All directions 17: “You got something new to tell us Bob?”

By Tony Attwood

This is episode 17 of All Directions at Once.   An index of the articles so far in this series appears here.

In the previous articles I have been looking at the meanings of the songs on John Wesley Harding.   Of the remaining songs in JWH that I’ve not mentioned, four follow the patterns of what has gone before: I am a lonesome hobo concerns individuality, I pity the poor immigrant (in which the immigrant is given a Kafka treatment, lost in an unknown land),  The Wicked Messenger (another absolutely Kafkaesque story), and Dear Landlord (a stream of thoughts piece, following the invention of the title).

And then… the most extraordinary thing happens.  Everything changes.  The arrangements change.  The feelings change.  Just when we had got used to the short songs with incredibly complex or contradictory, challenging meanings, we have two final songs which don’t feel in the slightest as if they belong here.  Two love songs with a country feel, in fact.

It is a bit like having a 12 page wall calendar wherein January to October are each accompanied by a contemporary abstract masterpiece, and then November and December have traditional Christmas scenes of snow, reindeer and Santa Claus.  There’s nothing wrong with snow, reindeer and Santa Claus, but what exactly is their connection with the rest of the calendar?  It feels as if there should be a connection for the sake of unity.  But there is none.

These two final songs were written after everything else – possibly at the recording studio, and were recorded there and then.   Had Bob perhaps not realised that he actually didn’t have enough minutes in the songs that followed the JWH style for a complete LP, and thus was suddenly caught out?  Was he just being deliberately odd having said that he didn’t want to make an album at that time?

Obviously we can’t know, but it is as if one was reading a novel where all sorts of strange unfathomable things happen within a world that doesn’t make any sense at all, and then suddenly the hero opens the front door and steps out into our normal world on a bright and shiny day where there is nothing untoward, no reference is made to the “other world” and that’s it.  The strange world he has been in is still there, but to go to it again he’d have to open the door once more.   But he doesn’t.  He knows it is there, and that’s enough.  We can go back if we wish; he doesn’t want to.

Of course one can argue that these last two songs introduced without any explanation whatsoever are indeed Kafkaesque when taken within the context of everything that has gone before.  For within that context of the LP as a whole they are simply weird.  Imagine a movie in which the Drifter escapes, people walk along the watchtower, etc etc, and then suddenly the film cuts to a beach party, and a couple cuddling up in front of the fire.  What do you make of that?   True, “I’ll be your baby” is a beautiful simple ballad with the twist that he is singing about a one night stand in the way that most performers sing about eternal love.  But “Down along the cove” is an absolutely basic 12 bar blues, which is about being on the beach and not much else.  A perfectly ok song, but in this context…

Just take a fresh look at the lyrics along the cove…

Down along the cove
I spied my true love comin’ my way
Down along the cove
I spied my true love comin’ my way
I say, “Lord, have mercy, mama
It sure is good to see you comin’ today"

Down along the cove
I spied my little bundle of joy
Down along the cove
I spied my little bundle of joy
She said, “Lord, have mercy, honey
I’m so glad you’re my boy!”

Down along the cove
We walked together hand in hand
Down along the cove
We walked together hand in hand.
Ev’rybody watchin’ us go by
Knows we’re in love, yes, and they understand

Indeed I would venture that if that had been an early Dylan song, he might never have got the record contract.

It is interesting to try and get a further perspective of what is going on here by considering just how often Dylan has performed the songs from John Wesley Harding, and indeed the time period over which he performed them.  In doing this we must note the special position of “All Along the Watchtower” because of the popularity gained from the Hendrix recording, and Bob Dylan’s feeling for that re-working – which he subsequently adopted, noting as he did that the original version of a song is not always the best.  Indeed for many, many years it was a fixed part of every Dylan encore.

But perhaps the weirdest fact in all this is that Dylan never once performed the title song from the album.  Not once!  The only other song that got the same treatment is “Lonesome Hobo.  On the other hand, “I’ll be your baby”, one of the two songs out of step with the rest of the album has only been outperformed by the special case of the Watchtower.

In other words the two songs from the album most performed live by Dylan are the song that was utterly re-arranged by Hendrix, and the first of two songs that has no connection with the rest of  the album.

I suspect the explanation is simple: Dylan simply didn’t have enough of the songs he had written in advance, to fill up the album and had to add two more.  But put this together with the fact that the title song has never been performed, and it is all rather… well, I guess the only word I have to offer is “Kafkaesque”.

