Six of Bob Dylan’s greatest internal lines: words from inside the poet’s thoughts

By Tony Attwood

Let me confess, with this article I am really stepping out into a strange world – or perhaps better said I am offering up access to the strange world that I sometimes inhabit.  A world of lines and quotes that I carry around with me.  Often forgetting them for years and years until one day a situation is there and one of these lines pops into my head.

And of course because I am a Dylan fan, a lot of these lines are Dylan lines.  Not all, but a lot.

But not, let me stress, any old Dylan lines.  And not just Dylan lines I remember.  But lines that seem to carry a special connotation.

Now when I started writing this little piece I thought I’d just make a list of such lines, but at once I found there were too many.  So I started to invent some rules.  I would exclude certain types of Dylan lines.  Therefore I WON’T have

  • Dylan lines that open a song
  • Dylan lines that close a song
  • Multiple lines – each must be just one line from a song
  • Dylan lines that just sound good but actually can’t be made to mean anything at all.

Thus I started to look in my head for single lines that occur within songs that mean something to me and which seem to have stayed in my brain.

Now maybe this living with lines of songs and poems and indeed literature is something that just inflicts people like me who live their lives in words, reading, studying and writing.  I don’t really know, but I hope you can see where I am going.

A little while ago when we had a little discussion about “Mississippi” several readers of this site presented lines came out of that song – one in particular seems to be retained by many people who know Dylan’s work…

Some people will offer you their hands and some won’t

And I do like that, because it does seem to be how it is.  When you need help there are always the kind folk who actually see it as part of the essence of being a good person to offer support and help where it is feasible to do so.   It’s an everyday observation, but when removed and put as that single line, it makes one aware that it is a fundamental part of life.

I often wonder about those who don’t ever offer help, who seriously believe it is every man for himself.  Those people might get more money, but they never feel the warmth of doing someone a really good turn.

But then I thought – this is too easy.  We can all pick songs with lines that just pop into our heads.  But Dylan has meant much more to me than this over the years – I really ought to push myself a bit further.  Besides I’ve seen this “Dylan’s best lines” thing done on other sites, and this is supposedly UNTOLD Dylan where we cover stuff that has not be said before.

So I took the list of Dylan songs in alphabetical order and looked at each one in turn, asking myself, “is there a line here that really means something to me” – remembering of course it couldn’t be the first or last line.

I started with songs beginning with A and only got part way through that list, before I had more than enough to illustrate my point, (and simultaneously bore everyone who doesn’t share my enthusiasm utterly stupid).   So, just with songs starting with A…

From “A Hard Rain’s a gonna fall” I immediately had

I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it

Hard Rain is packed with negative images of all the dreadful things Dylan sees in the world; it is a horrific catalogue.  But this image is different, because it speaks of something out there which gives us hope or opportunity which we are not taking.

I don’t know if Dylan meant it this way – he could have meant the riches that the wealthy keep to themselves, but it could simply be a vision that says, “if you open up your eyes it is all there, all you have to do is look and step forward.”

For much of my life I’ve believed in the highway of diamonds, which is a fine way to live one’s life except it means that when I slip from that knowledge, there is an awful long way to fall.

But still I always come back to that Highway of Diamonds.  And indeed it is appropriate to start with that highway in this little piece, because that highway of diamonds can also be the catalogue of Dylan songs just waiting for us to inspect and consider.  And it doesn’t matter if millions across the world are enjoying his music, if I listen in my house, alone, it is still just him and me and his music directs me onto that highway, and I take new hope for the future.

Moving on…

“Abandoned love” is one of the “lost” songs that I have raved over several times on this site, and here I am choosing two lines. Up first…

My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost

I have learned from and been influenced by so many people in my life as I have tried to understand literature, music, art, dance and theatre, and have at times despaired because I seem to have spent so long fighting my own demons inside my head.

But then on hearing this line for the first time I thought – well, yes, that happens to lots of people who think a lot about life, reality and meanings.   All these people whose artistic endeavours I so admire have gone through all this, and that’s where I’ve travelled too.

