This is episode 31 of All Directions. The most recent episodes are
- 29: The greatest Dylan album ever?
- 30: Oh Sister, Abandoned love, farewell preliminaries, hello dead body
There is a full index to the series which traces Bob’s work in the order in which it was composed, here.
By Tony Attwood.
The songs that Bob Dylan wrote in the run up to composing “Isis” and the remaining songs composed for “Desire” were, I would submit, by and large of the highest quality – with the possible exception of “Money Blues” which is a straightforward 12 bar composition. It’s not a bad song, just not a great song.
But otherwise these are remarkable works, and if one had a remarkability chart (or come to that if “remarkability” were actually a word, and one could judge each song that way) we might note a rise in just how extraordinary each song from this period was, as we progress through the timeline that brought us One More Cup of Coffee, Golden Loom, Oh Sister and Abandoned Love.
But it is most certainly fair to say that even so, nothing, but nothing, prepared us for Isis.
But what makes “Isis” such a great song? Indeed, what sort of song is Isis?
It can be argued that the lyrics mean something as a story in their own right. Alternatively “Isis” could be an individual the composer knows. Or the song might just be about Egypt, or it might not. On the other hand it could be just a set of interesting lines strung together with a great beat, and fine melody and a bass guitarist who really understands what it is all about.
But out of these points, for the moment I want to focus on one of them: the interesting lyrics. And here I think it is time to ask if a set of interesting but random phrases which are simply strung together, can be rated as part of the creation of a great piece of music? Does it matter if the lyrics of Isis (or indeed any other song) are actually about anything coherent at all? Does it matter if the story in Isis (if there is one) is truthful or coherent or both, or not? In short, can a great song be created out of lines which are often disconnected from each other?
And moving on from there, does it even matter if any set of lyrics in a song are truthful or even coherent?
In my country we have a highly patriotic song, “Rule Britannia” which I suspect most British citizens know at least the first and last two lines of:
Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
It is obviously untrue and irrelevant in today’s world, being as it is a piece of music that celebrates the days of the British Empire, but it is sung with the same sort of gusto as “If you want me to, Yes!” in Isis. And it is still sung by a lot of people at an event (The last night of the Proms) each year – or at least each year when there is no pandemic.
These are questions I could have asked from the very start of this series of articles, or indeed anywhere in this blog, because from the very start Dylan and a truthful representation of the world around him have not gone hand in hand. Take “I was young when I left home,” which was the last song written by Bob in 1961, and as far as we can tell, the 15th song he wrote and kept.
I was young when I left home But I been out a-ramblin’ ‘round And I never wrote a letter to my home To my home, Lord, to my home And I never wrote a letter to my home It was just the other day I was bringing home my pay When I met an old friend I used to know Said your mother’s dead and gone Baby sister’s all gone wrong And your daddy needs you home right away
Of course it’s not true at all. But has anyone ever worried about that? I don’t think so. Indeed, the next song composed, at the start of 1962, (Ballad for a friend) is just as fanciful, as far as we know. There was no friend; there was no death. Certainly on the recording where Bob explains why he sang the verses out of sequence his voice doesn’t sound as if he is singing about a lost friend. But does any of that matter? It seems not.
And indeed it appears that no one seemed to mind much about such issues early in Dylan’s career. For example when he wrote
I’m out here a thousand miles from my home Walkin’ a road other men have gone down I’m seein’ your world of people and things Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings
in 1961, I don’t think anyone bothered to check the mileage (although yes New York is over 1000 miles from Duluth) nor how many princes and kings Bob had met by then (probably none).
But ten years later when Bob wrote George Jackson arguments raged about whether Jackson was an innocent victim or not. So it seems the issue of truth (or if you prefer “accuracy”) only matters sometimes, and it is the critics who want to decide when it matters.
Of course issues of accuracy are considered important sometimes when a newspaper or website which purports to be presenting the news, sets out “information” which others believe is completely false. Indeed at the moment I am writing this, this debate over the corona-virus vaccines falls into this category. Such matters are dealt with by recourse to factual evidence and science; some deny the validity of both evidence and science.
But mostly through history we have not treated works of art in the same way as newspaper reports. By and large we don’t demand that art is a strict factual representation of the truth – for it is were, it would just be history. Which is why individual passport photographs are not normally called art while photos in other circumstances can be called art. Art in all its forms, from symphonies to poetry, is not normally seen as a truthful representation of a person or situation or group of people. It is “art” – it sees things from a new direction, it exaggerates, it twists reality, it gives a new perspective and creates new worlds. That’s the point.
