By Tony Attwood
In this series I am looking at the themes of the song lyrics written by Dylan each year and noting how they change, year by year.
In the years leading up to 1989 I summarised the articles through these titles:
- 1984: Back to the old ways (again)
- 1985: Bob Dylan slips back into negativity
- 1986: The year Dylan slowly turned himself all around
- 1987/8: Possibly the greatest trilogy of compositions in Dylan’s career
The “old ways” of 1984 were love and lost love, but as the titles above suggest, the return to the song themes that have occupied Dylan more than any others did not give him a long term satisfaction, for in 1985 the negativity was there with songs primarily of lost love (and no love song counterbalance) sadness, chaos, and ultimately the statement that life is a mess. I don’t know if there is a more negative year in Dylan’s recordings but I can’t immediately think of one.
1986 started out with negative themes such as being unfaithful, lost love and saying goodbye, but then along came Robert Hunter and we got two love songs and a song about turning one’s life around. It looked a lot more positive.
My view is that this allowed Bob to write what I have called the greatest trilogy of compositions in Dylan’s career:
From there on we got a mixed series of songs as Dylan found himself seemingly unable to hold onto the intensity of those three titles, and drifted into themes of life being tough, sex, strange events and lost love. But to be fair he was distracted by the agreement to work with the Wilburys.
So where could Dylan turn next?
In his Christian years Dylan saw the Devil as the menace, threatening to overthrow the world of Jesus, threatening your soul and your civilisation. As least that menace is known. Here it is just out there. There is darkness and menace, which has no form.
Looked at in this way it is not surprising that Dylan sought to find a way out of his difficulties by touring, although I introduce this theme with some trepidation. For at the opening of his unique and brilliant series on the Never Ending Tour, which I feel honoured to be publishing on this site, Mike Johnson quotes Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a Persian poet from the Thirteenth Century who wrote, “Study me as much as you like, you will never know me. For I differ a hundred ways from what you see me to be … I have chosen to dwell in a place you can’t see.”
Now in that first article Mike wrote “The misleading popular press would have it that Dylan was ‘in a sad place’ in 1987, in the months leading up to the tour. We are led to believe that he was ‘lost’ and ‘in search of directions.’ Maybe so, but this is not reflected the performances of that year, which are full of power and vigour.”
Far be it from me to agree with the popular press – indeed the other blog that I oversee (Untold Arsenal) spends much of its time exposing the perfidious nature of the popular press, but this time, I think they got it right. And it is interesting (for me at least) that I got to this conclusion completely independently of anyone else’s historical comments, simply by following the thematic content of Dylan’s songs, in this series of articles, giving each song a simple category in relation to the lyrics.
In short, without thinking about where this was taking me, I found that the topics Dylan covered song by song, reflected what the media of the time were saying.
And indeed my first article on the subject of 1989, written in 2017, when I began the preliminaries for this whole project of analysing the subject matter of each song in a way that allowed the movement of Dylan’s thinking to be considered in a more straightforward manner, was called 1989: Bob Dylan stalked by the darkness
But now I am wanting to add another point: that in coming to this year, Dylan had set out his manifesto in that magnificent trilogy:
That is the backdrop. Mike’s three articles on this year of the tour are
- 1989 Part 1: A sharper edge
- Never Ending Tour 1989 Part 2 – A fire in the sun
- 1989 Part 3: Blown out on the trail
Early on Mike quotes these lines as he opens the first 1989 review
‘If I just turn my back while you silently die what good am I?’
And as we now come to look at the songwriting, that I think is worth holding in mind. Here is the list of songs written in 1989.
- Born in Time (Lost love)
- God Knows (We can get through)
- Disease of Conceit (Fooling ourselves)
- What was it you wanted (The old certainties are gone)
- Broken Days / Everything is Broken (The old certainties are gone)
- Ring them Bells (Times are changing)
- Series of Dreams (Dreaming, thinking, wondering)
- Most of the Time (Sadness)
- TV Talking Song (TV is rubbish)
- Where teardrops fall (Lost love)
- Shooting Star and see Shooting Star and Hendrix (Lost love, the world falling apart).
- Man in a Long Black Coat (the menace emerges)
If you have been with me through this long series of articles on the subject matter of Dylan’s songs year by year, you will have noticed that I have introduced some new subject summaries. I have tried really hard not to do this, because I have been trying to compare one year with another.
If there is a central theme here it is that the world is falling apart and we are fooling ourselves. In 1979 there was no doubt as Dylan wrote 19 songs all about his new faith; the only year of multiple compositions in which every single one was on the same subject.
The following year he wrote Making a liar out of me which if you are a regular reader you will know (because I hammer the point over and over and over again) I regard both as a work of genius and as an utterly pivotal moment in the way Bob Dylan’s thinking was developing.
Then we have three songs which tell us that everything is changing, a meander through his dreams, a reflection on sadness itself and the appalling of television (and we may recall that Bob’s hero Elvis Presley was reportedly notorious for smashing up televisions, a couple of diversions into the old favourite theme of lost love, and then concluding with Man in a Long Black Coat which I can only summarise as “the menace emerges”.
This is not just the world gone wrong, this is something much deeper. This song owes a lot to the Scottish song “The Daemon Lover” in which a devil-like lover appears and convinces a woman to leave her husband and child – a typical devilish activity.
The menace can of course be the devil, it can be one’s own inner dark nature, it can be anything nasty. But whatever it is, it is frightening.
And yes I know Dylan related “Man in a long black coat” to “I walk the line” in Chronicles, and maybe he was indeed thinking of “I walk the line” in writing the black coat, but really the songs have nothing in common at all. “I walk the line” is a promise to be faithful. The Coat is all about evil.
These last two songs are highly disturbing songs of moving on and the world and the singer’s psyche are both falling apart. This was not a positive way to end the year.
There's smoke on the water it's been there since June Tree trunks uprooted beneath the high crescent moon Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse
How dark would you like it to get?
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