Life is hard: having problems with Bob’s movie songs.

by Tony Attwood

For me, Bob’s move songs are either utterly brilliant (Lay Lady Lay, Things have changed, Tell Ol Bill) or really not up to standard.  Sadly “Life is Hard is for me (and of course this is a very personal view) in the latter group.

Indeed trying to find a word or phrase to describe “Life is Hard” is hard – for the word that comes to my mind is not exactly complimentary: it is plodding.

The movie director Olivier Dahan apparently asked Bob Dylan to write for the soundtrack of his upcoming film, My Own Love Song and what he got was, to my ears, not that exciting, for he got “Life is Hard.”

It is said that this unlocked the creative juices for Bob and from here he moved on to writing the rest of Together Through Life in the following year.  And that is great, but that still doesn’t mean that this song had to be on the album.  After all many of the earlier movie songs were never on an album.

Since its composition Bob has never played the song in public – which might be an indication of what Bob thought of it after it had been handed over.    But he had the song, and it is of course traditional to play a ballad as the second track on an album after the rollicking first song – (although when has Bob ever done things because they were traditional?)  And maybe after composing the rest of the album, the muse had passed him by – he was one track short, so he used this.  It was, after all, already there.

Life is hard is a straight strophic song – verse, verse, verse, verse, verse, and for me there is no uplift here, nothing that makes me want to think it about, or come to that nothing that persuades me to want to hear it again.  And even allowing for the traditional of the second track ballad, it still feels very odd to have this song stuck between two solid blues: “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” and “My Wife’s Home Town.”

What’s more both those have a particularly raw feel with the accordion added to give a New Orleans feel through both pieces.   And without any connection with the rest of the album this song feels out of place.  It feels as if the storyline of the album is “Beyond here lies nothing”, “My wife’s home town”, “If you ever go to Houston” and so on.   It really doesn’t feel to me like it belongs.

Add to this the fact that the voice that Bob employs is consistent through these other opening songs – except on this second track.   It really does sound like a song written out of phase with the rest of the album – which of course it was.

None of this would matter too much if the lyrics grabbed us in the way that Bob has done so often in his writing career so that we would set aside the song change of feel in order to focus on what was being said.   But somehow even in this regard there is nothing here to make me care…

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

The problem (for me – and this is a totally personal review) is that after that first verse we’ve got it, and there’s nothing in the accompaniment, the melody or the lyrics to keep us coming back for me.  So there is nothing more to say.

The friend you used to be
So near and dear to me
You slipped so far away
Where did we go a-stray
I pass the old schoolyard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

My point here is that Bob has told us this, and now we know.  There are no arresting images, no interesting instrumentation, no uncertainties to keep us guessing.

Compare this with the wonderful phrase behind the opening song “Beyond here lies nothing” or that Creole style accordion in “My wife’s home town”, and the chorus line that announces what the singer thinks of that place.

That song is anguish and frustration, this song is just… well… nothing much.

Consider (if you are still with me here) the next verse.

Ever since the day
The day you went away
I felt that emptiness so wide
I don’t know what’s wrong or right
I just know I need strength to fight
Strength to fight that world outside

The trouble is Bob doesn’t sound like he means it.  In fact to me he sounds like he’s doing another one of these re-writes of a 1930s or 1940s classic – except if he is, it is one that escapes me for the moment.   Maybe he felt he’d done enough of these derivative songs to know how to write a 30s ballad of his own.

Sadly I don’t think he did know enough and long before the last two verses I’ve lost interest, even in the very unusual chordal accompaniment to this song – for even there we don’t seem to be given anything to hang onto.  Whereas in “Jolene”, a standard 12 bar blues, the guitar hook, repeated time and again, gives us something very clear to stay with.  Here we can’t do that.   Here we have nothing save the oddity of the chord sequence.

Even if you don’t know anything of music just have a look at this sequence.

Ebmaj7
The evening winds are still
Dm7 E7
I’ve lost the way and will
Am D7
Can’t tell you where they went
Gm C7
I just know what they meant
Am Ammaj7
I’m always on my guard
Am7/g Am6/
Admitting life is hard
Gm C7 F
Without you near me

I doubt that you will have seen that written anywhere else on this website!  Or come to that anywhere else.  It truly is odd.

As for the film, My Own Love Song was released in 2010 road movie directed and written by Olivier Dahan and starring Renée Zellweger, Forest Whitaker, Madeline Zima and Nick Nolte.

What else is on the site

  • 1: Over 400 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.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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.

 

 

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5 Responses to Life is hard: having problems with Bob’s movie songs.

  1. hans says:

    Well,in the movie it is her own love song,isn’t it?
    And when she sings it you believe her .

  2. jzsnake says:

    I love Huck’s Tune even though I never saw the movie it was in.

  3. Fred Schuetz says:

    Hi!

    Just a little comment to that:
    First: The chord progression ist pretty much a standard jazz vamp, really nothing special about that, what comes clear, that „Life is hard” is too very close to be…
    …secondly… Dylan’s paraphrase of „Autumn Leaves” which remotely deals with similar feelings and uses chord progressions close to „Life…”

    Regards,

    Fred

  4. hans says:

    Lucky you !

  5. Fred Schuetz says:

    just in addition:

    I apologize my horrible grammar 🙂

    Have I mentioned that I love these songs, „Life…” and „And Leaves”, play and sing them as well …?
    Fred

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