1987/8: possibly the greatest trilogy of compositions in Dylan’s career

By Tony Attwood

This article is part of the Bob Dylan themes series which considers the subject matter of Bob’s songs in the order they were written.  There is an index to the series at The Themes index, year by year.  The latest articles are…

So now we move on the 1987/8

The thesis within this series of articles is that while it is most certainly very possible to get a lot of insights into Dylan’s thinking and the motivation behind his writing by analysing the lyrics of his songs in detail, it is also possible to get an insight into how the man was feeling, and how he was seeing the world during the course of a year, by looking at the themes within his lyrics over short periods of time.

And this is worthwhile because although Bob Dylan has given insightful interviews he has also sometimes answered in a way that might be thought to be a little flippant, if not downright misleading.

With this thought in mind I’ve been trying to place each song that Dylan wrote year by year into categories and see what (if anything) that tells us.

In 1986 Bob’s writing was dominated (I think for the first time ever) with tales of lost love – 12 of the songs being on that subject, with another six on themes relating to chaos, life being a mess, and generally being lost.   Of the love songs, the lyrical approach that dominates most years, there only six.

1987/8 saw Bob’s name linked to 16 songs but these included a number of Wilburys compositions with which it is unclear how much input Bob had.  What’s more two songs  (You can blow my mind if you want to) and As we sailed into Skibreen: a Leven  are particularly difficult to place, the former because the date is uncertain, the latter because it is a curious collaboration – and also again the date is unclear.

I want initially to deal with three songs which were nothing to do with the Wilburys, although it may well be that Congratulations (which became a Wilbury song) was actually written before these three.  But these three really do stand out in a most amazing manner.

  1. Political world
  2. What good am I
  3. Dignity 

Even if Congratulations was written before these three, it was such a dashed-off piece of work that really it hardly counts.  And removing it from the writing schedule shows us Bob taking a long break from song writing (and not for the first time) before suddenly charging off in a new direction with three, connected, but different, triumphs.

Political world is a song of the world gone wrong – which is in fact a dominant theme of 1985, wherein I came up with the classification, “Chaos / criminals escaping / life is a mess / being lost” – and found six songs to put in that group as I noted above.

This song now pulls all the thoughts of that chaos together

We live in a political world
Where courage is a thing of the past
Houses are haunted, children are unwanted
The next day could be your last

This is followed by the same message but from an utterly personal perspective: What good am I? –  a real self-battering.  It is not just the world gone wrong, now it is the man gone wrong too.  The title asks it all, and the answer is very dark indeed.

And then finally we come to Dignity: what we need to get out of this social and personal mess is the ability to hold onto ourselves, to keep our sense of self-worth, but not let it blow out of all proportion.  For the issue we all face is not just the issue of the world around us (although that can be horrible enough) but the way we perceive the world.

Of course for those with strong religious beliefs, the issue is resolved, but for those who have had religious beliefs and now turned away, what is needed is a genuine self-respect based on honourable behaviour, through which we can (just about) survive by being good and reasonable people.

Thus in “Political world” Dylan is saying “The world’s gone wrong.”  In “What Good Am I?” Dylan is saying we need honesty out of which we get engagement, sympathy, kindness, support, understanding, empathy… these are the qualities of the really human and humane person.  And then Dignity encapsulates all the elements of being a good person.   If you have  engagement, sympathy, kindness, support, understanding, empathy, you can have dignity and with dignity you can survive.

This is an astounding trilogy of songs, of which the full emotional impact and musical genius can only be understood, to my mind, if heard as a trilogy.  And the tragedy is that we don’t hear them as a trilogy, because they have never been released that way.  As commentators tend to insist either on considering each song in isolation, or considering the lyrics of the song from a pre-defined standpoint, or simply reviewing an album, the essence of these songs is missed.

And in saying this I am not claiming to have some sort of special insight into Dylan.  I had no idea of this link until I started to listen to Dylan’s songs in the order in which they were written.  Only then did it hit me that Dylan, in these three superb songs, written one after the other, is engaging the ultimate questions of the world: if the world itself is such a mess, and if we by-pass religion, what should our personal response be?

