My back pages

In 1965 Dylan made a comment to the effect that he used to know what he wanted to write about before starting a song, but that since then he has taken a different route.  The implication is that he started writing and let the song itself direct where matters were going.

In this comment Dylan notes the two opposing routes between which all creative artists make a choice – plotting and planning the work (in whatever form it is) before one starts, or letting it happen.

I would never in a 100 lifetimes suggest that I am a creative artist of singular note, but I can give the briefest explanation of this from my own experience as a novelist.  When I wrote the novel “Making the Arsenal” for example, I knew it was going to be the story of a fictional journalist in London in 1910, and would trace the events of what was a momentous year.  I knew more or less what happened that year, but during the nine months it took to write the book I discovered a lot more and those discoveries forced me to twist the actions of the characters quite a bit.  And I gave the journalist and the fictional characters he met lives – during those nine months they became real people.  The resultant book was not the novel I imagined when I started.

This is the dilemma all artists face with all works – and it is what Dylan was referring to in his comment.  We see it happening throughout his songs, but it is particularly interesting in My Back Pages because of the other issues that Dylan is seeking to resolve here.

Clinton Heylin adds to this perspective on the song the notion that Dylan changed quite a few of the lines as he worked on the piece just prior to recording, simply to make it easier to sing, and to make the words easier to understand.  But in so doing he has made the meaning of the lyrics more obscure – and that gives an interesting effect.

He also makes the point that because of the Byrds recording of the song we have a different view of the song now – and the fact that they recorded only a portion of the song and that Dylan didn’t seem to mind, suggests that either he really didn’t have a deep meaning expressed in the song or he didn’t care about the song too much.

The simple meaning comes from the chorus lines – that when he was younger he thought, as the young often do, that he knew everything.  Now he is older he knows nothing.

And maybe that is all there is… because …  if that is the meaning, then what better way to express it than with a set of words where the meaning is completely obscured.  Say it simply and you have no song – just the chorus.  If you want the song to survive and be remembered it needs something else.  That can’t be the music, because this is an acoustic album.  So it becomes ever more obscure words.

Or, to go a different route, do we take the fact that Dylan himself didn’t perform the song on stage until a quarter of a century after he wrote it, as a sign that he felt it didn’t really mean anything?

In one sense Dylan criticising Dylan is a half way house between Blowing in the Wind (all the answers are out there, you only have to look) and Subterranean Homesick Blues (everything is so screwed we can’t even see what the question is, let alone the answer).

The song is simple, the chord sequence offers no surprises (any regular folk or rock musician could sit down and play it without thinking as a warm up).  But they work together fine.  The song is a song we remember, therefore, because the melody itself works its magic around the chords, and is the vehicle for a set of lyrics we only half understand.

Dylan also said in May 1965 that he was trying to write three dimensional songs, not one dimensional songs – a worthy aim indeed, but one which takes us into all sorts of problem areas.

To illustrate my point, consider John Donne who could take us into as many dimensions as he wanted with “Go and catch a falling star” through writing

Go and catch a falling star,

    Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

    Or who cleft the devil’s foot,

Teach me to hear mermaids singing,

Or to keep off envy’s stinging,

            And find

            What wind

Serves to advance an honest mind.

But he wasn’t trying to get 3D out of music and lyrics.  Donne called this famous poem a “song” but it remains for us just words.  Dylan has to try and do all this with the words while fitting them against a never varying tune.

It is interesting that at the 30th Anniversary Tribute Concert in 1992, Dylan performed “My Back Pages”, using the Byrd’s approach, with George HarrisonEric ClaptonTom Petty,Neil Young, and Roger McGuinn all taking on a verse.  (It is on The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration album.)

What does that tell us?  That there are so many dimensions being attempted that each verse is disassociated from the rest?  Or did someone just say “hey why don’t we do a verse each?”

Just taking the first three lines

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads

We have something that is impossible to disentangle.  Could he be saying, “I see the world burning” – or is it something else?

If there really is a clue then I think it comes in that first verse with the lines

“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow

To me that simply means, right out at the edge of contemporary thought and analysis there is a new way of seeing the world.  We can get there through many different routes, if we think about it enough.

So some of it does make clear sense such as verse two’s commentaries about prejudice, in verse three he moves on to the fact that he’s getting through quite a few lovers and would-be lovers, and the aftermath of failed affairs.

The eternal right wing propagandists get a knock as Dylan reminds us with the lines about the self ordained professor, that the world is much more complex than we can ever express

Yet, in the end, if you want the song summarised in two lines, it has to be

My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow

The song is simple, and in the end so is the meaning.  “I have no idea what is going on here,” says Bob, but that at the time was not quite the message most fans wanted to hear.

