by Tony Attwood
As we have noted in recent articles, Bob Dylan had a prolonged period from 1968 to 1973 in which he was writing songs at nothing like his earlier levels of productivity. The total number of songs was much reduced but despite this he was by and large not producing songs that were considered by most listeners to be of a quality akin to that found in the songs he had composed with much more frequency in earlier years.
Of those songs that were written we might perhaps note these eight of being of particular merit, although I know many who would cut this list down to perhaps just three or four compositions written during these six years – particularly questioning my continuing insistence of including the last two songs of the era: “Dirge” and “Wedding Song” and perhaps the much lighter piece, “You Angel You”.
- Lay Lady Lay (1968)
- Time passes slowly (1970)
- When I paint my masterpiece (1971)
- Watching the river flow (1971)
- Forever Young (1972)
- You Angel You (1973)
- Dirge (1973)
- Wedding Song (1973)
Given that from 1965 alone many fans of Dylan’s work would be able to list a dozen songs they would put in the “genius” class (from “Chimes of Freedom” to “It’s alright ma”) even if you agree with my selection of the eight songs above, the fact that it took Bob six years to write these, shows how far his creative genius output had dropped.
But now, as we have seen, at the start of 1974 Dylan had written two songs (Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts and Tangled up in blue) which most fans would list as among his greatest works, it shows how far Dylan’s creative output had risen once again.
The third song Dylan wrote in 1974 was “You’re a big girl now” which has always struck me as the reverse of “Just like a Woman” where she breaks just like a little girl. I don’t see any woman or girl breaking in “Big girl”. Rather I find a man who is broken, and there really is only one way to read lines such as…
I’m going out of my mind, oh, With a pain that stops and starts Like a corkscrew to my heart Ever since we’ve been apart
As we have seen through the various analyses conducted on this site, “lost love” as a lyrical theme has been one of Dylan’s prime approaches to lyrics, and here he is revisiting the theme once more.
There are also moments of Hank Williams here, in particular “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” but that it turns out Dylan’s song is far more complex than most lost love pieces. Even if we stick to the level of analytics rather than emotions, we find an unusual song in that the rhyme scheme is inconsistent, being at the start
A A B C D D
but later in verses three and five mutating to
A A B C C C
It doesn’t affect the listener, and I doubt that most people ever notice, but it does indicate the flexibility Bob had in his writing at this point. He wasn’t going to force rhymes just because he started out that way. The melody and the plaintive message would carry the listener through, he knew that.
To me “Big Girl” is one of the most successful, overpoweringly emotional songs of Dylan’s whole writing career – perhaps the ultimate emotional song in his entire output.
There is just so much here to hit anyone who has had a deep, intense, meaningful loving relationship which has ended with the other party leaving. So much that one could sink into its hurt and pain and never re-emerge. And what Dylan has done is given us an alternative to the mists of Visions and Johanna, or the anger of Idiot Wind. Another way of seeing the world.
The recording heard above has to be taken alongside the last songs of the previous year. It is as if Dylan decided to write “The Book of Emotions” through Dirge, Wedding Song, and now this. “You want emotions?” he is saying, “I’ll give you emotions…”
But what has happened is that some of those who comment on Dylan’s work, for some reason feel the need to distance themselves from the emotion, sometimes not even engaging with the emotional content of the song at all, as if they, the commentators, are emotionless entities about to comment upon the poor sap in the song crying about his heart being broken.
Yet this is totally nonviable as a method of critiquing the song . If you have never experienced the real highs and lows of emotion it must be hard to understand what is going on here. A bit like a person who has never been to Greece writing a critique of a travel guide to Greece. How can you comment upon a song that deals with these emotions if you have not experienced them? How can you critique a travel guide to Greece without having been to the country? If you have experienced those highs and lows, then you know that they are indescribable while one is within them, and beyond understanding when one has passed through and come out the other side.
It is not just “Our conversation was short and sweet, It nearly swept me off my feet, And I’m back in the rain, oh, And you are on dry land,” it is also that absolute self-destructiveness of the whole concept.
