Bob says to Tony, “Make me an album” part 2

Tony Attwood

This article continues from part 1 of this piece, Bob says to Tony, “make me an album” (part 1) in which the totally fanciful idea is put forward that Bob Dylan asks his manager to give me a call, suggesting I might put together his next compilation album, under the condition that it has to have a certain amount of coherence, and can’t be a collection of greatest hits that everyone knows anyway.  I chose to make the album “Bob Dylan 1980”.

In part 1 I gave the full track listing…

  1. Are you ready? fundamental Christianity, second coming
  2. I will love him fundamental Christianity, second coming
  3. Cover Down Christianity, the grave won’t set you free
  4. Ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody Christianity, I’m following Jesus
  5. Property of Jesus Christianity, salvation is assured
  6. Every grain of sand God made this world
  7. Caribbean Wind  End of relationships, the end of time, the end of all things
  8. Groom’s still waiting at the alter It’s all falling apart
  9. Yonder comes sin It’s all falling apart
  10. Let’s keep it between us (Love – all we need is honesty)
  11. Making a liar out of me (This is me, this is where I have got to)
  12. City of Gold (Revelations / gospel)

… the logic being that these songs were all written in 1980, in the order set out above.  Part one of the series took us to Every Grain.

Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that exists in the most different forms.  It is also the pivotal moment of 1980, and the pivotal moment between Bob Dylan writing religious songs and nothing but religious songs, and other types of songs.

Remember that through every other part of his working life as a songwriter, he wrote songs on a multiplicity of subjects, but in 1979 he abandoned that and only wrote about Christianity.

So “Every grain” is incredibly important.  It is the turning point.  Here’s another chance to get us back into the mood.

Leave the track running and you also get Emmylou Harris’ rendition of the song.

So there we had the bridge between the overt religious songs and the Caribbean Wind, a masterpiece of a song, a song of staggering overwhelming genius, a song as brilliant as Tell Ol Bill in the way that it challenges our perception of the world around us, that exists with multiple versions.

The lyrics changed from version to version but just consider the opening of this version

She was well rehearsed, fair brown and blonde
She had friends who was busboys and friends in the Pentagon
Playin' a show in Miami in the theater of divine comedy.
Talked in the shadows where they talked in the rain
I could tell she was still feelin' the pain
Pain of rejection, pain of infidelity.

How did we get from all those “second coming” songs to this?   The answer of course is through Every Grain of Sand, that image of living the good life that has so much more to do with Taoism than Christianity.

And then…

Well i slept in a hotel where flies buzz my head
Ceiling fan was broken, there was heat in my bed
Street band playin', "Nearer My God To Thee.”
We met in secret where we drank from a spring
She said, "I know what you're thinkin', but there ain't a thing
We can do about it, so we might as well let it be.”

This is real life – this is not the end of the world and the end of time at the second coming, this is now, this is back to everyday.  This is life.

Yes it is still the end of times, but the reason is mankind’s incompetence not the wrath of the vengeful God or the final throw of the dice by an insane Devil.

Every new messenger bringin' evil reports
'Bout riotin' armies and time that is short
An' earthquakes and train wrecks and 
hate words scribbled on walls.

And that’s the point.  If this is not the end of times, then it is just the work of man.  2000 years after Jesus, mankind is still out there wrecking the joint, with a bit of aid from the local geology.  All made by God?  No, perhaps not.  And that is not me trying to slip my atheist vision into the middle of a song review but trying to understand where Bob was at this time.  He was in the middle of a whirlpool deciding which route out to take.

So as Bob tells us

And that Caribbean winds still blow from Nassau to Mexico

which is to say that the world he left behind 18 months before when telling us that there is a Slow Train Coming, is still out there, and the train is still coming, but simply not heading in the direction that he thought, for the reason that he thought.

The musical result is that suddenly Bob is alive, and doing all sorts of musical things that are completely surprising us at a level he has never reached before.  This is Desolution Row x 2.  This is Johanna +++.

For me, musically, structurally and lyrically this is an utter absolute masterpiece.  In part, because no one but no one has written lines like “She was well-rehearsed, fair brown and blonde, She had friends who was busboys and friends in the Pentagon” as the opening of a song in the popular music style before.  But it is also in part because decades later I am still deconstructing these lines to dig ever deeper into the meanings.

And still there is the phenomenally complex interplay of the melody, chord structure and lyrics which tell us this is the end of time, but not at all the end of time.  It’s just not dark yet, but it is getting there unless we do something.  Just tell ol’ Bill, anything is worth a try.

It is a staggering masterpiece.  And then, as we recover we get…

In my original review of this song I said

East of the Jordan, west of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the page, Curtain risin’ on a new age,
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar.