That doesn’t mean I see myself as some kind of great artist up there with the best, not at all, but rather that in my own way I’ve made my own journey, and most of the time I can now look back and be happy that most of the ghosts have been put to rest most of the time.

From the same song…

Everyone is wearing a disguise

One of my favourite, favourites.  So many people present themselves as honest, telling it like it is, having nothing to hide, presenting themselves as strong people, saying that their way is the only way, when of course it isn’t.   We are all so complex, the inputs on our lives are so diverse, all we have is a disguise.  I can never get to the real me because there is no real me, only the layers and layers that life has put across me.

Which is a wonderful release, because that means I am free to create me as I want to be.  I can create the story of my past that I want for myself, and find my own future.

This doesn’t mean I’m looking at the world and making up untrue stories about myself, pretending to be something I am absolutely not.  I was not an astronaut, I’ve never been to Chile, I’ve not had 500 love affairs, I didn’t go to prison for a bullion robbery.

But I can pick out the bits of my life that I want to pick out, and weave those bits together into a theme which is as good a description of who I am as any other theme.  And doing that makes me feel better.  It makes life make sense.

Moving on once more…

“Absolutely Sweet Marie”

To live outside the law you must be honest

OK it is on everyone’s list, but that’s no reason why I can’t have it too.  Yes, if you really want to step off the mainstream highway, it is not a bad idea to carry honesty with you.  Otherwise you will be found out, and your journey to where ever you want to go is going to be fraught with difficulty.

Next it is “All along the watchtower”

There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

Every serious Dylan fan can recite this short song word for word and almost every line could be a life-defining line, but I have kept this one as a special favourite, not least because I suspect not too many others would choose it.

Years and multiple decades ago I read a science fiction story about aliens creating alternative universes as their ultimate entertainment just to see what crazy things evolved on them. I don’t think I actually believe that, but this line fits into that notion.

It also reminds me daily not to take it all too seriously.  In the end I am going to die, and either that will be the end of it, or I shall go to whichever afterlife is set out for me, and by my age there’s not to much I can do about that.

So why not greet the world each day with a smile – and if what I experience doesn’t make me smile, then why not find something else that does.

And now to conclude… “Angelina”

There’s a black Mercedes rollin’ through the combat zone

It’s a song I have been critical of, because of what I perceive to be the forced rhymes that Dylan introduces, and that’s a shame because I really like the music and some of the lines as individual lines.

But this line has always made me smile because it is something very personal.  Yes, I do drive a black Mercedes, and I regularly drive from my home in the rural East Midlands to London or Birmingham, either to go to the theatre, or see friends, or watch the football team I support, or to go dancing.

The two roads I use (one south to London one west to Birmingham) are often packed solid, but each still has vehicles travelling at 70mph (the national speed limit in the UK on motorways – the long distance roads that connect the cities), and I never thought of them as “combat zones” until one day I was playing “Angelina” in the car and the line leaped out at me, and hasn’t gone away since.

So there we are, seven single lines, and I only got as far as Angelina.   Goodness knows how many more there are in my head, but that will do for today.

A silly little exercise I know, but I hope it might have given you some amusement and a few thoughts over the past few minutes.

What 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.

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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7 Responses to Six of Bob Dylan’s greatest internal lines: words from inside the poet’s thoughts

  1. rw says:

    I mis read this as great “internal rhymes” which I think would make a shorter more challenging list.

  2. Babette says:

    I dont know why – but two words came to my mind, when I read your causerie. – in fact it is only one word, but never mind –

    Dance dance

    I could sing the melody, but I couldn´t remember which song it was .
    AHA of cause.

    Here it is.
    DONOVAN: Lord of the dance

  3. Babette says:

    Sorry I’ve violated all the rules at once, but that was what my mind came up with.

  4. jzsnake says:

    Always liked “There must be some way out of here said the joker to the thief”and “Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift”.

  5. Daniel Phillips says:

    2 lines, but so great! Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial.
    Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while.

  6. Jerapah says:

    I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me

    Story of my life!

  7. Babette says:

    Never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine

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