By Tony Attwood
This series looks at the subject matter of Bob Dylan’s songs year by year, trying to see a pattern in his writing across a year, rather than analysing his work song by song, as has been the traditional approach of commentators on Dylan’s work.
I have been writing this series as a voyage of discovery for myself, without a clear idea of what I would discover, and indeed I was genuinely surprise to find that for many years the main themes of Dylan’s writing were love and lost love. Two of the three main themes of popular music since the 1950s (the third being dance which Bob has shown no interest in at all).
And as this review has moved on I have noticed a move in Bob’s writing into writing about darker issues, giving a feeling of a strong lack of positivity about the world around us by the end of the 1980s. That decade ended with The menace emerges – the title to my piece about the meaning of the songs in 1989.
In the 1990s I offered up three articles
- 1990: The rebirth of protest before the end of all songs
- Bob Dylan’s songwriting 1991- 1996: the end of everything
- 1997/8: That oh so very very clear theme
The “very clear theme” to which I was alluding for 1997/8 was loss and simply walking away.
Then moving to the 21st century, I have offered two articles thus far:
- What was Dylan writing about at the turn of the century? Chaos!
- Dylan’s songs 2005/6: change, moving on; life with the barbarians
It’s all negative stuff. Now moving on I come to the Together Through Life songs, which were of course co-compositions, and we don’t know who wrote what exactly. But reading through the reviews of those songs and listening again, it is clear to me that these are not songs of love and hope.
Indeed I am reminded as I look through Bob’s songwriting across his career, of the last work by the great English novelist HG Wells. Wells had written novels which have lived on since he created them, novels written before the age of film which were turned into popular movies such as “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds”. But as time passed he lost that belief in the human race’s ability to survive no matter what.
Wells’ last book was “Mind at the End of Its Tether”. It is only 34 pages long and was written at the age of 78, and in it he considers the notion that humanity has had its day and is soon to be replaced. It is as if the violence of “The Invisible Man” (another early Wells, smash hit story) has become the essence of humanity.
To return to Bob Dylan’s themes, In preparing this piece about 2008/10 I have revisited the reviews of the “Together through Life” songs and added videos where it seems appropriate – they were not available at the time I did the original reviews. I hope they might be helpful, and I wanted to go back to the songs and think about them again.
After all, I wrote, not long after the album was released, that the “Highlight across the two years 2008/9” was the song “It’s all good”, in which ” Bob sums up everything that is wrong with the world in one song based on one chord. This really does tell it as it is, and by and large it is pretty much all over.”
My point here is that I had no idea what I was going to discover when I hit on the notion of trying to summarise the meaning of each and every song of Dylan’s in a word or two. What I find is that the rich mixture of themes of the earlier years, replaced as it was for one year by nothing but songs about faith, is now replaced by songs about decline and negativity.
Using the same format as in all the previous articles – trying to summarise each song in just a few words… but also taking the first song of this period of writing as a scene setter this is what I find…
- Life is Hard (lost love; lost life)
The evening winds are still I've lost the way and will Can't tell you where they went I just know what they meant I'm always on my guard Admitting life is hard Without you near me
And now moving on to the rest of the songs, again using a similar format to that used before
- This Dream of You (Lost love in the nowhere cafe)
- Beyond here lies nothing (Everything is wrong)
- My wife’s home town (Life is really bad)
- If you ever go to Houston (This is not a good place to be)
- Forgetful Heart (The door has closed forevermore; if indeed there ever was a door)
- Jolene (Need of a woman)
- Shake Shake Mama (Lost love)
- I feel a change comin on (I have nothing)
- It’s all good (Nothingness: we’re making lame responses to a world of chaos)
There is one more song in this period of writing, probably written in 2010, although the date is somewhat uncertain. The Love that Faded with lyrics by Hank Williams and music by Bob Dylan. As Dylan only wrote the music and not the lyrics, I’m not including this in my reviews of how Bob’s lyrics reflect his vies of the world and his thinking.
So yes, I have expanded my previous one or two word summaries, to try and get closer to the flavour of these complex songs, although that makes giving a summary of the year’s work harder, but I’ll give it a go, since that is the theme of the series.
- Lost love: 2
- Everything is wrong / life is bad: 6
- The need of a woman: 1
This is so different from where we began. Dylan himself obviously took a few years to settle down into the themes that he really wanted about, but in looking at 1962 and 1963 together I came up with these subject areas across those two years…
- The Blues (5)
- Love / desire (3)
- Gambling (1)
- It’s just how we see the world (1)
- Personal commentary – do the right thing (2)
- The future will be fine (1)
- Lost love / moving on (12)
The point is that I have been evolving my theory that we can learn a lot about Bob’s state of mind by the subject matter of his songs in groups and I am going to have to go back and review this earlier work, to try and pull everything together, but two things stand out from this 1962/3 review.
There is a tendency even in the early days towards the negative, but it is not all consuming. There is also an understanding that we all see the world in different ways. However although in the early times positive songs did take their place alongside the negativity, now as we look at Dylan’s subject matter in 2008 to 2010 the negative has won out, utterly.
Of course it can be argued that many of these 2008/10 songs were co-compositions, but I do not believe that Bob Dylan by this stage of his life would have agreed to put out songs that were not on themes that he felt. I can’t prove it, but it would seem utterly odd if not downright weird that the most famous songwriter of his age, the only songwriter who could stand alongside Irving Berlin in terms of the number of songs written, the popularity of those songs, and the generally agreed quality of those songs, if in the latter stages of his songwriting he was co-composing songs that were not on a subject of his choice.
There is an index to all the articles in this series, and I recognise I am going to have to go back and re-write the whole series at some stage, in the light of what I have found (which is not what I expected at all).
But first I’ll carry on through the remaining years of Bob’s writing to finish the series off.