All directions at once 9: So far ahead of the game we lost sight

By Tony Attwood

If I wanted to point you to just one moment in Dylan’s songwriting life that justified the title “All directions at once,” and if I really was told, “just one moment, no more, just one,” I would probably choose the period in 1964 that has been the heart of the last article.  The period that covers the writing of the songs from “Mama you’ve been on my mind” through to “If you’ve gotta go”.  And if I had to go further, and really tie it all down to an actual moment, rather than a matter of weeks, I would go for the evening during the Newport Folk Festival when, on the spur of the moment, Dylan decided to play an electric set with Paul Butterfield the next day.

But before I come to that I fear I must set the scene a little more carefully.   And at the risk of you turning away saying, “Oh for goodness sake, you’ve told us this already” I will give you the list of 11 songs in the period under discussion in this article, with the simplistic subject matter title that I have accorded each one.

  1. Mama you’ve been on my mind (Lost love)
  2. Ballad in Plain D  (Lost love)
  3. Black Crow Blues (Blues, The sadness of lost love and moving on)
  4. I shall be free number 10  (Talking Blues; humour)
  5. To Ramona (Love)
  6. All I really want to do (Song of Farewell; Individualism)
  7. I’ll keep it with mine (Don’t follow leaders; individualism)
  8. My back pages (Individualism)
  9. Gates of Eden (Protest, Individualism, A world that makes no sense)
  10. It’s all right ma (Protest; Individualism, A world that makes no sense)
  11. If you’ve gotta go, go now (Song of Farewell; Individualism)

I really don’t know what else to say but (yet again) this is an amazing mix of songs and subjects.  Dylan is dealing with his very real pain at the break up of an affair (Plain D), expressing love (Ramona), contemplating the concept of individualism (various), considering the notion that the world makes no sense (Eden and It’s all right ma) and saying goodbye (All I really want to do, and If you’ve gotta go).

Now in global terms, there are two ways of writing songs – one, you can abstract yourself from the meaning of the lyrics and simply write, or two, you can express your own emotions within the song.  Most songwriters that I have talked with say that the second is the dominant process, adding perhaps that the former can be done but unless one is careful the result tends to sound simplistic or false.  The tendency is to lean on works that have come before, and rather unfortunately, that approach can often show through.

Of course we don’t know for sure what Dylan was doing, but given that we do know he was expressing his own emotions in “Plain D”, then we might expect he was expressing at least some of what he felt in other songs around that time, which means he was at this time travelling one hell of a roller coaster of emotions.  On the other hand if he was expressing these emotions without feeling them, then he absolutely had totally mastered the art of songwriting within a couple of years.  He had already become the absolute songwriting genius.

I think the second option goes too far: the events we are looking at in this article show that Bob was reacting to emotions – which reach their heights with Plain D and at that crucial moment when he decided, seemingly on the spur of the moment, to play an electric set at Newport.

But also I feel, looking at the songs written after Plain D it seems to me clear that Bob’s recovery from the depths of anger and despair was not just thankfully rapid, but also a real bounce upwards because what suddenly appeared next was a much, much happier, and one might say, quite cheeky song of farewell: All I really want to do.

However there is more to that song than saying “no” or “no more” in a love affair, because this is a piece celebrating individualism – a song which through its popularity – particularly via the cover versions created by the Byrds and by Cher – emphasised the fact that Dylan was not restricting himself to songs about society and the way it inevitably seeks to control our lives.

And here we see the extent of this change of direction, because from here on for the rest of the year Dylan’s prime focus was not on protest, not on society and the way it works, but individualism, and as it turned out, an artistic form of rebellion against established norms.

For what we see is that around 18 months after writing such powerful works about society, as Masters of War, Walls of Red Wing, You’ve been hiding too long, Seven Curses,  With God on our Side, Talking World War III Blues, Only a pawn in their game, North Country Blues,  When the ship comes in,  The Times they are a-Changing, Percy’s Song, and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll – Bob Dylan suddenly discovered that there is more to the world than the way society works.

For after, “All I really want to do” Bob turned to songs such as I’ll keep it with mine with its focus on becoming an individual.   This, for me, is indeed the launch of another break through into the new Dylan.  Who else could have written in a popular music format, at this time…

I can’t help it
If you might think I’m odd
If I say I’m not loving you for what you are
But for what you’re not

Then in My Back Pages he sings…

“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I

The “edges” indeed.  What edges?  Where are these edges?  Wherever they are, whatever they are, they have become of lesser importance.  Our meeting is of greater substance than where we meet.

Here is the individual seeing the world from his own unique standpoint – a standpoint that most others (he suggests) will not and indeed cannot feel.  It is the “it’s not the world, but the way you see the world” vision put firmly within Dylan’s own view of reality.  Dylan now perceives himself as a creative artist who has the ability to change himself, and we discover, a wish to challenge others.

