All directions at once: Bob Dylan in 1964; (while we were still in 1963)

By Tony Attwood

This is part 8 of “All Directions at once.  Previous episodes are…

In 2020 by the time “Rough and Rowdy Ways” was released, most of us had already downloaded and played endlessly the extracts from the album that Dylan and his record company had agreed to put on line for public consumption: it was “in the wild” long before it was “released.”

Although it is hard to appreciate now, the reverse was true in terms of Freewheelin’.  It was released in May 1963, but unless one was living in New York, or completely up to date with the very latest trends in the American folk music scene how would one have known?  Maybe some US radio stations played it – I wouldn’t know.  But I do know that by the time many of us had bought it, “Times they are a changin'” had been written and Bob was lyrically and musically somewhere else.

Then it happened again.    As (I suspect) most of us were trying to come to terms with the evolution between Freewheelin’ and its successor, Bob had already moved on and was writing “Another Side,” which came out the following August.  Thus in the space of 15 months (May 1963 to August 1964) Dylan released three utterly ground-breaking albums: Freewheelin’, Times and Another Side.  And written a huge lot more.

The compositions that appeared on these three albums are harder to date exactly but “Blowing in the Wind,” the first Freewheelin’ song was almost certainly written in April 1962, while “My Back Pages” the last of Another Side, was written in early June 1964.   So all those works within those albums were written in a 26 month period.  Given the diversity of these songs, that is an amazing achievement.

But that was not all.  For within that period of writing the music for those three albums Dylan actually wrote 75 songs.  That in itself is phenomenal – even composers of the most mundane of songs who churn them out to order, can’t compose that many songs in 26 months.   But to write that many and include within that era so many phenomenal masterpieces is utterly extraordinary.  Then on top of that to go through at least three major stylistic changes, is beyond belief. To my mind if one wants a simple justification of the notion that Dylan is a unique genius, then that one burst of songwriting is enough to achieve that.

And even this burst of composition was not everything.  For having achieved all that and recorded the three albums that made and secured his reputation, Dylan then amused himself in the remainder of the year by writing three classics of the “individualism” genre “Gates of Eden”, “It’s all right ma” and “If you’ve gotta go, go now”.

The first two have within them strong elements of the “protest” genre, as well as a lot of Dylan’s latest fascination: the notion that the world very much does not make sense.  And then the year ended (in terms of compositions) with another song of farewell.   What we see therefore is that by now Dylan had a set of themes for his songs which he liked to use and re-use, and I’ll return to this as we progress through the years.  New themes were certainly found from time to time, but many of the old ones returned time and time again throughout Bob’s writing career.  The blues, lost love, moving on… he returned to these themes time and again, no matter where else he ventured.

That of course doesn’t mean that Bob’s music was the same.  Musically and lyrically “Gates of Eden” and “It’s all right ma” take us into new fields.  Anyone hearing those songs at the time of composition would know at once that Dylan’s next album was going to be different again.

Obviously Dylan’s music was getting a fulsome exposure on radio stations in North America, where stations catering for all tastes already existed.  Britain, and Europe generally however had very restricted radio services which had no space available for such a rapidly evolving talent.

But in 1964 the first pirate radio station appeared in Europe.  And to be clear, Radio Luxembourg was never a pirate radio station although Bob has suggested it was; that station found a niche because the amount of popular music broadcast on radio stations in the UK was extremely limited, and so R. Luxembourg (based in the principality and fully licensed by the government of the country) became the evening and night time broadcaster of top 40 music to the British Isles.

But it was thoroughly a top 40 station, financed by the record companies that released the pop music of the day, and so even there one was not going to hear Dylan.  The fact that he existed and his music was revolutionary and radical was a matter dealt with in the four weekly pop and rock music papers.  In the end, if you wanted to hear the music, you had to take a chance and buy the album.

And I suspect this is how it was over much of Europe, and quite possibly parts of North America.  The music was being recorded and released, but unless you knew someone who was into Dylan, or read the music weeklies, it was hard to find out more.  If you wanted to hear it, you had to take a chance and buy the record.

Then two things happened.  Late night programmes on pirate stations like Radio Caroline and Radio London picked up on Dylan, and cover versions of Dylan’s songs began to appear and get coverage on mainstream radio.  The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, the Hollies, Manfred Mann and others recorded songs, that simply seemed different, and the word spread: these songs resonated with the way many people who were unmoved by contemporary pop actually felt.  These were songs that reflected their own feelings about the world in which they lived.  Songs that were about more than love, lost love and dance (although Dylan as we have seen wrote a lot about the first two.  But even then, when he did choose love and lost love as his themes, he did so in a way that was so completely different from everyone else).

