1986: the year Dylan slowly turned himself all around

By Tony Attwood

My thesis in this series that looks at the topic of each song Dylan has written, taking the songs in the order they were written, is simple.  By looking at what Dylan was writing about, I argue that we can understand a lot about what was concerning him at the time.   And thus when we look across the years we can see how his interests, and indeed his thought patterns, change.

This I believe does give us a deeper insight into Dylan himself than can be achieved by analysing the lyrics of Dylan’s work.  Of course the lyrics are a central part of what Dylan is and what he is feeling and reading at any time.   So in focusing on the subject matter of the song rather than the sources, I do not try to deny the validity of looking at the sources of Dylan’s ideas and insights, but rather offer an extra dimension.  One that cuts to the heart of his own preoccupations.

Using this basis, 1985 had certainly not been the most positive of years for Bob.  The subject matter identified in the article on that year  revealed a unique set of topics…

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

… unique in the sense that never before had the theme of “lost love” dominated Dylan’s output.  And indeed never had there been such negativity.

Looking at the era year by year we can see the main topics

Year Love Lost Love Blues, the end Moving on Faith No going back / being lost
1978 3 3 3 4
1979 19
1980 2 2 7
1981 1 3 6
1982/3 4 4
1984 4 4 2 1
1985 6 12 6

The tendency towards the negative is clear.  After four consecutive years of not writing about lost love, Bob has really moved into a new, less positive direction.

When we come to 1986, I called my earlier article on this year  Experiment, experiment, experiment, genius, ignore  When I wrote that series of articles I was looking at each year in isolation, and not trying to classify songs into their subject matter.  But even so the classification came through – as did the highlight of the year, “To fall in love with you” which I described as an incomplete and abandoned work of great beauty.


I think many would agree that it is a stunning although clearly incomplete work, with a beautiful melody and exquisite accompaniment, even on what was clearly a first run through.   So what on earth made Bob ignore it?

The commonplace answer is that Bob never knows his best songs, for there are so many examples we could all come up with of brilliant works being left off albums, only to be recovered later.

But I wonder if this is not too bland an answer.  Could it not be that Bob has left a song off an album simply because it hurt too much, or reminded him of a bad moment?  It’s all very well writing all these songs of lost love but if that writing comes from real feelings of despair then it can wear the artist down.

By 1981 Bob had composed, by my reckoning, 49 lost love songs and 73 songs of love and desire.  These were easily the most common subjects of Bob’s writing, and that dominance of love against lost love shows a positive outlook.  So what happened next?

  • 1982/3:  Love  1, lost love 0.   Also at least five songs that can best be summarised as “there’s no going back.”   It is the lowest engagement with the love theme since Bob started writing.
  • 1984: Love 4 , lost love 4
  • 1985: Love -6, lost love 12

By 1985 he was emotionally sinking, if one accepts that his song writing reflects his thinking (and that is would seem a most reasonable assumption).   So what happened in 1986?

  1. Band of the Hand (It’s hell time man) (It’s all gone wrong)
  2. Rock em Dead (go out have fun)
  3. You wanna ramble (being unfaithful)
  4. Got my mind made up (leaving)
  5. Jammin Me (lost love)
  6. Had a dream about you baby (love)
  7. Ride This Train. (moving on)
  8. To fall in love with you (love)
  9. Silvio* (lyrics by Robert Hunter) (turning life around)
  10. Ugliest girl in the world* (lyrics by Robert Hunter) (love)

The last two songs marked with * are hard to pin down as to their exact date of composition.  My best guess is that they were written after “To fall in love with you”.

Silvio, although the lyrics are not written by Dylan, have lyrics that we may presume appeal to him – and this appeal seems most apposite at this moment…

Stake my future on a hell of a past
Looks like tomorrow is coming on fast
Ain’t complaining ’bout what I got
Seen better times, but who has not?

So this is Bob Dylan taking a new turn, drawing a line in the sand, moving on, or whatever metaphor you prefer.   He’s starting out again, and as the next song says, he’s not going after the pretty women any more, but finding a woman who can give him much deeper and more sincere love and affection.

Now to the usual task of adding up the topics for the year…

  • It’s all gone wrong: 1
  • Having fun: 1
  • Being unfaithful / leaving: 2
  • Lost love / moving on: 2
  • Love: 1

And with lyrics by Robert Hunter we have turning life around and love.

  • Turning life around: 1
  • Love: 1

And so we can see the transition, from the 1985 emphasis on lost love and no going back, and gentle shift into moving on and having fun.

Plus we can now take a guess at why the most wonderful To fall in love with you was abandoned.   Dylan was not ready either to confess his love for a particular woman, or to confess total love even to an unidentified woman.  It turned into a beautiful song, but it was the wrong subject matter for the moment.  He quite possibly had the lyrics, but didn’t want to enunciate them.

“To fall in love with you” is the only love song of a year in which Bob Dylan really needed Silvio as his alternative character.  Once he found that alternative he was ready to move on.


But let us also think back once more to the end of 1980 when Bob wrote and sang

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

It had taken him half a decade to work through that recognition that life and emotions change, and that we all have positive and negative emotion (“night and day”) within ourselves, and only now in 1986 do we find him coming through it.

It had been a long, and seemingly very tough, journey.  Here, one more time, is how it started.

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One comment

  1. Love found has a euphoric effect on oneself, a kind of timelessness. Lost love is more present in the moment, sharply. Its no wonder it makes for mining this human emotion, ones full attention I feel Bob found that his cover of “You Left Me Just When I Needed You Most”. Had put a more positive acceptence to such a common painful human experience ,than his own works. He has always been known to put some things in his vault .

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