For thus far Bob had had it easy.  He was singing all those early protest songs to the converted.  They already believed.  He didn’t have to persuade them any further.

Now those of us who read novels tend to choose certain authors because with them we know what we are going to get.  Science fiction from one writer, murder mysteries from another, political dramas elsewhere, love stories from someone else, and so on.  We go and buy that writers’ latest, because we know what he or she does.  If our favourite author of crime thrillers had suddenly written a love story we’d be disappointed, we’d find it odd. Yet this, in songwriting form, is what Dylan did.

But although Dylan was changing direction, we don’t find just random jumping from one topic to another.  “My Back Pages” for example contains the lines

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach

which prepare the way for “Don’t follow leaders”.  This in turn is the natural consequence of the “Chimes of Freedom” – the chimes are there for anyone who can hear them, but we each hear our own “chimes”, and thus see the world in our own way.

And what is extraordinary is that after writing that masterpiece of “My back pages” Bob turned to Gates of Eden where this new individualistic approach gains perhaps some of its most powerful expression.  For now we hear that society has nothing to offer – except the false hope that if we behave in the right way and think the right things we can achieve the promised land: the afterlife.

We are firmly in the realms of a world in which it is not reality that matters but the way that we see reality.  The world that we see is in part the world we create.  If, as Blake said, we can see beauty in a grain of sand, then we are making real progress – but what we see and how we see it is totally up to us.  Yet again, it is not the world but the way that we see the world.

This theme continues to build with the next song It’s all right ma emphasising that contrary to the notion that accompanied Bob as the protest singer, the implication of his new way of thinking is that there is no reform to be had, other than living one’s own life in one’s own world.  The world beyond has indeed gone totally wrong, and the only response left is one of individual survival.  Maybe times are a-changing, but as suggested in that song’s lyrics, that changing process just happens.  Change occurs.   It’s just life.

Fate suddenly has become inexorable; all we can do is live our lives as we can.  Yes if you want to move on, of course you can, because it is up to you how you see the world and therefore up to you what you do.  Hence it is perfectly reasonable that the year ended with If you’ve gotta go, go now.    Choose your own vision of reality and your own direction of travel; off you go.  As an individual, with your own vision, you are of course free to say farewell and move on any time you want.  When you are ready, leave this vision behind, and just go.

And in moving on if you are able to hear those Chimes of Freedom that’s fine.   But for Bob moving on was now vital because he had (it appears) begun to feel that some views cannot be expressed in normal everyday story telling.  We need to go somewhere else because we have not only given control of the world to the wrong people, we’ve forgotten how to forge our own visions and live by them.  We have allowed others to become leaders of our thoughts, and forgotten how to think in new and different ways.

On the death of Irving Berlin, America’s other truly dominant songwriter, the New York Times wrote, “Irving Berlin set the tone and the tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century.” Now, in this year we begin to find that Bob Dylan was himself setting the tone and tempo for the tunes that reminded America of where it had come from, how far it had fallen from its great ideals, where it might yet go, and what was happening to the people within his country.

Although Berlin dominated songwriting during his lifetime, and was nominated for Academy Awards eight times, he never got one.  But no one can ever doubt the importance and genius of the man who wrote, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America”.  “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Cheek to Cheek”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “Blue Skies” and “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”

But just as Berlin reflected his age, so was Bob Dylan.  And Bob’s age was an age where questions started to arise.

Certainly by 1964 people were realising that Bob had, in under three years, challenged the whole notion of what popular music could be about.  Indeed in an earlier article, written long before I tried to pull all of Dylan’s lyrical themes together and make some sense of the pattern of his writing, I used the title “Bob Dylan in 1964: adding new themes.”  And I still think this works as a way of describing the year although perhaps I would now add, “and taking those themes to the limit”.   These are songs stressing that reality is all about how you see the world, which implies that the future is out there for us to describe as we see fit, as we venture through the various minefields of love, lost love, moving on, and of course individualism.

I have, in my attempt to continue describing each song in as few a words as possible, added a new term starting with this year, in relation to Dylan’s writing: Dada.  It applies as you can see below to songs such as Subterranean Homesick Blues, Outlaw Blues, Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, On the Road Again and Maggie’s Farm, and I think I must now explain what I mean by that.

Dada emerged as a creative response to the horrors of the first world war.  As Hans Arp put it at the time, “While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.”

But Dada was not just an expression of artists being against the war, or against all war, but rather artists being against the whole essence of the bourgeois life that allowed war to happen.  It was not of itself strongly left wing, but it attracted many people associated with the radical left.

