All directions at once 14: Being where you don’t belong

An index of the articles so far in this series appears here.

By Tony Attwood

At this point in our story we have reached the writing, recording and release of “John Wesley Harding” in 1967.

I have made the point already that the title of this series, “All Directions at Once,” is to me an appropriate phrase that represents Dylan’s ability to write songs that cover a multitude of topics one after the other.  While occasionally he does seem to write three or four songs around the same theme or topic, invariably thereafter he flies in a different direction – or indeed in several directions at once.

But now, as he launched into John Wesley Harding it could be argued that he experimented with travelling in multiple directions within the boundaries of individual songs.

For on this album he wrote a series of songs many of which had the most simple of song formats: the “strophic form” which means, verse – verse – verse and so on for as long required.  No chorus, no “middle 8” (that variation so common in pop songs after two verses) just verse – verse – verse.  And not just that but in most cases (although not with the very first song recorded for  the album) simply three verses of four lines.  There also seems to be a general agreement as to the order in which the songs were written, which is to a large degree confirmed by the recording sessions, and is very helpful in our quest for understanding what was going on.

Thus from a compositional point of view JWH is a dramatic change from both Blonde and the Basement, as Dylan moved from rock band to a trio – (percussion, bass and acoustic guitar with harmonica played by Dylan), and arrived at each recording session with lyrics and music all written out and ready to go.

So given that all this changed from previous albums, what about the lyrics and the music?

Seemingly Bob decided to write the lyrics first and set the music to those lyrics.  And much of the time he used exactly the same format for each song of three verses – although not in the very first song “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”

Also, although many people have endeavoured to find specific meanings within the songs, arguing that a mean x and b means y, on the surface some of the songs are illogical, if not downright incomprehensible.  Of course one can argue that any phrase represents anything, and the characters in the songs represent anyone from Dylan’s manager to Jesus Christ, but it takes quite a few leaps of faith and imagination to do this. And there is little evidence to support the view.

What the people who do suggest that “a” represents “x” don’t often do is explain why – why not write the song reflecting what Dylan wanted to say?  After all, he did that with sons as diverse as “Masters of War” and “Farewell Angelina”.   If he wanted  to write about Jesus, why not write about Jesus, if it was that important?

What I think Dylan was doing on this album (and this is by no means an original thought on my part) is using the style and approach of Franz Kafka, adapted for songs.  And he did this both with the music and with the lyrics.  In short, my position is that if Dylan wanted to praise Jesus he would do it clearly, as he did later in his career.  If he wanted to attack he would attack (as he did with “Plain D”).  Here he wanted to meander and explore.

So, Kafka…  Franz Kafka was a late 19th early 20th century Bohemian novelist who is recognised as one of the leading figures in European literature.  His work is often surreal and bizarre, and the situations his characters find themselves in are often absurd and incomprehensible.  His most famous works are “The Metamorphosis” and “The Trial”, but these works had very little impact during his life.  However subsequently he has become seen as a major force in European literature.

And now, on with the show…

17 October recording session

The Allmusic site says, “Clearly Dylan was attempting to write a parable of some description, with a narrative followed by a “moral” at the end of the story.”   The writer adds, “The story, most argue, is a simple parable alluding to Jesus’ temptation by the Devil.”

I simply don’t agree.  Not even with the first word, “Clearly”.   If anything is “clear” it is that the composer wanted to tell a meandering story.  It wanders, it is perverse, it is strange.  Events happen but without any explanation, precedent or (quite often) logical consequence.   There is no moral or spiritual lesson except “one should never be where one does not belong.”  And what sort of moral is that?  Does that teach me how to be a better person?  How am I supposed to know where I don’t belong?  How I am supposed to find where I do belong?

So how on earth did the Allmusic writer get to say “Clearly Dylan was attempting…?”  Why CLEARLY?????

Pop and rock music has had meaningless lyrics for forever – just think of “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, or “I am the walrus” by the Beatles; go back to the 1920s and 1930s you’ll find hundreds if not thousands.  What Bob has done is made these songs sound as if they ought to make sense, but then somehow they don’t.