Here’s the chart of performances of the songs from the album

Song First Performance Last Performance Total performances
Frankie Lee 1987 2000 20
Drifter’s Escape 1992 2005 256
St Augustine 1987 2000 20
All along the watch tower 1974 2018 2268
John Wesley Harding
As I went out one morning 1974 1
I am a lonesome hobo
I pity the poor immigrant 1969 1976 17
Wicked Messenger 1987 2009 125
Dear Landlord 1992 2003 6
I’ll be your baby tonight 1969 2015 444
Down along the cove 1999 2006 83

And a reminder of just how beautiful “I’ll be your baby tonight” is.

And here by contrast is Down along the cove…

And that was it.  Dylan was seen the following year when he performed three songs at the Woody Guthrie memorial concert on 20 January 1968, but otherwise he shut down.

Which is odd really, because 1968 was the time of social uprising when, if Dylan retained any of the thoughts that were expressed in his protest songs, was when we might have expected him to be writing on the subject of the day. The civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the uprising in Northern Ireland, the intensification of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the anti-war movement, unrest in Poland, the women’s liberation movement…

And Dylan…

… took a year out.

Although he did write one song.  It was meant to be for a movie but even that song was delivered too late, so couldn’t be used.   It was “Lay Lady Lay”.

It is a curious song, in which the key line is (at least in my opinion), “Whatever colors you have in your mind  I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine.”

Dylan seems to say, “I can make you see whatever is inside you,” which is a trifle spooky and … (well I dare not say Kafkaesque since I am liable to be shouted out) odd.    And besides, “Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile,” is said with warmth and affection, as is the thought that you can have anything in the world that you want.

It is, to my mind, a lovely song, and enhanced by the fact that musically it is so very unusual, both in the lyrics and the chord sequence that may even be unique in terms of popular music.

Thus this was in no ways “more of the same” in terms of Dylan, although when Dylan returned to songwriting the following year, we had a return to the old favourites of love and lost love.  “Moving on” was not there at all, (if we exclude “Wanted Man” which was written specifically for use by Johnny Cash – and indeed some have even suggested this was a joint composition, so we’ll set that one aside.)

Of course we might also say the “Ballad of Easy Rider” is outside these love related categories too but the credit there says “with input from Bob Dylan”, so he’s not really credited as a co-writer.

And whereas with the John Wesley Harding songs Dylan wrote specifically and precisely for the album, staying in the same style until he found he was two songs short, now we have a return to exploration and experimentation.

Some of the songs that emerged at this time have only become known to us through the Bootleg series (songs such as “Minstrel Boy”) but for the most part this is a reinvented Dylan.

I threw it all away for example is musically very inventive, delicate and very well-performed.  It is Dylan doing lost love to perfection, and the song began a series of six love and lost love songs, ending with Peggy Day – which I described as trivial in my review and coming back to it, I find myself still with that view.  I mean, what else is one to make of lyrics such as

Peggy Day stole my poor heart away
By golly, what more can I say
Love to spend the night with Peggy Day

Dylan is of course fully entitled to do anything he likes, but for me this seems such a waste of such a sublime and supreme talent that gives him the ability to go so much further.   But I guess Dylan wanted simplicity more than anything at this point; and simplicity was what he achieved in writing

All I have is yours
All you see is mine
And I’m glad to hold you in my arms
I’d have you anytime.

In essence it seems like Bob was deliberately trying to set his inner talent and ability to play with words aside.  Consider these opening lines…

I have heard rumors all over town
They say that you're planning to put me down

OK, once again it is a fine song in the “pop” style, but it does not reach to the stratosphere in the way that many of previous Dylan songs did.  In fact it doesn’t do much more than bump along the runway, take off, do one circuit of the aerodrome, and then come in to land.

My take on this is that Bob had shown us that he could write interesting melodies, and (as in this case) stick an extra beat or bar in the music just to catch us out, but the incredible excitement that arose from some of the songs on JWH is simply not there.  They are fine songs, elegantly performed but…

… But of course it was still Dylan, and he could still knock out songs that have that extra something as when he took the 1954 classic “Singing the blues” and turned it into something else.

Dylan performed the song on the Johnny Cash show in June 1969 – although it looks very much like he was miming to a recording made a little time before in the studio.   This is a slightly different version from the Self Portrait album version.

Since you’ve been gone
I’ve been walking around
With my head bowed down to my shoes
I’ve been living the blues
Ev’ry night without you

It is a most curious experiment, including in terms of the chord sequence, and not one that I have ever heard tried in any other song.  Indeed I think one might also say that this isn’t tried elsewhere because… well, musically it just doesn’t quite work.

But the whole song is lilting.  Yes it has the lyrical theme of the blues – the woman has gone – but there is no escaping that it is the blues 1950s pop and country style.  And more to the point, there’s not a single element of Dylan’s early folk roots in this at all either in the lyrics or the melody or the chords.   And then suddenly we get this strange set of chord changes.  It really seems to disrupt the whole piece for no reason, other than to say, “I can still be different if I want.”

