1985: Bob Dylan slips into negativity

By Tony Attwood

The 1980s really were an amazing time for Bob Dylan – a time of absolute certainty and total uncertainty.  A time in which his professed love for his newly found religion slipped away, leaving him feeling lost and adrift.   Here are the articles thus far for this extraordinary decade.

It can be said that Bob Dylan spent 1984 trying to find his new muse experimenting all the way through the year up to Drifting too far from shore which, as I have said in the review of that song, really doesn’t work for me at all but in retrospect, fits with the way this era was working out.

For when we look at 1985 we find something unexpected.  I have oft pointed out that in 1979 for the one and only time, Bob wrote every song on the same subject: that of faith.  19 songs, all about his faith. A totally atypical year.

And when we come to look at 1985 it looks like he is about to do the same thing again – a year where every song is on the same subject – at least to start with.  For what we get are six lost love songs all in a row, followed by two in which he did not write the lyrics, a love song and an instrumental.

Then we are back to the darker sie: sadness, farewell, lost love, criminals on the run…

And after that group…  three lost love songs in a row, one that might be love or might be lost love and then a mix of love, lost love and life being a mess (which if you are mixing love and lost love it most certainly is!)

Here is the index…

  1. Maybe Someday (Lost love)
  2. Seeing the real you at last  (Lost love)
  3. I’ll remember you (Lost Love)
  4. Trust Yourself  (Being alone; lost love?)
  5. Emotionally Yours (Lost love)
  6. Steel Bars  (Lost love)
  7. Well well well (Not Dylan lyrics)
  8. Howlin at your window (Not Dylan lyrics)
  9. All the way down (Love)
  10. Moving on the water (Instrumental)
  11. Tragedy of the trade (Sadness of life)
  12. Time to end this masquerade (Farewell, lost love)
  13. Worth The Waiting For (Lost love)
  14. Nothing here worth dying for (Lost love?)
  15. 26 Storeys High (Criminals are escaping)
  16. Won’t go back til they call me back again (Moving on, lost love?)
  17. Straight A’s in Love (Love)
  18. The Very Thought of You (Love)
  19. Baby coming back from the dead (Love)
  20. Waiting to get beat (Love / lost love?)
  21. When the night comes falling from the sky (Chaos?)
  22. Never gonna be the same again  (Lost love)
  23. Dark Eyes (Sadness, being lost)
  24. Shake (Love?)
  25. Under your spell (Life is a mess)
  26. Find Me (Love)
  27.  Right Hand Road Blues (Change, life is a mess???)

The fact is some of the subject matter is unclear (as signified by my question marks), so I am going to create a new category called “Uncertain themes”.  I am of course also omitting the two songs for which Dylan did not write the lyrics this year.  So we get numbers approximately like  this:

  • Lost love: 12
  • Love: 6
  • Chaos / criminals escaping / life is a mess / being lost: 6
  • Instrumental: 1
  • Not Dylan’s lyrics: 2

As I have often tried to indicate, it is of course very easy to argue with my exact allocation of meaning within a word or two of each Dylan song, and of course you can go through all the 600+ songs and decide for yourself on the meanings, but if you can accept that my one or two word summaries are roughly correct we can go on and draw a conclusion as to what was happening to Dylan at this time.

And given the level of approximation in assigning titles for songs in which the lyrics seem to meander somewhat in terms of their subject matter “roughly correct” is all I am aiming for here.

But now I want to do something else however.  If we cut out the instrumental and the two songs that don’t have Dylan lyrics, we have 24 songs, of which 18 (that is to say three quarters) are on the negative themes of lost love, chaos, criminals escaping and life being a mess.

And at this point it might be worth looking back to the previous year of 1984:

  • Blues/moving on: 3
  • Love: 4
  • Lost love: 4
  • Tedium, the bad life: 1

Looked at in the light of what Dylan wrote in 1985, that’s a pretty negative group as well.  We can argue that around two thirds are negative songs.

Going back, 1982/3 we can see that most of those songs were about it being chaos out there, as well.  So memo to myself: when this work is over, let’s go back and try and judge the percentage of positive and negative songs year by year.

Now if we pull this together, we can see that in 1979 we had the faith year – every single song was about Dylan’s newly expressed religious faith.  After that things seem to have wobbled and increasingly, year on year the number of songs expressing the vision that the world is a mess, or simply life is a mess, has grown.

I have said many times that my numbers are approximate, because I am endlessly reducing complex songs which quite often have meanings that are not always overt, into simply descriptions, like “lost love” etc.   It is a crude measure, but I am doing this because I have never seen anyone do this analysis before, and the alternative would be to spend a year slaving over the process on my own and then publishing the conclusions in one go.   But this way I am receiving comments and help as I fumble my way through this exploration.  And I, like you (if you are following my series) simply don’t know what is to be found.  It is certainly not revealing what I expected when I started out.

In my next article therefore I am going to try and analyse further what happened in the years following the faith year of 1979.  The feeling I am getting is that Bob didn’t just let go of religion, he did far more than that, plunging into the depths in a musical depression that lasted quite a number of years.

More next time.

There is an index to all the articles in this series, which trace the themes within Dylan’s songs from the 1950s onwards, in the index Dylan’s Songs: the themes

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.

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