by Tony Attwood
This is episode 21 of the series “All Directions at Once” which reviews Dylan’s work across time as a continuing stream of creativity, rather than a set of isolated individual songs. An index to the series appears here.
In the life of most creative people there are many changes – ups, downs, stagnation, withdrawal, ceaseless momentum, certainty, uncertainty, desperation, lack of motivation, lack of inspiration, too much alcohol, too much inspiration, too many diversions and sudden moments of genius…
And although I have never seen a serious detailed study of the condition, I often wonder if the most common problem that highly creative people can have is that of knowing that in the past one has created something or indeed some things that are truly way, way, way above the norm, and now… it just won’t happen. Genius, inspiration, dedication, drive – these are things that are apparently quite easy to let slip, but rather hard to regain.
What’s more, tracing the work and life of a genius is always tough because we can distracted by weird facts that may, or may not be relevant. Einstein was thought to be rather slow while at school; Mozart from the age of five was seen as a prodigy. JS Bach in his day was considered to be a mid-ranking composer of no importance, and besides, it turns out Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone after all. Antonio Meucci did. Yes being a genius can’t be easy – but nor is tracing what genius is all about.
Of course no two genius artists are the same, and although a few just seem to go on and on and on without faltering once, most geniuses have their ups and downs both of self-confidence and actual originality of thought. Picasso, for example, famously had one of the longest tail end fading away from a career of genius of all. Others die young, like Wilfred Owen. Some just ceased to work: Shakespeare suddenly stopped writing and went back to live quietly in Stratford – although some suggest (without too much evidence) this was because he was going blind.
In short there is no pattern for genius. With each we need to see what his or her life looks like, rather than try and fit the individual into a set pattern of what we expect of a genius.
And in my view what most certainly does not work is to look at each creation of the artist and compare it to his or her highest achievement, and then bemoan that it’s not quite as good as… Such an approach might serve to aggrandise the writer, but tells us nothing about the creative genius.
The more I look at Dylan’s life and work, the more I feel it helps to track his genius via his ups and downs as a composer. Within 18 months of his earliest attempts at songwriting he had written the astounding “Ballad for a Friend” launching an extraordinary explosion of genius, giving us those amazing early songs, which just kept on pouring out until 1967, the last year of the mass production of music of stunning brilliance.
Then those of us who marvelled at this outpouring were forced to sit and wait and wait and ultimately hope, wondering if by and large that was it. Maybe we had had all there was. 186 songs, some forgettable, a lot really good, and many which were works of sublime genius, plus another 120 or so from the Basement tapes which needed to be considered like a set of notebooks. Was that it?
Certainly in the years that followed, that was how it seemed…
1968 was a year of retreat with a single song for a film, delivered late (1 song).
1969 brought a wider range of songs but by and large most commentators consider them not up to Dylan’s previous level, and nothing really stood out as a masterpiece. (15 songs).
1970 brought us what I have called a “stuttering return” – a phrase based on the fact that for many people New Morning is an uneven album with few moments of classic Dylan brilliance as a composer and quite a few others which are not. It is noticeable that Dylan used virtually everything he wrote in the album (just as he had done with JWH) – there was no luxury of picking the best songs from a list of 25 compositions some of which were inexplicably abandoned. This is all that he had; that is what we got. But whereas for JWH every song (with the possible exception of the two out-of-context country songs added to the end to make up the numbers) was of interest, it may be said that New Morning didn’t really reach that level. And it most certainly wasn’t as intriguing and engaging as JWH.
1971 gave us two Dylan songs of magic and quality, one reflecting on the nature of art, (When I paint my masterpiece), plus one on the issue of waiting for the muse to return (Watching the river flow). There was also one legal-political protest piece George Jackson which has the hallmarks of being written in a rush, plus three we might classify as “others”. A total of six songs. In earlier years of high productivity, the “others” would not be noticed. Among such a small outpouring, they look decidedly average.
So 1968 to 1972 inclusive, five years, in which the ten best songs were still superb but there were just ten. In my view they were…
- Lay Lady Lay
- I threw it all away
- Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You
- If not for you
- Sign on the window
- New Morning
- The Man in Me
- When I paint my masterpiece
- Watching the river flow
- Forever Young
And to be fair, for most other songwriters that would be a pretty decent haul. But for Dylan, after those earlier years of productivity, no… a bit of a disappointment. And that’s the point. Compared to the earlier achievements of the greatest songwriter since Irving Berlin, they weren’t at the top of the list. But compared to almost anyone else, yes that was a pretty damn good collection.
And so now we move on to 1973. And here we see real signs of returning sparks of genius poking their ways through in a number of songs…
The first two songs of the year are songs that although I enjoy them enormously, I’m going to leave because of the arguments that inevitably surround their composition: Wagon Wheel (Rock me mama) and Sweet Amerillo. Just as with the politics of George Jackson make it almost impossible to debate that song, so it’s not feasible to discuss these works without someone shouting about copyright infringement. Which is a shame because I really enjoy both of them, but to avoid argument let’s pretend they are not there. Of course you can count them as Dylan if you wish (they are reviewed on this site with links to recordings), or not if you wish (it really won’t affect anyone else). But let us move on to a masterpiece… Knocking on heaven’s door.
It has one of the great Dylan opening lines (“Mama, take this badge off of me”) and from that moment on you just know it is going to be good. But what we didn’t know at the time was if this was one-off like “Lay lady Lady” in 1968 and “Forever Young” in 1973 or was it the prelude to getting back on track big time.
