Whether you get any deep pleasure out of the “After the Empire” tracks – the tracks in which Dylan explored various songs that were then abandoned – there is one thing about them which cannot be denied – they give us a real insight into how Dylan was composing at this time.
In the particular case of this song he came to the studio with three ideas that might or might not turn into a song.
First there is the melody which can be expanded and developed around the basic structure. Second there is the four chord sequence which is played over and over again throughout the entire song without any variation. This sequence is vital since it is what allows the rest of the ensemble to join in very quickly and know exactly where the song is going.
Then third there is the phrase, “Nothing here worth dying for” which defines where the lyrics are going to go and the emotions of the song. The feeling I get is that Bob is making up the rest of the song lyrics as he goes along having generated the title line.
So, we know it is a song of leaving, or perhaps a song of “no regrets”, and those songs can be rather dismal or heavy, unless there is something in the song that grabs us. If we consider “Not Dark Yet” – one of the darkest songs in the repertoire, Dylan keeps our attention by holding back each line for an extra beat. We may not realise that is what he is doing, but he has us on edge.
Then in the key lines his voice is raised and he gives us killer phrases.
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
Not Dark Yet takes a structure and breaks it, because it has all been worked out. But here there is just a sketch, and because the structure is so well established from the off there is little that can be varied.
Yes the melody can change a little around the four chords, and of course so can the lyrics, but the chords can’t change because that is what the band and singers are following. And the rhythm can’t change because that is what is holding everyone together.
To make this a more complete song, in my view, there needs to be the variations – so we might have four lines ending “nothing here worth dying for” followed by another four lines with that same ending, but then a change – a new sequence of chords would be the most obvious – which gives us a break and a chance for the lyrics and melody to take on a new direction.
I’m not suggesting I could write a better song than Dylan – of course not – but I rather saying, this is what I suspect Dylan might have looked at, had he felt that this was a song going somewhere and which he therefore ought to work on.
Of course in this session of “Nothing worth dying for” Bob could have introduced such a change with a wave of the hand or a nod of the head, or a change in the way he was playing the guitar, and the rest of the band would quickly pick it up, but it seems the inspiration didn’t come to him.
So the song is trapped in its own ever revolving cycle of the same four chords and the doom and gloom of the title. Nothing wrong with doom and gloom of course – Desolation Row showed that, as did the aforementioned “Not Dark Yet”- but it needs inspiration in terms of lyrics and structure, and that I think is what is missing here. If Bob had been minded, he could have gone away and written the extra bits that were needed – or indeed instructed the band and singers there and then – but it seems it was not a day when that might happen, and so the song died after this one run through…
So the song died as it was born, and even Heylin missed this collection of songs when he was compiling his magnum opus.
And why did it die? Perhaps because Dylan just couldn’t find where to take the song after all those repetitions of the four chord sequence. Possibly because “Baby Stop Crying” is rather similar. Possibly because “Someone’s Got A Hold of My Heart/Tight Connection to My Heart” is also of the same ilk.
And possibly because he knew that one day he would write the ultimate song about dying.
Even after all these years that still has me on the edge.
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