“Can’t escape from you”: one of Bob Dylan’s most curious, and least successful songs

By Tony Attwood

In 2005 Bob Dylan wrote but two songs – both (so it is said) for movies.  First came the utterly sublime Tell Ol’ Bill and then came “Can’t escape from you.”  I have, I think, spent more time writing and re-writing the review of Tel Ol’ Bill, (a song that I put at the pinnacle of Bob’s compositional achievements) than any other song on this site.  Which makes “Can’t escape from you” all the stranger.

The first thing to notice about “Can’t escape” is that the alleged film was not made – and that in itself is odd.  Six years after “Things have changed” was composed, four years after Bob had gained the songwriting Oscar, and someone (we know not who) asks Bob to write a piece of music for a film, which at this time doesn’t even have the financing in place.

This is quite a contrast with the time when Bob was commissioned to write a song for Midnight Cowboy, and delivered it so late it couldn’t be used.  Now he is writing a song for a movie that doesn’t even have the finances sorted!

No one seems quite sure what the film was, so I have a certain doubt about this – a doubt which is amplified when I listen to the music itself and indeed when I come to study the lyrics – particularly at the end.  And in fact, so unlikely do I think it is that there ever was a film, I rather believe that when Bob Dylan mentioned it, he was actually suggesting that he was writing a song that could be the song of a movie – if anyone wanted to make it.  No one did, it seems.

Now I must say that my doubts about the quality of this song are not shared by everyone.  For example the web site “The 25 Greatest Dylan Songs of The Past 20 Years”  not only has this song listed – but lists it above “Things have changed” in its run down of the best 25 songs.  Unfortunately they did not get round to telling us why it is considered so good. Here’s the full entry

#16. Can’t Escape From You
Another gem – this one from 2005 – left unreleased until late-2008, when it finally appeared on Tell Tale Signs.

I really, really, don’t share this view.   For one thing musically the piece is very simple, using uses arpeggios (notes 1, 3 and 5 of the scale) both in the accompaniment and in the melody.  It is the sort of thing that dates back to 1955, but at least there people wrote a separate melody to go around the accompanying arpeggios.

But of course Bob has often shown us that sometimes you don’t so much need a melody, if the lyrics are themselves of great interest, but here I fear this is not the case.  This song opens with:

Oh the evening train is rolling
All along the homeward way
All my hopes are over the horizon
All my dreams have gone away

which is pleasant enough but after the second verse we are still waiting for something more than a statement that this is a song about lost love.

The hillside darkly shaded
Stars fall from above
All the joys of earth have faded
The night’s untouched my love

and it continues in way – we are still with the “I’m lonesome, you’ve gone” approach with verse three.

I’ll be here ’til tomorrow
Beneath a shroud of grey
I pretend I’m free of sorrow
My heart is miles away

There really is nothing to lift the song out of this feeling that everything has gone wrong.  Of course you can write a song about the world’s gone wrong, or my baby left me, but it needs something to make us want to share the pain, but all we get here, in my opinion, is just random lines of lost love.

Bob even throws in the most famous metaphor in the language, but because we all know it, it has no power or meaning left, and seems oddly out of place this far into the song without any context.

The path is ever winding
The stars they never age
The morning light is blinding
All the world’s a stage

And just in case you would like a reminder of your actual Shakespeare the opening of Act 2 Scene VII of “As you like it” runs

      All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,

Now that is interesting, even when taken in splendid isolation.  But  here… no, it doesn’t work for me.

The problem is amplified by the fact that even when we do get an unexpected interesting line we have no explanation, and no other lines to hold onto.  Consider this verse from late on in the piece

All our days were splendid
They were simple, they were plain
It never should have ended
I should have kissed you in the rain

That last line does make me sit up and wonder.  First time I played this through in preparing to write this review I thought, wow, I missed something, and went back to find a context – that turned out not to be there.

But then as we enter the next two verses (the last two verses of the piece) I had my thoughts confirmed that this was not a song to be considered much further.  The final verses run….

I’ve been thinking things all over
All the moments full of grace
The primrose and the clover
Your ever changing face

Can’t help looking at you
You made love with god-knows-who
Never found a gal to match you
I can’t escape from you

Now for me, the line “You made love with god-knows-who” is a shock and a half.  Not, I would hasten to add, because of any ethical purity but because of artistic integrity.  Bob is telling us all the way through the song how wonderful the girl is,  as the penultimate verse tells us with the “full of grace” line stresses, but then we find she sleeps around.

Fair enough, that’s her choice, and I make no moral judgement.  Some people have lots of sexual partners, some don’t, that’s how it goes.  But normally if this is a relevant fact to be mentioned earlier in the song, it might get mentioned earlier, not in verse 15.  Or if verse 15 really is the place to reveal this fact, then it needs to be dealt with thereafter.  Just throwing in the unexpected and leaving us to work it out, doesn’t work for me at all.

Was Bob perhaps trying to paint the story of a lady who he loves and adores from afar, mentioning in passing that she has slept with many different people, because it doesn’t affect his vision of her?  Maybe, but for me this most certainly does not work.

What particularly makes this fail is the fact that all 15 verses are based around not only the plodding melody, but also just three chords – the three major chords of A major – heard over and over.  Nothing relieves what becomes a plodding repetition.

It really doesn’t work for me, and if we did not have the story about the movie, I’d say, here’s another notebook experiment which Bob was right to throw away.   Which leads me to my final point.  Maybe the movie story simply isn’t true. Maybe it is a confusion with the other song this year – the magnificent “Tell Ol Bill.”  Maybe.

What is on the site

1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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2 Responses to “Can’t escape from you”: one of Bob Dylan’s most curious, and least successful songs

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Tony, from my perspective you’re taking things too literally. There’s a lingering echo of the Romantic transcendentalist poets in this song, the ruin of an ideal world that exists in one’s mind by the world of external reality. You have to stop being so religious (lol).

  2. Sarah Westphal says:

    An “i-thou” relationship is the kernel of so many of Bob’s songs. I often wonder, though, who the the “thou,” the second person, might be. Here I think it is the audience. If that interpretation is plausible, then the Shakespeare quote is right at the heart of its meaning and power.

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