What was Dylan writing about at the turn of the century? Chaos!

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.

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.

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

Indeed.

Welcome to chaos.

The index to the entire series of articles about the meanings of Dylan songs year by year can be found here.

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.  If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a note saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with around 7000 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.   Tony Attwood

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.