All Directions at once: Kafka says hello; everyone looks the other way.

This is episode 15 of All Directions at Once.   An index of the articles so far in this series appears here.

By Tony Attwood

Drifter’s Escape

In my overlong discussion of the opening track of JWH (Being where you don’t belong) I made the point repeatedly that songs don’t have to mean anything.  Indeed Dylan himself has commented upon this a number of times.  But those who comment upon Dylan’s writing have tended to ignore this edict, I guess because they feel that if there is no meaning, there is nothing for them to comment upon.  So they create a meaning in order to give themselves something to write about.

I disagree, and I hope in  this review of Drifter’s Escape to show exactly why the “no meaning” approach to some (by no means all, of course, but some) of Dylan’s work is as perfectly valid an analysis as any of the “he was obviously writing about…” approaches that abound in the world of Dylan analysis.

The second song recorded for JWH was Drifter’s Escape – the ultimate Kafka nightmare where all logic vanishes.  Andy Gill suggested that the drifter does not understand the charges against him, just as Dylan did not understand the criticism he received for moving from folk music to rock music, but I really don’t get that at all.  People who love one type of music always protest when someone comes along and modernizes it or changes it, or where the composer himself then goes off and does something else.  We become comfortable with what we know; change is not welcome.

Thus fans and critics generally move much more slowly than the artists whom they adore.  The fans see the album as a finished work of art, play it and play it and get to know it well.  All the while the artist, who may have spent months writing the songs, recording the album and playing the songs at gigs, now really wants to do something quite different.  But the fans are still playing the last album, still loving it, still knowing that’s what they want.  That’s the tension, that’s what happens; that’s how it goes.  Musicians and fans totally out of sync with each other.

On JWH, having given us a look at just how weird the new world could be with Judas Priest, Bob now decided to make the world even weirder, via The Drifters’ Escape.  And here he did something completely revolutionary both in terms of his songs and in terms of popular music generally.

Normally the smallest number of chords you can have accompanying a melody is three.  Bob takes us down to two – and one of those is merely a passing chord on two beats every second line.

Of course he wasn’t the first.  Bo Diddley wrote a whole series of songs on one chord (with the odd flattened 7th thrown in between the verses).  That must have been so boring to play, but it sure was popular for a while.

But Bob now goes further.  For in Drifter’s Escape, even more oddly, every melody line is the same.  12 lines of utterly identical melody and accompaniment.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything else quite like this, except maybe “I need your loving every day” by Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford.  I know that with these examples I’m moving away from Dylan, but these are the antecedents, and if you think Bob didn’t know these, then we are approaching this who matter from very different points of view.  (Incidentally if you leave the Diddley video running, you get a vid of Diddley and Chuck Berry playing a 12 bar blues together – apparently their first ever time on stage together.  Nothing to do with Dylan, but you can be sure Bob would know all about that and in terms of the evolution of R&B it was pretty important).

The other antecedent to this song, as I have mentioned, is “I need your loving”.  This of course does not sound like Dylan in any way, but if you are still following me down this route regarding songs that don’t change, do play it and listen to it all the way through; this set the scene for what could be done with just one chord (and in their case just one line).  All the way through is important, because later they bring in a variation which has much more power because so much is identical, just as Dylan does with that one chord change for the Drifter.

Back to Bob: the drifter’s world is non-understandable at every single level – it cannot be made to make any sense either for him or for us, the outsiders looking in.  In that regard Hendrix’ variant approach is a perfectly reasonable musical re-interpretation, painful though I find it.  (Drifter’s Escape starts at 3’30” – drag the blue line at the bottom of the rectangle to the right…)

Musically Hendrix treats this as a nightmare, and yes it is, but I feel Hendrix’ interpretation lacks the unidirectional element of Bob’s version in order to emphasise the  nightmare qualities.  For Dylan gives us music that is deceptively quiet while what the song describes is the nightmare.  It is a clever twist.

