A song is like a painting, you can’t see it all if you’re standing too close.

By Tony Attwood

It was Dick Dale, “king of the surf guitar,” who said “every song is like a painting.”  It is not a massively famous quote any more than Dick Dale’s music is remembered worldwide, but it gives an indication of a way of looking at Dylan’s work that I think is sometimes ignored, but which can be rather helpful.

For it seems to me that although the examination of literature line by line, phrase by phrase, can be highly informative and indeed exceedingly interesting, it is not all there is in a song.   Most self-evidently there is the music as well.  The vocal and the accompaniment.  Put it together and you can get the overt meaning of the lyrics (“I love you” is one of the most commonly used phrase) plus an additional expression via the music, of the emotions which cannot be fully expressed by the lyrics.

To take one simple example, the phrase “Beyond here lies nothing,” can express despair, it can be a powerful version of “at the end of the line,” and it can also be something more, a looking out into the mists of the future.  It can even (and more literally) suggest looking into the blackness of space.  Or, it could be used the vision of the writer who has just created her/his ultimate masterpiece and knows nothing else could ever be half as good again.  Or there again a rumination on the collapse of a civilisation or a marriage, or… nothing at all.

Part of the problem, if we continue to examine that phrase and all it implies, is that we are not very good at examining “nothing” because in our real lives there is always something.  And after death, well, others retain memories of us, plus as far as I can see, most people seem to have some belief in a life thereafter.

To consider this further, we might recall that in the days of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire (an era lasting roughly 1000 years) there was plenty of maths.  They were very precise about this,  with a Roman legion not being a big bunch of fighting men, but a team of 6000 soldiers divided up into ten cohorts, with each cohort containing ten centuria.

All very exact, but rather interestingly all created without the concept of zero.  There is no “0” in Roman numerals.  Or put it another way, “no nothing”.   Which meant the response to the question, “If I had half a dozen bananas to sell in the market and I sold them, how many bananas do I have?” has to be “Yes there are no bananas.”

Now, to come back to reality, we can enjoy the notion, “Beyond this lies nothing” but it might take a bit of thinking about really to get into the concept.  And it is also a reasonable view to think that Bob Dylan came across the phrase in the ancient texts, thought, “there’s a lot in that phrase” and used it, just like that, without an immediate notion of where it might go.   Just as Jackson Pollock perhaps could not explain why he wanted to throw a sudden burst of pink across a canvas at a particular point in a particular way.  For each artist, it just seemed the right thing to do at this point.

But the option of introducing abstraction into art through the use of phrases, colours, patterns or images that have been used before, but without accepting their previous meanings, is not the only issue when considering the art of the poet or songwriter.  There is also the issue of, “is it true?”

Now most of us can readily accept  that when a novelist writes a story it can be totally a work of fiction, even when written in the first person.  And  we can accept that a modern artist might draw or paint an abstract piece of work or paint a picture of a person who does not exist.

For the viewer it might be a bit of a laugh to see the cube or the squiggle as representing something, but it quite probably isn’t what the painter had in mind, just as it can be fun to say that the person in the painting looks like my auntie Ethel, but that doesn’t actually mean the painter knew my late aunt.

And yet a similar disassociation between the lyrics of Bob Dylan and what Bob himself feels, believes or thinks, or what has actually happened to him, is something many who listen to his music seem to find a hard step to take.  And this for two reasons.  One, because on some occasions it most certainly does sound as if what he is singing is what he believes most passionately.  And two, because we might want him to believe what we believe.

It isn’t always like this in popular music of course.  When Elvis sang “Heartbreak Hotel” I don’t think too many people assumed he’d just lost his lover.  Nor indeed did those who thought a little further assume that the writers of the song had.  Indeed as Tommy Durden reported, he began writing the lyrics for “Heartbreak Hotel” when he was inspired by a Miami Herald story about a man who committed suicide, leaving a note that read “I walk a lonely street.”

But when Bob put “It ain’t me babe” on an LP, the hunt was on to find who the “babe” is or was.  When he sang “Masters of War” everyone believed he was against the arms race.  When he wrote 19 songs about Christianity and faith in 1979, and nothing else, everyone took it that he had converted to Christianity.  And earlier when he wrote “All along the watchtower,” likewise people looked for a meaning (mostly metaphorical, not many went looking for your actual watchtower).

Meaning is what we seek.  In fact I suspect there are some who have sought, and indeed found a meaning in “Drifter’s Escape”….

But really, for most of us, this is where it breaks down.  What is to be made of the lyrics of that song?  It is in essence meaningless.  There is no sequence, no sense, no relationship to reality, anymore than one finds such things in a lot of Kafka – whose work was clearly influencing Bob Dylan at the time.

Of course artists in all walks of art are drawn to subject matter that interests them or about which they feel they have something to say.   To put it at its most obvious, Picasso could not have constructed Guernica without feeling the pain and anger.  And maybe one might be able to argue that Bob could not have written “Positively 4th Street” without having someone specific in mind.  Likewise When He Returns could not have been written by a non-believer…. Or maybe I should say WOULD not have been written by a non-believer.  Because she or he would surely choose to write about something else.