The problem with the song is that at the time he didn’t have at that moment was a musical equivalent to that message of confusion.  That would come, but it required a lot of amplification, a variety of instruments, and a rejection of the classic folk music format of rotating chords.  Subterranean is a perfect example of where this journey took him.

Index to all the songs reviewed.

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13 Responses to My back pages

  1. Sam Chianello says:

    Couldn’t one make the conclusion that My Back Pages is Dylan bidding public farewell to prior moral crusades i.e.. Blowing in the Wind, Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Masters of War, Eve of Destruction? He was frustrated with saving the world, and would chart a newer easier musical direction earmarked by electrical guitars and a backing band of mediocre caliber, a much less disappointing endeavor for him.

    Tony maybe you can phrase my remarks better, I am not as literate as you.

    I thank you for these enlightened visions of Dylan’s genius. Please by all means continue this work.

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Sam I certainly don’t need to rephrase your comment – I think it is perfectly valid.

    In all these cases there are many interpretations possible – I’m just trying to bring some to the table and say, what about this way of seeing the song. But I[‘m not saying that definitively this is it.

  3. Les says:

    Interesting. This song, actually a poem, could be adapted to any view point. As a child of the 50s and 60s, a college student of the 70s and 80s, and a professional nearing retirement, this is a wistful look at the past half century, with all its promise and all its failures. “A self-ordained professor’s tongue, Too serious to fool, Spouted out that liberty, Is just equality in school. “Equality,” I spoke the word, As if a wedding vow…
    Most college campuses today are full of self-ordained professors–they may have tenure, but they have taken it upon themselves to indoctrinate rather than allow students to see all sides. And this is from the dear Left. Meanwhile, equality was shouted from the rooftops as being strongly tied to educational opportunity, while in reality it is a mirage, a hypothetical construct, a total falsehood. No one is equal. A level playing field would be nice, but again, the playing field is governed by the builders. Too much interference with that and you get a tail that can’t stop wagging the dog, and endless laws and regulations that pick the pockets of the citizens as representatives take on the moniker of “leader”.

  4. Kate Cohen-Posey says:

    Just heard the lyrics today and have been playing them over and over. Aren’t we all trapped in our own personal dogmas? Other comments suggest this was a song Dylan wrote without prior planning. Maybe he was channeling a truth just beyond his ken. Maybe he couldnt fully understand what he wrote until he had sufficiently youthed. May we all live long lives and die young.

  5. TonyAttwood says:

    Kate I love your phrase

    May we all live long lives and die young.

    Brilliant.

  6. Ezekiel Smith says:

    How ’bout this on the meaning of My Back Pages: “…This goes back to a point I made in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy about Bob Dylan—back in the day, not so much now. I made the point: Look, if we had tried to sit down with Bob Dylan and tell him everything about what he should do with his art, it would have turned out very badly. Not only because of his individualist streak, but for larger reasons. But, if we had been in a position to sit down and talk and struggle about the world, that might have led to some very positive things. And some people were struggling with him, by the way—people in Progressive Labor (PL), people in the CP (Communist Party)—they were doing a lot of work with him, a lot of very BAD work with BAD lines. And, along with his own individualism, that contributed a lot to the sour place he ended up in, becoming cynical very quickly, writing the song “My Back Pages” which is almost explicitly an anti-communist song.
    I don’t want to get off into all that right now, but the point is that we should be engaging and struggling, in a good way, with people, first and fundamentally, about the world…” That’s on page 242 of The New Communism, published recently, by Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA

  7. Ariel Balter says:

    I just went through a bunch of interpretations on the internet, and I see one thing I have not seen others point out. I think there is an incredible irony in the song. The direct interpretation is that the poet has discovered that the righteous indignation of his youth was narrow compared to how complex he now sees the world really is. But in doing so, he is once again becoming a self-proclaimed professor, this time railing against simplistic idealism.

    But even in doing so, the poet is “Fearing not that I’d become my enemy in the instant that I preach.” In my opinion, railing against idealism became a new idealism for him. His forceful rejection of what he saw as people wanting to peg him made him his enemy. And I believe an inner voice saw that irony even as his conscious mind did not.

    You see, I don’t see his socially focused music as being as simplistic as it seems either. Answers “blowing in the wind” could be answers that are everywhere if you just look can also be answers that are hard to grasp and even fleeting. The answer to “how many deaths will it take…” is not simple, not obvious. To answer it will take work, experience and the sailor’s skill at tacking. I also see his inner “older, wiser self” coming out in “Masters of War.”

