By Tony Attwood
This article was originally just about 1987 but on 13 May 2017 was re-written to take in 1988 as well, and answer the (very justifiable question) about the dating of songs around the time of Political World
In 1986 Bob was experimenting and looking for a new muse, a new way forward, a new style, a new approach. To my mind, as I said in the review of that year, I don’t think he found what he was looking for. The first two compositions of 1987, or perhaps it is the only composition of 1986 and the first of 1987 for me, show this unsuccessful searching continuing. Neither Love rescue me nor Congratulations do anything for me at all.
But before I go further I am going to have to explain my thinking about the dates of writing these songs – and indeed a comment on the dating has alerted me to the fact that I was so wound up with talking about the music when I first wrote this review of the year, I didn’t explain my thinking on the dates.
I don’t think there is much doubt that Love Rescue me was written in 1987 – there is a recording of it from that year. I suspect Congratulations comes from this time as well, but Dylan makes no mention of when he wrote it – his own commentary focuses on the next album. Heylin places it in 1987/8 and I go with that.
Political World was not recorded until early 1989, but there is evidence that it was undergoing rewriting at that time, and indeed had already undergone quite a bit of re-writing. What Good am I was also not recorded until 1989, but Heylin is quite sure (and this is the area where I do accept Heylin, since ploughing through notebooks and tapes is what he does) that
a) Political World was written before “What Good am I” and
b) the lyrics for “What Good am I” (if not the full melody) were written in early 1988 (“Still on the road”, page 406).
There is also a clear understanding in Heylin that “What Good am I” was written before “Dignity” and that “Dignity” (according to Chronicles) was written in January 1988 – but again it was not recorded until 1989.
Generally speaking Dylan songs have only been copyrighted after they have been recorded, and so this explains the dating system.
I am not saying these dates are perfect, and of course much depends on whether you date a song from the first appearance of the lyrics with a proto-melody that later changes, or whether you date it from the emergence of a version that is recorded with the band. By and large (and where possible) I am working from the former.
So, to return to the issue of the songs over these two years, after “Love Rescue Me” and a lot of time not composing, suddenly, in that most extraordinary way that Bob can do it, he exploded, not once, not twice, but with three utterly different songs which really did express from three different perspectives, all that was on his mind. They are different from the songs written previously in 1986, different from the songs of 1985, and different from each other.
They are however three, connected, but different, triumphs.
Political world is remarkable because as a song it shouldn’t work at all – virtually no melody, one chord only, but it powers along with the new found message which informs all three of the remaining songs in 1986: this world really has gone wrong.
And to be clear this is not the world gone wrong because people don’t follow Jesus Christ, not the world waiting for the redemption of the Second Coming, but just a world gone very very wrong.
We live in a political world
Where courage is a thing of the past
Houses are haunted, children are unwanted
The next day could be your last
We live in a political world
The one we can see and can feel
But there’s no one to check, it’s all a stacked deck
We all know for sure that it’s real
This is followed by the same message but from an utterly personal perspective: What good am I? As I said in my review of the song, written a couple of years back, this is a real self-battering. It is not just the world gone wrong, now it is the man gone wrong too. The title asks it all, and the answer is very dark indeed.
And then we come to Dignity: what we need to get out of this social and personal mess is the ability to hold onto ourselves, to keep our sense of self-worth, but not let it blow out of all proportion. For the issue we all face is not the issue of the world around us (although that can be horrible enough) but the way we perceive the world. If we can have a genuine self-respect based on honourable behaviour we can survive.
In “What Good Am I” Dylan is saying is that in the end the only way out of the Little Boy Lost position he posits, is honesty out of which we get engagement, sympathy, kindness, support, understanding, empathy… these are the qualities of the really human and humane person. Each verse says it all; take this for example
What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thundering sky
What good am I?
What he then does is goes one step further and says, it is dignity (of which honesty is a pre-requisite) which encapsulates all these elements of being a good person. If you have engagement, sympathy, kindness, support, understanding, empathy, you can have dignity.
This is an astounding trilogy of songs, of which the full emotional impact and musical genius can only be understood if heard as a trilogy. And the tragedy is that we don’t hear them as a trilogy, because they have never been released that way. It is only by seeing the chronology of Dylan’s writing that we can understand.
Dylan, in these three superb songs, written one after the other, is engaging in the ultimate questions of the world: if the world itself is a mess, what should our personal response be.
I adore all three songs, but since I have set myself the bizarre task of choosing one from each year I nominate What Good Am I as my highlight of the year simply because not only is it great music, but it also attacks issues that are not dealt with in such a powerful way in any other song I can think of.
The nearest I can get to a song that touches on this topic with the same success as Dylan manages comes with “No Regrets” written by Tom Rush, and recorded by many many artists including the Walker Brothers. Not because the songs sound alike (of course they don’t), but because in “No Regrets” the singer is utterly overwhelmed by regrets and desperately wants the woman back even though he says over and over “Don’t want you back”. The point is, he is asking “what good am I?” as well, and finding that the answer is “not much at all”.
“No regrets” has always been for me an utterly powerful if not overwhelming song, in the same way that “What Good am I?” makes me just sit still and ponder my frailties. Both remind me how hard I need to work to be even a moderately decent person.
But for Bob “What Good am I?” was part of an amazing journey through a trilogy of songs. If you have a moment, and have never done it, play these three songs in sequence, and perhaps if you have a moment more, explore for yourself the profound meaning that they bring together, unifying the social and personal worlds, as they do.
Dylan then headed off into the world of the Wilburys, and I have looked at the whole pattern of those songs in the articles relating to the recording experience. I see the Wilburys as fun, and two of the songs Tweeter and the monkey man and Like a Ship are good compositions, but I don’t see them as being up there with the greats.
Indeed I think the argument could be made that the Wilburys adventure actually diverted Dylan from what could have been a very strong period of writing following Political world, What good am I and Dignity. I rather suspect that if there had been no Wilburys we might have seen a brilliant extension of that slowly emerging trilogy of songs that experienced the world in another way.
What is on the site
1: Over 390 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on this 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.