All directions 18: Ain’t no reason to go anywhere

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

In a Rolling Stone interview in 1984 Dylan confirmed the notion that he had had a period of wanting to back off from the music scene totally at the end of the 60s, as he had done by writing just one song in 1968.   He may also have had some grief from the film company for producing his commissioned work of that year, (Lay Lady Lay) too late to be included in the movie.

“I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids.I’d also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn’t know anything about. Like I was supposed to be on acid. It was all storm-the-embassy kind of stuff—Abbie Hoffman in the streets—and they sorta figured me as the kingpin of all that. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m just a musician. So my songs are about this and that. So what?’ But people need a leader. People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he’s got the people there that want one. I didn’t want that, though….

“I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else. But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, ‘This ain’t what we want,’ and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait.’

Which he did.  But that didn’t totally get everything out of his system, because he carried on his one-man rebellion against the notion of change and against the idea of his own importance in the world of popular music with the next album New Morning, which spells it out in the songs written in 1970.  There is no revolution, there is no fight, there is no opposition because…

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

I noted at the end of my last piece in this series that there was something extraordinary about the song “Time Passes Slowly” and I don’t think anyone has ever understood this more than Judy Collins whose wonderful singing voice was able to deal with the ebbs and flows of this song simple song in a way that Dylan himself could not contemplate.  And because of this she is able to take the middle 8 (the section quoted above) and give it a calm beauty that Dylan intends in the lyrics, but can’t deliver as he not only doesn’t have the range, but didn’t have the benefit of Ms Collins’ musical arranger.  Bob of course can hear it in his head (otherwise he could not have written the piece) but it takes a voice as beautiful as Ms Collins to show us what this really means.

Actually it is worth pausing for a moment and considering “Whales and Nightingales” which this recording (below) comes from as it also includes “The Patriot Game”, which many still do not realise is the melody of “With God on our side”.  It’s worth a play if you can spare a few minutes.  In fact so is the whole album.

But for now, do listen to this, and because I think this is so important to hear the extraordinary potential of this simple Dylan composition, and because I know that you might be very naughty and just skip this, I’ll put it at the end of my little article as well…

Dylan has here taken the classic structure of a popular song (verse, verse, middle 8, verse) and left it exactly as it has always been, and yet as still managed to make that middle 8 a total celebration of the lifestyle that Dylan describes in the other verses.  The end of each verse gives a hint of this leap upwards but it is the middle 8 that fully delivers.

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

It could be argued, indeed I believe it should be argued, that Dylan has never actually said “rise up and throw off the shackles”.  In “Masters of War” he simply hopes that the armament manufacturers will die – we are not encouraged to go and destroy their bomb making factories..  Just as in “Times they are a-changing” the prediction is that the times will change.  There’s nothing to be done, no revolution to be fought, for the battle outside is raging all on its own, and will soon shake your windows etc, but there is nothing for you to do about it, and indeed nothing you can do about it.

Thus Dylan has not changed.  There was no reason to go anywhere in the “Times they are a-changing” era, just as there is no reason to do anything now.

The problem was that most of us had not bothered to listen to the songs properly, so busy were we looking for a voice that would be our herald, standing up against the older generations and their desperate desire to keep to the old ways, the old standards, the old morality.  So busy in fact that we never got around actually to listening to the lyrics when Dylan sang

And the first one now
Will later be last

because if we had we’d have realised that in 1963 Dylan was the first one – the first to bring this message to a worldwide audience – and so the time had to come when he would be last, tucked away without reference to what came after him.  And now here we were seven years later, and it had happened.

Basically Bob had walked away from the fundamental misconception of his work that he is telling people what to do.  And he wasn’t.  He had argued with “Friends and Other Strangers,” and now in 1970 he was just himself.

And yes he had warned up – he was free to do anything he wanted to do (except die of course)…

The foreign sun, it squints upon
A bed that is never mine
As friends and other strangers
From their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly, totally free
To do anything they wish to do but die
And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden

And now he was there, being wholly, totally free.

This is not to say that he had changed his mind about anything, for the notion that there was nothing that could be done has been a central theme of much of Dylan’s work from the off.  Man on the street, for example, written back in 1961, is not a call to end poverty nor a call to help the poor dying man, rather it is a statement that this is how the world is.

Just like one artist who paints dirty children in a 1930s urban setting, and another who creates a painting out of random colours: there is nothing within either work of art to demand action unless the artist overtly says, “Do something about it”.  Otherwise it is totally up to the listener to decide, and if the listener wants to distract him/herself by arguing over the meaning of the painting, the novel, the lyrics, the sculpture etc, that is up to the audience.

Of course there are political and change orientated works of art, such as most obviously Guernica by Picasso, but even there we still have the option to act against fascism or not.

