All Directions 29: The greatest Dylan album ever?

By Tony Attwood

There is a complete index to All Directions at once, here.

In the last episode: All directions 28: Seeing the world through a fractured glass I took a look at Idiot Wind.  Now, having look at that masterpiece it is time to ask ourselves what Dylan did next.   He had a lot of material for his proposed new album, but not quite enough.

Having told us about lost love and love gone wrong within several songs such as “You’re a big girl now,” “If you see her say hello,”  “Call Letter Blues,”  “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Idiot Wind,” Bob created another twist.  Suddenly he comes up with a song that says it isn’t all over, although he knows that ultimately the affair will die: You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go  A song that is many ways the opposite of “Idiot Wind”.

I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before
Never been so easy or so slow
Been shooting in the dark too long
When somethin’s not right it’s wrong
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

Indeed everything about the song denies the existence of those earlier songs, “I’ve only known careless love,” suggesting that those past events were mere dalliances,  “I could stay with you forever and never realize the time…”

And yet even though this is the closest he’s ever been to perfection, he know it ain’t gonna last.

I get the feeling that having thrown everything possible into “Idiot Wind” Bob was now ready to write some less complicated songs.   True, “When you go” does have an unusual structure of three verses, middle 8, verse, middle 8, verse.  There’s no reason why one should not write that way; it’s just few had done it before, as normally we have, Verse, Verse, Middle 8, Verse, Middle 8, Verse.  It’s only a minor change but it has an effect on the listener.

The song has been seen by “All Music” as melancholy, heartbreaking, and poignant, reflecting a hopeless situation, but the music to me doesn’t sound like that at all.   Indeed Dylan used the song to bring life and fun into the performances on the second Revue tour (see below).

But it is unusual, in that it is about the future.  The classic blues and rock songs are about the past (“my baby done left me”) or the present (“I’m in love, I’m all shook up.”)

In this song the singer is being fatalistic: it will go wrong, because it always goes wrong.  And I really don’t feel the pain; to me it’s just a comment, as with “If we do break up I am going to be so sad…”  Besides the music itself is not sad; it is just that things have gone wrong in the past.

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Then again, it is intriguing that not very many commentators have tackled the third line of this verse – a line on which (it can be argued) the whole of the song revolves.  In the songs of the JWH album almost every line of every song is interrogated and seen by some to be religious.  But these are just let go.

To me he seems to be saying, “yes my life has been pretty up and down and fairly wild, but I’m pulling it back together now.  Although he teases us, for Rimbaud is particularly well known for the phrase, “Je est un autre”  (“I is someone else”). Dylan wrote in Chronicles, “When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense.”

Aged around 17 Rimbaud began writing to poets to try and meet up with them and explore his own ideas for his new style of writing, a style generally referred to as a precursor of surrealism.

As generally happens most of the up and coming writers of the time didn’t want anything to do with this crazy kid, hardly out of school – indeed would Richard Penniman have agreed to meet Robert Allen Zimmerman on the basis that he had just written Hey Little Richard?

Eventually it was Paul Verlaine (aged 28 at the time) who took Rimbaud in.  But Rimbaud was a wife and child beater, Rimbaud and Verlaine became lovers, Verlaine shot Rimbaud, and was arrested and went to prison for two years.   Rimbaud gave up writing and got a steady job and ultimately launched a business career.   Maybe we should remember that when considering…

You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to

Dylan is perhaps saying he has had an up and down life, and now he has a steady job – making records and doing some tours.  And perhaps we drop in the fact that Rimbaud later travelled the world and had success as an entrepreneur (although he died aged 37).  And Dylan … well he invented the Never Ending Tour and later sold his copyrights for over $300m.

Musically the song has a similar chord sequence to “You’re a big girl now” and it turned out to be one of those where over time he chose to re-write the song and to give some new sense and meaning to it. There is a real happiness and jolity here…  This isn’t a warning that the future is going wrong…

And to emphasise this fact, Dylan then played it faster

And as something else, try this reinterpretation.  Just put up with the wait at the start, you might well find it worth the wait – but if you can’t wait, it starts on 25 seconds…  Once again the band gets the feel that this is good – the “when you go” is definitely hypothetical here.

To me it seems to be taking the wildness of artists and surrealism, not to mention Kafka with whom Bob had already dallied, and uses all that he has learned to shunt the past, present and hypothetical, possible, future, back and forth, as he had done with “Tangled up in Blue.”

