1973: prepare for the journey from hell to heaven

This is part 23 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 22 previous parts is given here.

By Tony Attwood

I see the songs of 1973 as being of major importance if we truly wish to understand the work of Bob Dylan, not because most of us would call all or even most of them major classics among his work, but because without the explorations and different directions taken in the 1973 songs and the final two which I do declare to be masterpieces, I doubt that Bob could have produced the great works of 1974, works which are indeed considered by many to be among his most exciting and creative works of his career.

The point being, as you will appreciate if you have been with me so far, that after John Wesley Harding Bob Dylan moved away from writing songs that we might remember for years and years to come.  We had one song in 1968, a collection of country songs in 1969 which many find to be not among his greatest works, the New Morning collection in 1970, which again does not contain any songs that most fans would rate among his best, and then a couple of years where occasional songs were of particular interest, but in which there was little to grab everyone’s attention.

But then in 1973, for the first time in a number of years we found Bob Dylan breaking new ground.  Not every song could be called ground-breaking but the last two songs of that year seemed to say to many of us, if Dylan keeps on digging like this, surely he is going to find gold.

And then we had “Dirge.”

I have suggested elsewhere on this site that it is possible that Dylan wrote the piece just to show he could do bleak and morbid, as well as lively and jolly, and it fits with the fact that musically there are links between this piece and “This Wheels on Fire” which uses a similar musical approach to accompany a completely different set of lyrics.

The result really is something new.  It is not just that I don’t think Bob had done self-loathing on this level before, but it was the sheer magnitude of Dirge as a conception, the absolute completeness of the message, the overarching totality of the horror at what he had become that marks this out not just from every other Dylan song, but from virtually anything ever written by a rock or folk songwriter before.

Yet not that many people do indeed “mark it out”.   While Wikipedia can go into page after page of analysis of some Dylan songs, here they say

“Dirge is a song by Bob Dylan. It was released on his 14th studio album Planet Waves in 1974. After recalling his band to re-record the track “Forever Young,” Dylan recorded ‘Dirge’ on just the second take. The song was labeled on the studio tape box as ‘Dirge for Martha.’ Notable for its acidic tone, “Dirge” has never been performed in concert.”

And that’s it.  Heylin on the other hand (and to give him credit where due) does grasp what is going on here, and although he devotes most of his time to discussing the how where and why-fore of the recording sessions, he does see the importance of what happened here.

But then despite the way the song is often idgnored, it is hard not to get.  When have we ever heard

I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down to suicide road
The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel
I hate myself for loving you and I’m glad the curtain fell.

As the piece progresses there is an other-world remoteness about the lyrics, which have the feeling of fiction not autobiography.  None the worse for that of course, it is a very fine piece of writing – and it is the writing Dylan can do with assurance – the description of the down and out and life gone wrong.   The way of writing he learned from all those years with the blues, but now with a completely different musical accompaniment.

This is the “World Gone Wrong” one more time, both in general terms about the world in which he lives.  And although it sounds as if it could be directed at one person I think really it is directed at our whole civilisation.

Heard your songs of freedom and man forever stripped
Acting out his folly while his back is being whipped
Like a slave in orbit he’s beaten ’til he’s tame
All for a moment’s glory and it’s a dirty, rotten shame.

His own desperation with the world around him, rather than a particular person is played out in these verses, and there is, perhaps, a desperation in the failure of the protest movement to make any change at all.

Yet at the same time here comes the first big hint that something very special is about to happen in the world of Dylan…

There are those who worship loneliness, I’m not one of them
In this age of fibreglass I’m searching for a gem
The crystal ball upon the wall hasn’t shown me nothing yet
I’ve paid the price of solitude but at least I’m out of debt.

And here’s a thought for those who love to believe that lines in the songs always refer back to Dylan’s own world, rather than being works of fiction, “at least I’m out of debt” might mean he had finished creating the albums he was contractually obliged to make.  It does also fit with the liberation that was to come in terms of creating a completely new type of song – which would suggest “I’m out of debt” means “I’ve paid my dues” in the musical sense.  Maybe not, but for once I think it could be.

But whatever the detail means, this really is about the world that has gone utterly wrong.

