By Tony Attwood
Was this really the final set of new compositions from Bob Dylan the songwriter? If so, after such a lifetime’s outpouring of work, it seems an awesome thought.
But at the time of writing this little piece (2017) it’s been five years since we have had sight or sound of any new songs from Bob – one of the longest gaps in terms of Bob as a creator of new songs.
So for the moment I’m taking this at the end, although like every other Dylan fan I’ll be knocked out if more songs do emerge at some time. But for now, we deal with what we have.
And what we have is not what we had with most of Dylan’s career. We’ve got no out takes from the record studio, no occasional bits of additional film music, no new songs tried out in sound checks before the show. No rejected songs. I can only assume Bob either gave us all he had, or he and his management tightened up the whole recording process – which is possible since this is one of the albums Bob himself produced.
When I first heard the CD I was knocked out with the opening: Duquesne Whistle, and if I had been writing this little piece then, I’d have made that song my “Highlight of the year.” It was only after I had written my review here that it was pointed out to me that this was a straight copy of a Jelly Roll Morton song, and then my regard for the song was knocked back – which was a shame because my theory as to the meaning of the song in my article on this site (for once) found a bit of applause from readers of the site.
The album claims the song was written by Dylan and Robert Hunter. But for me, even if the Jelly Roll Morton song was out of copyright by the time they wrote Duquesne what benefit is there in not acknowledging the origins? That isn’t to say it has to be done each time a folk song is used, but this is an absolute straight copy of the original that most certainly was copyrighted when it was first recorded.
I still love the song, and it is a great start to the album, but it is (for me – I am not suggesting it should be for anyone else) annoying not to have its antecedents recognised.
But it is a bouncy and lively piece and sets off the album in the right way, and leads on to more good music in the shape of the almost obligatory slow second track. And this song works well too; Soon After Midnight has none of the mawkishness of some other recent slow songs. It is simple, and the music and the lyrics just work together. It’s old time stuff, but none the worse for that.
And then out from the speakers explodes Narrow Way – a great blues – no a brilliant blues with invented lines – like “why is my share not equal to yours” and endless conundrums in the lyrics with a fair smattering of the Bible; this is a faultless blues. Bob is so clear about what he is doing and saying: it is also a perfect performance.
Even now quite a few years after first hearing the album I still remember listening to these three opening tracks and thinking, wow, this is going to be a great, great album, and Long and Wasted Years made it even more so with a unique use of rhythm and structure – it can’t be compared it to anything else. I’m still not sure what the focus of the issue of pointlessness is in the song: maybe it is life in general, we never seem to be told, and that adds to the quality.
For because we don’t know, on that song I really wanted to know what everyone else thought, but then hardly anyone commented. Maybe no one else knew either.
More uncertainty and more great lines followed in Pay in Blood “You’ve got the same eyes as your mother does. If only you could prove who your father was.” And by this time I was thinking, yes, yes, yes, this is the perfect Dylan album. Changes of pace, different subjects, and lyrics that one really has to work on to understand where the great man was going.
But then, although I enjoyed Scarlet Town and Early Roman Kings to me it seemed the fun was over, and with the last three tracks, no, I wasn’t really there with Bob any more. He’d lost me along the way. Which was a shame because the last song is a very, very, very long song.
In fact in the latter parts of the album I was thinking about the fact that Scarlet Town was a borrowed folk song, and that I know I had heard Tempest somewhere before (although in its case, I had to go a-searching. I know a bit about English and Scottish folk music, but not 20th century folk compositions from the USA.)
As I have said elsewhere, I’ve no idea which order the songs were written in so I can’t do the bit that I have enjoyed doing in all the other reviews in this series, of “playing” the album in the order the songs were written, and thus finding new implications. But I can say it ends with disappointment for me, in part for the same reason as the opening song disappoints – it is just such a copy of other people’s work.
However Duquesne is redeemed for although the melody, chord structure and rhythm are all taken from the original jazz piece, the lyrics are new. But with the song Tempest we don’t even have that, as it seems Dylan simply took the work of Seth Newton Mize and then added loads of new verses around the original. I find that a very disappointing approach, and indeed a very disappointing song because unlike most of Dylan’s work, it doesn’t give me something new. I am sure that is my failing, but that’s how I hear it. Or rather I don’t hear, for these days it only comes on if I haven’t got to the CD player and turned the album off in time.
It’s still an album I wouldn’t be without, and “Narrow Way” and “Long and Wasted Years” are both superb compositions, as is Duquesne if we leave aside the whole issue of the music being a copy. But for me, it’s not as great a work overall, as many of the reviewers for the big time magazines and newspapers found it to be – simply because it drifts away near the end.
If it is Dylan’s farewell original album, then it is still many light years ahead of what most other blues – folk – pop – popular – rock composers could ever do. But by the extraordinary standards set in 1961 and continued ever since, to my mind it tails off a little towards the end.
