by Jochen Markhorst
After sad, happy and dark dreams like in “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and “To Ramona” we are already at “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” on Bringing It All Back Home (1965). And it doesn’t stop there. Although the poet coquettishly sighs in the last groove, in It’s Alright, Ma: “And if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine”, it doesn’t stop him, the fifty years hereafter.
Saint Augustine appears before the nocturnal mind’s eye, in “Time Passes Slowly” (1970) the narrator not only experiences time delayed “here in the mountains”, but also “when you’re lost in a dream”, Durango (1975) is a bloody nightmare, Jokerman is a dream twister, in “Born In Time” the love couple is not made of stardust, but of dreams and so on and so forth. Still on Tempest (2012) the watchman dreams the downfall of the Titanic and on the borrowed songs of Shadows In The Night (2015) it’s bingo again (in “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Full Moon And Empty Arms”, among others).
In the collected works of the master we find, in short, Series Of Dreams.
It is one of the more substantive links to the work of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), in whose rather surveyable oeuvre one rêverie follows another. Both poets even share their dreams, every now and then. Rimbaud dreams of war (in Illuminations XXXIX: Guerre – “C’est aussi simple qu’une phrase musicale – It’s as simple as a musical phrase”), as Dylan does in Talkin’ World War. And the Frenchman’s Tom Thumb is a dreamer too (in Ma Bohème – “Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course des rimes; as I walked, a dreamy Tom Thumb, I would count out lines of verse).
The director of the fascinating music video for “Series Of Dreams” feels the connection; in the final seconds of the clip, Meiert Avis edits the famous youth portrait of Rimbaud in front of a musing Dylan, fleetingly letters flash up and fade away: black a, white e, red i, green u and blue o; the Alchimie du verbe, the second délire from Un Saison En Enfer (1873). The only 19-year-old genius here defines poetry as if he were talking about Dylan’s best work:
J’inventai la couleur des voyelles ! – A noir, E blanc, I rouge, O bleu, U vert. – Je réglai la forme et le mouvement de chaque consonne, et, avec des rythmes instinctifs, je me flattai d’inventer un verbe poétique accessible, un jour ou l’autre, à tous les sens. Je réservais la traduction.
Ce fut d’abord une étude. J’écrivais des silences, des nuits, je notais l’inexprimable.
Je fixais des vertiges.
I invented the colour of vowels! A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. – I regulated the form and motion of every consonant, and, with instinctive rhythms, I flattered myself I’d created a poetic language, accessible some day to all the senses. I reserved the translation rights.
It was academic at first. I wrote of silences, nights, I expressed the inexpressible.
I defined vertigos.
The soul kinship is recognised in the Dylan film I’m Not There (2007). One of Dylan’s incarnations from that intriguing cartoon is an 19-year-old “Arthur Rimbaud”, masterfully portrayed by Ben Whishaw, haughty and vulnerable in one. Admittedly, he does get the most rewarding texts, the most beautiful one-liners and aphorisms from the albums’ liner notes, interviews and press conferences. Among them is the Dylan quote from Shelton’s No Direction Home, which perfectly expresses the Rimbaud-Dylan connection:
Yet “Series Of Dreams” is an atypical lyric in the bard’s series of dream songs. No extravagancies like in the 60s, nor the mystical, tranquil dream references from the 70s and 80s – here the poet almost clinically administers the broad outlines of four dreams, some couleur is given by details like a folded umbrella and the directing instructions like the accelerated time (in another version, by the way, delayed time) and, moreover, as the narrator clinically declares: it’s not too special and not at all too scientific, any of it.
That remains to be seen. The founder of the scientific dream interpretation, Sigmund Freud, certainly would know what to do with it. Anyhow, every series of dreams is related, he teaches on page 171 of his Traumdeutung (The Interpretation Of Dreams, 1899), and despite the lack of details, it can be predicted in which direction Freud’s analysis would point. The umbrella, of course, symbolizes the manly pride (“des der Erektion vergleichbaren Aufspannens wegen – on account of the opening, which might be likened to an erection”), “climbing” indicates intercourse and “running” means fear – fear of dying, usually, but here Herr Doktor would probably rather steer towards fear of commitment. After all, the umbrella remains folded, the burning numbers symbolise the fleeting of the years, to witness indicates culpable passivity.