So sing your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine
The naked truth is still taboo whenever it can be seen
Lady Luck who shines on me, will tell you where I’m at
I hate myself for loving you but I should get over that.

I don’t go for any of the interpretations that claim the song is about addiction, or rejection of his own past involvement in the protest movement, or even problems with home life.

I have even seen one commentary that suggested that the entity that Dylan hated was his ability to write music – that he loved writing songs and creating new ideas, and when that ability left him in 1968, he hated it all, which is a clever and interesting idea, but of course pure speculation.  Nothing wrong with that, as I am speculating too of course, just as long as we acknowledge that’s what it was.

Other ideas that turned up include the notion that it was an expression of Dylan’s regret and dislike of the fact that he took drugs for a while.  Another says it is his dislike of fame – that he loved fame and hated it at the same time.  And as ever another says it is about the relationship with Albert Grossman.  We’re back to JWH!

I don’t know why commentators feel the need to say that everything that songwriters write is an expression of something real.  Do they also think that novelists only write from the experience, rather than from the imagination?   As a person who has written a few novels I can tell you absolutely, at least in my tiny world as a novelist, that is not the case.  My point is simple: a novel can be based on an author’s experience, it can start with experience but then be greatly exaggerated to make it more interesting, and it can have nothing whatsoever to do with the author’s life, and instead be a total invention.

It’s the same for songs.

Thus for me, everything here points to Dylan trying things out, pushing and pushing at the boundaries to see what lies beyond, getting back into the art of songwriting once more, looking for subjects, seeing how they work out.

Line by line analyses of songs are ok, but often miss the overall essence of the song.  In all my years of studying literature, and my similar number of years of being a very, very, modest writer of books and songs, I’ve rarely found that this is how it happens either to me or to my friends who have had far more success in either field than I have.

Yes the theme might emerge from one’s daily life, and yes occasionally a love song or lost love song is about a real person.  And yes the “Lonesome Death” is about a historical event.  But that’s not normally how it goes.

So having made my stand, let’s finally go to the music.  What makes me think straight off of “If your memory serves you well,” is the second part of each song.

Both songs start in a minor key (very unusual for Dylan) but then move into the major half way through.

So we have

No man alive will come to you  With another tale to tell
But you know that we shall meet again  
     If your memory serves you well


The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel
I hate myself for loving you 
             and I’m glad the curtain fell.

Moving from the minor to the major halfway through a piece is certainly not revolutionary in composition, but it is not that common in popular music.  In “This Wheel’s” Dylan goes from A minor up to C major.  In Dirge it is the other way, from D minor down to B flat major – but the melody has similarities.

My point being, there is a very different feel about each song, of course, but a similar but rarely used musical technique in both.

So there we have it.  Make of it as you wish – but all told, something of an out of place song on this album, but at the same time an utterly amazing break through into another world of possibility.

And yes the lingering writer’s block was shattered.  Dylan had written “Forever Young” in 1972, he had written “Dirge” in 1973.   From one end of the spectrum to the other.  That is a sign of pure genius.

In a sense the quality of the instrumental pieces for Billy the Kid should have told us (if we had had the chance to hear them) that there was still musical magic inside Bob’s head.  But in reality it wasn’t until 1973 that the major signs of re-emergence occurred, and even then we had to wait for 1974 for the most amazing unexpected explosion of musical brilliance.

There was one more piece to come from 1973, which for anyone who was listening to Bob as he recorded each new work, would surely have convinced the listener that Bob was in an incredible new vein of form.

And how right that was.  All the years of writing because of the contract and occasional experimentation were over.  The genius was back.

Untold Dylan

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  1. It’s said the song was buzzing around in Dylan’s head for a time, and possibly maybe even written down(?), but a definite date established for its final written version does not seem to be all that clear.

    All we know for sure is that the song is about Canadian singer/ songwriter Neil Young ( lol).

  2. Larry, Heylin in “Revolution in the Air” page 522, says that in 1973 Dylan demoed Forever Young a full year after he wrote it.

    Although I don’t like Heylin’s analysis of the songs and think his musical insights are very limited, his knowledge on the chronology normally seems to me to be spot on, so I took his word for it.

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