All directions at once: here comes the genius, approaching the edge of the cliff

By Tony Attwood

This is part 22 of “All Directions at Once” which attempts to look at Dylan’s songwriting in a way that is slightly different from that used by other commentators.  An index to the 21 previous parts is given here.

Bob Dylan composed between 12 and 14 songs in 1973 depending on your point of view, (Wagon Wheel and Sweet Amerillo are argued about by some who dispute his co-authorship, and if we do accept Dylan was a co-composer, we don’t really know how much he was involved).

Whether the number was 12 or 14, either way it wasn’t a high number when compared to earlier standards, but in contrast to more  recent years, and in terms of variety, quality and quantity, it most certainly showed that when it came to Bob’s creative muse, something most certainly was afoot.

After several years of very limited writing, the revival in his interest in song writing that dates from “Paint my masterpiece” could so easily have faded away by now, but no, it seemed to have taken hold.  He was once more on the move.

Here’s a list of the 1973 songs.

  1. Goodbye Holly
  2. Wagon Wheel (Rock me mama) (Dylan’s input contested)
  3. Sweet Amerillo (Dylan’s input contested)
  4. Knocking on heaven’s door
  5. Never say goodbye
  6. Nobody cept you
  7. Going going gone
  8. Hazel
  9. Something there is about you
  10. You Angel You
  11. On a night like this
  12. Tough Mama
  13. Dirge 
  14. Wedding Song

The subject matter of the songs in recent years

In 1970 Dylan had introduced another new theme to his writing by thinking about the environment and how it relates to, and to an extent how it effects, the world and the way we see the world.  Five of the songs from that year have environmental elements in them, as well as other issues.

The only other topic or theme that occupied Bob Dylan for more than one song that year was his eternal favourite: love, of which there were four songs.   This does not mean Bob was in love, although it is quite possible he was.  It is just that he has always found love songs an absolute natural format for him to work with.

In that original article about 1970 I concluded that from the start of his writing in 1959 up to that moment, the most popular of themes in his catalogue behind the love songs were songs of lost love (a total only slightly fewer than the love songs – 31 lost love to 35 love.

After that the most common themes in Bob’s lyrics was protest (20 songs) and moving on (16 songs).

As such, in terms of subject matter across the years Bob Dylan had been much more conventional in his writing than generalised articles sometimes recognise, with his emphasis above all else on songs of love, lost love, moving on, and desire.

Yet he had often delved into other areas and had only occasionally stopped exploring other themes.  So now, having had quite a pause in his song writing, as he began to get his work as a composer going again, it is perhaps not surprising that he turned to a variety of lyrical themes old and new, in an effort to bring forth songs that he found to be of interest.

Returning for a moment to the songs of 1971 and attempting to classify their subject matter of those songs we might come up with this extraordinarily varied set.

  1. Vomit Express (postmodernist blues; cheapest seats on the cheapest flight)
  2. When I paint my masterpiece (art, Rome, the environment)
  3. Watching the river flow (The artist as observer, the environment)
  4. George Jackson (protest)
  5. Wallflower (asking for a dance)
  6.  For you baby (love)

Which shows us just how varied Bob’s ideas were at this time.  I think “Wallflower” was Bob’s first dance related song.  I am not sure how many he wrote after that.

Moving on to 1972, as we have seen that year gave us an even shorter list of new songs:

  1. Forever Young – (Love and hope for a child)
  2. Billy 1, 4, and 7 and the Main title theme – Billy the Kid (Being trapped)

1973 brought another 14 songs, and again love songs came out as the most popular theme of the year, with five titles.  The only other topic that got near was “moving on” with three songs on that theme.

Pulling these three years together we get these subject totals which in 1971-3 were taken up by Dylan in his compositions more than once…

  • Love: 7
  • Moving on: 3
  • The environment: 3
  • Lost love: 2

So we can see that just as in the 1960s, Bob still focused on love as the prime topic to write about in his songs.  But he was most certainly trying out other ideas.

Heading towards the cliff edge

Returning to my chronological theme, at the end of the last episode in this series (After the river) I left the final five songs composed in 1973 for us still to contemplate, starting with You Angel You – which Heylin dismissed with the words, ““His fans had already had enough of this kind of song.”

It is a comment that sticks in my mind because it suggests that Bob Dylan had this gift as a songwriter, and so could do anything any time, and had he been bothered could have knocked out another “Visions” or “Rolling Stone” and was either being bloody minded or just plain lazy in not giving the fans what they wanted.

