by Tony Attwood
You have made multiple versions of me, says Dylan. Protest singer, folk singer, rock singer, born again Christian, supporter of Israel, voice of a generation, plagiarist, postmodernist, Kafkaesque, surrealist, blues man, celebrator of love, mourner of lost love… So now it is time for a reply.
The first time I recall Dylan defining himself he called himself a “song and dance man”. And now he revisits that definition with “My Own Version of You.”
And immediately the critics go awry in trying to understand the song without understanding that it is a commentary upon them. “This phrase, particularly as the opening line as a verse, is from the blues song “Sitting On Top Of The World,” performed by The Mississippi Sheiks (1930), Howlin Wolf (1957), and others,” we are told, straight off. But no, for that comment made within a few days of the album’s release is again a way we are misled. Listen to the sheiks and you will clearly hear
Was all the summer, and all the fall
Just trying to find my little all and all
But now she’s gone, I don’t worry
I’m sitting on top of the world
Bob says (with an occasional bit of singing)
All through the summers, into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do
I wanna create my own version of you
Of course he might be misquoting, but no, not Bob. Besides, what’s the point? He is quite clear; he’s doing a Victor Frankenstein, but he’s also having fun, getting his own back at all those critics who have labelled him and dissected his songs – which of course includes me. I hold my hands up. I apologise. But I can’t stop.
In short this is in fact the final resolution of that moment that started in December 1965 when Dylan gave the only only full length press conference televised in its entirety.
Here’s an extract from that press conference taken from near the start, courtesy of our good friends at Rolling Stone…
Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet? Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know. Why? Oh, I don’t think we have enough time to really go into that.
But now Bob does have a chance to go back and reverse the moment from December 1965 when everyone wanted to know where he got his ideas from and how he saw himself. And he has time to do it as his leisure, and at length. It has, after all, been a long time since the last album.
The opening is fun, a slight misquote from Richard III but an exact quote of John Steinbeck’s last novel, the tale of fallen aristocracy. And if we look at the lyrics from the point of view of the old man looking back, while the poet considers all those billions of words written about his works just wishing that the silly scribblers had actually LISTENED to what he was singing, and maybe understood a little more.
“I wish you’d’ve taken me with you wherever you went,” he says, and they then go on with their endless commentaries which he is fed up with. And so I guess it is time for Untold Dylan, along with the rest, to apologise to Bob for all our interpretations.
Although of course we haven’t really hurt him, (“Not for a minute do I believe anything they say”) but even so he is going to bring someone to life. And we wonder, for what? A new Dylan? A new critic? Bob tells us we know what he means, but sorry Bob, I’m never really sure, because you keep changing tack. Songs of love, lost love, moving on, that 18 months of Christian songs, that glorious Kafka period… Really Bob, have sympathy on us scribblers. It’s hard to keep up; it’s hard to keep track.
And where will these characters come from who are all finally mixed together into Bob’s own creation? All those movies he has so loved to quote across the years. Just to get to find “Someone who feels the way that I feel.”
And also it seems someone who isn’t interested in all the things Dylan was, for he is “I’m saying to hell to all things that I used to be.” So that means he wants someone who feels how he feels NOW. Hence the building of the new creature.
But I really do think he is also playing games with us, as he has so often done. I know my oft-expressed thought that sometimes Dylan uses phrases just because they sound good, annoys or frustrates some of my friends on this site who have done so much to unravel the quotes that Dylan slips in, but (to give an example) was Dylan saying something of great significance when he says, “And I ask myself, ‘What would Julius Caesar do?'”
OK let’s try it. What would he do? Julius Caesar claimed he was directly linked to the gods of Rome through descent from Aeneas and Venus as well as from the early (generally mythical) kings of Rome – which gave him a link to the god Mars.
So is Bob acting as a god when he says
"I will bring someone to life in more ways than one Don't matter how long it takes, it'll be done when it's done"
Well, yes, that is possible. The fans have made Bob a god. But at the same time, he gives us a wink, just to remind us that (as so often in his songs, in my view) he is mixing reality and fantasy,
I'm gonna make you play the piano like Leon Russell Like Liberace, like St. John the Apostle
I must say I have never held Liberace in high regard, although he was a moderately decent pianist. However St John the Apostle…no he lived before the piano (which was around 1700 in case you are interested). So just how far are we going to take these connections? Was he thinking of Blind Willie Johnson?
I'm gonna make you play the piano like Leon Russell Like Liberace, like St. John the Apostle I'll play every number that I can play I'll see you maybe on Judgement Day After midnight, if you still wanna meet I'll be at the Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street Two doors down, not that far a walk I'll hear your footsteps, you won't have to knock I'll bring someone to life, balance the scales I'm not gonna get involved any insignificant details
And there is the line that I think gives us the clue – “don’t bother me with details” is the reply of the visionary whose vision has a few logical gaps around. And really we do have to take this as fun, as Dylan’s revenge on all those people who forever want to get a meaning out of every word he has written.
You can bring it to St. Peter You can bring it to Jerome You can bring it all the way over Bring it all the way home
So, Bob’s newly created creature asks, just where do you want to go with this? St Jerome, if you are looking for a Christian interpretation of the whole song, still clinging to the view that 1980 never happened and Bob never wrote Making a liar out of me Or maybe he’s thought of Bo Diddley and his maracas player Jerome Green; and “Bring it to Jerome” – apparently the only song Jerome Green he ever wrote.
And even if normally you can’t be bothered with these odd song links that I slip into my commentaries, I would urge you to listen to this track simply because it is such great fun, and a perfect example of 1950s rhythm and blues which Bob (and I) so love. And then consider
Bring it to the corner where the children play You can bring it to me on a silver tray I'll bring someone to life, spare no expense Do it with decency and common sense
Now you decide. Did Bob just make a reference to John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter, and in the desire to recreate life in Jurassic Park or is he carrying on his own theme here opened in the first lines of collecting body parts to create his new creature.
I guess in the end I am still influenced by the science I studied at university where we were taught, if there are several explanations available, always go for the simplest. And the simplest is that the character in this song is symbolically wanting to create an improbable life form that represents his critics and all those people who keeps wanting to tell you what each line means.
Bob’s creature, in fact, is not like the monster created by Frankenstein but rather a creature made out of the lines of songs, and in this way Bob hopes to understand better both himself, and what is going on around him.
And in doing this Bob is seemingly preparing to use his creation to put the world to rights – he is returning to Bob the protest singer. For in the final extended section he does mention some of the issues that have bedevilled mankind. The sacking of Troy by the Achaeans, and the subsequent selling the women into slavery, Freud’s vision without any proof at all, that people can be understood through their dreams, the enslavement of the working classes through agriculture and industry, the landowners who grabbed the American west and enslaved once again, and the justification of all this because of the race and society one was born into.
Yes, it is as Bob once said about the young, “They’ll believe anything,” and as a result Dylan is creating his creature to show us all that we have forgotten. To tell us not to worry about what he means, but simply to look around us, and be aware of what is out there.
The creature Bob creates has one purpose: to save himself from all of those who wish to interpret him, and to save us from those leaders he still wishes we would not follow.
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 around 6500 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.