After the tour: the creation of a new style of songwriting

This is part 25 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: creativity as a wave form.

An index to the  previous articles in this series is given here.   The previous entry was Bob’s 1974 return to touring – listen to the concert, as the fans demand “Tell it like it was”   That article plotted the journey from the end of Planet Waves through to the first tour in many years and the preparation for writing “Tangled up in blue” and the other masterpieces that were to come.

By Tony Attwood

The thesis behind this series of articles is that Bob’s creative life can be best understood seen as a wave.  From the outset he rode quickly to the crest of a creative wave and stayed surfing along it from 1962 to 1966 with the most incredible creativity amounting to 138 songs in five years – many of which became absolute classics.

Then with the muse still upon him, but a desire to hide away Dylan retreated to the Basement, thereafter seemingly writing a new album only because of a contract (1967) rather than because of a desire to write.  The fact that the album (JWH) is so interesting lyrically and musically tells us (as if we didn’t know) what an extraordinary talent we were beholding.  He could be stunningly amazing, even when hardly trying.

On the other hand, the fact that two country-style songs that are utterly different from everything else on the album and which had no connection with the themes of the album, were simply bolted on the end, does suggest that Bob was not giving any thought to the overall artistic feel of the LP.

That feeling of a lack of interest, with the wave now on a serious down curve, is enhanced by the fact that he then all but abandoned writing (1968), returned to a spot less-demanding (for a composer) country music (1969), hid away in the mountains and completed another contractual obligation (1970), took it really easy and tried out a couple of nifty ideas (1971), took it even easier and came up with one memorable work (1972).  The curve of the wave had up and down ripples in it, but basically it was operating at a much lower level than in the earlier years of Dylan’s initial triumphs.

But then the wave started on a new upturn, and Bob settled down to some serious writing, which just got better and better as time went by, (1973), before putting his first tour since 1966, (in 1974).

So self-evidently he was by that time, re-energised.  He had written some seriously powerful pieces in 1973, and shown himself (if he needed showing) that he could still sell out the biggest auditoria many times over.

Now all that would be needed was an album that brought all that new found energy and a new style of writing, and which successfully put it in one box.  New songs that took both the musical and lyrical experiments of Planet Waves a step further and made them not just new songs, nor just new songs in a new form, but beyond that new songs in a new form that the fans would want him to play instead of endless re-runs of Tambourine Man.  After all there was no much point writing “You Angel You”, “On a night like this,” “Tough Mama,” “Dirge,” and “Wedding Song” which broke new boundaries, if no one really wanted to hear them at a live show.

My view is that with his creative wave rising, and emboldened by this new way of thinking, and those final Planet Waves compositions that had emerged in the highly energised works of 1973, Bob had the confidence to plot a new album reflecting a new vision through a new type of music.

In his earlier mega-productive period 1962-6 Dylan wrote the songs which came out of the  traditions of folk music that he had learned along the way.  These had morphed into the famous protest songs, and then headed onto creating his own new types of lyrics: the songs of disdain, the surreal visions and the Dadaesque pieces, followed by his unique use of Kafkaesque stories which came out of this.

Now, I believe, he was under no pressure, he could consider the options, look at the landscape, consider the form, and when ready, start writing.  Everything he needed was there.  He didn’t need to start reading Kafka again.  He didn’t have to think how he could write songs about a chance encounter in a new way, or reconsider how to present a rambling love affair over time.  He knew.

The format he chose for his first attempt (or at least the first attempt that we know of) merged the writing of a story from the epic ballad of centuries gone by, with Kafka’s world where things don’t always make sense.  The not-making-sense side was toned down a lot from that experienced in the JWH songs, but it was still there; songs at the opposite end of the lyrical spectrum from “New Morning”.

What Dylan did was reign back the craziness that we found in “The Drifter’s Escape” where absolutely nothing makes sense (as in, where on earth did that nurse come from?), but still keep a certain haziness within the opening song.   This time the song would make more sense, although not so much that no one would mind if the last verse was missed out from the recording!

Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts certainly did take us on a new journey which, I suspect, many of the people who have heard it would find hard to re-tell as a coherent tale without a lot of thinking.  Indeed we are not helped by the fact that one of the four main characters, Big Jim, is not actually mentioned in the title, and no reason for this seems to be forthcoming.

Of course many have worked hard to tell us that the story is indeed coherent, and it may be, although the fact of that missing verse does suggest that this is not the point.  That last verse reads, apparently,

Lily's arms were locked around the man she dearly loved to touch
She forgot all about the man she couldn't stand, 
                    who hounded her so much
"I've missed you so," she said to him, and he felt she was sincere
But just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts.

In fact the reality that the last verse is missing and that Dylan didn’t mind really does tell us that the story isn’t the point.  The setting, the people, and the approach – that is the point; taking the old ballad form and not just transforming it into a more contemporary setting, but removing the notion of a complete story with a moral, and instead giving us a feel, a scene, some characters… – indeed some characters who, if we wish, can take on a life in our minds after the song is over.  In this regard Dylan had bridged the past and the future.  (But not the present, because no one else was writing songs like this at the moment Bob did.)

