Bob Dylan: the tortuous journey to 1984

by Tony Attwood

So, if you have been following the series you will know by now what’s going on.  Bob had converted to Christianity, but then within 18 months although still writing religious pieces was also writing songs which (I would argue) did not have religion as the central theme and ended that year with the utterly magnificent “Making a liar out of me”.

1981 was the last religious year but also included some rather un-religious songs like Watered down love  and Lenny Bruce.

In 1982/3 then was the real problem – at least for myself in trying to assign a simple subject to each song, because most of the songs don’t have a simple subject.   Instead of love, lost love, moving on and the blues we got…

Like the lion tears the flesh off of a man
So can a woman who passes herself off as a male
They sang “Danny Boy” at his funeral and the Lord’s Prayer
Preacher talking ’bout Christ betrayed
It’s like the earth just opened and swallowed him up
He reached too high, was thrown back to the ground
You know what they say about bein’ nice 
                to the right people on the way up
Sooner or later you gonna meet them comin’ down
Well, there ain’t no goin’ back
When your foot of pride come down
Ain’t no goin’ back

So after a year which includes lyrics like this, where on earth would Bob go next?

Dylan started 1984 with a song he performed just once, and with lyrics that were never published.  I’m rubbish at decoding lyrics, but fortunately Untold reader Mick Gold worked hard to give us what was certainly then, and may still be, the only copy of the lyrics of “I once knew a man”

I once knew a man
With a needle in his arm
Well he taught me to make
Love ain’t even bad
But you never need a nod
Oh I once knew a man

Yeah I once knew a man
Seems like only yesterday
He done pass this way
Well I once knew a man

I once knew a man opening a door
In by another
Opening a cupboard 
Never to be here no more
Yeah I once knew a man

Well I once knew a man
Seems like only yesterday
He done pass this way
Oh I once knew a man

Well I once knew a man
Creeping in the side
Opening a door
Falling thru the floor
Setting someone for a ride
Yeah I once knew a man

Oh yeah I once knew a man
Well it seems like only yesterday
He done pass this way
Well I once knew a man

We have no commentary or background to the song.  Was “The Man” that Dylan “knew” Jesus?  Was this his final goodbye, done in private for the sound check of a TV show, or was it just a jam?

So that set the year going.  And this is what we got

  1. I once knew a man (Blues, moving on)
  2. Who loves you more (Love)
  3. Almost done (Love)
  4. I see you around and around (Love)
  5. Dirty lie (Lost love?)
  6. Enough is enough (Fast blues)
  7. Go way little boy (Lost love, rejection)
  8. Drifting too far from shore (Lost love, strangeness)
  9. New Danville Girl / Brownsville Girl (Moving on)
  10. Something’s Burning Baby  (Lost love)
  11. Night after Night (Tedium, a bad life)
  12. I’m ready for love (Love)

Which overall gives us

  • Blues/moving on: 2
  • Love: 4
  • Lost love: 4
  • Moving on: 1
  • Tedium, the bad life: 1

Now what is instantly noticeable is that we are back to the sort of subject selection of the pre-Christian era.  (For simplicity I have included the “Moving on” songs with songs also noted as “It’s falling apart”

Year Love Lost Love Blues, the end Moving on Faith No going back
1978 3 3 3 4
1979 19
1980 2 2 7
1981 1 3 6
1982/3 4 4
1984 4 4 2 1

Now I have said throughout that these titles are approximate.  They overlap, the boundaries change, but they do give us a general indication of where Dylan was heading, and to my mind they certainly give an indication here.

And just to emphasise the point, these totals in the little table above do not represent all the songs that Dylan wrote in this time .  They summarise the main subject areas.

1978 was a fairly regular year – these are the sorts of totals we have been seeing in these main areas of Dylan’s composition year on year.

1979 saw  the faith songs emerged and Dylan wrote nothing else all year

1980 saw the faith songs remain dominant but they were now sharing centre stage  with Bob’s favourite themes.