This concludes the series “Bob Dylan Year by Year and Decade by Decade” although knowing how the rest of this site goes, I’ll be doing some revisions to articles over time.
The aim of the series was to look at Bob’s compositions in the order of their creation – which as I have said, for this collection, I can’t do, as I don’t have the data. But I still hope there is something here, and in the series, that you find of interest. As always I am not saying “I’m right” but rather, “Here’s one possible view…”
Bob Dylan year by year – the series
Each of these articles is a summary of what Dylan wrote in that year.
- Dylan in 1961: The first ventures
- Dylan in 1962: The Overview
- Dylan in 1963: the overview – Dylan the storyteller part 1
- Bob Dylan in 1964: the overview. Dylan the storyteller part 2.
- 1965: the overview – the year Dylan invented two totally new forms of music.
- Dylan in 1966 the overview: writing songs while the band patiently waits
- Dylan in 1967: A year of two, or maybe three halves.
- Bob Dylan in 1968: As his country pulls itself apart, Dylan takes a year out.
- Bob Dylan in 1969: everything is lovely
- Bob Dylan in 1970: a stuttering return to song writing.
- Bob Dylan in 1971 – taking more time out but producing two brilliant songs.
- Bob Dylan in 1972. Still not writing much, but what he wrote gave us a hint
- Bob Dylan in 1973: moving into the second round of unadulterated genius
- Bob Dylan in 1974: the genius returns, and how!
- Bob Dylan in 1975: working with Jacques Levy
- Bob Dylan in 1976: a year of pause and reflection
- Bob Dylan in 1977: the preparation work for “Not Dark Yet”
- Bob Dylan in 1978: Helena Springs and our fate is our own fault
- Bob Dylan in 1979: When He Returns
- Dylan in 1980: moving from the Christian songs into beauty and confusion.
- Dylan in 1981: the last gospel songs and the search for a new direction
- Bob Dylan’s songs of 1982/3: how to ignore a masterpiece.
- Bob Dylan in 1984: a brilliant song only once performed.
- 1985: The year of Dylan not drowning in someone else’s wine
- Bob Dylan in 1986: Experiment, experiment, experiment, genius, ignore
- Bob Dylan in 1987/8. Three different but connected triumphs
- 1989: Bob Dylan stalked by the darkness
- Bob Dylan in 1990: the end of the era
- Bob Dylan: the gap years (1991-1995)
- Bob Dylan in 1996: the master songwriter returns after five years out.
- Bob Dylan in 1997: finishing “Time out of mind” before touring again.
- Bob Dylan in 1998/9: the road to the Oscar
- Bob Dylan in 2000/1: an old approach to writing songs, and a new approach too.
- Bob Dylan: the movie years 2001/2005
- 2005/6: an interesting collection of re-worked material
- Bob Dylan’s songs of 2008/9: It’s all good, if you hear what he’s saying.
- 2011/12 – the last hooray?
Bob Dylan – the highlight of the year (in terms of compositions)
1961: Talking Bear Mountain – Dylan took an existing format and used it in a completely new way – not a bad move for a 20 year old. But “Song to Woody” must get a mention for the assured delivery of the song on the LP.
1962: Ballad for a friend. This little known blues song is utter perfection, using rhythm and lyrics to give the blues format a new twist and hold our attention totally throughout.
1963: When the Ship Comes In. Part religious, part protest, this has all the vigour and vitality of change and reform that “Times they are a changing” (written soon after) doesn’t get close to with imagery that is utterly new within this type of music.
1964: It’s all right ma. Line after line of indictment of the modern age delivered with such power and passion. No one ever wrote a song like this before.
1965: Impossible to choose. “Subterranean” gave beat poetry a place in pop and rock, Love Minus Zero took love songs into the world of the unsayable, “Rolling Stone” created the songs of disdain, “Desolation Row” took political protest to a totally new level and “Johanna” took music into impressionism.
1966: One of us must know. Not most people’s choice, indeed probably no one’s choice by mine, but this song takes one of the three fundamental themes of pop (lost love – the other two are love and dance) and gives it a totally new twist. A completely new way of saying farewell.
1967: Drifter’s Escape. It has but one line of music, but takes the impressionism of Johanna into a totally new context at yet another level. This world is not real. This world makes no sense. This world offers hope to the lost: the problem is finding the door.
1968: Dylan can stop. And stop he did. After over 100 songs in the past seven years, at a time when it looked as if everything from the arts to politics was changing forever, Dylan just stopped.
1969: Dylan can change. I can’t pick a song from the list of new compositions because nothing here matches what has gone before, and nothing really grabs me as original, new, or overwhelmingly beautiful. But it was the experimentation with country music that brought Dylan back to songwriting. Without that twist, he might never have written again.