Despite the hurricane of insanity blowing around the courtroom, the music is remorselessly the same; the appearance at first hearing is of normality; it is only after a few moments we realise that this is the same music over and over and over, line after line after line.  It is really spooky when considered in that way.  It is as if the neo-fascists have taken over the government and hoisted the brown flag while on the lawn a pianist patiently works his way through perfect performances of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas.  It is madness.

Now I tend to argue that when things are uncertain, taking the simplest explanation of what is going on around you us generally the best.  It is the scientific approach: if we start from the simple explanations and find none of them work, then we have every right to explore more complicated explanations.

And so in this song I start from the basic points: none of the lyrics make any sense at all in terms of the real world, and every line of music is the same.  Those factors to me are the key elements here.

Robert Shelton on the other hand is one of those commentators who goes down a different route.  He calls Drifter’s Escape “a transparent parable about a person, trapped by a role, who awaits a sentence of doom before a hostile crowd, when he is almost magically delivered from the courtroom…  the bolt of lightning could be Dylan’s [motorcycle] accident.”   Shelton also notes the song “recalls Hank Williams, the drifter being a victim of the music life nicknamed Luke the Drifter [an alias Williams used for certain songs, generally with a religious theme], whose lonesome chants have a similarly beseeching tone.”

But to me this looks very much like commentators going head over heels to make  the lyrics fit their preconceived ideas.  For if one starts instead with an open mind, there is only one conclusion: this world makes no sense.  Let me try and illustrate this to make this absolutely clear, since other writers seem to have got a bit confused.  (There’s nothing like pure arrogance in a reviewer to get the audience interested). Here is the opening…

“Oh, help me in my weakness”
I heard the drifter say
As they carried him from the courtroom
And were taking him away

OK here is problem one.  For actually no one does take the drifter away.  Not at all.  The last we hear of the drifter is that

While ev’rybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

And besides what is all this about “carrying”.  Thus the very opening premise of the song is contradicted by the last two lines.

Then there is the judge.  Faced with a man whom he says, fails to understand the charges against him, he asks, it seems rhetorically, why the drifter even bothers to try to understand.  OK I don’t know what US courtrooms are like, but I have attended several British court rooms and have never seen a defendant be told there is no point in trying to understand.  That seems a pretty important point.

We now learn that the judge stands down, but the jury start to tell the judge the trial is not over.  Really?????  I mean really????  How crazy is this getting…

Inside, the judge was stepping down
While the jury cried for more

There is at least a protest here…

“Oh, stop that cursed jury”
Cried the attendant and the nurse

But hang on, where did the nurse come from?  She or he has not been mentioned before.  Was the defendant in need of a nurse?  We haven’t been told.  Was he ill?  Or was there a feeling he couldn’t understand the trial?  If so what was the Drifter doing being on trial when he did not have the mental capacity to grasp what is going on?

And then the bolt of lighting.  We haven’t been told there was a thunder storm going on, so maybe this was a bolt from the blue, as it were.  God delivering a blow on behalf of the downtrodden.  That is pretty … miraculous.  Or downright weird.  But either way it is treated as just another passing event – which forces everyone to pray and the drifter seemingly to stroll out the door.

Let me put this another way.  This is insanity.  It is madness.  It makes no sense.  And above all that it is all contradicted within itself and by Bob’s simplistic musical approach.  The simple accompaniment and (and as I have said, but feel I must repeat, for this is the fact that every commentator seems to ignore) EVERY LINE OF MUSIC IS IDENTICAL.

A song of 12 lines in which each line repeats the music of the last line.

So what are the origins of this?

Well, as you may well know Kafka wrote a novel called “The Trial”.  It was not published during his life, and he left orders that it should be destroyed on his death, but then his executor disobeyed the will (which itself is a pretty Kafkaesque thing to do) and did publish the work.