And so I come back to the simple proposition made earlier: if the person characterised in “4th Street” had been placed in a short story, we would in all probability not be particularly trying to think who it was.  We’d have seen it as fiction, and a rather engaging fiction at that; a story of the way friendships can break apart.  OK maybe we might have dug away into the author’s past to work it out an origin, but still, we might have accepted it was not a literal representation of an individual.  It starts as one person, but through the artistic process becomes something else.

Now of course everyone who writes poetry or novels has the option of writing about real people or fictional characters.  The first seventeen of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man, with whom the poet has an intense romantic relationship.  By and large the writer is trying to convince the young man to marry and have beautiful children who will look just like their father.

The general assumption is that Shakespeare’s writing at this point is so intense, and there are so many beautiful sonnets here that the poet must have been writing to a specific person.  And yes there indeed are several hints and suggestions dotted around that this is so, such that some will write today that it is all perfectly obvious and agreed that Shakespeare was writing to… [fill in your choice of suspect].

Well, maybe.  Certainly writing this many sonnets along the same lines to an imaginary person would seem a little curious.  But without a clear statement of intent we can never be completely sure.  Besides, to write all that Shakespeare wrote, to have the success he had at the Curtain Theatre, and then tear down the whole theatre, ship it across the river and build the Globe where they had greater success and fame, and then to leave London and settle down in his home village once more, thereafter writing nothing of significance, seems to us today a little odd.  (Or unlikely, depending on your point of view).

Odd and unlikely because although we know some parts of Shakespeare’s life, such as why they moved theatres, so much is missing.  Shakespeare, very annoyingly, did not leave a detailed diary.  A bit like Bob Dylan not telling us what all his songs mean.

And please allow me to divert from my thesis for a moment.  Dylan’s work is often denigrated on the basis that he is a plagiarist – with many examples being given.  But I rarely, if ever, see those who complain of this, also note that Shakespeare was the same.  “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” is indeed one of the greatest metaphors of our language.  Others have used it since (Oscar Wilde: “The world is a stage, and the play is badly cast,” Allan Moore: “All the world’s a stage, and everything else is vaudeville.”)  But few condemn Shakespeare for nicking the line from the Greek playwright Juvenal in the second century, “All of Greece is a stage, and every Greek’s an actor.”   Shakespeare was a great plagiarist.  So what?

But back to my theme, and broadening out the issue somewhat, I am hoping after travelling with me this far you can see even greater difficulties within the debate.  If the writer confesses neither the details of what lies behind his or her writing, nor leaves notes on the source, we can never be quite certain – especially as there might not be any real person or events referred to at all.  There is, after all, nothing to stop one writing a love song to an imaginary person.  And indeed many have done it.  Just as there is nothing to stop one taking an image or idea from a previous writer and using it as one’s own.  Phrases can be copyrighted, but not ideas.

So let’s see how any of my thoughts before the diversion into taking ideas from previous wrtiers, apply to a (to take one song as an example) “Masters of War”.  On the surface it seems unlikely that Bob Dylan could have written that song without actually believing that it would be good if the creators of armaments did not continue their ghastly industry.   Just as surely he must have believed in the reality of the New Testament when writing 17 songs in one year on Christian themes.

Except even here the idea of the writer believing in what she or he writes breaks down.  Consider, for example, professional writers of horror fiction and science fiction.  Do they seriously believe all they are writing will come to pass?   I am most certainly not classifying myself as an author of particular merit – a jobbing writer seems a better description – but I can at least say that for my two published science fiction novels I most certainly didn’t believe they were portraying the future.  I was evolving an entertainment, nothing more.  And the few full time writers of such fiction I met at that time, were most certainly of that point of view.

So on this basis let’s just dip back for a moment to “Masters of War”.  Bob wrote that in 1963, the same year that he wrote “Times they are a changin'”  What both of these songs have in common is a sense of fatality.   Neither says we can rise up and do this or that and the world will be a better place.  Yes there is a reference to the death of the armaments manufacturers, but not because young people are going to kill them.  He simply says he will celebrate trusts that they and will be called to account in the afterlife.

I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

There’s a similar theme in Times they are a changin’

For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Dylan is telling us here that the songs are about the fact that things change, and everything moves on.  Yes there might be an element of hope for the downtrodden in each case – the masters of war will suffer eternal damnation, and the losers of  the past will get their rewards in the future.  But it is all quite vague and not too much is certain except that times do change and the future is not a repainting of the past with a few extra bright colours added for effect.

OK, so two songs like that might well be saying to us, that is what Dylan believed.  But I would argue that as with most writers, we do have to be fairly careful in our reading of the songs, because many people appear to have convinced themselves that these are revolutionary songs extolling the young to see off the old ways.  But a closer study of Bob’s work shows not only that Dylan has written many, many more love songs than he has written songs of the world changing, he has also written many more lost love songs than world changing songs, as well.

Finally, I’m going to add one final theme here, to try and make my point a little clearer.  Let’s take the theme of moving on.

In the same year as “Masters of War” and “Times they are a changin'” Bob Dylan wrote a series of twelve songs about moving on and leaving.