It is a perfectly valid technique and as I say, akin to Kafka in many ways, but for some reason commentators really don’t like this notion of Bob playing with words.  Somehow they desperately want Bob Dylan to have a message, not for Bob Dylan to be entertaining, and (perish the thought) amusing.

If I really had to take a punt on this I’d suggest Bob was utterly fed up with people reading meanings into his songs, an approach which he has persistently denied has any validity, and so set out to write a number of incomprehensible songs, as if to say, “go on, try and make something out of that.”  And lo and behold they did!

But of course these are not random words in the lyrics.  There are themes within, including one of Bob’s favourite themes, “moving on.”  And in case you don’t believe me, and because this is appearing as a blog and not using up paper, so I’m not worried about space, I’ve gathered together some of the Dylan songs of moving on, up to the moment of writing “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”.

  1. Rambling Gambling Willie
  2. Rocks and Gravel
  3. Down the Highway
  4. Long Time Gone
  5. Walking Down the Line
  6. Only a Hobo
  7. Ramblin Down Thru the World
  8. As I rode out one morning
  9. Dusty Old Fairgrounds
  10. Kingsport Town
  11. Restless Farewell
  12. Black Crow Blues
  13. Outlaw Blues 
  14. California
  15. On the Road Again
  16. Maggie’s Farm
  17. It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry
  18. Sitting on a barbed wire fence
  19. Medicine Sunday
  20. Tell Me Momma
  21. Fourth Time Around
  22. Duncan and Jimmy
  23. The Whistle is Blowing 
  24. Six Months in Kansas City 
  25. Santa Cruz: 
  26. Roll on Train
  27. Going to Acapulco
  28. Pretty Mary
  29. Next time on the Highway
  30. Northern Claim 
  31. Love is only mine
  32. Bring it on home

Thus Dylan was a past master at the songs of moving on, by the time he came to compose Frankie Lee.  And if we want to find some antecedent or prelude to the work, the best I can offer is the comment in “Sing Out!” in which Dylan said he wanted to create songs of despair, and faith in the supernatural.   That certainly sounds to me like what he has done, except he did it with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

So I acknowledge that every line and every phrase can be interpreted as having a religious meaning (or probably any other meaning you want – the arrival of flying saucers, the poisoning of the planet – anything you like), and if you find that is right for you, who am I to counter that?  Rather I am just saying, I think there is a much simpler explanation which also happens to be in tune with what Dylan himself said: that is he playing with words.

And since in my academic days I was taught all about Occam’s razor (also known as the  ‘law of parsimony’) – the problem-solving principle which says, “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected,” that’s what I am taking here.  I choose the simplest answer: there is no hidden meaning.

Thus the “big house” as “bright as any sun” could be a house of ill repute, and it could be bright because “Satan can appear as an Angel of Light” and it could relate to “ancient Sun worship”.  Or it could just be a big house with the lights on.  If Dylan wanted it to mean something else, he could have made it clear, but he didn’t.   So, I would argue, if you want the big house to be something other than a big house, please explain why Dylan sought to confuse us.

In the sort of approach expounded by Anthony Scaduto, John Wesley Harding is no longer a gunslinger at all but a symbol of Christ.  From song to song, he says, the symbolism grows until “All Along the Watchtower” takes us to the Book of Revelations and the Second Coming.  And again I ask, why not tell us that?  Why keep us guessing and allowing us to follow false leads?  As I understand Christianity the Lord told his followers to go forth and spread the message.  He didn’t say, “spread the message but don’t make it too clear ‘cos I don’t want all these people understanding it.  I want them to argue, debate and above all disagree.  In fact we could even have a few religious wars along the way if you like.”  At least I don’t think He did.

The fact is, it is simpler to say these are just excursions into Kafka style story-land, which are created to bring pleasure, to open the imagination and provide us with endless enjoyment.   The construction of the songs gives us a set of impressions and ideas, which we can glimpse through the mists from time to time, and give us ceaseless pleasure.  What’s wrong with that?  Why make it something else?

By way of  supporting evidence consider the fact that from such data as we have, we know that Dylan wrote these lyrics very quickly, added the music in a matter of moments after, and spoke often about not being ready to record this album.

