By Tony Attwood
After writing and recording “Love and Theft” Bob Dylan entered another sparse period of song writing, and indeed much of the 21st century can be characterised in terms of a far less active periods of composition than earlier in Bob’s life.
Indeed in 1999 Bob wrote one song, “Things have changed” and that line “I used to care but things have changed” caused a lot of headscratching.
But then he was getting a little bit older by now. And Bob did not give up composing completely at this time, as in 2001 he wrote the first of four movie songs which were written between 2001 and 2005. This first venture, Waitin’ for You, was composed after Love and Theft in 2001.
However I should point out that the compositional date of King of Kings is not clear, but it was certainly in this year. Here’s the list and the subject summary which is the essence of this little series.
And just in case you are hitting this series for the first time, let me explain. The idea is to classify the meaning of each song in as few words as possible, such as “Love”, “Lost love,” “moving on”, “Gambling” etc etc.
I’ve been doing this all the way through Dylan’s writing career, and if you have been following the series you’ll know that most times we get a mixture of songs. (There is an index to all the articles in the series – see the foot of this page.
That pattern stopped suddenly in 1979 when every song Dylan composed was on the same theme – his newly found faith. After that it began to unravel rather, and we also had periods when Bob stopped altogether. In 1999 he wrote just one song: “Things have changed.” In 2000 he wrote nothing. Which brings us to 2001, and this is how I classify the songs for that year.
- King of Kings (instrumental)
- Summer Days (The chaos of life)
- Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Chaos)
- Honest with Me (Disaffection, disorientation, chaos)
- Lonesome Day Blues (Disorientation, dislocation)
- Bye and bye (Leaving)
- Floater (Too much to ask) (Living like a contrarian)
- Moonlight (We’re coming to the end)
- Po’ Boy (The world is crazy)
- High Water (for Charley Patton) (The world is crazy; we are all lost)
- Cry a While (Everything is chaos)
- Sugar Baby (We’re all just carrying on whether it makes sense or no)
- Waitin’ for You (Happiness is just a state of mind)
That looks like a crazy mixture, but it also looks like a continuing theme. Break it down into key themes and we have “Chaos, departure, it makes no sense”.
And what fascinates me here is that I think we are seeing a sort of wave movement in Bob’s themes.
- 1989: The menace emerges
- 1991-6: The end of everything
- 1997: Walking away, lost love
- 1999: I used to care but things have changed
- 2001: Chaos
So there is a clear theme in this decade. “Things have changed” did not come out of nowhere, but as a reflection on Bob sinking backwards into an awareness that when he declared that “Times they are a changing” and we all took that to mean “for the better” it turned out they were indeed changing, but not necessarily on a wave of improvement. They were changing in fact for the worse. For a moment Bob found relief from this drift into chaos through his religious conversion but it didn’t last.
So what of 2001? In this year Bob looked at chaos from a variety of angles – but always it was chaos. There always had, of course, been negativity in Bob’s songs, obviously including the many songs of lost love, and the songs of moving on (a central blues theme).
There had been chaos when Bob brought surrealism and despair into the songs of the 60s, from which he subsequently found Dada being added to the mix so that by 1984 there were 15 songs of a Dadaist variety. Drifters Escape, that song to which I so often return, is the perfect example. Nothing makes sense, not even in a court of law where sense is supposedly handed down.
By 2017 even Bob knew there was more chaos here than there was along the watchtower.
Although as we can see sometimes the chaos is loud, sometimes it is frighteningly quiet.
Well, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day Yeah, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day I’m just sittin’ here thinking With my mind a million miles away
All we can do is drift. We can’t affect the world – it just is. We might get references from ancient Greece or from those blues singers of the 1920s whom we have seen come and go, but none of this makes any difference. We live in a world of chaos. There’s nothing we can do.
And if you are not convinced try “Be honest with me”
Just watch Bob, and then if you can look away follow the lyrics. It is rare that I feel the need to publish the whole set of lyrics – since everyone can find them everywhere. But if you have a few minutes, do follow these, and then tell me this is not about chaos.
Well, I’m stranded in the city that never sleeps Some of these women they just give me the creeps I’m avoidin’ the Southside the best I can These memories I got, they can strangle a man Well, I came ashore in the dead of the night Lot of things can get in the way when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right You don’t understand it—my feelings for you You’d be honest with me if only you knew I’m not sorry for nothin’ I’ve done I’m glad I fought—I only wish we’d won The Siamese twins are comin’ to town People can’t wait—they’re gathered around When I left my home the sky split open wide I never wanted to go back there—I’d rather have died You don’t understand it—my feelings for you You’d be honest with me if only you knew My woman got a face like a teddy bear She’s tossin’ a baseball bat in the air The meat is so tough you can’t cut it with a sword I’m crashin’ my car, trunk first into the boards You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice Well, I’ll sell it to ya at a reduced price You don’t understand it—my feelings for you You’d be honest with me if only you knew Some things are too terrible to be true I won’t come here no more if it bothers you The Southern Pacific leaving at nine forty-five I’m having a hard time believin’ some people were ever alive I’m stark naked, but I don’t care I’m going off into the woods, I’m huntin’ bare You don’t understand it—my feelings for you Well, you’d be honest with me if only you knew I’m here to create the new imperial empire I’m going to do whatever circumstances require I care so much for you—didn’t think that I could I can’t tell my heart that you’re no good Well, my parents they warned me not to waste my years And I still got their advice oozing out of my ears You don’t understand it—my feelings for you Well, you’d be honest with me if only you knew
The meat is so tough you can’t cut it with a sword
I’m crashin’ my car, trunk first into the boards
You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice
Well, I’ll sell it to ya at a reduced price
Welcome to chaos.
The index to the entire series of articles about the meanings of Dylan songs year by year can be found here.
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