By Tony Attwood
In many respects I find 1984 a year in which Dylan was once more casting around for a new vision, a new idea. Part blues, part religion, part love songs, part experiment… that was the sort of year it turned out to be.
But there was one absolute total triumph: the song that started the year I once knew a man. Aside from the fact that this is obviously a variant blues, I have no idea where this came from; it doesn’t appear on the official site, and it is absolutely not a new version of the song of the same name, written by Charles Manson.
We have a video of the single performance of the song, but nothing else. But at least we do have the video, otherwise another masterpiece would have been lost.
However we are clearly in a world of uncertainty for Bob. Who loves you more is a sketchbook idea of a blues, which for me is never resolved (although others claim it is). Likewise Almost done is another sketchbook piece which sadly is not really going anywhere. Two sketches and a blues piece only played once – this starts to tell us the tale of the year.
Then we have the curious case of Dirty lie which seems to me to be like a direct copy from “Stray Cat Strut” (which I’ve linked to on the review so you can hear for yourself).
After that Go way little boy is a great bit of bouncy fun written for Lone Justice, but it is not a great song in itself, and at the risk of making myself a lot of enemies I would argue that Drifting too far from shore is again an experiment that doesn’t work, from a writer struggling for inspiration.
New Danville Girl is of course a most interesting piece because of what Bob did to it over time – something that I have tried to explore in my review. But what fascinates me most of all, coming back to this song again is the line, “Nothing happens on purpose, it’s an accident if it happens at all.” As I noted at the time, “With that simple line all of civilisation, all human progress, the whole Christian message, everything that makes us human rather than just animals, is blown away.” We really are once again just blowing in the wind.
After that all we have is Something’s Burning Baby. This is so dark I can’t really buy into the notion that it is about his religious feelings; it seems to me to be another lost love song, saying as it does, “Whereas we once knew, now we don’t.”
You’ve been avoiding the main streets for a long, long while
The truth that I’m seeking is in your missing file
What’s your position, baby, what’s going on?
Why is the light in your eyes nearly gone?
In a way that sums up Bob in this year. He’s lost. He knows he once had found the way, but now that is long since gone. He can’t go back; he doesn’t want to go back to the religious certainties. The lines that come out tell him this, and he struggles to make sense of the music.
Only once, at the beginning of the writing process for the year, did he find Brilliant Bob at his Best, and that was with a sensational blues piece. How very Bob to have that, and then put it away, unremembered for ever more. Except by those of us who go around looking.
Song of the year: beyond any doubt I once knew a man.
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.
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.