All Directions at once part 12: 1966 – after desolation, dissolution

by Tony Attwood

Bob Dylan finished 1965 by getting married, writing “Visions of Johanna” and then going on tour.  That tour has since been described as leaving him utterly exhausted, and various accounts have him behaving irrationally at times during this period.  Dylan himself has admitted to taking a lot of drugs at this time, although not everyone takes his words at face value.

Dylan spent most of December performing in California, had some time off in January around the birth of his son, and then started working in the studio on the next album.

Dylan and some of the ensemble moved to Nashville in February, as he continued to write and record the songs for what was to become Blonde on Blonde. This creative endeavour continued through to April at which time Dylan went touring again. The infamous motorcycle crash happened at the end of July by which time the album had been written, recorded and completed.

Up to the time of the crash 15 songs were composed during this year – as ever in this series, each title is followed by the briefest of descriptions of the subject matter of the song, to help us see at a glance just what he was writing about.

  1. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (surrealism)
  2. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands   (love)
  3. Tell Me Momma (moving on)
  4. Fourth Time Around (love, lost love, moving on)
  5. Leopard skin pill-box hat (randomness)
  6. One of us must know (lost love)
  7. She’s your lover now (disdain)
  8. Absolutely Sweet Marie (surrealism)
  9. Just like a woman (lost love)
  10. Pledging my time (love)
  11. Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine (lost love)
  12. Temporary Like Achilles (lost love)
  13. Rainy Day Women (surrealism going against the tide, being a rebel, doing the unexpected)
  14. Obviously Five Believers  (depression, being alone)
  15. I want you (love)

In addition to these songs it is possible that some of the jottings from the notebook that became the New Basement Tapes were made, although the dates of these are not clear, and certainly a further series of seven songs does seem to have been written after the completion of the album.

But restricting ourselves to the songs that made the album, what is immediately striking is that we have lost the Dadaistic approach to the lyrics, which had so fascinated Dylan of late, and which had been at the heart of so many of his most successful compositions.  Instead, and taking my shorthand indicators of what each song is about we have in total these subjects covered…

  • Surrealism: 3 songs
  • Love: 4 songs
  • Moving on: 1 song
  • Randomness: 1 song
  • Lost love: 4 songs
  • Disdain: 1 song
  • Depression: 1 song

Which is not perhaps what our standard notion of romance would tell us that someone who had just got married and seen the birth of his first child would be writing about.  But then it can be argued that Dylan only wrote about his life on a few occasions.  He has generally been more of a writer of fiction when it comes to song lyrics, rather than an autobiographer.

But I am not sure we can tell from the songs what exactly was on Bob’s mind, for I get the impression that he was concerned with the creation of his next grand masterpiece – whatever that happened to be – rather than what it was going to be about.

Such a masterpiece would need to be a song that in terms of general recognition stood out not just from the rest of Dylan’s work but from the rest of pop, rock and folk music.  And that not just for its length but because of the originality of either its music or its lyrics (or both) and its overall impact on listeners.  A work as powerful and unique as such recent works as “Masters of War,” “It’s alright ma”, “Desolation Row”, “Visions of Johanna” and “Like a Rolling Stone”.

To give an idea of what Bob was probably looking for, we might consider the songs below as one possible list of the absolute Dylan classics thus far:  you may not agree with each selection, but I would venture to say many people would see most of these songs as being at the summit of Bob’s creative endeavours thus far; major creations not just within his career but within the history of popular music.

1962: 3 songs

  1. Blowing in the wind
  2. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
  3. Don’t think twice

1963: 6 songs 

  1. Masters of War
  2. Girl from the North Country / Boots of Spanish Leather
  3. With God on our Side
  4. When the ship comes in
  5. The Times they are a-Changing
  6. Restless Farewell

(The music of “North Country” and “Spanish Leather” is so similar I count it as one).

