Million Miles: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

There are many people who just don’t grasp what the blues is all about.  For these people it sounds repetitive, dull and simplistic.

Of course there is nothing wrong with not getting something – we all have areas of culture that we don’t understand, whether it is modern art, contemporary dance or the avant garde in orchestral music.

But what is sad is when people who don’t get an art form, then dismiss it, as if their cultural insight is the only valid one.

For those who “don’t get the blues” Million Miles is one of those songs that makes no sense at all.  So they revert to cynical commentary in the hope they are looking clever – whereas generally in fact, in relation to this song in particular and the blues in general they are making themselves look like prats.

Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s first release of original material since Under the Red Sky; his first in seven years.  And of course he was going to spend a lot of time in the album with the blues, and with the concepts of struggle, isolation, loss and despair – all topics that are fundamentally rooted in the blues.  And as I hope to show, above all in this song he talks of dissociation. 

Time Out of Mind won three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year in 1998 – but this song, Million Miles, has never warranted much attention, which is a shame.

From the slow introduction, the slight fade, the drums, with the lead guitar, and then the rhythm guitar chunking in background half way between each beat – from all this in the first few seconds we know this is going to be a song right on the edge.

The voice is distanced with the slightest of echos, and the first line “You took a part of me that I really miss” confirms where we are.  I’m not me any more.  In fact I am not part of this world any more.

That very first line is really worth contemplating, in my view.  This is the exact opposite of Elvis bopping along with My Baby Left Me, this is the theft of the soul or the heart, or maybe both.  this is desolation.

You took a part of me that I really miss
I keep asking myself how long it can go on like this
You told yourself a lie, that’s all right mama I told myself one too
I’m trying to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you

This is the first reference to “That’s all right” – I’ll come back to that in a moment.  But above all this is loss; loss of the self, loss of material goods, loss of everything for now there is nothing left – but a loss that leaves the singer unable to talk about it.

You took the silver, you took the gold
You left me standing out in the cold
People ask about you, I didn’t tell them everything I knew
Well, I’m trying to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you

These are the nights when you don’t know if you’ve been awake or asleep or how you get to the morning.  This is the pain of loss, the hopelessness of loss, the total removal of the link with the real world.  I’m here, but I’m not here…

I’m drifting in and out of dreamless sleep
Throwing all my memories in a ditch so deep

Until he gets to the stage where he can’t let go for fear of what will happen next.

Well, I don’t dare close my eyes and I don’t dare wink

And there is the insult that she’s left him for someone anyone, who can give her the love and devotion she wants – and he let her go.

The last thing you said before you hit the street
“Gonna find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet”
I said, “That’s all right mama . . . you . . . you do what you gotta do”

“That’s all right mama” being a reference back to the early Elvis song (“son that girl you’re fooling with she ain’t no good for you”).  It is interesting that it comes twice, and it is interesting to think back not just to the “son that girl” line but the end of That’s All Right – Elvis’ very first record release.

I’m leaving town tomorrow
I’m leaving town for sure
Then you won’t be bothered
With me hanging’ round your door
But, that’s all right, that’s all right

For Dylan nothing is real, everything is lost, there are sounds in his words but no meaning, he is drifting from friend to friend but none of them can help him.

It is a powerful theme, and one that Dylan has used in many different ways.  Compare Million Miles for example with the later Tell Ol’ Bill, musically a totally different song in Dylan’s version, but one that talks of the same subject matter.

The opening verse of Tell Ol Bill contains the line, “All of my body glows with flame” which could easily have come from Million Miles.

Compare for example “You took a part of me that I really miss” with “You trampled on me as you passed” from Tell ol Bill.  These similar lines show how able Dylan is to deal with similar issues in totally different musical ways.

Or take “Gonna find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet” and its message of disassociation from the world (rather than disaffection with it), which is also expressed in “The hour has come to do or die.”

The lack of money is also a theme in each song “You took the silver, you took the gold” in Million Miles, and “I’ve hardly a penny to my name” in Tell Ol Bill.

Or try, “I’m drifting in and out of dreamless sleep” and “To drive the shadow from my head”.  It is not so much the words that are the same, but the background idea of being lost – an idea that Dylan fights with in so many songs.

One final comparison

“I’m stranded in this nameless place” and “Sometimes I wonder what it’s all coming to.”

The lyrical form is different because the musical form is different, but both songs speak of disassociation from the real world – a total feeling of Time Out of Mind, in fact   This song, Million Miles, and this album, is one version of Dylan on disassociation.  As Tell Ol Bill shows, this is not his only run in with this subject.

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