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.