Then we come to “Never say goodbye” for which we have on this site, two wildly differing views one from yours truly and one from Jochen. It was the first time that we ever totally disagreed about a song, although we stopped short of coming to blows over the issue – not least because we live 450 miles apart and have never met. But we were also honoured by a few words in a comment from Eyolf Østrem whose Dylanchords website is an utter masterpiece of analysis. If he thinks it’s worth posting a comment, we must be onto something!
My perspective of the geographic nature of the song was enhanced by Larry’s discovery of a lake that had its name changed – but beyond that we are not going to know much more for certain about the meaning of the song, I suspect. However it is an incredibly unusual piece for Dylan with its modulations, and musical structure, plus what Eyolf called its descent into chaos.
Ultimately its value overall is not in whether one likes it as a piece of music, but rather that it shows Dylan was once more pushing back on the boundaries, trying to find ways forward within the world of pop, blues, rock etc, that had not been explored before. That was the encouraging sign. Bob was, once more, going where no man had gone before…
Within the context of Dylan at this moment it is an extraordinary piece. The songs I have highlighted that Dylan had written leading up to this point are in form very straightforward but this is anything but. It is undoubtedly the most complex piece of music Dylan had written up to this point.
And the fact that he wrote it at this moment when he was on the edge of coming back into the world of full-time songwriting tells us something else. For if he was coming back, we were not going to get some more of the same. He was experimenting like mad, just as he had when bringing us “Visions” and the rest. Pop, rock and blues as we had never heard before.
No, Dylan was not going to give us a series simple pieces or songs reminiscent of his past. Nor was he going to do another album like JWH where most of the songs all followed the same simple format. This recording shows us he was determined to return with another step towards the unknown, yet again taking us in a new direction, no matter whether we liked it or not.
What more do you want from songwriting?
Then we had “Going going gone” which hasn’t really been covered much, nor performed much by Dylan – maybe it is that opening, or maybe it was thought not to be saying anything very new. Except that it has Dylan singing unaccompanied? Ever heard that before? He really was trying out every option.
It is a tough piece to deliver because of its construction although I think Every Dylan Song website was way off track when they say, “Dylan spends the middle eight groping around for the proper vocal key”. No I don’t think he does – I think he knows exactly what he is doing. It’s unusual, it’s experimental, it’s different. If you have time I would urge you to play both versions above in full even if you don’t like song. That level of variation in the deliverance of one song is utterly extraordinary, and the real sign of a master craftsman back to his best.
Plus it has one of the most remarkable “middle 8” sections in the whole of Dylan. Not only does the music change in a way we can’t possibly expect, releasing all the tension built up before, but the lyrics do that change justice.
Grandma said, “Boy, go and follow your heart And you’ll be fine at the end of the line All that’s gold isn’t meant to shine Don’t you and your one true love ever part”
Grandma telling Bob how to run his love life? Have you ever heard that before? And here’s another thing. Bob reading the lyrics….
Moving on we have Hazel, again is a simple song, but it is way beyond most of what Bob had been doing in recent years. Thus it is that here, in these songs we are seeing the opening steps, the initial thoughts, the first considerations, that finally led us to Tangled up in Blue the following year. We had to wait while he made these notes and worked on these ideas, but oh wasn’t it worthwhile?
(And to pause for a moment and put the boot in once more, don’t people who write about pop and rock compositions realise that songs do not exist in isolation? They evolve from what has gone before, and an awful lot of new thinking. Nothing comes out of the blue.)
But equally in my view, we should not dismiss these songs as sketches on the road to a masterpiece, for they are certainly more than just worth a listen, and they are more than simply the build up to “Early one morning the sun was shining,” that ultimate, ultimate opening line riposte to Robert Johnson’s “Well I work up this morning, blues falling down like hail.” It took 36 years to get from Johnson’s bleak opener, to Dylan’s warm answer, but it sure was worth waiting for – and these songs are both the prelims and really good works in themselves with a beauty and elegance in their own right.
Few of these songs became key parts of Dylan shows in subsequent years. Never say goodbye is shown as never being sung by Dylan on stage (my figures coming from BobDylan.com), Hazel seven times, Nobody cept you eight times, Something there is about you 26 and Going, going, gone, 79, but this latter total was, I am sure, down to the multiple re-writes of both music and lyric.
Something there is about you, lasted as a tour song between Jan 74 and Feb 78, but even so, got relatively few outings, and yet it does have one most interesting musical feature, in which the bassist plays around with the notion of the complete descending bass.
Step by step bass lines are something Dylan particularly likes, starting on the key note and slowly rising up (as in Rolling Stone) or declining (as in Is your love in vain). But there are two things that really make this stand out – the bassist keeps varying what he does, and only on occasion does he deliver the whole eight note run. That shows a real dedication to the songs, to exploring them, to taking them musically as well as lyrically somewhere else. True, most members of the audience wouldn’t even hear this, but the fact that Bob and the band were doing this shows that the notion of taking the form and seeing where it could go is back with us. And that was very much at the heart of a lot of Dylan’s earlier works. After all, what was “Subterranean Homesick Blues” if not the ultimate subversion of the rock n roll form?
So when Bob sings “Something there is about you that brings back a long-forgotten truth” the descent of the bass is finally there, down to the recovery of the long-forgotten truth.
And that long-forgotten truth is….?
Well, we don’t quite know, although we might note in passing these were not easy times for Bob, for in 1994 Ruth Tyrangiel served Bob Dylan him with a $5m law suit, claiming they had lived as husband and wife for 17 years. The case apparently was ultimately settled out of court. Or so I am told.
But what Bob most certainly did have was the return of the ability to switch styles and keep trying out very different ideas – something that was very much at the heart of his music before he took his long sabbatical.
For those with ears to hear, this was one of the most exciting of moments in following Bob’s music. What on earth would he come up with next?
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