So yes, for me it is an experiment.  It didn’t quite work, but it is still for the most part a lovely piece of music.   It was, it seems, intended as a single, but was then dropped for “Lay Lady Lay”, but was preserved on Self Portrait.

And there is the last verse:

If you see me this way
You’d come back and you’d stay
Oh, how could you refuse
I’ve been living the blues
Ev'ry night without you

If I was moved to start believing that Dylan was writing in code (which if you have read the earlier parts of the series you will know I am not) or sending messages to friends and/or family I’d say that might be autobiographical.

It is a perfectly decent song, although that last part of the middle 8 is, for me at least, a trifle annoying.  But still…

But still what I do think this and other songs from around this time say is, Dylan was working, and then working some more, to reinvent himself, and he wasn’t as yet moved to travel in any particular direction.  He had become a crooner of love and lost love songs with simple poppy backing tracks.  And he wanted to show us he could sing – which he most certainly could.

So, to fit this mould, what he wanted was simple songs about everyday life, not mystical songs about “The Drifter” and a watchtower.

A perfectly reasonable desire, and the only problem is that country music, in terms of lyrics and music, is more limited than the sort of music Dylan had been composing in the earlier days.  How could he combine the extra elements that he had incorporated earlier, without going fully overboard, and while retaining some of the extra lyricism of the country music he had found?

Of course we had “Self Portrait” – Dylan’s working and re-working of traditional and more recent folk songs, plus a few of his own compositions.  But it felt like he was letting us see his scrap book rather than telling us anything new.

Indeed the very opening of that album puts us fans firmly in our places.   It opens, if you recall, with “All the tired horses” – a new Dylan song!!! And what do we get.  It’s a new Dylan album with a new Dylan song and Dylan can’t be heard.

As for the lyrics

All the tired horses in the sun
How'm I supposed to get any riding done?

for 3 minutes and 14 seconds.

It was interesting, but not the same as having a “real” Dylan album – an album of new songs from the master songwriter of the late 20th century, travelling, as he had done on each album before, in a new direction.  Or better still, lots of new directions.

Would he write some more?  Would he let us have something really new and different?  Would he take off one more time and travel in a way that we never expected?  Or was that it?  Farewell Bob…

Ultimately the official site gives us the answer…

Watch “Time Passes Slowly”

And this, indeed, is the moment when, I think, Bob did find his new direction.  Beyond the simplicity of (and thus restrictions of) country music, but without returning to the randomness of Kafka or the shadow world of Louise and her bedsit or the anger of “Rolling Stone” or the horror of “Hollis Brown”.

But we still get visions.  It is just they are visions of a different sort.  No watchtower, no princes, just mountain dwellers…

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

Once I had a sweetheart, she was fine and good-lookin’
We sat in her kitchen while her mama was cookin’
Stared out the window to the stars high above
Time passes slowly when you’re searchin’ for love

Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

The format of the lyrics is classic pop: verse, verse, “middle 8”, verse, and there is an edge to the lyrics which take them away from the country songs into a different view of life.  A thought perhaps that if we find the right environment we might find happiness and stay there.

But… there is a trap.  For if there “Ain’t no reason to go anywhere” there maybe ain’t no reason to do anything.  This might be an idyll up in the mountains, but then what?  “You got something to tell us Bob?   Some insight?  Some dreadful social injustice to expose?”

“Errr… no.”

But… that middle 8 is, in musical terms, utterly remarkable.  It leaps away from the rest of the song, in a way that means the music contradicts the lyrics.  The lyrics say, “do nothing, there’s no reason to do anything” but the music says, “oh yes there is, oh there most certainly is.”  It leaps about, it is vibrant, it is exciting, it is new, it says, “Oh have I got something new waiting for you…”

I am sorry if that last paragraph sounds like garbage; I am still trying to think how to express myself more clearly.  But that “Ain’t no reason to go” section screams out to me, “there is far more to this than I am telling you”, and in fact that is what New Morning ultimately says.

And in that one moment we had hope that the old, brilliant, wonderful, crazy Bob was still there, and Self Portrait was not a desperate end to a staggering career.

The series continues….

12 years of Untold Dylan

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1 Response to All directions 17: “You got something new to tell us Bob?”

  1. Richard Keys says:

    To me, the song, “John Wesley Hardin'” introduces the themes of the album it is on – particularly that of the difficulty in knowing somebody – a lot is said about John Wesley Hardin, but what of that is true? It would be an odd choice of song for a live performance.

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