    You might say that I’m young
    You might say I’m unlearned
    But there’s one thing I know
    Though I’m younger than you
    That even Jesus would never
    Forgive what you do

    This is the poet acknowledging that simply criticizing war is somewhat “young and unlearned” but that being a “master of war” is having gone over to a level where war is a skill that is mastered for the sole purpose of winning, and not just winning the war, but of riches too. In the last verse, the poet is finally driven to say “And I hope that you die…’Til I’m sure that you’re dead.” For all the poet’s indignation against war, his anger has turned to a murderous hatred of those who are themselves killers. That we can turn ourselves into murderous war mongers by letting our righteous anger get the better of us is not a youthful, idealistic observation. It is the nuanced conclusion of one who is older.

    I think Dylan was more profound at that point in his art than he gave himself credit for, or that he gave many of his fans credit for understanding. He did not rise to fame because he was singing platitudes. But he became worried that he was. Perhaps somewhat arrogantly he saw his fans as people with a simplistic view of him which he wanted to shake off. But I think he did himself a disservice with that conclusion and became a self-proclaimed professor of complexity.

    What really makes the song a work of genius is not Dylan’s interpretation of his own growth, but that the song itself is a fairly shallow self-criticism of his earlier supposed shallowness. It reflects a self-referential spiral of self doubt that Dylan never emerged from even has a justice seeking society did not become mired and moved on to great successes in justice and equality.

  8. Gary Jones says:

    From the album title, Another Side of Bob Dylan, I infer that he was perhaps changing or at least questioning his previous beliefs. The lyrics of “My Back Pages” were enunciated quite clearly, leaving no room for misunderstanding. I believe he was clearly announcing that he was not a “True Believer”. This probably did more to cause his falling out with the folk singers of his day than his going electric.

  9. My thoughts on My Back pages: Below an excerpt of a longer piece I wrote.
    The hardest or least accessible song on this album is My back pages. Most Dylan songs make sense even though they may be enigmatic and hard to follow, but this one is almost beyond grasp. The refrain is almost a gimmick, a brilliant thought: I was so much older then, I am younger than that now. Did I mention that the poet was only 23 when he thought that up? On the album he released 8 months earlier he had the audacity to warn the Masters of War that he would “Stand over their grave to make sure that you’re dead”. He was much older then than the rest of his contemporaries. How young could he have been, writing My Back Pages in 1964?

    There is heat in the first verse when he tells of the crimson flames tied through his ears. Is it the fever of youth? He is setting out, discovering what life is all about, learning on the way, avoiding traps on flaming roads and using his own ideas as a map.
    Hot and sweaty, but proud, he meets someone and says: will meet on edges soon. As so often in his songs, Dylan is leaving, changing direction, following another path. But he was so much older then. He’s younger then that now.

    In the second verse prejudice leaps forth and causes him to scream: Rip down all hate, and a voice in his skull lies that in life everything is black and white. So instead he dreams romantically of musketeers. He was so much older then…

    The path forward in so many young men’s lives are often demarcated by faces of pretty girls. But rejections and regret lead you to think useless thoughts and deeds such as memorizing politics of ancient history. He was so much older then…

    On the move he listens to self-ordained professors who claim that liberty is just equality in school. At first he is impressed and solemnly says the word as if a wedding vow. But he was so much older then…

    He is still on the road, learning as he goes. It’s a struggle and like a soldier aims his hand at mongrel dogs who teach. He is not afraid to contradict himself when he starts speaking. On his travels he even follows boats who confuse him because there is mutiny from stern to bow. He was so much older then…

    And then at last he makes his stand when abstract threats deceived him into thinking he had something to protect. He finally realizes it all comes down to good and bad, quite clear, no doubt somehow. But then again… he was so much older then, he is younger then that now.

    So as I step into third age I can hear the echo of these lines, I recognize the road traveled, the wisdom gained, the useless and pointless knowledge. I am younger then that now, even though I am much older then I once was.

  10. Colleen says:

    I heard this song for the first time today..sung by “America.” Having just viewed one of the final episodes of Ken Burns’ VietNam documentary, and being aware of the date of the song’s composition, I had quickly concluded that the lyrics were some of the thoughts of a soldier. Any chance? He was older in a sense that he was in a dark, dangerous, responsible position during the war. Now he is free of this responsibility. The line of “Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect..” lies of the purpose of the war? Cb

  11. Dr. Vargas says:

    Kate,
    Bingo. Your phrase – maybe we all live long lives and die young – captures it all…
    Brilliant indeed.

  12. Dr. Vargas says:

    Colleen,
    Your contextualization suggests a blinding flash of the obvious. That damm war affected a lot of us.
    Thanks

  13. Daniel Espinosa says:

    The Byrds version of My Back Pages is very much like an anthem, not poetic like Dylan’s original. Could Dylan be re-interpreting the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”? (Though, brilliant as his chorus is, I couldn’t positively say that he was familiar with Kierkegaard’s work.) Perhaps the idea was in the air and he’s playing with the concept of living backwards but understanding forwards.

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