And then ask…

Could Dylan have constructed such a complex world as Scaduto outlines, in a matter of days, with so many carefully interwoven images, subtexts and messages?   Or did he just have a number of great turns of phrase at his command and then use them as an abstract painter uses his or her paint brush?  We can ask, “On the painting do the two crossed lines in the far right corner symbolise Jesus on the cross?” Or “are they just two crossed lines in the far right corner that happen to look good there?”  If the latter is our conclusion, that does not make the work of art less valuable.

Of course this can go on and on.  Barney Hoskyns in “Across the Great Divide” tells us that,  “At least two songs on John Wesley Harding, ‘Dear Landlord’ & ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest’, were veiled attacks on Grossman…”

Albert Grossman: the manager with the reputation for aggressiveness in his business affairs based, as others have put it, in his “faith in his own aesthetic judgements,” (which I once heard misquoted in a recording studio in the 70s as “faith in his own aesthetic juggernauts”).  Maybe but why would Bob do it in a song?  If he wanted to tell Grossman what he thought, he seems perfectly capable of doing that.  What’s the point of being obscure?

To support my case that these are just images, not representations and meanings, I cite the MusiCares speech, and Dylan’s general decision not to comment too deeply on meanings, as evidence for my view.  Because if he had a strong message he’d come out and tell us, as indeed he did with, for example, “Gotta Serve Somebody” and the other religious songs he wrote during an 18 month period of handing out the Christian message.

Maybe I’m too stupid to understand, or maybe it doesn’t translate readily from American into English but the whole ending about, “So when you see your neighbour carryin’ something/Help him with his load/And don’t go mistaking Paradise/For that home across the road,” contains no powerful message for me.   Yes, it is good to help others if you can.  Yes, the world that someone else has might look wonderful, but usually it’s got its own issues, just like yours.   Yes, be careful what you wish for.

But actually I think I knew that already.

And that I think is what Bob is saying: here’s a weird convoluted tale, but actually when it all comes down it, don’t get fooled by the jewels jangling in the distance. And oh yes, being nice to other people is always a good thing.

I don’t find meaning in Jackson Pollock – I love the paintings for what they are.  I don’t find meaning in Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues.  I know why he wrote them, and I know all about the fact that they are in every key twice,  but I don’t find meaning there – or at least not a meaning I can put in words.  I find the jagged edges of “The Rite of Spring” stimulating, difficult, and well, edgy, but I don’t say it means something.  I love these works for what they are, for their direct expression into my brain, and the same is true for me with Dylan.  Whereas Jackson Pollock tells me stories that can’t be expressed in words, Dylan tells me stories that can only be expressed in music and words – but not the words that spell out a story.

So when one commentator says, “By calling his destination “Eternity”, Judas Priest is suggesting that he plans on staying there forever,” my answer is “no he isn’t.  He’s calling his destination “Eternity”.”

Here’s another theory: “The story is a parable for Dylan’s own experiences in making the switch from folk to rock.  Bob Dylan himself is Judas Priest, the righteous betrayer of the folk movement.  The folk movement whom JP betrays is Frankie Lee.  The destination that JP pursues is the glory of rock-and-roll, which terrifies FL.  The passing neighbour boy that tells FL about JP’s endeavours and paints them in a negative light could be the media.  FL’s father who’s deceased could represent Woodie Guthrie, the father of the folk movement who at passed away just several years before this song was written.  The similarities to Dylan’s own situation are endless.”

At least the author of the theory, which appears on the Blogging in the Wind site does say, unlike many others who have pontificated on the song, “Of course, the theory that is imposed on the structure of the tale is just that – a theory.  It is just a guess for what this strange story of friends, betrayal, and glory could represent.  The reason why this theory is so good, in my humble opinion, is simply that it exists.  It exists for a song that I was ready to give up on.”

So that’s the complex, work it all out in advance, approach.  The blog with the title, “Every Bob Dylan song” (a bit of a misnomer, but it is good value, and does review a log of songs) goes the other way as the author says he gets, “the creeping sense that Dylan may just have been making this up as he was going along.”

