This is part 24 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 previous articles in this series is given here. The previous entry which particularly looked at “Dirge” was 1973: prepare for the journey from hell to heaven
By Tony Attwood
While with Dirge we have the verbal evidence that the song was written in response to a jokey comment about Dylan’s sentimental change as he got older, with “Wedding Song” (the last composition of 1973), we have no such extraneous commentary to go on. But we can still make a few assumptions based on what we do know.
It is reported that the original version of Dirge was recorded on guitar before being re-worked on piano. Here, we have the counterpoint. Dirge begins, “I hate myself for loving you,” while “Wedding Song,” accompaniment on the recording and on stage by solo guitar begins “I love you more than ever.”
And there is of course a link with “Restless Farewell,” the last song written in 1963, just before he embarked on his first world tour (which ran off and on through much of the year) because by the time Dylan wrote “Wedding Song” he was gearing up to go back onto the road. And it is worth, I think, pausing for a moment to consider the momentousness of this.
The last grand tour of Dylan before 1974, was in 1966, and it took in the United States, Canada, Hawaii, Australia, Scandinavia, the UK, France, and then finally ending back in London. Two months later there was the motorbike accident, and that was that after a tour of 47 shows.
The 1974 tour ran from 3 January to 14 February and took in 40 shows. In the early part of the tour some Planet Waves songs were included but over the course of the tour these seemed to be reduced in number, with only “Forever Young” and occasionally “Wedding Song” remaining on the set list.
That was then the end of the tour for the year, but this time there was eight year gap – Dylan came back 18 months later with the Rolling Thunder Review.
This return to touring is, I think, historically very important, not because of what ultimately happened to create the Never Ending Tour which I think we can best date from 1987 onwards (others put 1988, but let’s not quibble), but because actually going on the road was itself a major change. It was, I think, a try out, not just for Bob, but for members of The Band themselves who in the intervening years had had their own issues. They had retired from touring in 1971 (although they did the occasional one-off gig), not least because Robbie Robertson was said to be trying to overcome his writer’s block, (and indeed such work as he created from around this time was never published), while Richard Manuel was said to have addiction problems.
The tour was noted for the re-writing of the arrangements (not to say melodies and lyrics of some compositions – something which Dylan had not previously indulged in, at least not in such a wholesale way), and the use of a very early synthesizer.
It was very much a joint affair with Dylan performing with the Band, Dylan acoustic solos, and the Band playing their own songs without Dylan. Extracts from the tour were ultimately released as “Before the Flood”.
Planet Waves songs were included at first, but after a short while only “Forever Young” stayed as a regular in the repertoire, which increasingly relied on the most famous songs from Dylan’s repertoire. But they were helped along by contemporary events, as was evident from the cheers every time Bob sang, “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” – which had an extra resonance as this was the time of the Watergate affair. Applications for tickets exceeded the number available many, many times over.
So although this was not its original purpose, ultimately “Tour 74” allowed space for the artistic endeavour and creativity that during the rest of the year and into next year resulted in a staggeringly brilliant collection of new songs. The tour proved Bob still had an audience (and how!) but he was forced to realise that those those attending didn’t want his more recent compositions such as “Dirge” and “Wedding Song,” no matter how brilliant and revolutionary they might be.
So we have a significant disconnect between the tour and the last album. “Dirge” and “Wedding Song” seem to have been written quickly and indeed recorded even faster, and Dylan obviously knew how incredibly good they were, and yet the crowds wanted the old numbers, not this modern stuff. These seemingly urgent and occasionally desperate statements from a man who just has to say it, and has to say it now, were nothing to the fans at the shows. They didn’t want Bob to “tell it like it is,” they wanted him to “tell it as it was” before the Basement, before the accident, and most of the time before JWH.
And yet, and yet, “Wedding Song” really does take us back to a much earlier Dylan, both because it is acoustic, and because it is strophic – (the verse – verse – verse) formulation without any break into a variant section and because of its sheer urgency and vitality.
Image falls onto image as thought pushes thought out of the way, but there is that unrelenting vision that he is not the Leader, he is not here to change everything, certainly not here to tell us what to do. In the words of the “Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy” (a British radio series that started five years later, became phenomenally popular, and still is fondly remembered and regularly re-broadcast) “he’s just this guy, you know.”
It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge
Put another way it is “It ain’t me babe” in the sense that I am not a man who tells you what to do, but it is me babe in terms of the man who loves you “more than ever, more than time and more than love” all the way through to that ending, “I love you more than ever now that the past is gone”. (Which immediately makes me think we really should have an index of last lines, as well as our aborted attempt at an index of first lines).
I don’t feel that Dylan was writing about himself or his own experience here, any more than he was in Dirge, any more than most novelists cast themselves as the central character in each novel, any more than an actor plays himself every time he gets on stage. But whether he was or not, this now became irrelevant. The lesson to be learned was that if Bob was going to tour again, and to perform his contemporary compositions, those compositions had to be more immediately accessible to the fans than the final two compositions of 1973. Not personal songs, but something else. The questions was, what?
And yet there is a tremendous sense of power and liberation that comes from his saying goodbye to the “haunted rooms and faces in the street, To the courtyard of the jester which is hidden from the sun” – to the self torment, and to the artificial worlds and false people that were portrayed in the Basement Tapes. In the final pre-tour composition there is a new life, reflecting the fact that “I love you more than ever and I haven’t yet begun,” which makes the view of the fans more ironic than ever.
In short, he doesn’t say, “I’m nothing without you,” but says “you make my life richer”, in a much more interesting way. And he did try to get his fans to understand, for Wedding Song was played nine times between 7 January and 11 February. The tour itself ran from 3 January to 14 February, so he gave it a fair shot, but by and large it wasn’t what the fans wanted.
