By Tony Attwood
The full index to this series which considers how the subject matter of Bob Dylan’s songs changed over time, can be found here.
The essence of this series is simple: to take each song written by Dylan in a single year, and try to express the meaning of the lyrics of each song in a word or simple phrase, such as “love”, “lost love”, “protest”, or “faith.”
This worked perfectly well up to 1978 for during that period Dylan not only offered up a variety of songs topics, but it turned out to be fairly easy to put each song into a classification.
By 1977 we could see clearly what Dylan’s favourite topics were. Since the 1950s Dylan had written over 10 songs on each of these ten topics or themes…
- Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 12
- Blues: 11
- Environment: 17
- Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
- Lost love / moving on: 43
- Love, desire: 56
- Moving on: 16
- Randomness: 11
- Surrealism, Dada: 15
- Travelling on, leaving, farewell, moving on: 16
1978 however seems to be a troubled year for Bob as the topics in his songs as they were virtually all about negative subjects:
- Moving on: 4
- Love: 3
- Blues: 3
- Lost love: 3
- Treating me badly: 1
- Come back to me: 1
- Legionnaires Disease: 1
- Let me be me: 1
Bob was clearly a troubled man, and as we all know that he resolved his dilemma very clearly in 1979, writing 19 songs in that year all of which were about his new found faith. It was the only year when he wrote over ten songs with all of them on just one topic.
In 1980 Bob opened the year by continuing to write about fundamental Christianity and the thought that salvation was assured. But then after asserting that God made the world in Every grain of sand, everything changed. Dylan now wrote a series of five songs starting with Caribbean Wind and its theme of the end of relationships and indeed pretty much everything else, concluding with Making a liar out of me which appears to reject all of his faith and commitment that has gone before. As a set of songs it is an amazing journey from utter faith, to the rejection of faith.
So Bob was now back writing on a variety of topics, and in 1981 three themes dominated Bob’s writing:
- Love: 9
- Religion / Christianity: 3
- Uncertainty / doubts / don’t believe: 5
But then in 1982/3 Bob seemed to turn away from most of his previous themes as he began to explore what he could say in songs in a new way. If there is a central theme to 1982/3 it is that nothing is what it seems – which is as big a rejection of a previously held religious faith as it is possible to imagine.
Nothing symbolised this contradiction more completely than Blind Willie McTell, a song seemingly about a famous blues singer, saying that the blues can describe the world, but with that message encapsulated in a piece of music that has nothing to do with the work of Blind Willie. Although it was not a consistent theme, the notion that nothing is really as it might seem and that life is chaos became a dominant thought expressed by Bob in such songs as Man of Peace, and Someone’s got a hold of my heart / Tight connection to my heart.
As the year progressed so did the notion that not only is nothing what it seems, but also that there is no going back which occurs in Neighbourhood Bully (a song on which I had to stop accepting comments from readers, so angry did the debate become), Tell Me, Foot of Pride, Julius and Ethel and even Death is not the end (in which Bob seems to conclude that yes there is an afterlife, but there still ain’t no going back).
In 1984 Bob seemed to resolve some of these problems as he returned to some more traditional themes, and my article on that year defined the subject matter of the songs as:
- Blues/moving on: 2
- Love: 4
- Lost love: 4
- Moving on: 1
- Tedium, the bad life: 1
which looked much more liked a Bob Dylan year from earlier days. But if love and lost love could be balanced in 1984 it was only a temporary reprieve from the troubles, and by 1985 there was no chance of this, for that was the year in which lost love, and just being lost, dominated his thoughts. The analysis of the most common topics of the songs that year gives us
- Lost love: 12
- Love: 6
- Chaos / criminals escaping / life is a mess / being lost: 6
So what would Bob offer in 1986? My first article on this year was called Experiment, experiment, experiment, genius, ignore which was the only way I could find of summarising a year in which Bob ended up creating To fall in love with you – a song that many of us consider one of his most incredible pieces, but then ignoring it.
Indeed he didn’t just abandon it, he did so to work on two songs Silvio and Ugliest girl in the world in which he didn’t write the words. Indeed I would suspect many Dylan fans would find it hard to remember the songs that preceded the Robert Hunter co-compositions other than “To fall in love with you”, but the only one I have found myself singling out repeatedly is Rock em Dead – and that is a song which owes a lot to “Uranium Rock” by Warren Smith.
So we are left puzzled – the great masterpiece of “To fall in love” is abandoned while other songs from the era and either nowhere near that standard or are derivative.