I’m going out of my mind, oh, With a pain that stops and starts Like a corkscrew to my heart Ever since we’ve been apart
He doesn’t even have the strength to blame her, he has lost so much of himself every normal emotion has gone. This is desolation and isolation, hopelessness and emptiness, all rolled into one song. You can face the sheer horror of them “selling postcards of the hanging” and know that this actually happened, but when it is as personal as this it can get so overpowering there is nowhere else to turn and no way to take it all in.
Of course if we could find that time machine that was lurking around in “Tangled up in blue”, maybe we could escape the pain. But there’s never a time machine around when you want one. It’s either wandered off of its own accord, or you’ve lost the key.
On Blood on the Tracks, the sleeve notes quote Yates, “We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Or as the All Music review said of this song, “It is like seeing your father cry for the first time.” There really is no escape from pain of this sort… you just have to let it take its course.
In another review I found, the writer reflects on taking a regular session called “Sociology of Rock ‘n Roll” at Ohio University taught by a lecturer who himself wrote protest and folk songs.
One Friday he solemnly laid down his guitar, put his hand over his heart, and vowed that he could never write another song. It was all hopeless. He waved a purple album cover in front of us. “This,” he said, “has done me in. You can’t write a better album than this. There’s no sense in even trying.”
It was Blood on the Tracks, … There was only one song that immediately struck me, sitting in that bar, and it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
The writer of that piece then takes us into “Big Girl”.
Musically the two versions are very different – even the chord structure has changed, the NY version being much, much more complex, but then sounding (strangely) simpler because of the way the accompaniment is arranged.
The album version runs a chord sequence of
- Bm, Am, Bm Am
- G C G C
- Am Bm Am D
On the New York version the guitar is also tuned in a completely different way and the chords are (thanks to Dylanchords.info because I certainly struggled with this)…
Emaj7, B11, Emaj7, B11
E, B, A, E, B, A
F#7, Emaj7, B11, E, A, E, B
If you are a musician you’ll know what I mean, but even if not, you might notice that we have in here chords never mentioned before in any review on this site – Dylan rarely, if ever, at this stage of his career used chords like “E major 7” or B11. These are very unusual chords – not unknown, just not normally used, and they give the song a new effect as Dylan takes us to a different land – a land he returned to much, much later.
Perhaps the utter brilliance of the song, and certainly the painfulness of the song is that we know something is going terribly, terribly, terribly wrong. And has anyone expressed this so powerfully before as
Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence He’s singin’ his song for me at his own expense And I’m just like that bird, oh, oh, Singin’ just for you I hope that you can hear Hear me singin’ through these tears
I have no escape, there is no solution, there is, in fact, nothing.
My one hope, if you are reading this, and you feel up to it (ie not if you are within six months of a serious breakup and there is no sign of anyone new on the horizon), you listen to both versions of the song, and then maybe listen again, not to the voice, but to what the instruments are doing. We are talking two different languages in the construction of this song, and that in itself is a masterpiece.
During the next 30 years Dylan played this song over 200 times in concert. Looking at the totals of live performances that is only three fewer than Visions, and half the number of times he’s played Tweedle Dum. He wanted to say it, each performance of this song takes it out of the singer – at least it does if he is thinking about the lyrics.
But let me leave you with a comment from a reviewer on the internet.
“I haven’t played Blood in the Tracks for a few years, but I’ve been listening to it over the past few days. I’m going to play that song at an upcoming arts conference. And I’m going to talk about why the words “oh, oh” might constitute some of the best songwriting ever.”
I can see exactly what he means.
Here’s the original version
Quite extraordinarily, the next song Bob wrote was another masterpiece, and Shelter from the storm takes Dylan’s magnificent return to songwriting form even further.
Of course he had written masterpiece after masterpiece before, and it is possible that Dylan tried out several other songs in between these compositions – songs which have simply been lost. But it seems unlikely. Over 620 songs written by Bob Dylan have survived, why would the non-album pieces here be so utterly removed from public consumption?