As we got to know the music of “Times” we could hear that here, at last, was a man who was singing about the issues that many of us were concerned about.  But what we didn’t know was that while we were marvelling at the “Times” album, Bob was writing Guess I’m doing fine (a simple folksong about being hurt) and then Chimes of Freedom (a song of hope, which I noted at length previously) followed by Mr Tambourine Man (an utterly different song concerning the way we see the world and touching on surrealism).

And although it was beyond the understanding of most late night disc jockeys and weekly newspaper pop music journalists, some of us did grasp the fact that, “Let us forget about today until tomorrow” is the antithesis of the fight for justice at the heart of the protest movement, although curiously it resonates strongly with “Times they are a changin” wherein the times appear to change by themselves, without any interaction from us.   Likewise the Chimes of Freedom simply are there, “Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended.”  We don’t do anything; life moves on.  That wasn’t quite what those who were protesting against capitalism and society in the city streets in the 1960s, were thinking.

These two songs are linked; they both touch on the relationship between music and the world, and to a degree the way in which we are in control of how we see the world.  They concern the relationship between the artist and the world, as well as the implication that just as we will all experience the change predicted in “Times” so we can all see the world in a new way, if we choose to.

This was an utterly revolutionary approach to any concept of popular music that had existed previously.  Songs which debated the passing of time, and our appreciation of the world around us as philosophical concepts were simply not known.  And indeed ever since then these songs have often seemed to baffle commentators, who flailing in the face of such challenging concepts have retreated to debates about whether Dylan stole the music or lyrics from somewhere else, or indeed who he was dating.  Such debating has always been irrelevant; at this moment it was even more irrelevant than usual.

For anyone who was actually paying attention to the music and the lyrics, rather than its sources, it would have be no surprise that after the success of “Times they are a changin'” both in terms of the song and the album, Bob changed again.  Some might have expected Bob to stay with the writing of protest songs, at least for a while, but no, that has never been his way.  Instead he wrote I don’t believe you (a lost love song), Spanish Harlem Incident (a love song) Motorpsycho Nightmare  (back to Dylan’s unique brand of humour) It ain’t me babe (a song of farewell unlike anything we’d heard before) and Denise Denise  (a song about taking a break and having a laugh).

Now this approach of Dylan’s involving moving on from subject to subject within his songs, is a fundamental of his work.  Only once did he abandon the approach and that was 1979, when he wrote every song on the same subject.  We will obviously get to that later – but not for a while.

But now another change was happening.  Everyone recognised the huge success Peter PAul and Mary had had with Dylan’s work, so from 1964 onwards, other singers and groups fancied a bit of the action and so started to notice Bob’s music and began to record it.  And this, I think, was the third big event of this period.   First he had jumped from theme to theme in what he was writing.  Second he was exploring lyrical themes that no one else touched, and now third other esteemed performers were hearing his songs and re-interpreting them.

And this third point is a key issue that I think is sometimes missed.   The notion of taking a Dylan song and re-arranging it completely is what we are all used to in terms of the Never Ending Tour; it is what we expect, it is what we are there to hear.   But this was new in the 1960s.  In this regard Bob had already started to become not just a one man songwriting industry, but a producer of songs that could be taken apart and rebuilt.  Here’s an early example

Mama you’ve been on my mind is a beautiful song of lost love – one of Dylan’s favourite themes as we have noticed.  It came immediately before (in terms of Dylan’s writing), the oh so painful desperate poem of lost love and dislike Ballad in Plain D.   Plain D got the attention, but it can be argued that “Mama” is the much, much more exquisite piece.  The contrast, if noted at the time, was rather baffling, not least because we didn’t know the guy was writing enough to produce not just two but five albums a year, should he have wanted to.  But also because he could change subject so quickly.

These two songs cannot have a greater contrast between them.  Plain D recounts the disintegration of a relationship and the conflicts surrounding this.    It is fair to say that no one else had written a song like this at the time (and I am not sure there have been many since).

But then “Mama” although a totally different type of song, is equally revolutionary, and to my mind far more successful.   Both songs use the same unusual approach to the chord sequence, involving variations of what in classical music is called the “interrupted cadence” which simply put means ending a line with a most unusual and unexpected pair of chords

But Mama goes much further both musically and lyrically.

Just consider …

Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat
An’ cov’rin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you been on my mind

OK, if you have known those lines for years they might float by, but just look at them.  We can by and large work out a meaning, but quite what has each line got to do with the next?  Yes given a few moments we can work something out – but even then there is still a problem.  The poet is saying over and over, it’s nothing, I’ve just been thinking about you, that’s all.  Except that he says, “pretendin’ not that I don’t know” – and if we think we are bound to ask what on earth he is talking about? That “pretending” line means “I’m pretending I know” which means “I don’t know” … or does it.  Trying to work that line out we go round in circles, which is exactly what the singer of the song is doing.  He doesn’t know, he doesn’t understand, and Dylan expresses this both musically and lyrically in a way that I suspect has never been done before in folk or pop.

