to the previous stanza.
    It obviously means soething to Dylan but it’s too abstruse for the ordinary listener.
    It’s a catchy tune but a bit of an enigma literarily.

  8. the wheel on fire showing up out of the blue is surely the moment alluded to when you and i will meet again. this is easily one of dylan’s best songs – i have listened to it for 30 years and it holds up where others evaporate. it’s not a song about a lover i dare say, but part of dylan’s allegorical mode, seen in such songs as too much of nothing or all along the watchtower or even you aint going nowhere – the casual parlance of the basement tape songs confuse people into thinking they’re not allegorical because they don’t use the biblical language of JWH.
    the roll on wheels in the song for john [lennon] mentioned above are surely a reference to lennon’s “watching the wheeels”

  9. James is right. “Wheels of Fire” will not be truly understood outside the framework of reincarnation. If you don’t “get it,” the song will still be tantalizingly beautiful, but not quite on the mark. No man alive can come to you with another tale to tell.

  10. I lived with the chill of knowing these words ring true without understanding why. The songs would continue to be perfect in my darkness. Yet thank you for opening my eyes again and again. Can there be something better than perfection? Wisdom?

  11. Like everyone else who has posted here, I have listened and loved “This Wheel’s on Fire” for over fifty years now. It is beautiful, haunting and plaintive. But something that I heard in it the very first time I listened to it and that continues to stay with me. It is in the chorus, the way the young men sing and harmonize about their shared experience. No critics or Dylanologists have ever commented on this, but the chorus seems like the perfect way for Dylan and his fellow musicians who played with him on the frantic and fraught European tour to capture the essence of their experience. The crowds were rejecting what they were doing but they soldiered on, turned inward, and took an incredible journey together. At times, it must’ve seemed as though the wheels might catch fire and come off the bus. The incredible moment they were sharing together could explode at any second…but they would persevere and they would survive. They were living on the edge but they kept on ‘Rollin’ Down the Road.’ It is beautiful, it is art acknowledging itself without acknowledging anything else to anyone. What is done is done and no one owes anybody anything.

  12. I class this song as a kind of murder ballad. (Hence Kylie’s interest.)

    The singer is fixated on some remembered grievance, and is threatening her with some unpleasantness she won’t be able to forget; he has some elaborate plan involving lace and knots but his thought patterns are too confused to put the plan into effect.

    Part of his threats is that he is like wheel rolling down a hill, burning and about to explode even. Look out!

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