1989: Bob Dylan stalked by the darkness

By Tony Attwood

1989 for Bob Dylan was the year of visiting dark places both real and imagined.  A year of getting stuck in the mud.  A year of dreams, wherein reality fades in and out until finally it can’t be recalled any more.  A year, ultimately, of the fear of being lost forever.  Of being so far gone there is no way back.

This year, perhaps more than any other, really does need the Chronology – the list of Dylan compositions in the order they were written, not in the order they were released on albums.  For it is only by hearing them in the order of writing that we can see Bob’s movement of this year, as he is drawn along by the tide rather than striding out along his own path.  Only by hearing the whole collection can we understand the individual compositions.

Indeed if ever in some strange fantasy land Bob’s record company came to me and said, “Hey Tony, we’d like you to create an album of Bob’s songs that has some sort of overall meaning beyond being a compilation of your favourites” I’d say, “here’s an album called ‘1989: The dark is just beginning”.  But the tracks have to be in the order in which they were written.”

That running order tht I demand is

Now the series of songs makes sense when heard in that order, and we can see, for example, why “Series of Dreams” didn’t make it onto an album.  It makes sense within the context of my mythical album “1989” but far less sense anywhere else.  For “1989” is an album about dreams and nightmares.  About reaching out to reality, and then being betrayed by it so totally that in the end it isn’t there.

In this sequence of songs more than in any other I can think of, the old certainties are long, long since gone.  We can communicate no longer.  We can try, but no matter how hard we try, our attempts to communicate end up as futile gestures.   Most of the time we can get through, but ultimately we are devoured by the Man in the Long Black Coat, the ultimate embodiment of the dark.

Born in Time which started this year gives us a hint of what was to come as Bob tells us of loss, loss, total loss

You were snow, you were rain
You were stripes, you were plain
Oh babe, truer words
Have not been spoken
or broken.

The theme of people by-passing each other stayed with Dylan through the much of the year for as we move on to songs like “What was it you wanted?” it is there again, but by this time our attempts at communication and at grasping the meaning are overpowered by our feelings of the utter uncertainty of the world around us.

Think mist, misunderstanding, two people by-passing each other, just missing each other in the fog, passing on opposite sides of the road never knowing the other was there; a world in which nothing is clear…and just in case we still haven’t got it, just listen to those echoes of the harmonica.  Talk about skeleton keys in the rain…

“What was it you wanted?” is planted right at the heart of this series of uncertainties, as the fog not only wraps itself around the people, but also about their meanings and their very existence.  Now we can’t even be sure we are still where we thought we were…

Is the scenery changing
Am I getting it wrong
Is the whole thing going backwards
Are they playing our song?
Where were you when it started
Do you want it for free
What was it you wanted
Are you talking to me?

Isolation is total.  There is nothing save disassociation, falling apart, the failure of all communication and understanding, and it sure isn’t what pop and rock songs normally delve into.

Bob certainly was experimenting in this year as What was it you wanted is followed by other explorations such as Everything is Broken and then the Series of Dreams.

Most of the Time takes another twist on this world of dislocation, for here Little Boy Lost is back and admits

I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time

and we know, of course, that is just an absolute and total piece of self-deception, made possible by the ever enclosing all-pervading dark.

That dreadful emptiness is so totally encapsulated within the song it is hard to imagine how Bob could have suddenly popped up with TV Talking Song but he did because this is another way to encapsulate the total meaninglessness of existence.  The trick is that it all appears to make sense but doesn’t, as that final brilliant outpouring of the year with  Man in a Long Black Coat shows us totally.   The dark makes no sense at all.

But people don’t live or die people just float
She went with the man in the long black coat.

Rarely has Dylan written more poignant, sad, desperate lines.   There’s nothing, simply nothing; everything is broken.  Take away the hope and all is lost.  We live in a world of nothingness.  We have no idea what we wanted, why we wanted it, where we were when we wanted it, or where we thought we might be going.

This is, for me, an amazing collection of songs that talk of desperation and loss, and which allow the listener to move inside the songs and appreciate what it is like, but then move outside of the songs again and look at it all as if we were watching a movie, and all without remaining trapped within.

If “Visions of Johanna” is written from the perspective of the outside observer watching Louise, Johanna and Little Boy Lost, this is the year Dylan got inside the head of Little Boy Lost and looked out at the world around him.

He was no longer a little boy for now he has grown up, but he iss still utterly, totally, desperately, lost.

What is on the site

1: Over 390 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.



  1. I normally avoid any Dylan textual psychoanalysis, (is that a phrase.) I’ve found the deeper it gets the more it reflects the writer’s desires/fantasies about Dylan’s life. This, however, is an interesting way of going about it. I’m a poet, I know my work reflects my state of mind, and I’m pretty sure if I went over a year’s output there’d be more to think about than the poems themselves. Well done.

  2. You have probably answered this elsewhere, but how do we know this is the order in which the songs were written?

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