But Dylan is not Picasso.  He has no great cause to push.  In Ballad for a friend the friend has died – there is nothing we can do.  Yes it is true that in Let me die in my footsteps Bob makes the point that he doesn’t want to hide in an air raid shelter, but he is not calling for peace between the superpowers, merely debating where he wants to be as the world ends.  Oh and he really does say “I” – it is a personal statement.

In short Dylan’s songs can be seen as an endless Don’t think twice because whatever it is, it’s alright.  And later even in his sadness, the most he asks for is a memento from the lady of his time spent travelling in Spain.

Throughout, when it is time to go, you just move on, so obviously, when you feel all right there ain’t no reason to go on the wagon to town.  You might as well stay in the log cabin up in the hills.

Now the dominant theme here is the environment, love, being oneself, Christmas decorations… and well, just that.  It is the simple world just be happy and enjoy it.  OK if you don’t have enough to eat that could be difficult, but let’s not think about that for the moment…

So what have we got?  A contemplation of the past and how the world works, and what’s right for you right now.   Which is why I include this video above.  Whatever works you, whoever you are, however long it was since your piano was tuned.

Build me a cabin in Utah
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me “Pa”
That must be what it’s all about

Bob didn’t particularly bother playing these songs when much later he returned to touring.  Most of them (including the incomparable “Time Passes Slowly” – although this is because of the range of the melody which Judy Collins can do without any problem but which is a strain for Bob’s voice) have never been played by Bob.  The ones that have are…

  1. If not for you (Love)  89 performances
  2. New Morning (Love; exploring opportunities, environment) 79 performances
  3. If dogs run free (Just be yourself) 104 performances
  4. The Man in Me (Rural life; environment) 155 performances,

Pulling the events of this period together we can see that “Self Portrait” was recorded at various times between April 1969 and March 30, 1970, and according to reports the first recordings of songs that eventually came out on New Morning were also recorded in the final month of the Self Portrait sessions, and some that appeared on New Morning were considered for Self Portrait.

Dylan continued…

“We moved to New York. Lookin’ back, it really was a stupid thing to do. But there was a house available on MacDougal Street, and I always remembered that as a nice place. So I just bought this house, sight unseen. But it wasn’t the same when we got back. The Woodstock Nation had overtaken MacDougal Street also. There’d be crowds outside my house. And I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else. But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, ‘This ain’t what we want,’ and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait’.”

As musically he said

The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from bein’ seen
But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine
Took a woman like you
To get through to the man in me

These compositions at the start of the New Morning process, circle around the link between Dylan and the poet Archibald MacLeish who was working on a musical at the time, and these early songs from this year’s collection were written for the production.   The project eventually failed to materialise with Dylan’s music – however it appears from comments made elsewhere that Al Kooper felt this commission, although unfulfilled, also helped start the process of composition again for Dylan.

In the review of “The Man in Me” on this site, I said, “so he were are, rocking along and feeling content with life, just as we are with Winterlude, New Morning, and One More Weekend.  The guy’s ok, the world’s ok, the woman with him is ok.  He’s a solid worker, he’ll just get on with it.”

That still, years later, seems a reasonable way of summarising where all this had got to.  The intensity of the musical was clearly too much, this song by song approach is much more relaxed.

Of course sometimes the relaxation was maybe a bit too relaxed, and not too many good things seem to have been said about “Three Angels”, “If Dogs Run Free”, and “Winterlude” although each, like Country Pie two years before, has its advocates.

Dylan it seems however was not convinced of what he was writing, and his muse was not at its height.  When it came to the albums Dylan used pretty much all the songs he composed.  How different from the sixties when so many pieces, including a fair number of masterpieces simply didn’t see the light of day.

And yet despite all the talk suggesting that the simple rural life must be what it is all about, it is clear that at this time in all aspects of his life Dylan wasn’t actually achieving that.  He was singing of an ideal while having arguments with Bob Johnston and others who had worked faithfully with him in the past and were probably bemused by what Bob was up to.   Yet he had tried to create a throwaway album that he didn’t want to make with John Wesley Harding, only to find everyone loved it.  How could he get this audience off his back?

Reworking the album continued through summer, and Al Kooper said of the era, “When I finished that album I never wanted to speak to him again…He just changed his mind every three seconds so I just ended up doing the work of three albums…”

This is a reflection of a mind still in turmoil – David Crosby’s commentary on the events at Princeton University add to this feeling of a very angry Bob Dylan.   And yet some of the songs of this year written for New Morning are remain wonderful, gentle pieces.   It is as if Dylan were able (at least on occasion) to turn away from the anger, artistic disputes, annoyance with fans and people who wanted to honour him, and still produce more delicate pieces of music.

In the end however, the songs were written and New Morning generally got good reviews, and the work was to some degree an antidote to the emotions that had created the need for Self Portrait in the first place.

Not only had he written that there was no reason to go to the fair, he really was certain.  There was no reason to go the fair.  If he didn’t want to go, he didn’t have to go.

12 years of Untold Dylan

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