And yes that could well be so – and there is nothing wrong with that.  A lot of writers use that technique.  Plus there is a big clue here: for such a technique to work, you need to have music that goes round and round and round over the same chords over and over again.  Here it is G, B minor and A minor, over and over and over again.  In fact as we shall see in the next piece, Dylan goes even further in the second track – there is one line of melody which uses two chords, repeated 12 times.  That’s it.

I’ve made my point, this is a long article about just one song, and I will stop.  But as you are still here, let me finish with a very personal memory.

Before settling on a career as a writer I worked as a musician in a theatre in London for four years, and as musicians we often had a less than wholesome regard for those who wrote our music and the lines our comrades on stage had to say.  It was an unjust and unkind view, but it helped pass the time.

One of our eternal jokes was that when one particular author found his plot was stagnating, he’d introduce a mysterious stranger onto the set to beef things up a bit.  When I first heard this song with its line, “just then a passing stranger, Burst upon the scene,” I really did burst out laughing, thinking “oh Bob, you’ve watched those same second rate plays too.”

For me that is the key line – it’s a story of random events without a meaning.  But if you find a meaning in this song, that’s fine too.  We can both be right, most of the time.  And that is the only difference between me and the writers with a theology to push.  In my universe we can all be right, most of the time.

The fact is the song makes no sense – in the normal meaning of the word “sense”.  The Christian interpreters of the song do get there in the end, but my goodness they have to work hard to do that, and at the end they still don’t have an explanation as to why, if Bob wanted to write a religious piece he didn’t come out and say it, and why he didn’t make it easier to understand.

Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

The series continues… and I promise not to spend nearly so long on each individual song in the future.  Honest.

12 years of Untold Dylan

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  1. The problem is that ‘mean’ is just a four letter word, but the human brain takes what the eyes see, and turns words and sentences around and upside down and inside out – all to make them fit neatly into a language that already has a basic structure even though individual words may have multiple definitions.

    Consequently, it is impossible to write anything that is totally ‘mean-less’ – the human ‘mind’ will not stand for it.

    Modernist and Postmodernist artists grapple with language that they consider is not adequate to give anything but a rather absurdist understanding (ie Pinter, Kafka, Nietzsche) to social, economic, and cultural environments that are experiencing changes (God is dead) while social and religious authorities and their obedient followers attempt to stick to past explanations as to why things are now the way they are.

    Although a number of Existentialists say the world is meaningless, they don’t really mean it…it’s just that mere ( inherently metaphorical) words are simply not adequate to explain it all; it’s condended even by some Existentialists that music helps.

    Meanwhile, some artists will claim that this is how it has always been: others that it is more apparent in modern society.

    In any event, I cannot agree that some of Dylan’s finished songs that are mentioned contain no meaning. After all when it is all said and done, it is difficult to comprehend what a little bit of nothing is, let alone too much of it.

  2. Personally, I think all the songs on JWH are autobiographical in some way. (Dear Landlord: Problems with Grossman; JWH: Man who can’t be pinned down by those who want to contain him; As I Went Out One Morning: Struggles and entanglements with folk and civil rights movements and probably Joan Baez ‘the lovely girl’; Drifter’s Escape: Escape from the deadly treadmill occasioned by his bike accident/’bolt of lightning’. Right down to ‘If you cannot bring good news then don’t bring any’, followed by two hymns to bucolic retreat.) None of this is new, of course, and it may well be wrong. But the contention of this article – that our greatest lyricist and Nobel Prize winner was just writing meaningless drivel for the fun of it – is surely more absurd than anything absurd that Dylan could have come up with when he was being very absurd indeed. Of course, he could have expressed those ideas in simplistic terms, but isn’t the whole point of symbol and metaphor to add richness and universality to what might otherwise be simple diary entries? This doesn’t imply that there is a ‘deep message’ in any of the songs, but accepting the premise of this article and applying it generally could be used to dismiss the vast majority of Dylan’s work – not to mention the whole of world literature.

  3. Yeah, that there Shakespeare fella is sure over-rated, with all that meaningless garbage that he wrote …. thankfully there was no Nobel Prize in his day or he might have got one in Literature too like that there there Dylan guy did!

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