“This is seriously odd, and you can take your pick of a whole range of options.  I’ve read lots of them in the last week but I can’t say that any of them have me thinking, “ah, so that’s where Dylan is”.”

But now, listening again to the songs of this year in the order in which Bob wrote them, I have the strongest sense that here Bob has now thrown off the shackles of that all-embracing belief that took over his life so totally in 1979.  Here he is with a traditional 12 bar blues.  Here he is, not repeating a mantra told to him by others, but doing what he does best of all: he’s using his imagination.

And this is the validity of my concept album found here in this one song, because as we listen to the songs in the order of their composition, we can feel the shackles of an all-encompassing religion being set aside, we can feel the leap in the air, we can feel the shout of “no!”   I am so tempted to say that Dylan was brought to the altar in the church as part of his conversion, and he was waiting for a sign, and now we find he’s still waiting… so tempted to say it in fact, that I just have.

Could he be talking to all those Christians who converted him and preached to him, to whom he sang the songs of one year before?  As when he said.

Put your hand on my head, baby, do I have a temperature?
I see people who are supposed to know better standin’ around like furniture.
There’s a wall between you and what you want and you got to leap it,
Tonight you got the power to take it, tomorrow you won’t have the power to
keep it.

My original commentary on the song says, “This is a song of the disconnected images of nightmares, it is the creatures at the Million Dollar Bash going haywire on meths and tormenting each other.  I don’t think it has much connection with most of the rest of the album.

“One description I read, as I did my research on this song, speaks of the “chaotic absurdity” of the piece, the “breathing in hot pursuit of the listener across the switchback longs and shorts of the verses and the punching ups and downs of the chorus melody.”

“And yes, I’d say that is a fair description.  The lines vary in length ludicrously, the rhymes are bizarre, and all around us the world is falling to pieces.  So that concept of the switchback works for me.  I don’t need an actual meaning for the bride at the altar any more than I do for Bob’s passing interest in “Gibraltar” (which I’ve visited three times, and a charming place it is too,) nor do I need to know who these people are, to appreciate the cracks in the pavement.”

I’m quite glad I wrote that, because now, hearing all the songs of this year in sequence that is still exactly how it sounds to me.

The creation of Yonder comes sin as the next song, at one level seems a surprise – the title suggests Bob is still a believer in Christian concepts deriving from good and evil.  So the change that has happened as he has moved through the gateway into Caribbean Wind is not completely shut.  The past can still creep in and worry him.

We only have one recording of this song, and it is far from complete.  In the copyrighted lyrics we have more verses, and each verse ends differently “can’t you take it on the chin”, “Pour me another glass of gin”, “Ain’t no room tonight at the inn”, “Sounding like a sweet violin”… I feel – I absolutely feel – Bob slipping away from those earlier religious songs, despite the concepts within the song.

I just listen to his voice and find it so natural, so apt, so utterly Bob.  The old Bob in fact, not the new persona adopted the year before

In the first of the verses that we don’t have recorded, the lyrics read

High cost of survival
Gets a little higher than you expect
When you're trying to get along with your enemies
And still maintain your self-respect
As a child you knew all there was to know
It just couldn't get expressed
Now it scares me to see what you accept as good
At one you wouldn't have settled for less than the best
Yonder comes sin

The world we see is a world of compromise or making do, of getting by, of trying to be a decent person.  The simple certainties of childhood have gone, we have to get on with our neighbours no matter who they are.  We can keep our ideas and our ideals but they don’t have to be the ideals handed down by the Christian church or any other religious group for that matter.  It’s just easier to take someone else’s vision of right and wrong – try and do it yourself and it is harder than you might think.

As for the final verse of Yonder Comes Sin, it is a truly magical place…

There's a place down in your soul
Where the law can never touch
You do most likely what you please
And not think about too much
I'll be down the line when morning comes
And that I pulled the hood up for you
So that you could see real good your uninvited guest
Yonder comes sin
(It's a pleasure to meet ya, nice to have known ya)
Yonder comes sin
(It wants to kill you, it wants to own you)
Look at your feet see where they've been to
Look at your hands, see what they've been into
Being pulled in all directions by the wind
Yonder comes sin

The complete acknowledgement that good and evil exists, that we can do good and bad things, is here for all to see.  But to express this one does not have to believe in God and the Devil, but simply to believe in morality.  The sin is created when we do things which hurt others, simply to benefit ourselves.  I, as an atheist through and through, can take that.

Bob was clearly on a roll – I mean these songs are songs of the highest quality, originality, and entertainment value, and if that were not enough we then have “Let’s keep it between us.”

But for that, we’ll have to wait until part 3.

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

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One comment

  1. Tony i feel “Every Grain of Sand” is the “Boom Boom Thunder” Jakob Dylan was eluding to, i believe this song should be considered.

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