1981 saw faith songs still there, but this was their last year.

But it was 1982/3 that, when analysed this way, gives us a shock.  1982/3 contains no faith songs at all, but the two leading categories were very much of the old school: moving on and no going back.  Indeed one could argue that these two could be linked together to give us eight songs in one category.

And by 1984 we were back to the old days in other ways.  Love and lost love, the themes that had dominated Dylan’s work all the way through from the earliest days, were back in dominance.  It was as if the faith period had never been there.

Now if you have read my tortuous piece on 1981 you will know that I made a huge fuss about Making a liar out of me and saw it as a pivotal moment in Dylan’s writing.

1982/3 took this further with the emphasis on the fact that there ain’t no going back, and he really meant it.  Dylan was by no means at his peak as a song writer at this time and indeed I have previously argued that the highlight of the year was Tangled Up in Blue:  “Real Live” version – the revival of which perhaps symbolised that he had now firmly cast aside those Christian songs.

He’d embraced Christianity totally and written nothing but faith songs for a year, then had a mix of songs before declaring, “There ain’t no going back”

For me from this strange period in which Dylan ran headlong into Christianity, and then took a couple  of years to find his way out of the maze he entered, the highlights are the songs I have mentioned over and over:

and the one I have not touched on since it was a re-write, the Real Live version of Tangled up in Blue.

So, as you have made it to this point, I hope you will forgive me if one more time I return to what for me is the pivotal moment in this extraordinary period of Bob Dylan’s musical career, where he suddenly suggested (to me if no one else) that he was being manipulated.

Curiously “Making a liar” is not listed on the official Bob Dylan site.  If the guys there do make another of their occasional visits to Untold Dylan (something that really makes me feel rather proud), I wonder if I might respectfully suggest that this utter, amazing and absolute work of genius, and statement of a man saying, yep, I went down the wrong track, is actually included in the lists.

I mean it is not as if anyone else could have written it.

I tell people you’re just going through changes
And that you’re acquainted both with night and day
That your money’s good and you’re just being courageous
On them burning bridges knowing your feet are made of clay
Well I say you won’t be destroyed by your inventions
That you brought it all under captivity
And that you really do have all the best intentions
But you’re making’ a liar out of me

Well I say that you’re just young and self-tormented
But that deep down you understand
The hopes and fears and dreams of the discontented
Who threaten now to overtake your promised land
Well I say you’d not sow discord among brothers
Nor drain a man of his integrity
But you’ll remember the cries of orphans and their mothers
But you’re making a liar out of me
But you’re making a liar out of me

Well I say that, that ain’t flesh and blood you’re drinking
In the wounded empire of your fool’s paradise
With a light above your head forever blinking
Turning virgins into merchandise
That you must have been beautiful when you were living
You remind me of some old-time used-to-be
I say you can be trusted with the power you been given
But you’re making a liar out of me

So many things so hard to say as you stumble
To take refuge in your offices of shame
As the earth beneath my feet begins to rumble
And your young men die for nothing not even fame
I say that someday you’ll begin to trust us
And that your conscience not been slain by conformity
That you’ll stand up unafraid to believe in justice
But you’re making a liar out of me
You’re making a liar out of me

Well I can hear the sound of distant thunder
From an open window at the end of every hall
Now that you’re gone I got to wonder
If you ever were here at all
I say you never sacrificed my children
To some false god of infidelity
And that it’s not the Tower of Babel that you’re building
But you’re making’ a liar out of me
You’re making a liar out of me
Now you’re making a liar out of me

(Let me not be trampled underfoot by proud oppressors, or driven from my home by wicked violence).

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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.


  1. “I once knew a man” I think it is a jam, while he was high!! I don´t think you can use it for anything else than the trash. As quick as possible.

  2. I could never figure out the words he is singing here in I Once Knew A Man, but that, as we have learned, by no means, means that Dylan is high.

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