However, a coherent, specific interpretation cannot be constructed, Dylan is right about that. Which is a good thing; after all, the poet here does not describe one dream, nor a series of dreams, but, after all those bizarre, melancholic, visionary and romantic dreams in his oeuvre, now themes the dreaming itself.
The fate of the song is a bit tragic. Recorded during the Oh Mercy sessions, but to the dismay of those involved and despair of producer Lanois, Dylan refuses to put it on the record. His motives, as expressed in the autobiography Chronicles, are once again mysterious. After the recording Lanois suggests something like starting with the bridge and using the main part as the bridge. Dylan considers it, understands what his producer means, but rejects the idea: “I felt like it was fine the way it was.” And then suddenly the song is exit. Confusing.
His criticism of Lanois’ approach to that other rejected masterpiece, “Mississippi” from 1997, then seems to fit much better his expressed discomfort with “Series Of Dreams”:
Lanois didn’t see it. Thought it was pedestrian. Took it down the Afro-polyrhythm route — multirhythm drumming, that sort of thing. (…) he had his own way of looking at things, and in the end I had to reject this because I thought too highly of the expressive meaning behind the lyrics to bury them in some steamy cauldron of drum theory.
A “Mississippi” recording with “multirhythm drumming” is not known, but the official releases of “Series Of Dreams” (on The Bootleg Series 1-3 and on Tell-Tale Signs) do fit that description perfectly. And precisely that remarkable drumming is what makes the song so distinctive. The whole arrangement, but especially the percussion, gives the song the majestic grandeur which is denied by the sober, nuanced lyrics. Oh Mercy with “Series Of Dreams” would indeed have been an even more beautiful album, Lanois is right.
It’s an enchanting song. All the more remarkable is that it has relatively few covers. Hard to improve or match, that’s probably it. Most covers remain anxiously close to the source, especially regarding the rolling drum avalanche and the driving bass. The occasional follower who dares to deviate, the Antwerp collective Zita Swoon for instance (on Big City, 2007), is very attractive, granted, but the grandeur of the original is dearly missed.
No, then the faithful copy of the Italian grandmaster Francesco De Gregori wins. Although translations rarely work for Dylan songs, De Gregori’s version of “If You See Her, Say Hello” (“Non Dirle Che Non E’ Cosi”, on Masked And Anonymous, 2003) already demonstrated that the Italian translations of the Roman “Principe dei cantautori” are the exception.
Apart from the beauty of the Italian words, his “Una Serie Di Sogni” actually adds little, but it is enough to become fascinated again. From the magnificent tribute album De Gregori Canta Bob Dylan – Amore E Furto (2015), on which also rather faithful but excellent covers such as “Dignità”, “Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee” and “Via Della Povertà” shine. And, just like in his “Via Della Povertà”, in his “Desolation Row”, Francesco does not shy away from deepening the melancholy and romanising the poetry. He doesn’t like flying time and tempo, and would rather have at least one escape option: “Senza metrica, senza velocità, nella stanza c’è un’unica uscita; No metrics, no speed, in the room there is only one exit” is pretty much the opposite of what Dylan sings, and
In un sogno c’era sangue per terra,
In un altro nevicava in città.
In one dream there was blood on the ground,
In another it was snowing in the city.
… De Gregori is making up all by himself. And so what – he is the Prince of Songwriters. He is allowed to dream, too.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan. It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.
We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers. Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics who teach English literature. If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a subject line saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with approaching 6000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture. Not every index is complete but I do my best.
But what is complete is our index to all the 604 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found, on the A to Z page. I’m proud of that; no one else has found that many songs with that much information. Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.