All Directions at once: all the world’s a stage

By Tony Attwood

This is episode 16 of All Directions at Once.   An index of the articles so far in this series appears here.

Jochen has already provided us with the clue to “All along the watchtower” in an earlier article on this site, and yes, once more we are with Kafka.  This time  Der Aufbruch (“The Departure”).  Another work unpublished in his lifetime; another work which undermines our normal sense of reality.  I’ll go with this as the thinking behind the song, because it follows on so naturally from the two songs already recorded for the JWH album and because this extrapolation, needs no convoluted reasoning.

Indeed it is the fact that we can use the same explanation for the origin of Dylan’s lyrics in several songs here, that in my view adds credence to this explanation. Instead of having to say “in this song x refers to Bob’s manager and y to his wife,” we have a constant.  He had been reading Kafka and he liked what he read.

Here is Kafka…

I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. The servant did not understand me. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted. In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me and asked: “Where is the master going?” “I don’t know,” I said, “just away from here, just away from here. Away from here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my destination.” “So you know your destination?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you. Away-from-here — that’s my destination.”

And here is… well, you know who this is….

As I have written at some length about the opening two songs in the John Wesley Harding recording sessions about the Kafka link, and as this fits again here, I won’t labour the point.

I am instead left pondering one question: “Why do so many writers on the subject of Dylan think Dylan writes in code.  When he converted to Christianity in 1979 he didn’t write in code.  When he wrote “Masters of War” he wasn’t writing in code.  Why did he suddenly adopt a code, in an album he said he wasn’t really wanting to make.

And why do songs have to be about real people anyway?   Of course they might be, but it is not obligatory.  Lots of love songs aren’t.  “Like a Rolling Stone” is no more of a song if it is about one real person, nor any less of a song if it is about a fictitious person.  So why should we believe Dylan was writing in code at this point?  What did he want to hide?  If he had a message why not come out and say it?  Was he playing games with fans, was he trying to be enigmatic?  Or was he, as so many other times across the years, finding a source which he enjoyed, and using it as the basis of his inspiration?

I can of course accept that sometimes he clearly writes what he feels, sometimes in colourful and engaging, even frightening language.  Sometimes he is simply abstract – the equivalent of the abstract painter but using words.  And maybe there are a few songs in code, just for the hell of it.  But not nearly so many as some “Dylanologists” like to think. Not even 10% of the songs.   Dylanology, in short, is not a science, because most Dylanologists don’t consider all the evidence – just the bit that suits them.

But back to the album.  So far on 6 November in the recording session Dylan has initially given us two Kafkaesque songs, and now in song three we find the influence of Kafka once more seems to be the main and most obvious explanation rather than any other hidden meaning…

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”

OK, we have a joker and a thief.  The joker is talking, and the opening line suggests the two of them are trapped.  The joker is suggesting he’s the only one who knows what his world is all about.

The thief replies…

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”

… and he tells the joker that life is a joke.  Which is a bit odd, coming out of the blue like that.  But, he suggests, we’re pretty much in this together.  We don’t have to work out the meanings – especially if life really is a joke.

I am always reminded here of, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”.  Not just because of its power and elegance, nor because Shakespeare, like Dylan, loved to borrow texts from earlier writers – that most famous of Shakespearian lines coming from Juvenal, the 1st/2nd century poet from the early days of the Roman Empire who in Satire 3 wrote “All of Greece is a stage, and every Greek’s an actor.”   Incidentally I’d say that was still true, which is why I do love Greece.

But then… to show it is a joke, it is as if none of the previous verses happened because in verse three we leap into somewhere else with absolutely no connection with the earlier verses.  It reads a bit like an epilogue – life goes on, no matter what.  It’s just life and life only.

All the world’s a stage…  Life is but a joke … they are not that far removed from each other.

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to how

This third verse really does have nothing to do with the first two verses – unless we perceive it as “All the world’s a stage”  to say that life goes on, this is what we see .  There is a world in which the thief and joker exist, and there is a world in which the watchtower exists.  There is no particular connection between them which is revealed yet they are part of the same song.  It doesn’t bother me that you can’t go “all along” a watchtower.  You can go along the ramparts, but the tower sits there as the place from which to look out.  Does it matter in the overall scope of the song?  Not to me.

And once more there is an awful lot of Kafka here.  Being trapped, a joker and a thief, confusion, being told to not get excited when no one is getting excited, and meanwhile in another reality there is the watchtower which one can go all along….