Does that mean that we have to believe that he was indeed “doing some hard travelling too” in the physical and geographical sense?   Maybe he was moving around a bit, but I don’t think that was the prime motivation here.  As I look back to 1963 and the 31 songs Dylan wrote in that year, I don’t hear this as an autobiography with lots of moving from place to place.  Rather a much easier explanation for what Dylan wrote about that year was that he was a storyteller exploring his art.

I doubt that many people take Dylan’s songs of moving on literally.  And so I find myself asking, if I am not going to take these songs of moving on literally, why should I take others literally?  But then if I am not taking them literally, why do I take the songs of 1979 literally and believe Bob was propagating a belief in Christianity?

Simply the answer is that just because Bob wrote only about faith in 1979, that doesn’t mean there was faith underpinning all his earlier and later works.  Just because he wrote about moving on a lot in 1963 it doesn’t mean that he had been moving on, or that he believed in moving on as a way of life, or that”moving on” underpins his whole life.  Yes of course there is a connection: we call it the “Never Ending Tour”.  But that is not exactly the same as the blues tradition found in “Hell Hound on My Trail”.

No, part of Bob’s genius, as with Shakespeare as it turns out, is surely his ability to move from subject to subject in such an engaging manner, on occasions perhaps actually believing in the truth of his subject matter, other times exploring fictional themes and ideas.  Just because he wrote about moving on, love, and lost love a lot, it doesn’t mean all the songs are on these topics.  Just because he wrote Christian songs for 18 months, that doesn’t mean Christianity is the underlying message in all his songs before or since.

So what I take from these early songs of moving on, is a set of images of the hobo jumping freight trains and moving on from town to town, and of lovers getting up because of the urge to move on because that’s what’s in their heart and soul.

But here’s the irony.  The hobo doesn’t change, but the world around the hobo does keep on changing.  The Christian faith that Bob espoused as the sole subject matter of his 1979/1980 songs clearly does not change (although it is modified along the way to fit with changes in thought about things like the equality of the sexes) but as the years come and go, Bob’s thoughts change, as do everyone’s.  The hobo can be heroic, but can also be tragic: remember for example Man on the street from 1961.  And so eventually the world gets totally out of joint.

Throughout I see Bob as observing and reporting his feelings – feelings which could later change.    As I said once before, he has spent a lot of his life leaving town in all directions at once.  (That’s my closest attempt at creating my own version of “Beyond here lies nothing”.  It’s not real, but it has a feeling about it that makes it worth using).

That is my starting point for understanding the compositions of Bob Dylan.  He has used multiple themes and ideas.  He was only telling us what to do very occasionally, and each time he did, he then moved on.  He has rarely told us about his life.  He has been writing songs in the style of, and with the approach of, composers who had gone before him, and then, being a masterful composer, has been adding new layers over the top.  His subject matter flows around him, he varies the themes as he goes.

Bob doesn’t tell us to rise up.  He doesn’t (any more) say “Worship the Almighty,” the “get up and move on”.   Rather he says, “here’s a picture I painted last week.”

To be continued…

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

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  1. Figuratively speaking, a song with its lyrics and accompanying music is indeed “like” a painting to a certain extent though the former appeals to the ear rather than to the eye, yet the brain will still seek out familar patterns in a wordless abstract painting though a viewer might assert that it makes no sense at all.

    Likewise a listener can assert that ‘Drifter’s Escape’ “in essence is meaningless”, but even the deconstructionalists failed in their attempt to fragment language into senseless nothingness – indeed, the human brain will have nothing to do with that crowd – meaning will smack down nothingness every time.

    In ‘Drifter’s Escape’ Dylan brings out the absurdity – if an artist is not sure where his words are taking him he just escapes from them, and let’s the listener deal with what they mean.

    There’s always something: oral and written language has structure and words have meaning from which there really is no escape – whether the words deal with matters abstract, concrete, moral, emotional, and so on, and so forth.

  2. In a number of his most striking songs since 2001 Dylan has adopted the dramatic monologue form as a way of entering and articulating alternative personae, intimations of the ‘multitudes’ he celebrates on Rough and Rowdy Ways.

    As Robert Langbaum argued in his influential The Poetry of Experience: ‘The standard account of the dramatic monologue is that Browning and Tennyson conceived it as a reaction against the romantic confessional style. This is probably true. Both poets had been stung by unfriendly criticism of certain early poems in which they had too much revealed themselves; and both poets published, in 1842, volumes which were a new departure in their careers and which contained dramatic monologues. The personal sting was probably responsible for Tennyson’s decade of silence before 1842; it was almost certainly respon- sible for the disclaimer attached by Browning to his 1842 Dramatic Lyrics: “so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine.”’

    Dylan’s ‘utterances of so many imaginary persons’ range from the wry, worldly wisdom of ‘Floater’ to the embittered ‘Working Man’s Blues’, from the aching, guilt-driven ‘Nettie Moore’ to the sometimes snarling husband in ‘Long and Wasted Years.’

    ‘Key West’ is, I think, not just the latest but also one of Dylan’s most extraordinarily potent enactments of an ‘imaginary’ and yet deeply authentic voice.

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