Wont go back: a lost Bob Dylan song laid low by its own subject matter

by Tony Attwood

This is another song from the After the Empire collection – and in this case it sounds as if some work has been done on the song before the recording starts – Dylan certainly has worked through the lyrics.


The song is not listed in Heylin, so has obviously emerged since his volumes came out as has most of the After the Empire collection which means the recordings sometime in 1985.

The title sung in the chorus line is memorable, but I get the feeling that the song is at an interim stage of its evolution, just a song about not going back to the past friend, lover, associate, situation until “they” ask him back – and presumably apologise along the way.

There might be some good lyrics within the song – I’m not going to try and transpose them, because I always get it wrong – but it just sounds to me like a variation on the travelling on, gotta keep moving on type of song.  There is certainly a “railroad track” in there and the thought that “I’ll meet you when you need a friend”, combined with the thought that no matter how often the singer helps the unnamed subject of the song, he or she will end up on his/her knees again, and again.

This concept of repetition is well met by the music itself – there are four chords that are played over and over and over again without any variation.  That matches exactly with what the lyrics seem to be saying: it just goes on and on and on.

So that’s it – there are just some people who can’t cope, and no matter how often you help them, they keep falling down.   And yes, that is true, and maybe a justification for no going back until one is asked.

Although it is interesting that the chorus line is “I won’t go back til they call me back again”.   And as I played the song over and over for the purpose of this review, I began to wonder: “why THEY?”  I mean there if it is the individual who is down and out, why isn’t it “Til you call me back again”?

From what I can make out of the lyrics, the answer is unclear.  Is it that the singer is alienated by all the people in this other community?  Is it that the subject of the song is institutionalised, and it is the guardians who call the singer back?

I’m not sure Bob actually had any thought as to the answer; I suspect he just had the phrase and the music then popped into this head.

But, I can’t help thinking there is something that a genius like Bob could have done with this material – maybe a very different “B” section in there which kicks it in another direction.

As it is, I am just stuck wondering who “they” are.   His family?  His friends?  Musicians he has known?  And those chords going round and round and round without any variation….

Songs about things endlessly repeating are very hard to get right, because where the music in essence repeats itself over and over the song becomes boring – which is probably the situation that the lyrics are describing.

So maybe this is just too hard a task for the songwriter to deal with.  Especially since he is also known to have favoured the phrase, “Don’t look back”.

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  1. To my way of approaching Dylan’s songs…feel, emotion ,intangible mystery, personality, tension between the words and music, phrasing, sung words that make an indelible impression in the mind, a tune that you cannot stop humming and, essentially, a performance that makes you feel something…this is a lost gem.

    The demo songs on ‘After the Empire ‘ were recorded around the time of the great album ‘Empire Burlesque ‘ and my advice to anyone listening to that album is throw the lyrics away. The songs are not intended to be read. Reading the lyrics will probably distract you from the meaning of the song for you…the songs are intended to make different people feel and respond in different ways. Tony’s interpretation of a song is bound to be different than mine and that is the intention behind Bob Dylan’s songs.

  2. Telling Tony to throw the lyrics away just won’t do as articles would be hard to come by without them.

    True, lyrics may not be meant to be read by everyone, but, as Mr Ford says, they are intended to be heard, ambiguous though they be.

    A much better idea is to hit Tony over the head with a two by four to first get his attention(he hardly notices it), and then show him that Dylan lyrics seldom lead to a straight line logical interpretation.

  3. Christ won’t come back until people call him back. That’s obvious, to me anyway.

  4. His baby, who left him years ago, is back. Back from the dead. But he won’t go back till they call him back, he means: he won’t go back until he feels right. But his heart is already on the highlands, you can hear that, he is excited.

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