It was of course the technique that he was going to take much further forward in his next song,  Tangled up in blue, but we can see the generation of the idea in the Jack of Hearts.  In the first song of this series, time isn’t completely mixed up, it is more like the whole story isn’t fully drawn – but then given the lack of diamond mining in the USA nor is the notion of “the town’s only diamond mine”.

In short reality is being shifted. Not huge amounts, but enough.  And now in the next song, this notion was taken a step further, wherein time itself shifts around in an extension of the most exciting of the John Wesley Harding pieces, wherein Dylan loses cause and effect.

Losing the inevitable arrow of time so that we are not quite sure where we are has been used by film makers for decades, why not in songs?  Thus this is, I feel, Kafka with some of the more extreme edges removed.

Now for most song writers, the Jack of Hearts would be a masterpiece, a stand alone monument of this year and probably the next five years.  But no, because next Dylan wrote the almighty Tangled up in blue.

“Tangled” is surely a song that is equal (at the very least) in merit and inventiveness to the ultimate classics of the 60s.  A song I would put alongside “Desolation Row”, “Rolling Stone”, “Johanna”,  “When the Ship Comes In”….    A song, seemingly out of nowhere, taking us into totally new ground, but in which is nothing of the kind…

For  as I am trying to argue, it wasn’t out of nowhere – it was out of the experimentation that had come earlier, which led to Dylan seeing songs as a set of images and ideas wherein the storyline doesn’t have to be complete – or indeed doesn’t have to exist at all.

For me, “Tangled” really, really is that.  It has that quality of “Visions” in which you can’t quite get a grip on who is where and what is what or indeed (and this I think was the new element), When is when.   It really is an absolute ground-breaking event in the history of 20th century music.

But it was more than that, for it is a template for ceaseless modifications, thus in one swoop Dylan has created a new art form – a song that is designed to be changed and re-written as it goes.

Indeed if you listen to the performance on the album and compare the lyrics with those of the original the differences are tiny, but they are there and they feel deliberate.  But why?  It is a question worth asking as those changes evolved further over time.

For what it is worth, my view is that by making changing to the song time and again Dylan is adding to the fluidity of time; expressing the notion that nothing is fixed.  Time is that dimension or sense of whatever we wish to call it, which cannot be touched, retrieved, manipulated or comprehended.  It is there in the sense that new things happen as the clocks go around, but it is not there is the sense that our memories are unreliable and incomplete.

This is not a subject that few songwriters (if any) had really explored in popular music until this point, as far as I know, and it was an amazing project to take on.  Of course, what we do know is that Bob has always been fascinated with changing melodies, lyrics, chords, time signatures  – in fact everything in a popular song.  But this was different, this was telling us that the very ground on which we stand, on which we base our lives and our determination of who we are, is not solid.  It is fluid.

Such a vision emerges, I feel, from the eternally changing realms of Kafka wherein nothing is allowed to settle or make long term sense.   We are there, we our own lives, but we can be knocked around in the slip stream and be unable to anything much about it.

The song in its original LP version is scattered with clues –

All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now

and a little later

Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives

Oh yes.

Untold Dylan

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6 Responses to After the tour: the creation of a new style of songwriting

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    The big problem is that because Tony finds Drifter ‘incoherent’ then so must ‘we’ all – that the ‘nurse’ being in the court room, and even more head-scratching that ‘Big Jim’ not mentioned in the title of Lily, then ‘we’ too must accept the stories as pretty well senseless – as if the songs should be laid out in such a way that Tony himself can understand it; otherwise no one else should be able to find any coherency in the narratives either – such as an anolgy in Drifter to the trial of Christ (but here He escapes) for example.

    Tony’s claiming to be able to ‘see’ inside Dylan’s mind at the time is indeed problematic – Harding is surely an artistic masterpiece taken in and of itself.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    A couple of juxaposed ‘relief’ songs expressing a happier situaion than the more ominous ones do needn’t be considered out of place on the album at all.

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    *analogy,…with not that much difficulty Drifter could be stetched to an allegory if one were so inclined.. also, JWH did rather well in the sales department for having songs that make no sense and/or are downright crazy.

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    Jack Of Hearts song is meant to be confusing – as a murder mystery so often is – it’s not a song intended to be senseless – there are clues, some of which might well lead a detective other than Sherlock down the wrong path…but what is the songwriter supposed to do – come right out and tell everbody – especially Tony -that the butler did it?!

    As far as the diamond mine goes -Big (Diamond ) Jim -the motif of gambling as in card game is augmented – Jack Of Hearts.

    Make of it as you will.

    But I know who really killed Big Jim – it was the writer Bob Dylan with his pen, with his pen knife, and he stabbed poor Jim in the back too!(lol).

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    Rosemary’s one good deed – It is said by many that Rosemary killed her husband but perhaps she ‘just’ took the fall for Lily’s deed; indeed, Rosemary likely emptied her husband’s gun of bullets – the cold revolver clicked – ….Sherlock is working on the case, and writing a book about the murder.

  6. Jerry Hallier says:

    I don’t think we have to agree with everything that Tony says in this All Directions series of articles to find useful fillips to our own thinking about how and why Dylan’s approach to composing has changed so much over his career. Any attempt to trace these changes is bound to raise a number of issues or details where there are uncertainties and disagreements. Such disagreements do not take away the value of this series. I, for one, am finding these articles fascinating and I look forward to the rest of them – even when occasionally I disagree with something Tony says.

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