As a result art can often “say” one thing but be interpreted as meaning another, or indeed it may have no meaning at all but instead just be. In this regard, in this series and elsewhere, I’ve often cited the large Jackson Pollock and Bridget Riley reproductions hanging in my house. They have no meaning I can express in words, but they hang in my house as each provide me with meanings that cannot be expressed in other means.
What’s more, even if there is meaning in an artwork it can often be the case that the meaning the creator intended is not the meaning perceived by the critics or indeed when it comes to popular music, the fans. The lyrics of “Times they are a changing” observe the everyday fact that the world and society keeps changing. Not always for the better not always for the worse and certainly not always at our behest. Stuff happens, things change. The music expresses this relentless change through its plodding beat which goes 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 over and over, symbolising the slowly ever-changing reality.
Does it matter if a lot of people take this to mean not that the world just simply changes all the time (which is what the lyrics say), but rather that we can rise up and change this world and make it better? Does it matter that musician Tony Glover looked at the lyrics of “Times” and allegedly said, “What is this shit?” to which Dylan apparently replied “it seems to be what the people want to hear,” when in fact many people took the song to suggest that Dylan himself believed that change could be effected by the protests of the masses and that he would be there leading the charge?
And then what about the John Wesley Harding songs – does it matter that the hero’s name is spelled wrong, and that the hero of the song bears no resemblance to the character of the same name without the “g” in real life? Or that songs such as “Drifter’s Escape” makes no sense at all unless one bends and twists the meanings, ignores certain lines and makes a whole load of assumptions?
Pulling this theme together, as we approach “Isis” we find ourselves in a situation in which we must know (if we have been paying any attention) that Dylan’s songs are by and large fanciful, playing with reality, re-writing history, mixing fiction and fact, while allowing the mists to shroud any certainty as to the “real” meaning, all to such a degree that there is no “real” meaning any more. If there are meanings, there are only the meanings we, the listeners, impose.
Unfortunately, many critics of and commentators upon Dylan’s work fail to see that many Dylan songs are self-evidently not based on fact, but still try and find links between Dylan’s lyrics and reality, when it fact it is much easier to examine, consider and enjoy Dylan’s work without that battle.
Indeed as Jochen has so recently pointed out when Dylan talks about the writing of his songs, he doesn’t cite events, movements, beliefs etc (with the exception of his short period of writing only overtly Christian songs) he cites the musical antecedents.
So, to return (at long last) to Isis, my point is that when Bob Dylan wrote Isis he was already well established as a writer of fiction in songs, and by far the easiest way to see Isis is as both fiction, and also lines that are not necessarily connected (as can be the case in an abstract painting).
Thus within Isis the two writers bring in a fictionalised person into a fictionalised account of a very unclear set of events, which is simply another way of writing. For its effect and success it depends on a clear and solid beat, an unusual time signature (for popular music), a very energetic accompaniment and exclamations in the vocal line (as in “If you want me to, Yes”). There’s no need to try and see Isis as a real person; indeed to do that takes us into a wholly different world without any evidence at all, and almost certainly gives a wholly false reading of the lyrics.
Likewise there is also no need to try and link anything in the song with the Egyptian myth of Isis (which involves the resurrection of her husband, and helping the dead enter the afterlife, while also befriending all those at the edge of society – slaves, workers, the poor. Isis gave the disenfranchised hope – but not hope of working harder for salvation. Simply hope). Yes of course that could accord with Bob’s visions of the world, and one could work out a whole set of meanings starting, “I found hope on the 5th day of May”. But then, where does it go? Nowhere better. Sticking with Isis, it’s more fun, so that’s what they do.
Thus the simplest interpretation of this song and indeed most songs by Dylan, is that he has made up a story and/or people and/or a situation, and embellishes it with interesting words and phrases. Thus the songs are not clearly “about” anything in particular, even if they appear to be about something.
Such a view of Dylan’s work, in cases like Isis, is that it not only offers an explanation as to what is going on in the lyrics, it also allows us to enjoy the phraseology of the song as we are drawn along by the music, rather than spending time pondering phrases such as “pyramids all embedded in ice.” True, we do get the full Egyptian bit with the breaking into the tomb, the casket being empty and all that. But it is not related to anything real.