Here’s the essence: Josif, a bank cashier is arrested by mysterious agents from an unknown agency.  He’s left free, no crime is announced… and an unspecified agency investigates his alleged but still unspecified crime.  Then he is told to go to court but not told when to attend or told what room to go to.   Thus he arrives late and is told off for this, but still doesn’t know what he is on trial for.  Later still he tries to find the judge, but finds instead the attendant’s wife.  Meanwhile we find Josef’s lawyer has a nurse, who immediately falls in love with Josif….

Court room, the unspecified crime, the attendant, the nurse, the judge, does this sound familiar?  Of course: it is both Kafka’s “The Trial” and Dylan’s “Drifter’s Escape”.  With Kafka and with Dylan we are in the same country, experiencing the same insanity, the same lack of coherence – and to a very large degree the same characters.  (There is more on this in Jochen’s review of the song).

Actually it seems blindingly obvious to me, but even sites such as the Bob Dylan Commentaries, which note Kafka in passing, still go on to see links and explanations which are remote from Kafka – when really there is no need.  Heylin in “Revolution in the Air” spends a whole page on “Drifters Escape” but finds no space for a single word about Kafka or The Trial as the source.  Yet the links are so clear I wonder what these authors were doing when writing their commentaries.

The repetition of the melody, the repetition of the chord sequence – it all paints an open and empty, black and white, pen and ink landscape.   This is Dylan working with Kafka; there really is no other explanation that fits here.

Interestingly, and not for the first time, I do however find that it is not Dylan’s version that is for me the definitive arrangement, but that of a re-interpreter: Thea Gilmore’s reworking of the song is perfection. The vocal harmonies are beautiful and then having the guitar line added to make a three part harmony while the beat is relentless, is perfection, until the time comes when she stops the jury.  Such a simple device, so cleverly executed.

Please play this and please listen to it all the way through if you have time.  OK if you don’t see what I mean about this interpretation fine, let it go.  But at least give it a chance.


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  1. Oh who among us will take him by the hand and help this poor drifting analyst above who in his Platonic weakness travels down the road to nihistic hell with Kafka, an inferno constructed for himself where Dylan’s fragmented lyrics make hardly any sense to him at all, and he needs someone else’s “re-interpretation” thereof to put Humpty Dumpy Dylan’s shattered pieces back together again?

    Or should we wait?

  2. Drifter’s Escape is left open a number of interpretive levels, by various listeners thereto, but surely that is not the same thing as the song lyrics hardly making any sense at all. (Northrop Frye: “The Great Code”)

  3. Having only discovered this site a few weeks ago, I am really pleased that at last someone has noticed the Kafka connection. Kafka’s three novels (The Trial, The Castle and the unfinished America), his novella Metamorphosis and his many short stories tend to focus on the tragic-comic absurdity of life, and in particular on the craziness of bureaucracies that continually recreate themselves with no purpose other than growing themselves. (Kafka shared this with Dickens: compare the Court of Chancery in “Bleak House” and the workings of the debtors’ prison and the Circumlocution Office in “Little Dorrit” with “The Trial”, as well as the dehumanising effects of bureaucracy described metaphorically in Dickens’ “David Copperfield” and literally in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”). The connection between “The Trial” and “Drifter’s Escape” is fairly obvious, as is the Kafka connection on most of JWH. But elsewhere in Dylan we can see he shares similar concerns to Kafka, whether it be “It’s Alright Ma” or the long verse in “Highlands” where Dickens describes the encounter in the cafe or “Masters of War” and Kafka’s gruesome short story “In The Penal Colony” (in which the creator of the torture and death machine himself becomes its victim). Songs which describe people trapped in situations such as “Gates of Eden” and “Desolation Row” are comparable with Kafka’s “The Castle”, where the land surveyor continually fails in his attempts to reach the castle. Songs like “Only A Pawn in Their Game” bear comparison with Kafka stories like “The Great Wall of China”. I don’t know to what extent Dylan may be aware of Kafka (I can’t recall him ever mentioning the great Czech writer), but so much of his work from early songs like “I Shall Be Free” to some of his 21st century output are Kaftaesque in so many ways. Yet so few writers on Dylan have even mentioned this.

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