1964: 7 songs 

  1. Chimes of Freedom
  2. Mr Tambourine Man
  3. It ain’t me babe
  4. All I really want to do
  5. My back pages
  6. Gates of Eden
  7. It’s all right ma

1965: 7 songs

  1. Farewell Angelina
  2. Love Minus Zero
  3. She Belongs to Me
  4. It’s all over now baby blue
  5. Like a Rolling Stone
  6. Desolation Row
  7. Visions of Johanna

1966: 2 songs 

  1. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
  2. Just like a woman

Thus this is not to suggest that my selection of the works of genius is absolute and definitive, nor that I am suggesting Bob should be able to continue to create six or seven absolute masterpieces a year.  But rather I am suggesting that the creation of the next song that would last in the memory not just until the next album was released, but for the rest of his life (and possibly years after that), was what he was wanting to do.  And indeed what he knew he had to do to keep up his reputation.

But at this moment of need however, the production line of works of genius apparently had, if not stopped, then at least slowed down.  Bob was about to discover that simply writing lots of words and (as in one case) re-working the music of “Rolling Stone” was not a guaranteed mechanism for the creation of a new earth-shattering piece of music that would be played and sung around the western world.

At the same time, the choice of topics in 1966 is also interesting.  This is not to suggest that what Dylan writes about is totally reflective of what he is thinking about (as I have said before we don’t expect the writer of murder mysteries to be thinking black thoughts all day and night), but even so, given the wide range of topics Dylan had embraced in the past, it is interesting that he wrote four love songs and four lost love songs, along with another four covering moving on, randomness, disdain and depression.  It seems a curious mixture – almost as if he was writing the sort of songs he had written before, in the expectation that the subject matter alone would deliver the goods.

In short I suspect that in the aftermath of the ravages of the touring Bob was finding for the first time that the songs simply did not appear in his head, as they had for the past five years.  By 1966 he was, artistically speaking, having a tougher time of it than he had ever had before, when the music and lyrics simply formed in his head whenever he felt the need to call them up…

It is also interesting that whereas in the past Dylan produced a fair number of songs that he then discarded, meaning that what we got on the albums was by and large the best of his writing from that period, the number of songs that were rejected from this period was tiny.  Either they were rejected before they got near the studio (which seems unlikely looking at the difficulties he had, as revealed on the tapes that survived), or Dylan was getting better at writing exactly what was needed and what would work, or the number of ideas he was getting for workable songs was reducing and so he had to work with anything he came up with.

Of course it is easy to read far too much into each event, or indeed conjunctions of events but at this time the conjunctions do seem to pile up somewhat and should be taken seriously, in my view.  Dylan quite rightly took time off following the birth of his son in January 1966 but then came back on wrote what I find one of his most disturbing songs, the unfinished, “She’s your lover now”.

Now I have mentioned before that while some songs relate to what the songwriter is feeling at that moment (Paul Simon’s oft quoted “Homeward Bound” is a perfect example) this does not have to be the case with artists.  Mary Shelly was not contemplating creating a monster when she wrote Frankenstein, for example.  Or indeed to give a trivial example that I can personally vouch for, when as a 16 year old I wrote the song “On the streets again”, I was living in the comfort of my parents home in rural Dorset, attending the local grammar school.  The song came about because I’d just seen the Alec Guinness Movie “The Horses Mouth,” based on the Joyce Cary novel, nothing else.  I hadn’t actually been thrown out of the house by my parents.

My point is that anything can stimulate the imagination.  Indeed for many a writer, the ebb and flow of life itself can lead to the creation of the next work.  Even when the creator of the work of art is tending towards the abstract rather than the concrete.

Thus when Dylan wrote…

it’s true, I just can’t recall
San Francisco at all
I can’t even remember El Paso, uh, honey
You never had to be faithful
I didn’t want you to grieve
Oh, why was it so hard for you
If you didn’t want to be with me, just to leave?

it may well have been just another storyline.  Or it might be that some of the angst and pain and annoyance expressed in those lines came from a recent heartfelt experience.  Only if Dylan tells us, and then doesn’t contradict himself, or say it in a way that makes us think he is spinning a yarn, can we get a clue as to what was really going on.

