“When the night comes falling from the sky.” The meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Ask any musician what the difference is between the version of this song that appears on the original LP (Empire Burlesque) and the version on Volume 3 of the Bootleg series, and he or she will immediately say, “the Empire Burlesque version is in a minor key, while the Bootleg version is in a major key.”

To be precise the former is in the key of B minor, the Bootleg version is in A major.

“So what?” you may ask.  Well apart from the fact that it is hard to think of many other songs that Dylan has written in a minor key, this is something even rarer – it is a song that modulates – which is to say it changes key during the process.

The minor keys in Western music are reserved mostly for sad songs.  For all of us the minor chord gives us a feeling of sadness and loss.   Play a minor chord on its own, such as B minor (B, D, F sharp) and it feels sad.  Do what Dylan does in the LP version and rotate between B minor and E minor and it feels doom laden.

This tells us a lot about Dylan’s concept of the song.  But the fact that he recorded a version in a minor key and another version in the major key shows us that he was unsure of the song.  Was it doom laden, was it a rock n roll blast?  In short, he had a song where the meaning is not clear.  This is not “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” or “Come gather round people where ever you roam” where no one could misunderstand what is in the song.  This is a song of images – one falling on top of the other.

Indeed Dylan said in one interview that the song was made up of “Lines overheard here and there,” and that’s really all we need.  It is a song of collected images – and no worse for that.  Very few songwriters have tried this effect, and with Dylan it works.   But it leaves open the question of meaning.  So it leaves open the question of whether it is joyous or uncertain.

Now once we have this awareness of just how different the two versions of the song are, everything becomes clear.  But if you don’t see that the two versions are fundamentally musically different, then you are back to arguing about producers and contemplating the strangeness of Dylan’s decision making.

Heylin falls into this trap.  He sneers at Dylan’s suggestion of lines taken from here and there, but then completely misses the most important fact about the two songs (one in a major key one in a minor)  I think we can safely dismiss and ignore Heylin’s commentary here.  Musically he hasn’t got a clue what’s going on, and as such can only read a half of the song.  It is like watching Hamlet but only ever being able to see and hear half the stage.  One’s conclusions would be odd, to say the least.

What we can also read into the two versions is the fact that since Dylan changed the song so utterly between the two versions, he didn’t have a clear vision of what it was about either – and was very happy to have written an abstract piece of multiple images.  The “lines overheard” tells us what we need to know. This is people passing by, making comment.

In short, if you really want to grab the image behind this song, and its ability to be transformed with two utterly different musical settings, think back to this

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

“Read books, repeat quotations” – he’s giving us a way of writing songs, which he used then, and he used here.

If there is a theme at all in the lines Dylan collected and used it is that Dylan is against judgementalists – which is interesting because if any of Dylan’s sources is judgemental it is the Old Testament.  As I have said so often before, and will undoubtredly say again, when thinking of Dylan’s seemingly religious lyrics, take a peek at Leviticus and see how that book stacks up in that regard.  No writer has ever been more judgemental than the writer of the Book of Laws.

John Bauldie wrote in the notes that are released with the Bootleg series 1-3 version of the song, ‘it’s remarkable to remember that this is a take which was presumably judged as not being good enough for release, merely a workout, and yet Dylan sings wonderfully. The song seems capable of kicking itself into ever-higher gear, and as the band recognizes it, so does Dylan, who gets audibly more and more excited as the song progresses’.

And it is this, “official” and knowledgeable enough to be on the notes with the three volume album, that I am challenging.  Brave and stupid of me yes, but sometimes you have to stick a neck out and hope you haven’t missed something.

So yes, I am questioning the official notes but I do think that because of the ambiguity of the lyrics and the different stance of the two versions, both versions are realistic representations full of artistic merit, of the concept Dylan was exploring.   Here he did two interpretations within a few days – and why not?  “Read books, repeat quotations, draw conclusions on the wall”.

To say that the lyrics are apocalyptic as many have said, is to take but one vision – and for me not a very convincing one.  It is two different musical approaches, giving two different sets of insights, but for me, no firm meanings at all.

Yes you can just about make the meanings fit the notion that this is about lust and the devil in the form of a woman taking the man away from is righteousness.  But it is (if I may say) one hell of a struggle to get all the lyrics to fit that.  How much easier to go back to Dylan’s own analysis that they are just words he picked up here and there.

So yes, if you really want to, you can transform “If you look out across the fields, see me returning” as Satan’s warning, or indeed the announcement of the Second Coming of Christ as per the Book of Revelations.   The “smoke is in your eyes” could be the farmers burning off the stubble (I just made that up), or the effect of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, or a reference to a famous 1933 movie song – a song which like Dylan’s LP version modulates as it wends its way.

So yes, Dylan might be commenting on the fact that Jesus says: “I may return at any moment now” or Dylan might be telling us a story about a returning man, or he might be taking up individual images without a story.  And here’s a thought… if Dylan really is telling a religious tale, why is he so bloody obscure about it?  He wasn’t obscure in Serve Somebody, why be obscure this time?

Of course I make no claim that my interpretation is any more valid than anyone else’s but for what it is worth, I find it fits with the notion that life is chaotic, the world is chaotic.  There is no plan.  It’s all a muddle just do your best.   Sing it in a minor key, sing it in a major.  Sing it with a rock band, sing it in a full on production.  Take it as you want.

Thus “I’ve walked 200 miles” might mean “I’m trying to offer you salvation through Jesus Christ” or it might mean “It’s been a long hard road” in the way the blues (and of course Tom Petty) says it.

What I think tilts it my way is the fact of the continuing quotes from the movies.  Do we need bits of the Maltese Falcon to convince us that Jesus will return?  I think not.  “I don’t care who loves who…maybe you love me and maybe I love you” is a great line of ambiguity.  Why not use it for itself?

There’s one other line I think is worth following here – the oft repeated notion that the original rock version with members of the E Street Band is one that Dylan was “unsatisfied” with.  That comment abounds, but there is no actual evidence that I have seen for that being based on any truth.  I think he was experimenting, exploring, not dissatisfied.   In the end he had to choose one version, so he did.

So for me, if  “From the fireplace where my letters to you are burning” is as likely to be the end of the love affair, as anything else.   But “You’ll love me or I’ll love you, When the night comes falling from the sky” tells us it will sort itself out in the end.  It will just be ok.”

Indeed all the song is saying, “hey babe, its just life”.   There are no easy answers, I’m just this regular guy who never asks the impossible.

As for the most contentious lines, “I saw thousands who could have overcome the darkness” could be the politicians who run our countries as much as anything, and the “lousy buck” could easily refer to our ability to overcome poverty (the money is there, it just isn’t spent in the way.   We could make a difference if we acted, but in the end we’re just regular people.   “In your teardrops I can see my own reflection”.

In the end we just read books, repeat quotations, and when the night comes falling from the sky we draw conclusions on the wall.

Index to all the Bob Dylan songs reviewed on this site.


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1 Response to “When the night comes falling from the sky.” The meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. hans altena says:

    Though you take a short cut at the end, in the beginning your view is very valuable… there’s much more in this song, and I prefer the ugly so called disco version, there’s meaning there… and though maybe not apocalyptic, when it don’t matter who loves who, things are not so good, but that’s just the feeling the song gives me… a deep one at that… and yes, can’t put it down to one meaning…

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