This view is, to me, utterly absurd.  It takes no account of what artistic creativity is all about; the fact that for most artists, creative flair and the success in creating and completing a work, comes and goes, and neither is under the artist’s control.  Where the creative drive takes the artist depends on how the artist is feeling in terms of emotions and mental health, and what is going on in the world around the artist.  Not what his fans (or come to that his agent or his record company) happen to demand.

The notion that Dylan could somehow turn on the tap and come up with another “Visions” or come to that “Drifter’s Escape” is just plain bonkers.  Indeed the reason that a disproportionately high number of artists in all forms of art suffer from mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse issues, and what is often referred to as “writers’ block” is because writing a song or painting a picture or any other artistic activity is nothing like turning up for work, answering customer emails, checking the accounts and then coming home again to put one’s feet up and watch TV.

Heylin himself gets around this issue by writing books that record the basic facts about Dylan’s work (who was there, where it was, when it was) without seemingly being able to contemplate either the artistic flow of Dylan’s work, or the flowing river that conveys the essence of Dylan’s artistic genius.  But without such contemplation, to me at least, the result is not much more than the telephone directories of days of yore.   A useful tool of reference, but not actually very insightful.

And yet surely, we all know from everyday observation that we can have good days and bad days, and most of us learn to carry on with our lives in the bad days, hoping that some better days might be around the corner.   On the bad days maybe we don’t do our job as well as we might on other days, maybe we are a bit short with our partner or our children, but we carry on, get the children up the next morning, go to work, prepare the food, watch TV, go out for a dance or go to the bar, listen to music, have a drink…

What people who are not working in the creative arts perhaps don’t realise is that the absolute essence of life is utterly different for those working creatively.  It isn’t a case of getting up, writing a song, polishing it off, having lunch and going to the golf course.  Especially when not only does the song not “come” today, it didn’t come yesterday or the day before and the chances of it turning up tomorrow are pretty remote as well.

Thus for those who see past, present and future as a connected form (a set of waves always seems to me to be the best way to think of the movement of time, but that’s just me), this moment in Dylan’s life in 1973 is part of the moving wave (or if you prefer another very important step) along the road which led to the explosion once more of his genius, opening with Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, and followed by Tangled up in blue the following year.

But before we get there Bob had another cliff edge to peer over.

And yet again I get ahead of myself, for I shall be leaving the cliff edge that is “Dirge” for the next article.   What I am trying to argue in my usual laborious manner is that starting in 1971 with “When I paint my masterpiece” Bob Dylan was riding a new wave, slowly pushing himself through the artistic gears, exploring, experimenting and constantly edging forwards to the moment in 1974 when he could create the utterly incredible set of songs that he produced that year.

Seen this way, all the songs of the year preceding 1974 are vitally important for anyone who is seriously interested in seeing how Dylan worked his way through the long years when the muse was not upon him.  This collection is Dylan’s equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook, sketching out the visions that prepared the way for “Tangled”.

In “You angel you” we find Dylan taking the absolute classic pop music format: A A B A – where “A” is a verse and “B” is the “middle 8” variant section that helps the simple piece jog along by giving a spot of variety.  In classical terms it is Ternary Form, one of the three standard ways of writing songs that have existed for hundreds of years. There is strophic (verse, verse, verse), Binary (an A section then a B section and ternary.

Heylin (and others of course, it’s not just him, but he does seem to want to suggest that he is the arbiter in these matters) wants genius all the way, and so not only dismisses “You angel you” but also On a night like this.   But again it is a successful song, in that it is memorable, and an enjoyable listen and as a piece of entertainment it works.  Criticising a piece like this is rather like looking at a house and criticising the foundations for not be innovative enough.

If Dylan was (as I suspect) proving to himself that he could knock out perfectly decent pop songs again Tough Mama showed a little bit more experimentation.  The musical structure of the song certainly takes in some different territory as about 80% of the way through each verse, having been solidly in the key of D we suddenly find ourselves in G for a couple of bars before dropping back.

The effect is quite unsettling.  I am not trying to say that this transformation is a moment of inspiration or genius – rather I think it is a moment of experimentation, of looking, pushing, puzzling, just seeing where this song could go.  More getting ready for the future.

Lyrically we are in the days of “coming back” – the days of writing more than just a few songs, and the days of experimentation.

And that experimentation was now going to hit us full in the face in a way that surely no one who was able to follow Bob’s musical progression as it happened, could really have been ready for.

Untold Dylan

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