Of course, and as I have just noted, a professional writer of any form of literature can and indeed must distance him/herself from his work to some degree.   Failure to do so could send many more novelists, playwrights and songsmiths into long spells of mental recuperation than we actually find needing such a break.  But here the suspicion must remain that even if the song is not a literal exposition of how Dylan was feeling, it could have been a shorthand version of some very difficult events.  And not the events one would hope for or expect around the time of the birth of one’s first child.

The fact is that this song of extreme disdain caused Dylan enormous difficulty, as is revealed on the recordings – and it was a difficulty that he did not experience with “Rolling Stone”.  And “Rolling Stone” is a good comparison because what we find is that the very unusual chord sequence of “Rolling Stone” is now used again.  True, Dylan had reused ideas before but the extent of the adaptation of the underlying essence of “Rolling Stone” with its step by step bass and utter disdain in the lyrics for the subject of the piece, are both very unusual in popular, folk, and rock music.  Was he really wanting to write “Rolling Stone II” so soon after marriage and becoming a father, or had he simply felt the need to writer another master-work, but was unable to find either a new subject or a new musical form?

What we do know is that Bob tried to record “Lover” an amazing 19 times and then gave up.  And he must have been aware of how very different that was from the days of writing it, recording it, and then feeling it was done, all within a few hours and one or two takes.

We also have, from this period, other tales of Dylan changing the musicians around him, re-recording songs many times over, abandoning songs … It does not sound like the Dylan of just a few years before.  Nor does it sound like an artist who is happy in himself or with his own work.

Thus as January progressed we see something new emerging in terms of Dylan and recording: Bob’s dissatisfaction with the recordings that were being made, and a lack of new songs that he felt could be brought in and used to fill the gaps in the album.  Of course as we know, he did produce the album – indeed it was a double album (although curiously it seems no one realised this until they came to put together all the songs that survived).  But it appears that Dylan simply wasn’t able to produce what to his mind then (and what may sound to us now, some 50+ years later) pieces of the same brilliance and diversity as “Blowing in the Wind”, “Chimes of Freedom”, and “Visions” at the drop of a hat.  

Indeed this shortage of new material and the slow progress of the sessions contributed to Dylan’s decision to cancel some booked recording dates, and subsequently tell Robert Shelton, who had helped to launch his career, that at that moment he was “really down. I mean, in ten recording sessions, man, we didn’t get one song … It was the band…”  This is simply something we cannot imagine Bob saying a year before.  Really, was it the band?  Didn’t Bob the singer / songwriter have something to do with it?

But say it he did, and it was this dissatisfaction that led to Bob Johnston suggesting that the recordings be moved to Nashville, which led to the recording of Visions of Johanna and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.  From here on it seems several songs were written using a new process -Dylan writing in the studio and then the band recording the song.  In between they played various gigs that had been previously been arranged. 

There is disagreement among those who were there, and those who write about such minutiae, about exactly how everything happened, but all versions of the story seem to point to the notion that Bob had got stuck with a version of writers’ block.  However by moving to a new studio and hiring new musicians, and undoubtedly because the record company wanted their pound of flesh, as per the contract, he came through it.  And then, perversely, it was realised (quite late in the day) that despite all the problems, the ensemble now had too much material for one album!  A double it became.

Dylan mixed the album in Los Angeles in early April (reportedly in just a few hours, which is far less time than is normally given to such a task), before he departed on the Australian leg of his world tour – another sign that far too much work had been booked into the time available.

And then on July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his motorcycle.  The reason for the crash, the details of the accident and the level of injuries are matters of dispute, but it is clear that Dylan did not go to hospital and no ambulance was called to the scene.  What is also clear is that he did not return to full-on touring for eight years.  Instead, life changed…

All Directions at Once: the series so far

The series continues…

12 years of Untold Dylan

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