Series of Dreams

According to Wikipedia Series of Dreams is “One of Dylan’s most ambitious compositions.”   It is difficult to see quite why such a claim should be made, and in typical Wiki fashion there is no attempt at all to justify the claim. 


The song was omitted from “Oh Mercy” and only emerged on the Bootleg Series 1-3.  This omission comes at the same time as the omission of Dignity from the same album, and thus Series of Dreams invites us to start with this issue: why cut it?


Dylan’s ability to omit from albums songs that are thought by many to be his strongest pieces has caused much comment and bemusement, but if you read the comments of those who were there at the time, (a point on which Wiki is more helpful), and indeed if you simply listen to the songs that are cut it becomes clear that Dylan has two reasons for omitting a song.


Either it is no good, or it is very good, but not quite complete, not quite perfect.   The latter case is the one that can make omissions hard to understand.  How can he omit (for example) Blind Willie McTell?  The answer is that he knows what it might have been if only that final key could have been entered into the lock – that final door opened.   He knows it is a great, but flawed song, and can’t get the flaws out of it.   Without that final twist to resolve the problem the song is more frustrating than any of the more ordinary songs – and so gets cut.


So it is instructive to Series of Dreams from this perspective: it is almost right but not quite.   Indeed, being able to see where the problem is, is easier for us, at a distance.  It is notoriously hard for the artist who is “inside” the piece and living its very existence.

The problem here is with the concept of dream itself.  Dreams are confusing, surreal, mystifying, muddled, even muggy.  As such they are well suited to Dylan who has repeatedly introduced us to surrealism and “unclarity” in his songs.


The opening verse with its lines “Where nothing comes up to the top” and “Nothing  too very scientific” get this perfectly, and everything in the song is set fair.  It is general – a backdrop to something we have all experienced.


Verse two keeps up the promise… “And there’s no exit in any direction, ‘Cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes”  That odd feeling about dreams, that there was something more, except you can’t quite see it…


And then, suddenly Dylan stops talking about the general, the uncertain, the obscure, the surreal, and takes us into certainty.   Of course that happens in dreams – you do get dreams where an umbrella is opened – perhaps for no reason.  I can just imagine saying, “I had this weird dream last night – I had an umbrella, and I wanted it shut and put away, (I don’t know why, but it was important in the dream) but it kept opening, and every time I shut it, it came open again…”


That is what dreams can be like – but that gives us no insight into dreams in general, it is just a quick morning comment about last night’s dream.  And that is the key difference – “dreams in general” against the oddity, and ultimately the total insignificance of last night’s dream.


That is why the “middle 8” (the “bridge” as it is called in some commentaries – the B section in the classic ternary AABA form, which this piece is in) falls apart.  The music is perfection – after the exclusive use of the three major chords we suddenly hit the minor, completely unexpectedly.  But that line (“Dreams where the umbrella is folded”) lets us down, and lyrically the song fails at that point, because suddenly it is talking about trivia.  (“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours” was a much better line, from 30 years earlier).


Then we are back to the A section, and Dylan is now securely fixed into telling us the details of the dreams. 


In one, numbers were burning
In another, I witnessed a crime
In one, I was running, and in another
All I seemed to be doing was climb


And that’s the problem – the song attempts to be about dreams in general (where it works perfectly) and dreams in particular, (where it is certain to fail, unless you are going to get into Freudian dream analysis where each element means something.)


To write a song which explains the meaning of dreams would be incredibly difficult – to write a song that we want to listen to which had that as its base would surely be impossible.   Dylan does not go down that route – he just tells us bits about the dreams, but leaves the purpose of this discourse open.  


Hence the opening of the song, with its discussion of dreams, and how one might think about a series of them, works wonderfully, and is interesting at every level.  The music flows, the production is very unusual for Dylan, and the notion of moving away from the normal Dylan guitar sound fits with the subject matter.  But the moment we move on and get into this subject specific content, there is nothing to hold our attention.  Since we most likely have not had dreams about umbrellas or climbing, it has no significance.


To enjoy the song therefore we have to stop listening to the lyrics in the second half, and that of course is not good when the composer is Dylan.   My belief is that he knew that, but because of his proximity to the moment of creation, he couldn’t see the way out.  That’s not to say that I could see how to solve the problem – only that with the benefit of distance (in terms of years and culture) I can at last spot of possible source of the problem.


© copyright Tony Attwood 2009.

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10 Responses to Series of Dreams

  1. patsludden says:

    Mmm…think I’ll sleep on that one!

  2. my cartoon says:

    would it be possible to translate your website into spanish because i have difficulties of speaking to english, and as there are not many pictures on your website i would like to read more of what you’re really writting

  3. Todd says:

    Excellent read, thank you

  4. Aunor says:

    Its about death… and life.