So if we take it that what we know about is the sum of Dylan’s writing at the time, we have to look back to periods such as 1962 wherein, “Hard Rain,” “Hollis Brown,” “John Brown,” and “Don’t think twice” one after the other. Or perhaps the start of 1963 as he produced “Masters of War,” “Girl from the North Country”, “Spanish Leather,” and “Dylan’s Dream”, hardly (its seems) pausing for breath. Indeed 1963 had another stream of amazing compositions one after the other at the end of the year, ending with “Restless Farewell.”
But then as we have seen, eventually Bob ran out of steam. Yet now here he was producing masterpiece after masterpiece for next came “Shelter From the Storm.”
And not just another masterpiece – but another change of subject
- Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts: a rambling epic tale of four characters
- Tangled up in blue: An ever-changing relationship in a seemingly ever changing world
- You’re a big girl now: lost love, deep hurt, and there’s nothing to be done
- Shelter from the storm: the world is a storm, there is nothing we can catch onto, nothing is fixed.
These are complex themes, far beyond the reach of 99.999% of song lyrics, and is one is so different in both temperament and style. And each has its own input, its own approach, its own vision, its own issues that it is explaining, relating, and perhaps resolving.
“Shelter from the Storm” adds another dimension in that there is a disconnect between the verses (as happens in “Tangled”), and yet the same line ends each verse, which suggests there ought to be a connection but somehow we can’t find it. The world is nonsense, there is nothing we can latch onto, there is no reality that is fixed. Indeed when we get to
Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
we are left wondering “Where did that come from? Where does it take us?”
And all the while the same three chords are repeated and repeated as if there is a stability here, right under our feet… except we can feel it going round and round. As if somehow we are fixed but the world around us changes in ways that are completely beyond our understanding or control – and yet at the same time we seem to be in there, handling the affair, continuing our life. It is like a recurring nightmare where one cannot take control, but it is not a nightmare at all because she is there all the time offering shelter.
Long before Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Heylin, called this “a lyric worthy of any poet laureate”, which shows a rare bit of insight, even if it was wholly fortuitous in its predictive sense. For once I’m with Heylin on this one, and so it seems was the Nobel Prize committee.
Dylan had moved on from being the guy who wanted to get away from it all and live in a remote rural idyll to becoming a myth maker. The creator of worlds that are condensed into a song format, but which could, at a moment’s notice, be opened up, into something much broader.
Of course Dylan is not a myth maker in the true sense, for the songs are not complex or long enough to have the feeling of the myth, although in the missing 11th verse he gets closest…
Now the bonds are broken but they can be retied By one more journey to the woods, and the holes where spirits hide It's a never ending battle for a peace that's always torn "Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm"
which gives us the real clue as to what Bob was about. This is Dylan playing with images, showing us that lyrics can paint any picture, even against the simplest of musical textures. And that is brilliant; of course it is a brilliant song. The chords rotate, the melody follows, nothing changes, nothing moves on. The instrumentation is played out in the same terms of never-endingness. Round and round it could go on forever.
Here’s a variant I’m not sure it is better but hearing a different approach reminds us of just how much there is in this world of an endlessly repeating melody, rhythm and chords.
To me this represents the conflict of the man perceiving beauty and his desire to possess it (which will ultimately destroy that peaceful beauty). Hence the simple presentation, the repeats and repeats, and yet the complexity encoded in the lyrics.
Steve Adey actually went further in recording it and took it so slowly that it lasted forever, which fits the end, and tells us what else is possible if you have eight minutes to spare.
But overall, if you want an image for this song, just think of a cottage with no other habitation around, and a howling wind blowing outside, with all manner of evil lurking in the dark as the thunder crashes and rain falls. Then you have it. But as you find your own image, just remember those opening lines…
’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
Here’s the world:
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm
And this is her:
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
And this is the singer:
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
She ends his torture…
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
She is a goddess, he is a mortal, his pain self-inflicted. He wants to possess beauty, but knows that he cannot – and yet he can’t let go of that desire. In the end that’s it. He wants to possess, but she will not let him for beauty is to be shared, always, always, always.
Many people find this to be the greatest re-working of all by Bob. I’m not sure if it is the best, but to me it passes the eight minutes with more meaning and insight than I get from Adey.
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