And as it happens, in this case, I write as one who has been right inside the Great Pyramid and can concur with the comment on Travel Trips USA that “the reality rarely lives up to fantasy, and a trip into the heart of one of the great pyramids might not be as glorious as you imagine.” Very true, so it is fortunate that I have this song as well.
Moving on, just as the people in songs don’t have to be real, so there is nothing that says the story has to make sense – exactly as we found when we contemplated the JWH songs. They can be the antithesis of making sense in the style of Kafka or simply disconnected irrational images moving from one episode to another.
Yet as humans we do wish to find meaningful sequences, because that is what our brains do – we make sense of the world to try to control it. What we have to do however is let go and just accept that “I gave him my blanket; he gave me his word” says something which cannot be translated into any other words, which when one thinks about it, is quite a trick.
Indeed there is something wonderfully playful about
The wind it was howling and the snow was outrageous When he died I was hoping that it wasn't contagious
which considering it is about death, is quite a trick to pull in a set of lyrics.
Indeed ever since I first heard that line I have kept the notion of outrageous snow with me. I have no idea what it means, but that doesn’t matter. I just love “outrageous snow” on a level that has nothing to do with meaning.
Thus in this approach words and music become playthings, just as they were when James Myers changed his name to Jimmy De Knight and then co-wrote “Rock Around the Clock” with Max C. Freedman. It’s not really saying that people should try and dance for 24 hours solid and then start all over again. It is just there for the fun.
This notion of exaggeration and the removal from reality is part of popular music and folk music. Sometimes the songs tell fictional stories, but even then they generally exaggerate in order to make the stories interesting.
When as children some of us (in England at least) learned
It was Friday morn when we set sail, And we were not far from the land When our Captain he spied a mermaid so fair With a comb and a glass in her hand.
we knew it wasn’t really true – or at least if we didn’t know that straight away, we were soon told. Fantasy, in short, has forever been part of songwriting. It might be a story, or it might just be a collection of images. Either way it is not there to describe the truth.
Indeed even the great folk song tradition so beloved of Ewan MacColl as part of the heritage of the English working classes were not truthful portrayals of the past, but an interpretation.
Now I’ve written this little tirade of mine at this point because having written Isis, the two composers sat down and penned “Joey”. Which in turn annoyed a lot of people who wanted to tell us that Dylan was glorifying someone who most certainly didn’t do what’s in the song. But seen in the context of the songs Dylan was writing, that is hardly relevant.
Rolling Stone made the point that, “When Bob Dylan sings about historical figures, he often gets a lot wrong. “Hurricane” is riddled with errors, and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is almost worse.”
But that is only a relevant comment if Dylan the songwriter is setting himself up to be a chronicler of the truth. Yet clearly he is not. He’s never claimed to be, and having had the experience of a very simple song like “Times they are a changin” being utterly misunderstood why would he ever think he could be?
What makes this debate interesting to me is that in other art forms this naive desire to relate the art to truth doesn’t happen. No one is bothered because Guernica by Picasso doesn’t reflect the actual scene of desolation (although I sometimes wonder what would happen if some renowned Dylan scholars took up art criticism).
Visual artists regularly take people, situations, artefacts, landscapes and anything else, and distort them. So do novelists. Do we worry that in writing Hamlet, Shakespeare didn’t get the 13th century Danish story right? (If anyone does, I must have missed that debate). So why do songwriters have to answer to a different set of commands which require accuracy and realism in their story telling?
Perhaps it is because the critics of popular music feel that it has to be judged against different criteria from that used in other art forms, and that telling the truth (as the individual critic perceives it) is vital.
Maybe, but why would anyone ever think such a thing? Why would anyone ever assume that folk music or popular music would portray the world accurately, any more than contemporary art seeks to do this?
In fact, artists do the reverse. Artists challenge and change reality. It is also what cartoonists do; it is what songwriters do. Truth matters if you are discussing something from the point of view of historical accuracy, but not when handling the subject as an artist. Nor come to that, does it matter in religion. Do we worry that Jesus may not have looked as he is portrayed in uncountable pictures, suffering on the cross?
I do find this strange. While other creative people are expected to manipulate reality within their creations, Bob Dylan is expected to stick to the facts.
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