What I feel Dylan was doing was expressing at this point was his reaction to the way in which folk music had elevated itself onto a platform of self-righteousness, through which some might seem to feel that by singing “We shall overcome,” the forces of prejudice and darkness would be set aside.  Or indeed that by singing “Kumbayah” one is actually doing something to fight racism, rather than just getting that lovely warm feel of being among like minded people – who were also singing along.

Given the way many people seemed to feel at the time, rejecting the notion that the fight against “power and greed and corruptible seed” (as Dylan later put it) could be continued through peacefully singing in concerts, was pretty damn dramatic, but that’s what Bob expressed.

The immediate response to this suggestion would then normally be to go to the opposite extreme, suggesting that the proponent of such a view wanted an uprising or revolution.  But the Dadaists offered a different way – through art which rather than making the audience feel comfortable (as for example being part of a large group singing a simple song together can do), actually made people uncomfortable.

Of course I don’t know exactly what Bob was thinking when he suddenly decided to play that electric set with Paul Butterfield, but whatever it was, it had the effect.  But I am pretty sure it wasn’t, “hey guys wouldn’t it be interesting if we played these songs with the whole band rather than just have me up front.”

In fact playing in front of a band at that specific gig was a pure Dadaist statement – self-evidently so, because some people who were there to hear Dylan the folk singer actively booed him.   Which I suspect Dylan didn’t mind at all.  He had made his point.

Of course, if we look back to our ancient LPs or less ancient CDs and find a copy of Bringing it all Back Home – Dylan’s next album – we know of the contrast between side one and side two.  Three quarters of side two (Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s alright ma) was written in 1964.  But now in 1965, side one of the album was written very quickly, and indeed recorded in the same way: the whole recording taking just three days.  And side one, you will recall, was Dylan and the band.

In terms of writing, this extraordinary burst of creativity (we have stories of Bob getting up in the middle of the night and typing up lyrics, as well as ceaselessly typing through the nights and days prior to the January recording) led to eleven songs …

  1. Farewell Angelina (Song of Farewell)
  2. Love is just a four letter word (Is love real?)
  3. Subterranean Homesick Blues (Beat Poetry as rock music, the artist vs society; Dada)
  4. Outlaw Blues (Moving on, The artist vs society; Dada)
  5. Love Minus Zero (Love)
  6. California (Blues, moving on)
  7. She Belongs to Me (Love)
  8. It’s all over now baby blue (Song of Farewell)
  9. Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (Beat poetry as rock music; update on talking blues, humour; Dada)
  10. On the Road Again (Moving on, the artist vs society; Dada)
  11. Maggie’s Farm (Moving on, the artist vs society; Dada)

So there we had the rest of the album created in record time, and indeed recorded in just two days (13 and 14 January), along with a couple of songs that didn’t quite fit in.

But also in considering this revolution in the type of sound Dylan was creating on the album we should note the dates.  The album was recorded immediately after the songs above were written and was released in March.  And to complete the chronology, in July “Like a Rolling Stone” was released and later that month Dylan performed his first electric set – at the Newport Folk Festival.

Thus this was a revolution that really did take Bob, and his audience in all directions at once: the writing of the songs, the recording of this radically different album, the first electric concert, writing “Rolling Stone”… it all happened in a very short period of time.  And that tells us quite clearly that Dylan must have been absolutely certain of what he was up to.  He knew where he was going, and no one was going to lead him in another direction.   Thankfully the record company also knew by now to let him have his head.  He’d been right so far.

But to return to my earlier point, we should not forget that the reports that we have of the first electric set suggest that Dylan decided to play electric not “on a whim” as some would have it, but in a definite response to the reaction of the audience to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.   Dylan had not rehearsed with the band over a matter of days or weeks – it was simply decided on the night before, and the band set to work.

I think this tells us a lot about Dylan, and it fits in with what we have learned through these explorations of Dylan.  “All directions at once” itself suggests spontaneity, and indeed Dylan has shown this throughout his career.  He gets the feeling, he understands what it means, and he does it.  It might come out ok, it might not, but that is how he wants to do it.  He does it this way to capture to essence of the music rather than have an over-rehearsed, over-prepared sound.  When it does work it is sensational.  When it doesn’t, well, that’s just the price that has to be paid.

We can see this approach very clearly in the songwriting too.  Clearly many of the Dylan compositions have been written very quickly; where the revisions are to be made, those come later, ready for later performances, which is how we get so many different versions of some songs as time goes by.

So, Bob the folk singer had gone electric, Bob the protest singer had embraced dada.  Of course others followed, but at the start he was so far out in front, he seemed like dust on the horizon.

If you have been, thanks for reading.

All directions at once

This series looks at Dylan’s work from the point of view of the ebb and flow of his writing.  Thus rather than examine a song and relate it to where the ideas came from in terms of literature and music, the series sees Dylan’s changing themes and styles within the music as a clue to what is happening in his life.

So far we have

An index of the articles is also being compiled at All Directions at Once


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