And he does this immediately before writing Ballad in Plan D!

I don’t mean trouble, please don’t put me down or get upset
I am not pleadin’ or sayin’, “I can’t forget”
I do not walk the floor bowed down an’ bent, but yet
Mama, you been on my mind

If ever there is a Dylan song in which, to understand it, you need to listen to the music and lyrics, and not just the lyrics, this is it.

If we go back to the version on Bootleg Series volumes 1 to 3 (disk 2 track 4, recorded 6 September 1964) what we find is a plaintive song with endless unexpected chord changes (sometimes catching us out by coming half a beat to early or late).  But it is none of this that causes us to stop and think “what?”

It is the musical structure which gives us two four bar phrases in standard 4/4, but with a bar (in the first verse) in 3/4  time.  Even if we are ready, the next verse throws us out again, because that interrupting half-way house bar is reduced to a beat.  By the third verse it has become a complete 4/4 bar.

So it goes on with the timing of the piece becoming ever vaguer and more and more unexpected.  And no one at the time was doing anything remotely like this in popular music.

What aids these curious rhythmic changes is the fact that the lines of the verses over run, cut short, change… there is in fact no rhythmic constancy.  Conventionally the lyrics are written (depending of course on the version you are listening to) as

Perhaps it’s the colour of the sun cut flat
An’ cov’rin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you been on my mind

But equally we could have

Perhaps it’s the colour of the sun cut flat An’ cov’rin’
the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you been on my mind

Or in the second verse

I don’t mean trouble, please don’t put me down or get upset
I am not pleadin’ or sayin’, “I can’t forget”
I do not walk the floor bowed down an’ bent, but yet
Mama, you been on my mind

could actually be

I don’t mean trouble, please don’t put me down or get upset
I am not pleadin’ 
or sayin’, “I can’t forget”
I do not walk the floor bowed down an’ bent, but yet
Mama, you been on my mind

However we play with them, the words express the mixed up feelings that we can all get at the end of a love affair, where the narrow thoughts are eating us up, but we are trying to deny it is happening.   We desperately want to get out of conventional angst (that was very much the thinking of the 1960s – we don’t have to think like our forefathers) – but he knows that this is not really true – he’s just “pretending not that I don’t know”.

And the ending is so powerful that it takes us several hearings of the song to get this right…

I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind

Can you see yourself as clearly as I can see you?  Now, there’s a thought and a half.  Utterly simple, utterly complex.

What we have here is a piece in which the music follows the words, but the words endlessly tumble over an the music is trying to catch up, until by the end the words follow the music.  Words can get extended in different versions as in the final verse in the second line suddenly the “I” in “I won’t be near” is curiously given an extra beat and a half in some versions – but not others.

Of course this works in the early recordings because it is Dylan on his own – you can’t so easily do this with a rock band, or even if singing a duet.  And so as time has gone by the song has become fixed into set rhythms, although Dylan’s own performance with Joan Baez retains some of the rhythmic oddities, but in the end it loses all the subtleties.  If you want this song as it was intended you have to have a solo version.

And maybe it is because the song can exist in so many different versions that we never had a version of it on the early albums.  Certainly the song was intended to perhaps for Times They Are a Changing or Another Side of Bob Dylan but came out on neither, and we had to wait for the live versions, and the Bootleg series.

So this is a song whose rhythm we can’t hold down, and indeed nor can we with the chords – version after version of the song has been recorded with different chords, and of course different feelings.

And maybe this is the mark of a great, great song – because it can be reinvented so many, many times.  Contrast the Buckley version above (if you dare) with Rod Stewart’s version on the “Reason to Believe” album, which works in a Rod Stewart sort of way, but utterly, utterly fails with the twiddly instrumental cover for the pauses that some idiot somewhere decided to put in.  They mean nothing, have no relation to the song, and destroy what could have been an entertaining version of the piece.

But the fact that you can have so many different versions shows what a song this is.

So magnificent is this song that you don’t need to know the origins of the lyrics, but for completeness, let’s record the fact that it is the breakup with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo (or at least that is what the commentators say) that led to the song.  But the notion of Oliver Trager which suggests this is a “straightforward love song of separation and yearning” is to miss the point.  That is the start, but not the end.

People who suffer romantic breakups as Dylan had done react in different ways – and often different ways at different times.  Some are devastated, some remain in a very depressed or even desperate state for months or years.  But Bob, it seems, after writing that piece could pick himself up and just move on.  It must also have been a warning note to any other woman, and indeed the family of any such woman, with whom he had a relationship!

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