But maybe Dylan had just seen Ascending and Descending by M. C. Escher first printed in March 1960, and maybe he enjoyed it.  It is hard to get the full impact of what is going on in the small reproduction below – but if you do want to consider this further try this video

“What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words,” Dylan says, according to Wikipedia, in an interview in 1968, “There’s no line that you can stick your finger through, there’s no hole in any of the stanzas. There’s no blank filler. Each line has something.”

And there we are, “Each line has something”.  It doesn’t have to be connected to another line.  It just has to be something.   And quite honestly I think he does that “something” rather well.

Equally Dylan could have said, there is no source and no point of reference.  There’s the book of Isaiah, and in the book of Isaiah (20 and 21) there are a few images to be found (the barefoot servant, a few horsemen, a lion and a watchtower).  Maybe Bob had been at the Old Testament again. But if so, it was probably just to think of using a barefoot servant, a few horsemen, a lion and a watchtower.  And if we note the Bible should we not also note as a source Kafka once more.  Jochen got there before me, and I’ll follow him on this one…  Take for example Der Aufbruch (“The Departure”)…

I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. The servant did not understand me. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted. In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me and asked: “Where is the master going?” “I don’t know,” I said, “just away from here, just away from here. Away from here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my destination.” “So you know your destination?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you. Away-from-here — that’s my destination.”

As ever with Kafka, no one quite understands.  The master orders his servant to saddle his horse, but the servant fails to understand. The master hears a trumpet sound, which his servant does not hear.  But “there must be some way out of here.”

So Dylan, Isiah and Kafka all chatting with each other.  Now that really would be a party to attend.

What is the more likely: that Dylan is trying to get away from his record company deal and so wrote this song in a way that no one could ever be quite sure as to its meaning, or Dylan is again using Kafka to create a piece of music that sounds great and is incredibly enigmatic?  I’d say that the former reduces the work to nothingness but is an approach beloved by conspiracy theorists.  You make a record which attacks your record company?   Why bother?  Why not go and shout at them for a while?  Why not record silence?  Or a single note?

Dave Van Ronk, argued that,  “After a while, Dylan discovered that he could get away with anything – he was Bob Dylan and people would take whatever he wrote on faith. So he could do something like All Along the Watchtower” which is simply a mistake from the title on down: a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can’t go along it.”

And I suppose Mr Van Ronk would also consider Kafkas work “a mistake”.

Or it is perhaps an abstract painting…  Whatever it is, it is one of Dylan’s most enduring songs, even though reinterpretation, once Hendrix designed a version that Dylan thought better than his own, is now quite tough.  Although, as I hope the first video in this article, might suggest otherwise.

And now, moving on, we had John Wesley Harding himself – which apparently Dylan once described as a “silly little song”.

Not the right spelling to be the actual JWH of history – who seemingly claimed to have killed many more people than he actually did.  Dylan has stated that he chose John Wesley Hardin for his protagonist over other badmen because his name “[fits] in the tempo” of the song.  Pure chance, nothing to see here.  That sounds likely.

Those who know such things assert that two takes were made of the song, both were considered to be ok, and then one was chosen.  That was that and we had another song of three verses each of four lines.  But unlike the Watchtower, few people ever quote anything from this song.   The song goes nowhere, and has no enigma.  It just is.  Dylan’s seemingly never played it in a gig, which perhaps says something.  Besides, “He was never known to make a foolish move,” sounds a bit like the Lone Ranger of radio, books and TV fame.

 As I Went out one Morning again has a link to voices from the past – in my original review I singled out WH Auden as well as Tom Paine the revolutionary.   Certainly the layout of the poem and its structure means that while not changing a single word, WH Auden’s “As I walked out one evening” can be sung to Dylan’s melody and accompaniment.  My money is on Dylan knowing Auden, and using the same structure and almost the same opening line…

As I walked out one evening, 
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement, 
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river, 
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway: 
‘Love has no ending.

In Dylan’s version we don’t know who the lady is, who this Tom Paine is, or indeed what’s going on.  It is like a snapshot you found at the back of a photo album with no information about who these people are, where the picture was taken, what was going on or when it was.  There it is, make of it what you will.

Simple songs, each with a clear source, and mostly beguiling and sometime intriguing words.  What is this album about? Just that.

The series continues…

12 years of Untold Dylan

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One comment

  1. Try as he might to wash words from the recorded music and lyrics of Bob Dylan ( listen to first recording above) Tony must be a Joker, and this Thief is a-gonna have to take his crippled horse away from him and shoot it.

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