    Life is the “series of dreams” in which we never come to the “top” we stay “down”… “wounded.”
    Untill it all come to a “permanent stop” (we die.)

    In life the time and temp fly and death is the only exit door which you “can’t see with your eyes.”.

    You fold an umbrella when you come out of the rain, at the end of a journey. You are “hurled” out of this world and whatever “cards” life dealt you are no good in the next world (rich/poor..whatever.)

    Burning numbers are the pointless value we apply to things…. crimes are the the sin we create… climbing? Just the effort and struggle to get to that top we can’t reach while alive….

    Going the distance? = 2 Timothy 4:7

  5. Cathal says:

    Interesting and well researched article. Thanks, it has revealed a lot for me! I would like to share my interpretation of this song, which seems to fit with the fact that this album was omitted from Oh Mercy – to my mind a highly political, and in Dylan’s imitable fashion, cynical album. But I disagree that this song is incomplete, as much as I understand why it would have been a song excluded from the aforementioned album.

    I believe this song is about reality. Or at least, the “nature” of reality. And in that context, I believe the song reads – line for line – as certainly one of Dylan’s most ambitious undertakings in song writing. I do agree!

  6. Hop Sears says:

    I always heard this song as being about the eastern concept of a series of lives – reincarnations – at the end of which comes the final merging into God. Its that line “I’d already gone the distance” and the repeated idea that the dreams from the current perspective are not particulary compelling, now seeming to be only distant dreams, no details remaining, just the general gist of each life. That’s how I hear it, but who knows with Mr. D.

  7. Joe Judge says:

    I like Aunor’s observation, “You fold an umbrella when you come out of the rain, at the end of a journey.” When I heard the line, I naturally thought of rain– not rain in general but as a recurring theme in Dylan’s poems starting with “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”…”Everybody’s making love or else expecting rain”…”Without your love the sky would fall, rain would gather too”…”The long black cloud”, etc. Someone once suggested to me that rain could be memory. Hard to pin down, exactly, one thing that rain represents to Dylan. Possibly some sort of consequences, regrets for mistake made? In “Hard rain” it’s obviously retribution. If this stanza is about the end of life’s journey, maybe the folded umbrella no longer protects from rain, and the consequences rain down as judgement. But then again, maybe it means something else. ; )

  8. Rick says:

    Well written article. I feel this song is about dreams, period. Nothing more, nothing less.

  9. Joni Zornes says:

    “Dreams where the umbrella is folded
    And into the path you are hurled”

    I think this is saying that into life’s destiny, the author was suddenly thrown, and without protection.

    And to me, the key to the whole song is the next line:
    “And the cards are no good that you’re holding, unless they’re from another world…”

    “I’d already gone the distance” seems to me that he’s at the end of life, looking back at all the different dreams (experiences, phases if you will) of his life.

    As with SO many of Bob’s songs, it fits into the category of “What’s your favorite Dylan song? The one I’m listening to now! :-)”
    This is a special, special song that resonates to the max with me.

  10. Zack says:

    Hrmmm. I disagree. The song is about the narrator’s consideration of a lack of meaning and/or forward motion in his life. He speaks generally at first because it is a series of dreams; it only makes sense that he would proceed to list examples of them at some point since most stories proceed from the general to the specific. Providing confusing examples in a song about senseless dreams is exactly why the song succeeds at its purpose.

    The song initially peaks my interest because it’s an intentional negation of a typical dream song/story (and it fills an artistic vacuum since most dream songs are about the narrator accessing the hidden meaning of their dreams so that they can move forward past a specific problem in their life). Usually a dream is the subject of discussion because it portends something to come or has something to say about the narrator’s subconscious. But Dylan’s narrator plainly states repeatedly that his dreams haven’t the content worthy of a normal dream discussion. The narrator’s problem seems to be that he HASNT any problems. His life has no special drama or meaning. His subconscious is practically scolding him to get something going. Or, conversely, his dreams are an indication that he has already accomplished all that he’d want to accomplish. He has reached a mountain top and no longer faces metaphorical hurdles. His life is no longer conflicts and metaphorical struggles but just moments of living in the world, one after the other (running, climbing, etc.).

    However you are dead right that the umbrella line appears to fail the song. It comes right at the most crucial part of the song when tension is the highest and a songwriter would contextualize everything which came before and might attempt to give it new meaning. But an umbrella folded in the path you are hurtled..what the hell?? An umbrella as a dream symbol could be very interesting: it would provide comfort from a rainstorm so if it were folded (closed?) then the narrator is unprotected. However he speaks of a direction it is folded towards, which distracts and is super confusing. How does direction matter? Maybe if it’s pointing a certain direction, then force from a gust of wind might pull the umbrella open and pull you in the direction, opposite of the way you WANT to go. I don’t know. And I think that’s the point. This is already a song about meaningless dreams. What better way to bring this point home than to provide an unreadable symbol at the climax of the song?

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