By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘I am the enemy of the unlived meaningless life.’ (Dylan: False Prophet)
Part One: The Man in the Moon
The transition from 1989 to 1990 was a smooth one in that his line up didn’t change and there was no significant change of musical direction and orientation.
Just as towards the end of 1989 Dylan released a new album Oh Mercy, so towards the end of 1989 another new album appeared Under a Red Sky. So I had all my tracks lined up, according to the pattern I established for the 1989 study, and was about to spin the first public performance of the title track of that album, when I remembered my father who, when teaching us how to play cards, would always say, ‘lead with your longest and strongest’ or ‘lead ‘em like you got ‘em,’ and my plan went out the window. I had an ace; I was dying to play it.
The performance I keep coming back to is that protest song to end all protest songs ‘It’s all right Ma.’ Not only the best of 1990, but maybe the best performance of this song since the flat, hard-driving 1964 performances. We have the swirling performances from the Rolling Thunder Tour, and the fast and furious versions from the Tom Petty years. Dylan stayed with this fast and furious version through the early years of the NET, and you won’t find a better performance of it than this one (02-07):
It’s all right Ma
‘I am the enemy of the unlived meaningless life.’
I have described this song as a wholesale attack on all things false and phony, which is why it sounds so up to date. The false and the phony still rule. If we want to know what he means when, in his new song ‘False Prophet,’ he sings that he is the ‘enemy of the unlived meaningless life,’ we just have to listen to ‘It’s all right Ma.’
The root of this ‘unlived meaningless life’ is the rank and godless materialism lambasted in ‘It’s all right Ma.’ And while we are assaulted by lies, deceptions, false judgments and tyranny, we ‘can make it’, we have the insight and the courage to survive because it’s ‘life and life only’. This grim vision of a spiritually empty life turns out to be an inspirational song at heart.
‘It’s all right Ma’ is not the only song that brings a true and horrifying report of the state of the world from a young person back to the mother. ‘It’s A Hard Rain gonna Fall’ is built around the same motif. And it’s the 1990 performance of that song which is the second ace in the hole.
While I love the smooth gospel, 1981 version, and the hard, clanging Rolling Thunder version, this performance takes us back to the acoustic, 1960s Dylan, but not so plodding. And, I have to say Dylan’s vocal expression is richer and more varied than his sixties performances. The emphatic vocal style of these early NET years, with broken up lines, suits this song particularly well as it emphasizes the fragmentary nature of the visions.
(I can’t be the only one to notice the importance of the mother, ‘Ma’ or ‘Mama’, in Dylan’s early songs. And because ‘mama’ can also refer to a girlfriend (‘mama you’ve been on my mind’), there is larger female presence at work here.)
As I’ve suggested before, in my view Dylan didn’t stop writing protest songs, he simply extended the range of his attack on the false and the phony to his personal life, himself and those around him. In that respect ‘Ramona’ is just as much a protest song as ‘Hard Rain’ in its portrayal of someone who has fallen into the false and phony, distorted by propaganda.
‘I see that your head has been twisted and fed with meaningless foam from the mouth’
Here is the ‘unlived meaningless life’ right in front of us.
‘And it grieves my heart love to see you trying to be part of a world that just don’t exist.
False worlds full of false prophets.
I have to say, when I look at my selection, I do favour the acoustic Dylan. A passionate, vibrant rendition of Ramona coming up.
Before leaving the sixties behind, at least for the moment, this seems like a good place to slip in a rare and very well received ‘Oxford Town’, with its scene of racial violence. This is from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1962, and only occasionally performed. One thing to note, however, a certain scratchiness is evident in Dylan’s voice, a lack of timbre noticeable here, which will become more accentuated in the following year, 1991. Dylan’s voice is starting to go.
So now I deal myself a new hand and pick up the story with some songs from Under a Red Sky (1990). This album lies very much in the shadow of the successful Oh Mercy (1989), and its hard, abrasive tones contrast sharply to the lush, swampy sounds of the earlier album. Nobody much liked Under the Red Sky. And yet, when we look at these two albums from the point of view of the NET, we can see that Red Sky is much more closely aligned to the sounds Dylan was producing onstage than Oh Mercy. Dylan didn’t attempt to produce that swampy sound onstage.
There are, however, a couple of very strong songs on the album. ‘Unbelievable’ is a lyrical masterpiece hidden beneath the frenetic beat. It will be a couple of years before Dylan will try this song onstage. The title track, ‘Under the Red Sky’, with its obvious pathos and appeal to the world of fairy tales, is more immediately palatable.