After which he wrote “Up to me”, but then finding that the album was too long, left it off.

Which is sad because “Up to Me” may be described as “Sheltering from a Tangled Twist of Fate in the Storm.”   But of course the song wasn’t rejected totally – it is on Biograph and on “More Blood More Tracks.”

Dylan the old story teller is looking at the past, shrugging the shoulders, moving on.    We also have a double bass style that has become familiar through the songs mentioned above, a beautiful restrained style that adds enormously to the overall context of the song.

But what is so shockingly different here is the opening.  OK – this is an out-take, and maybe not the best recording available, or maybe never intended to be the final version, but it just starts, musically and lyrically.  Bang, you are in.  No preliminaries.

And lyrically there is no, “They sat together in the park”.   There is no “Early one morning the sun was shining.”  There is, in short, no placement of the characters at all.  No warm up, no opening chords.  But what a start it is…

“Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing”

And we think, “what the hell is going on here?”   This is doom and gloom, but the music doesn’t represent that at all.  Even lines like “Death kept following, tracking us down” are sung in the same “Tangled” style.

This opening however does set a scene of its own, once you have heard the song several times.   Everything has gone wrong, and wrong again, and I ain’t got much time left to sort this out.  But no one else is going to resolve anything, so it is up to me.

That’s the song – but such a simplified reduction does not do it any justice at all.   For there are some wonderful lines in this song delivered by Dylan with a bounce and emphasis that shows a tremendous level of crafting.   Just listen to the line

“I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity”

with its internal rhyme.  What does it mean?  We could argue about that forever either within or without the context of the song.

These lines just pile on top of each other, and drive us along in the whirlwind that the singer explores.   Indeed some of these lines are utterly classic Dylan, which makes it so sad that they exist on a song many never got to hear.  And then there is

“I’ve only got me one good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume”

How many evocative images do you want in one line?

And then

“In fourteen months I’ve only smiled once and I didn’t do it consciously”

Yes, you could build whole songs around each of these lines.  But for me the key to the explanation of what the song is all about comes with the line

“The old Rounder in the iron mask slipped me the master key”

The old Rounder, I take to be, a person up to no good, the dissolute man, the wastrel.  In an iron mask, not showing his true self, pretending to be one thing while being another.  It is a term you often find in old blue grass music.

The woman of whom Dylan is singing is, I guess, higher class than he, and he’s unable to follow her – that is the rub.  So when she is tricked away by the Rounder, he can’t follow.

“Well, I watched you slowly disappear down into the officers’ club
I would’ve followed you in the door but I didn’t have a ticket stub”

So either she’s moved up in the world and he’s tagging along – or she was always from that world.  Maybe she was a film star, or something…  But he certainly wasn’t…

"Oh, the only decent thing I did when I worked as a postal clerk"
Was to haul your picture down off the wall 
        near the cage where I used to work
Was I a fool or not to try to protect your identity?
You looked a little burned out, my friend, 
        I thought it might be up to me"

Put another way, “I’m just a regular guy trying to help you – but if you go back to your old world, beware, because there are some tricky guys out there.”

“Well, I met somebody face to face and I had to remove my hat
She’s everything I need and love but I can’t be swayed by that”

The working man, doffing his cap.with the everyday philosophy of the man of the road.

We heard the Sermon on the Mount and I knew it was too complex
It didn’t amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects
When you bite off more than you can chew you pay the penalty
Somebody’s got to tell the tale, I guess it must be up to me

As for the rest of the crew, the suspicion that they are the sophisticates, and the singer is just the postman comes with the names…

“Well, Dupree came in pimpin’ tonight to the Thunderbird Café”

There are, incidentally, Thunderbird Cafes everywhere

“So go on, boys, and play your hands, life is a pantomime
The ringleaders from the county seat 
        say you don’t have all that much time
And the girl with me behind the shades, she ain’t my property
One of us has got to hit the road, 
        I guess it must be up to me”

The ol Rounder will hit the road not the sophisticate.

As the song ends we have the ultimate Dylan farewell – I don’t want to print those lines as I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t yet heard the song..  It is “And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured” only with even greater feeling.

We touch these people and know a little of their lives… this is the short story form in literature transmuted into a popular song, and it is brilliant.