1970: Time passes slowly. An uncertain time in Dylan’s writing, as he tried to shake off what had happened in the previous two years. I don’t claim this is a great song, but it successfully captured the moment, and showed perfectly where Bob was and how he was feeling.
1971: When I paint my masterpiece and Watching the river flow. In a year of just three compositions it ought to be easy to pick the best, but I find it easy to pick the worst. One song really doesn’t do it for me but both When I paint my masterpiece and then Watching the river flow are sublime reflections on the work of a creative artist – and in pop and rock music there are precious few of those.
1974: Tangled up in Blue. For anyone else it would be the highlight of a total career, carved on the gravestone and mentioned in every article. Idiot Wind comes a very very close second.
1975: “Abandoned Love”. The last collaborations with Levy were extraordinary, but everything about this song shouts out “genius” and leaves one wondering why Dylan needed a collaborator. Both versions that we have are so worth playing again, and again, and again.
1976: A year of a pause. And why not, for in the last two years he had contributed more to popular music than anyone else had done in a lifetime.
1977: “Where are you tonight?” An extraordinary poem which opens with the most evocative of lines: “There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain Tears on the letter I write” And if lines such as
He took dead-centre aim but he missed just the same
She was waiting, putting flowers on the shelf
She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair
And discovered her invisible self
don’t make you shiver, well, I don’t know what will.
1978: “I must love you too much”. It is a tough call between this and “Slow Train Coming” and Slow Train only loses out because of what happened next. “I love you” is a right rollicking fun rock piece that overwhelms us with its energy and passion. If Dylan had put any of this drive into his religious songs he might have converted more people.
1979: “When He Returns” (live version). Not just the stand out moment of this year, but one of the stand out moments of the decade of Dylan.
1980: “Caribbean Wind” with The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter” and “Yonder Comes Sin.” Three amazing songs which followed on later from “Every Grain of Sand” What an amazing achievement.
1981: Lenny Bruce is Dead. Not only an exquisite song but Dylan finally confronting the contradictions of the religion he had been espousing for the past three years. He wrote two more gospel songs, but then found his heart was no longer in it.
1982/3: Blind Willie McTell. The song bears no relationship to the music of William Samuel McTier, it came out of nowhere and left no impact on Bob’s subsequent writings. And yet it is an utter masterpiece in its own right.
1984: I once knew a man Only performed once, but oh what a song! The ultimate blues.
1985: Dark Eyes, although run a very close second with the co-written Well Well Well. “I live in another world where life and death are memorized / Where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls and all I see are dark eyes”. After that, there really is so little left to say.
1986: To fall in love with you. With any other artist this would be right up there at the top of the list of masterpieces. With Bob is was tried, half written, and abandoned. Thank goodness someone thought to keep the tape.
1987/8: What good am I? In a very real sense the final three songs of this year make a trilogy of reflections on what is wrong with the world from a personal and social point of view. This is the second of of the three – the deep personal reflective answer to “Political World” that precedes it, and “Dignity” which follows.
1989: Man in a Long Black Coat. The whole year builds up to this point as Bob Dylan shows us that the darkness makes no sense at all. Once more we all sit here stranded but we’re trying our best to deny it.
1990: Where were you last night? Bob takes the simple format of classic lost love pop and delivers a song with verve and panache that is a real swing number that can be enjoyed as much on the dance floor as in the concert hall. Which is why it is such a shame he never gave us a single live version of this masterpiece of the genre.
1991/5: The Gap Years. The never ending tour seemed to get longer and longer, some of the events seemed to get that little bit more chaotic, and above all, Bob just didn’t write any new songs.
1996: Not Dark Yet and Mississippi. The latter was not included in the subsequent album, but held back for later, but one recording of that song stands out. Not Dark Yet remains one of Dylan’s greatest ever works.
1997: Make you feel My Love & Love Sick. The two ends of the spectrum of love – that emotion that conquers, overwhelms, and won’t let us go.
1998/9: Things have changed. It was the only song Dylan composed but even if he had written 20 I suspect this would have made it as song of the year.
2000/1: Honest With Me. Love and Theft is a most apt title for the album, but its total Americanisity means that it is hard for non-Americans to be able to associate with it in full.
2001/2005: Tell Ol Bill. The utter total masterpiece that emerged from the four movie songs written in the pause between creating albums.
2005/6: Nettie Moore. At a time when Bob was, by his own admission writing random verses, this evolution of the traditional song takes us back to an earlier Bob, when he thought of men in long black coats and the like.
2008/9: It’s all good. Bob sums up everything that is wrong with the world in one song based on one chord. This really does tell it as it is, and by and large it is pretty much all over.
2011/12: Narrow Way and Long and Wasted Years. After a lifetime of writing, to be able to create these songs, but with their own unique approach, yet each so different, is surely monument enough to such a remarkable talent.