I’m not sure why critics reacted so negatively to Dylan’s use of childhood themes and motifs on this album. ‘Man gave name to all the animals’ from 1980 is a little theology in the guise of a children’s song. ‘Under the Red Sky’ uses the same guise to explore adult themes. Perhaps listeners were a bit shocked at the casual way he sings, ‘One day the little girl and the little boy were both baked in a pie.’ Cooking and eating children? Where’s Mr Tambourine Man when you need him? There was the feeling that the whole song was a bit off.
Under the red sky
The last lines of the song, however, gave me a chill when I first heard them, because it seemed to me that the song was a lament for the loss of the creative flow – fatal for any artist. It was as if he was telling us it was all over.
‘Let the bird sing, let the bird fly One day the man in the moon went home and the river ran dry’
That magical, creative time of our childhood doesn’t last. The ‘little boy and the little girl’, the divine twins (the eternal syzygy), source of the universal creative drive, are destroyed. As it turned out, my premonition was a true one, and it would be a long seven years before the next album.
But it was the first track of the album, ‘Wiggle Wiggle’, that caused the most consternation. After the sweeping grandeur of ‘Most of the Time’ and ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’, we get… ‘Wiggle Wiggle’? Surely Dylan’s most despised song. At the time it was held up as the ultimate proof that the master had lost his mojo – oh how the mighty have fallen, they cried.
Perhaps this negative reaction is because the song is so good in its vicious, uncompromising attack on the sexual act. The mindless simplicity of the song mimics the mindless simplicity of sex.
‘Wiggle till you’re high Wiggle till you’re higher Wiggle till you vomit fire’
Vomit fire? A powerful and disturbing image for orgasm. According to Collins dictionary, ‘if it wiggles , it moves up and down or from side to side’, unlike wriggling which contains a greater range of movements.
‘Wiggle till it whispers, wiggle till it hums Wiggle till it answers, wiggle till it comes’
The only other Dylan song that expresses such a powerful revulsion to the sexual act that springs to mind is ‘Yonder comes sin.’ (1981)
‘Look at your feet, see where they've been to. Look at your hands, see what they've been into…’
I think we don’t like the song because Dylan is taking the piss out of our precious sexuality. The simple, childlike language, as if it were a children’s rhyme, makes us even more uncomfortable.
‘Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, rattle and shake Wiggle like a big fat snake.’
Oh Lordy – well, here it is, rough as hell, with pretty much a completely new set of lyrics! The whole performance sounds pretty improvised to me, including the lyrics. Those incomparable lyrics and he doesn’t sing them! Sounds like he’s making it up as he goes along, and in some cases, just making Dylan-like noises that are not actually words…? (see what you can make of it)
‘TV Talking Song’ might be described as a forgotten song on a forgotten album, but it recalls the madcap, fast-paced, early Dylan talking songs like ‘Talking World War 3 Blues’ or ‘John Birch Society Blues.’ Rambling comic monologues with a satirical edge. Lovely twist in the last line. I think this qualifies as a rare performance.
TV Talking song
Dylan doesn’t delve deep into Under the Red Sky. In later years ‘Cat’s in the Well’ gets a good airing, and only much later in the nineties does he try to perform the powerful ‘Born in time.’
He does, however, continue to explore material from the previous album, Oh Mercy. ‘Where teardrops fall’ is a wistful, sad song about a love that might be re-kindled, and this is one case where GE Smith’s hard-edged guitar sound can’t do justice to the, quieter, soft edges of the song. Dylan’s voice sounds good but there’s too much jingle-jangle from the guitar.
Where Teardrops fall
The official narrative has Dylan deserting ‘protest’ songs in the sixties. And yet we have two hard-out protest songs on Oh Mercy, ‘Political World’ and ‘Everything is broken.’ In this fallen world of ours we can’t escape politics.
‘We live in a political world Under the microscope You can travel anywhere And hang yourself there You always got more than enough rope’
‘Everything is broken’ extends the attack from politics to our more common, unlived and meaningless lives.
‘Broken hands on broken ploughs, Broken treaties, broken vows, Broken pipes, broken tools, People bending broken rules…’
It’s a 1990s update on Subterranean Homesick Blues. It’s a political world, and it’s a broken world, and looking around us now, who could argue? As always Dylan’s vision stays true.
Everything is broken
Stay centered and keep safe, and we’ll be back soon for the next installment.
- The Never-Ending Tour: 1987 – Farewell to all that
- NET 1988: Desperate stratagems, Part 1: Heroes and Villains
- 1988 Part 2: The 60s revisited
- 1988 Part 3: Absolutely still on the road
- 1989 Part 1: A sharper edge
- 1989 Part 2 – A fire in the sun
- 1989 Part 3: Blown out on the trail
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