Bob Dylan in 1977: the preparation work for “Not Dark Yet”

By Tony Attwood

You could create a whole treatise on the magical lines of Bob Dylan’s songwriting just by working through Street Legal.  In fact you could do just from “Where are you tonight?”  And then, if you had a mind to, you could find all sorts of links to that later masterpiece, “Not Dark Yet”.

Dylan wrote seven of the songs for this album in 1977 – although possibly with some preliminary work in 1976, and for all the people who are not convinced that this is one of the great masterworks from Dylan, there is little I can do but to say either listen to the power of Dylan’s singing on “Where are you tonight”, or look at the lyrics.

Here was a master of the art of songwriting with a million emotions powering around in his brain and trying to find ways to get them into songs that might express where he was at the time.

Lines like

The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode.

And

She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair and discovered her invisible self.

This is the man who has already invented so many new ways for rock and blues music to evolve suddenly popping up with something utterly new by way of insight and form.  Quite why so many Dylan fans don’t like this album is beyond me.

Maybe the problem for some critics is that Dylan is singing about his life and not the eternal verities – and yet for me that is the key to this work.   It is the eternal verities seen through personal conflict and experience.  Just think of

If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise
Remind me to show you the scars

Had anyone in pop and rock ventured into that territory before?  This is the theme of the blues expanded and explored as never before.

And less you think I am reducing this whole album – this whole year – to one song, I would urge to consider the album itself.   It is not all perfection – “No time to think” has its problems with the form given to the song for example, but he still manages to cast an eye over his own past musings mixed up with his own divorce problems.

Judges will haunt you, the country priestess will want you
Her worst is better than best
I’ve seen all these decoys through a set of deep turquoise eyes
And I feel so depressed

And much of this is timeless.  Try this verse

Anger and jealousy’s all that he sells us
He’s content when you’re under his thumb
Madmen oppose him, but your kindness throws him
To survive it you play deaf and dumb

He could be talking about a teacher who tormented you at school or any contemporary idiot in power.  Anyone with power in fact.

And if I still haven’t convinced you yet, try “Changing of the Guards” – one of the very few Dylan songs where the Wikipedia article writes about Dylan’s musical composition, rather than just his lyrics or the production (and I promise, I didn’t write that).  Dylan said of the song “It means something different every time I sing it,” and maybe that is what people don’t like about the whole collection of songs from this year.  It really does change its meaning the more you listen to it.

And it is one hell of a recovery from the previous year when he wrote just one song.

Oh yes and we have Helena Springs popping up too.

  1. Changing of the Guards
  2. Is your love in vain?
  3. Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)
  4. No Time to Think
  5. True Love Tends to Forget
  6. We better Talk this Over
  7. Where are you tonight?

It was dark, but not as dark as Dylan could ultimately imagine.

 

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1 Response to Bob Dylan in 1977: the preparation work for “Not Dark Yet”

  1. hans altena says:

    A good case for a record one should not have to defend, I think for many listeners in those days of shallow disco and poppy new wave were not ready for such soul searching… It didn’t help either that the modern studio had become a hostile place for such an intuitive musician as Dylan. But the lyrics of Street Legal belong to his best for the most part, only where he already tried out to be more simple, ( mostly a dead end for him) he lost some of his power.

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