And yet then, suddenly, we get what I have noted as Possibly the greatest trilogy of compositions in Dylan’s career:
These songs, written one after the other, tell us the world’s gone wrong, the man’s gone wrong, but if we work at it we can as individuals, try and pull ourselves together.
Because Dignity was not released at the time of its writing, the three songs are not normally seen as a trilogy, Yet playing Dylan’s compositions in the order of composition (especially if we play the early, shorter, acoustic version of Dignity) certainly give us that feeling.
Thereafter Bob handed himself over the the Travelling Wilburys before going on tour – and not just any tour, for 7 June 1988 was the start of what we now call the Never Ending Tour.
In my review I called 1989 the year in which The menace emerges meaning that Dylan in his songs of that year recognised that we are often fooling ours, that the old certainties are gone (What was it you wanted, Everything is Broken) while out there in the darkness a menace emerges (Man in a Long Black Coat.)
This now is a completely different Dylan in terms of his songwriting, a Dylan with a message about the world falling apart. This is not “Times they are a changing” (which suggests whether we do anything or not things are going to be different, and probably better) but much more following up on that other early theme of “Darkness at the break of noon”. Except that now this is most certainly not all right ma. For here we have songs of contradictions, songs which tell us there is no way out (such as Cat’s in the Well) , songs which tell us all it not as it seems (such as 10,000 men), songs which tell us that we are all being fed a pack of lies (Unbelievable), songs that tell us our childhood has been obliterated (Under the red sky) and songs that suggest that capitalism is destroying us (such as Heartland written with Willie Nelson). It was, The re-birth of protest, before the end of all songs.
And yet, looking back, it wasn’t the rebirth of protest, at least not in the purest sense, for this was more the announcement of the end, and in a very real sense it was the end of Dylan the songwriter, for after his time with the Willburys (in which he probably only wrote one song – the magnificent lost love piece Where were you last night) Bob stopped writing. The man who had just gone on and on writing year after year with only the occasional pause, simply stopped.
True there are four songs that some commentators have as being written in 1995 but it appears these were actually originally put together in 1984. It really was the first time since the launch of his career in the late 1950s that Bob Dylan stopped writing.
As to when he did start writing again in 1996 what we got were some of the darkest songs Bob had ever written:
- Dirt Road Blues (Blues, lost love, moving on)
- Can’t Wait (Emptiness, loss, desperation)
- Mississippi (Lost love)
- Highlands (Beyond death)
- Dreamin of you (Love disconnected from the world)
- Marchin to the City (Doing alright)
- Million Miles (Drifting, thinking)
- Not Dark Yet – (Dying)
- Red River Shore (Love is a hopeless myth)
- Standing in the doorway (The darkness)
Just look at the concepts within these songs – and if this does not convince you that Bob’s vision of the world had gone extremely dark, just stop everything you are doing, close your eyes and listen to this video.
I’m walking through the summer nights Jukebox playing low Yesterday everything was going too fast Today, it’s moving too slow I got no place left to turn I got nothing left to burn Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow You left me standing in the doorway crying I got nothing to go back to now The light in this place is so bad Making me sick in the head All the laughter is just making me sad The stars have turned cherry red I’m strumming on my gay guitar Smoking a cheap cigar The ghost of our old love has not gone away Don’t look like it will anytime soon You left me standing in the doorway crying Under the midnight moon Maybe they’ll get me and maybe they won’t But not tonight and it won’t be here There are things I could say but I don’t I know the mercy of God must be near I’ve been riding the midnight train Got ice water in my veins I would be crazy if I took you back It would go up against every rule You left me standing in the doorway crying Suffering like a fool When the last rays of daylight go down Buddy, you’ll roll no more I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard I wonder who they’re ringing for I know I can’t win But my heart just won’t give in Last night I danced with a stranger But she just reminded me you were the one You left me standing in the doorway crying In the dark land of the sun I’ll eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry And live my life on the square And even if the flesh falls off of my face I know someone will be there to care It always means so much Even the softest touch I see nothing to be gained by any explanation There are no words that need to be said You left me standing in the doorway crying Blues wrapped around my head
Bob had found religion, lost religion, looked around once more and found that the world really was a place he didn’t like. He walked away from his old occupation of giving us insights into that world, and then, after five years out, he found the words and music to explain it all to us.
And pretty grim it was.
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.
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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. Tony Attwood