Bob Dylan’s “Time passes slowly” (1970). The meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

This is a deceptively simple song, which seeks to offer an insight into Dylan’s very private world – at least the private world he was contemplating in the rural simplicity of parts of New Morning.

But it is a song which Heylin tells us was changed over and over, and certainly Bootleg versions show an astonishingly different piece of music.  I’m concentrating on the New Morning version here, the one that so clearly works as an integrated piece of music with a clear, but (it turns out) very complex picture to paint.

Musically the simplicity of the world (up here in the mountains) is captured by the piano, single guitar notes and occasional drumming. It is full of a girl who is (of course) good looking, (rhyming of course with “cooking”).  That’s what you get in these rural cabins.

One is tempted to think, “how easy do you want this all to be?”  Is it really possible to create a world that has no problems, just by removing oneself from society?  (And the answer is no, of course not).

But without it being really apparent, we find the melody is changing, the drumming is getting more complex, the chords are changing, and as it all is combining with the insistence that there is no reason to go anywhere we know there is something else here.

It is as if there is a pull on the singer – the world is not quite what it seems.   The instrumental break which adds a second guitar moves towards a comparatively frantic moment, but then, we are back to one more verse, and a most unusual ending of a chord repeated quickly over and over.

This is the simple land, where nothing happens, and in one ultimately misleading sense prepares us for the surreal dream-like quality of Went to see the gypsy – a different world but one that can coexist with Time passes slowly.  A different world because in “gypsy” we still never know if Bob went to see Elvis, or if he just imagined going to see Elvis or if it actually has nothing to do with going to see Elvis at all.  (Up here in the mountains you can do that sort of thing – mix one reality with another and end up unsure what was real and what you imagined.  Too much isolation can do that to a guy).

The simple land is deceptive – the mountains don’t change but the thoughts and dreams of those who live here can change.  It is as if those thoughts create the world.  There is nothing real here at all… except of course there is.  This is the simple countryside isn’t it?  Streams and log cabins and stuff…

It’s a simple song in the solid world of E flat (or D maybe) but with a twist at the instrumental end of each world. “Ain’t no reason to go anywhere” – true – but it almost seems as if you need to keep shouting it to keep the demons at bay.   Dylan is trying over and over to tell himself this is how it is, but when you listen to those two inter-twining guitars, you start to wonder if it really is true, or not.  Have the demons been left behind, or are they merely locked behind to log cabin door?

You can win and defeat the demons if only you can be like the Zen monk on the hillside looking down, with the perfectly clear vision – for then time passes slowly and fades away.  But in doing that what you have done is removed yourself from the world.

And then…

One moves away from New Morning to “Another Self Portrait” where the whole ethos of the New Morning version vanishes, by the strange leap in the voice at the end of each verse until the singer is almost shouting, and you have to ask “why did you do that Bob?  What does that signify?  What on earth are you telling us here?  Do you know?”  The meaning of the song seems to dissipate especially at the very end where the final words as “then fades away” and the voice does anything but.

It’s a complex attempt at a complex yet seemingly simple message, but it doesn’t work because what is missing is that extraordinary magical piano part in the New Morning version, and it is this that makes us remember this piece over and over, even if we haven’t played it for years.

Time Passes Slowly would be a “let me drift alone into the nothingness” piece if it were just a poem, but that piano takes us on a wild wandering journey to all sorts of unexpected places.  It is based around a chord sequence that I can’t think Dylan uses anywhere else.

If you play it in D and hear the opening three chords of D, C and G, then that gives you a feel of the sort of song you are going to get.  There are millions of songs using that sequence; they have a feel, a resonance, and yes you could be drifting away slowly indeed.

But at the end of the first line Dylan throws in E minor.  By the third line we have F sharp minor.  Perfectly acceptable chords, but unusual in the context.  And then we find “lost in a dream” is actually ending on F sharp minor.   That chord is the dream machine – it is transporting us off to somewhere else, because songs in D don’t end on F Sharp minor.  (In musical terms it is the “mediant” meaning middle of course, and Dylan ends at that point, on the middle.)

Then, amazingly, the second verse starts off like the first (musically) but the third and fourth lines are variations.  Another thing that is rare in folk orientated music.  And we know for sure this ain’t a simple song at all.

And we have that feeling that this song is not about simplicity at all – it is highly complex and different, and odd, and unusual and….e

The final verse does it again, changing the chord structure that the piano plays to hold it all together.  And we get our clear indication.  Time passes slowly up here in the mountains, but watch out, because it is not quite as simple and calm and rustic as you might think.  This is a world you never expected.

It is like the city dweller coming to the log cabin in the woods and sitting outside thinking, oh how magnificent all this simplicity is, and then being bitten by a snake, finding that there are ants crawling over his bedclothes, that he has to go and get water from the stream, and he’s got no way to start a fire.

It is the perfect example of the world that is not what you think.  And this is why the versions from the bootleg series don’t work, because they lose that contrast between perceived rural simplicity and the actual complexity of the world.   Time still passes, but you are no more in control of the environment in this rural environment than you are anywhere else.

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