Of course not every line in Wedding Song is perfect. “Your love cuts like a knife” is as old as pop music, and probably much older. But it is delivered so rapidly amongst all this relentless power, the whole thing simply knocks one sideways and we stop worrying if any of the images have been heard before.
I’d sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die But happiness to me is you and I love you more than blood And if there is eternity I’d love you there again And I love you more than ever with that love that doesn’t cease Cause I love you more than ever now that the past is gone
He casts himself as nothing, blown along in the eddies and tides of time, only being here to love this woman. And that was not the message that these fans wanted. They wanted to be told that even the President of the United States sometimes had to stand naked. They wanted the rebellion of 1969, even though it hadn’t happen and the power of the state had survived, they wanted to feel they had power over those in power (which they patently didn’t), and they didn’t want, “I love you more than ever now that the past is gone.”
In short it was a case of “Give me a fantasy, but not that one.”
And there was a deeper issue because these fans still seemingly wanted to change the world, while Dylan’s song proclaims that there is nothing to change in his “Wedding Song” world because he has been given everything. It is in fact a natural outcome of “Times they are a Changing” which although taken up as an anthem of reform and a transfer of power to the young, actually says “change happens, no matter what you do.”
So in “Wedding Song” Bob hasn’t created his happiness, he hasn’t modified the world to find it, he has had it presented to him, and he is happy to leave it at that. As he said at the end of the first verse, “I love you more than life itself, you mean that much to me.”
Quite extraordinarily that message was simply ignored. Bob Dylan was the old Bob Dylan – because the crowd and the promoters said he was.
Yet Bob had produced an album that overall looked deeper into the heart of emotions than he had ever had before – consider what was explored in “Going Going Gone” in that middle 8 that still so occupies my thoughts so many years later…
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”
Indeed Forever Young itself now takes on a new meaning – stay forever young so you don’t get close to what I explore in the rest of these songs.
It is sometimes said that as soon as one sees the title “Wedding Song” one must think of Dylan’s own wedding. And maybe that would be true if the song was presented on its own. But it is not. It was presented after Dirge (which of course was never played on this tour, nor indeed on any tour ever), and at the end of the collection.
Above all I reject the notion that “Dylan recorded it [Wedding Song] more or less in the same slapdash style as he did his acoustic albums”. He recorded it in a way that gives it the total power it deserves. The power of one man on his own, the wind buffeting his face as he sits on a rock next to the lady he loves trying to explain himself, stumbling over the words, not quite able to find the right phrase, finding his voice is occasionally lost in the wind, as he says, “I love you” the roar of the wave drowns out the sound of his words.
(Incidentally Heylin’s use of “slapdash” has always struck me as the final proof that the man has no concept of artistic creation. Does he really think that all great art is created by hours and hours of tedious and meticulous work? Sometimes yes of course, but sometimes most certainly not. The merit of great art is not measured by the time it took to create, but by the genius of the conception. If that were not the case we could simply note how long it took each work of art to be created and the one that took the longest could be proclaimed the greatest art on the planet. Stonehenge maybe?)
Wedding Song is a glimpse of real life through a song in an age of technical production, and all the better for that. But it is true that it was not what the fans brought to the concerts by the promotional hype of watching Bob back on stage for the first time in so many years, had been sold.
Where I differ from many commentators (as so often is the case) is in thinking that when Dylan mentions three children, there is some secret point here. For me, he is writing a piece of astoundingly powerful fiction, in which I can empathise with the character at the centre of the story. Bob is a genius songwriter. He doesn’t have to experience this love to write about it. He doesn’t have to have (or have had) “hardly a penny to my name” to be able to write “Tell Ol Bill”.
So was Wedding Song, “Dylan’s last Hail Mary shot at reconciliation with his wife” as has been suggested? No not for me. On its own I might be persuaded, but why on earth would a man who wanted to plot a reconciliation do it in public on an album with a song that followed a piece that started out,
I hate myself for lovin’ you and the weakness that it showed
No, he wrote it because he wanted a contrast with Dirge. And he wrote it because he could. Yes “Forever Young” might have been written for his child, but if it was, that still doesn’t mean “Dirge” and “Wedding Song” were also written for real people relating to real events.
My thought is quite simple: just listen, enjoy some of the most powerful emotions ever expressed in popular or folk music, and then be ready for the monuments that followed.
Here’s a list of the most regularly performed Dylan song from the tour…
- Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
- Lay Lady Lay
- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
- Rainy Day Women
- It Ain’t Me, Babe
- Ballad of a Thin Man
- All Along the Watchtower
- Ballad of Hollis Brown
- Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
- The Times They Are A-Changin’
- Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
- Gates of Eden
- Just Like a Woman
- It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
- Forever Young
- Something There is About You
- Highway 61 Revisited
- Like a Rolling Stone
- Blowin’ in the Wind
Thus Bob was left with a huge problem. He had written Planet Waves which includes songs that he must have recognised were brilliant pieces of songwriting. and yet going back on tour he had had to retreat into performing he greatest hits, which is probably why he was dissatisfied and unhappy with the tour.
He must have known that he was truly back into form as a songwriter, but the fans just wanted the old stuff. So what to do?
The answer had to be either to create a new musical form, or to take an old musical form and re-create it in a way that no one had ever heard before. And that motivation to create a new type of song, a song that told a story that as has so often be reported, “couldn’t be found in a movie” post-tour became the driving force in Bob’s creative life.
It would take much of the rest of the year to get the songs written, but goodness, wasn’t it worth it.
The series continues…
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