How could this recording have been made, and then just left?   For anyone else it would be the summit of a career.  For Dylan it is an out-take.  He has never performed it in public.  It just is.

And it kills me every time I have the strength to put it on.  All that talent; the recording cast aside.

Which takes us on to Buckets of Rain  the penultimate  track song to be written for Blood on the Tracks, the final song on the record.  In a constructional sense I am reminded of John Wesley Harding which ends with Down Along the Cove and I’ll be your Baby Tonight, two songs which really don’t have too much (if anything at all) to do with the rest of the album).  Here on Blood on the Tracks, we get a plaintive reflective love song, and a 12 bar blues.

But there is more, for Dylan does like to throw in something different at the end, and this song certainly is different from what has gone before.  Indeed Dylan treats it as different.  He once played it as an opener at a concert on November 18 1990 but that was that – it was different enough to leave alone otherwise.

But maybe he became fully aware that the song’s music comes pretty much directly from Bottle of Wine by Tom Paxton, a very well known song in folk circles which opens…

Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine
When you gonna let me get sober?
Let me alone, let me go home
Let me go back to start over
Ramblin’ around this dirty old town
Singin’ for nickels and dimes
Times getting tough, I ain’t got enough
To buy a little bottle of wine

It is indeed possible to write a whole piece without realising that the song is lifted from elsewhere.  It is only when someone plucks up the courage to tell you…

“Bottle of Wine” is today treated as a rather quaint song which everyone can join in.

Pain in my head and bugs in my bed
Pants are so old that they shine
Out on the street tell the people I meet
“Won’tcha buy me a bottle of wine?”

being completely lost on those who engage in such activity.   It is desperate stuff made to sound jolly.

Dylan of course took the music elsewhere with a lighter shade of lyric, with lines like

Like your smile and your fingertips

and then wakes us up suddenly with

Everything about you is bringing me misery.

Indeed the first verse spells out the contrast very clearly…

Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears
Buckets of moonbeams in my hand
You got all the love
Honey baby, I can stand

Thus we actually have the man who sees the world passing by and accepts it, changing himself as each situation demands, and thus losing himself in the world around him.

I been meek
And hard like an oak
I seen pretty people disappear like smoke
Friends will arrive, friends will disappear
If you want me
Honey baby, I’ll be here

But always we have this two way affair of delight and anguish

I like your smile
And your fingertips
Like the way that you move your lips
I like the cool way you look at me
Everything about you is bringing me misery

Quite what the red wagon and bike have to do with anything I am not sure but the ending is upbeat.

I like the way you love me strong and slow
I’m takin’ you with me
Honey baby, when I go

In a sense it is a summation of much that has gone before – the two sides of a love affair, the love, the despair, the ups and downs and ultimately as it is all over, the determination to pick oneself up again and move on.   This time, unlike the time he thought about missing the new woman when she left, he’s taking charge.  It is HIM, the singer, who is taking the woman when HE leaves.  He’s back on track.  It’s a summing up.  Time to move on.

“Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must,” isn’t much to say but it is something after all the turmoil.  After all, not everyone makes it through such a dark night.

There is that plaintive last line though, “can’t you tell” as if after all this he still can’t read people aright.  But that too is how it goes.  Nothing shakes your faith in people like a divorce.

Musically, the song is another one which is recorded with open tuning – which means the guitar is retuned away from the normal tuning of the strings.  It gives a different flavour to the sound, and a chance once more to play with those odd chords that we have noted on the way through the album.

As I say, Dylan was left with just one song to write for the album, “Meet me in the morning” and it is interesting to see that he wrote the complex and long songs first, ending with the two simple pieces – a song based on “Bottle of Wine” – a simple piece of folk if ever there was one – and the other a standard 12 bar blues.

By the end of his writing surge in 1974, all the large complex work had gone.  He was tidying up the bits and pieces in his head, and wrote music to fit.

So with this song, musically the year was almost over, and with one more composition the whole album could be considered done and dusted.  All that was left was to select the order of tracks on the LP.

 

The intersection mentioned in the song, 56th and Wabasha, apparently does not exist.  Which may, or may not, sum it all up.

And there we had it.  The album quite a few people feel was / is the best ever Dylan album. But Bob what did he think?

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1 Response to All Directions 29: The greatest Dylan album ever?

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Up To Me:

    Perhaps, a reference to Charles Bakowski’s novel”Post Office’

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