If you have never tried this before, may I suggest you clear quarter of an hour or so and play these three without interruption.  But compare not just the lyrics, but the whole sound of each of these three.  From the power of “Political World” to

What good am I some like all the rest
If I just turn away when I see how you're dressed
If I shut myself off so I can't hear you cry
What good am I?

Fat man looking into shining steel 
Thin man looking at his last meal 
Hollow man looking in a cottonfield 
For dignity

This trilogy really is the world gone wrong and the response of an individual to that collapse.  We’ve all been corrupted by the political, economic and social system.  We are all searching for Dignity – and my choice of this partial recording of the song is deliberate.  It is the moment that we see where Dylan was after those two earlier compositions, before he had the chance to start re-writing the words and trying to find an accompaniment.  This for me is the perfect rendition for these lyrics.

But most of all, listen to and look at where this early demo version of the song ends…

Soul of a nation is under the knife
Death is standing in the doorway of life
In the next room a man fighting with his wife
Over dignity

That is where Dylan had got to – and given this, the previously made arrangement to go and write songs with the Wilburys was an absolute tragedy.  Who knows what Bob might have come up with on his own, if that deal had not been there.

In terms of the Wilburys it is not always clear how much input Dylan had in each of the songs that followed, and I have elsewhere discussed at some length which songs contain enough elements of Dylan for them to be considered at least Dylan co-compositions.

Here’s the full list of songs that emerged with the usual briefest possible summary of the meaning of the lyrics…

  1. Congratulations (Lost love)
  2. Handle with care (Life’s been tough)
  3. Dirty World (Sex)
  4. Heading for the night (Life’s been tough)
  5. Last night (Sex)
  6. Margarita (Strange events)
  7. Not alone anymore (Lost love)
  8. Rattled (Lost love)
  9. Tweeter and the monkey man (Drug dealing tale)
  10. Like a Ship (Love)

I’d go with Congratulations, Tweeter, and Like a ship as the three compositions with any significant amount of Dylan within them.

But even though “Like a ship” was a Dylan song it was later changed quite considerably when Dylan was not around – here is the original version

There is one further song that dates from this year – As we sailed into Skibreen: a Leven  for which Dylan is credited with the music.  As we are focusing in this series on the lyrics, this one can’t be counted, but I would urge you to follow the link to the review where you can hear the song.  It really is delightful.

So pulling all this together what have we got in terms of Dylan’s lyric writing

  1. Political world (World is a mess)
  2. What good am I (How can I respond to this world)
  3. Dignity  (It’s all a mess)
  4. Congratulations (Lost love)
  5. Tweeter and the monkey man (Drug dealing tale)
  6. Like a Ship (Lost love)

One could link “Tweeter” back to the thoughts of the mess that the world is, as portrayed by the first three songs.

I keep getting the feeling that if the phrase “The world gone wrong” hadn’t been used by Walter Vison for his song Dylan might well have used it for an album which encapsulated the first three masterpieces in this list.  What an opening to an album that would have been.

As it was, the agreement to work with the rest of the lads, followed by the tour, meant that those three utter masterpieces were all we got, and with Dignity being unreleased Oh Mercy was less of an album than it might have been.   Especially if the tracks had been placed one after the other, and the lyrics of the acoustic version had been kept complete with its final verse, and omitting the other verses added later.

Fat man looking into shining steel
Thin man looking at his last meal
Hollow man looking in a cottonfield
For dignity

Wise man looking in a blade of grass
Young man looking in the shadows that pass
Poor man looking through painted glass
For dignity

Somebody got murdered on New Year's Eve
Somebody said dignity was the last to leave
Went into the cities, went into the towns
To the land of the midnight sun

Searching high, searching low
Searching everywhere I know
Asking the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?

Blind man breaking out of a trance
Puts both his hands into the pockets of chance
Hoping to find one circumstance
Of dignity

Stranger stares down into the light
From a platinum window in the Mexican night
Searching every bloodsucking thing in sight
For dignity

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1 Response to 1987/8: possibly the greatest trilogy of compositions in Dylan’s career

  1. Paul says:

    That’s a stunning version of “What Good Am I. Thanks for putting it up.

    Interesting train of thought too.

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