All Directions 36: all hail the new direction

by Tony Attwood

This is episode 36 of “All Directions at Once”, a series which considers Bob Dylan’s songwriting in the order in which he wrote the songs.   The most recent episodes are….

The full index tp the series is here

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In 1974 Bob Dylan wrote “Tangled up in Blue” and from that a whole album that emerged from a way of seeing time, possibilities and people slipping in and out of our experience.

In 1975 he wrote Isis, and a collaborative album concerning unexpected people in unusual places.

And in 1976…

So 1976 gives us one song: Seven Days a song of lost love, and nothing more.  But at least it was a sign that Bob the composer was not going to vanish again as had happened in previous periods of silence after earlier bursts of high quality songwriting.

The song  was first played in a concert on 18 April 1976, got five outings and was then dropped from the repertoire.  Then on 19 April 1996 it suddenly reappeared, was performed 13 times, and then dropped again.

My suspicion is that this was one of those songs  that Bob liked and felt worked, but that he also felt something was not quite right with the composition, and no matter how he varied the performances, it just wouldn’t come good.

And my thoughts on this are heightened by the fact that the following year he wrote “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”, the third of the songs written in the Street Legal sequence, wherein he reused a little of “Seven Days”.

If you listen to the lines

seven more days she’ll be comin’
I’ll be waiting at the station

and compare with

do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

you will see what I mean.

It is of course impossible to know what it is in a song that makes Bob consider it for album inclusion and regular outings at the gigs, but maybe it is the huge leap musically from the verses to the “middle 8,” that ultimately made him think of “Seven Days” as merely a source of spare parts for later music.

For what it’s worth, that’s my view because the song doesn’t quite hold together as, for example, with the wait for a childhood friend, interrupted by the kissing and thieving passage – then back to the childhood friend now described as the beautiful comrade from the north.

But what I never could was see a link that Heylin suggests exists between this song and an early favourite of mine, “Darling be home soon” by John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful, the song and used in the film “You’re a Big Boy Now”.

There are loads of versions of “Darling be home soon” (truly one of the great romantic rock songs of all time) on the internet.  I’ve previously given a link to John Sebastian performing it solo at Woodstock.  This time I’ll offer the song from the movie.

 

My point is that Sebastian’s concept is that

And I see that the time spent confused
Was the time that I spent without you

which is not at all related to Dylan’s vision in Seven Days.  But Señor was the song from Street Legal that really did survive for Dylan in the next era of his songwriting and was played 265 times between June 1978 and April 2011.  So a little element of Seven Days did live on.   And as we consider this new year of compositions what we also have to take into account here is that sometime around this period Dylan converted to Christianity.

So maybe those first feelings of the adoption of religion is what “Changing of the guards” has within it.  Maybe it is even what the title means.  Michael Gray however found the song not to be a step into the future but an exploration of Dylan’s previous 16 years which takes us back to 1961 and songs such as Song to WoodieTalking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.  and Man on the street.

If so, Dylan may even have intended to go back to the year before, the year from which we have his earliest pieces, but then “Seventeen years” has an extra syllable and doesn’t scan readily with the music.  

Other critics have found “Changing of the Guards” obscure, but then surely that is what Dylan has ever been.  What is “My love she speaks like silence” if not opaque.  Indeed what is the meaning of the title of that song?  And if obscurity is to be criticised, why is “Love Minus Zero” not hammered by the critics, rather than praised?

Which question raises the next point, why does meaning matter in songs, when it most certainly doesn’t matter in lots of visual art?  Which in turn means I am in danger of re-running the whole argument about Dylan being accurate with his descriptions of real people, when visual artists have no such requirements thrust upon them.

But it does annoy me that some self-appointed Dylan critics take everything so literally, and demand such tedious and boring accuracy in lyrics.  I suppose for them all poetry is failure because roses aren’t always red.

Dylan did however on this occasion answer his critics when saying of the song “It means something different every time I sing it. ‘Changing of the Guards’ is a thousand years old.”   Which also takes me back to comparing Dylan’s writing to abstract art – it means something different every time I look at it.

So the first of the seven songs of the year was ambiguous.  And the ambiguous possibilities of song were followed up with the second composition: Is your love in vain? – and the ambiguity can be heard with this version.. and please stay with it to the instrumental break near the end.  It is so wonderful – and thank you Filip for introducing me to the recording.

 

“Is your love…” was also hammered for its supposed misogyny.  Indeed it has always seemed to me if we are going to go down this road, that gets rid of the blues as an entire genre, not to mention the first twenty odd years of rock n roll.   Which in turn means that my rock n roll dance partner and I can’t dance to “Shake Rattle and Roll” any more just because it starts

Well get out of that bed, wash your face and hands
Get out of that bed, wash your face and hands
Well get in that kitchen
Make some noise with the pots and pans

Fortunately we can, because she doesn’t take it personally.

Loads of people wander through life bemoaning the fact that they can’t find the perfect partner that will either fit in with their life or take them out of this hell into a perfect existence.  Indeed many of us who have ever thought about finding a perfect partner invariably create both an imaginary friend and an imaginary world for that friend to live in.   That’s what we do.  That’s life; that’s imagination.   It might be a world of two equals, it might be a world in which one looks after the home and the other goes out to work… are certain models of existence now to be rejected because they don’t fit with a specific style of life laid down by a record reviewer?

Quite honestly it doesn’t bother me at all that Dylan goes through a period where he says he just wants a woman who can cook and sew.  If he finds a woman who loves him and wants to make a home for him, while recognising he spends much of the year on tour or in the studio, and they are both happy and both willing partners in the arrangement, I personally don’t see the problem.

So Dylan is no longer the bright boy on the block describing the freak show and the strange world around him. Now he’s the man who must be criticised, just as he was for “Mozambique”.  Suddenly it is not enough that the songs have fine melodies, interesting chords sequences, clever arrangements and fascinating lyrics.  No, now they have to be about the right thing.  They have to be politically correct.  And just remember: this is Dylan we are talking about.

And because of this many critics miss the fact that the melody of this song is far more interesting than in many Dylan songs, and it works perfectly around the lyrics and their meaning.  For most women and men who have wealth or fame or some special talent or any combination of these, are aware of others who fall for the image of what they are, rather than what lies beneath.  What these critics can’t understand is that the questions Dylan poses are not sexist, but the problems faced by those in the public eye and those with a unique talent.

And the fact that the slow plodding descending bass of Dylan’s original can be transformed into the bouncy fun of the Stanislaw Sojka version above, is further testament to the song’s vitality.   In Dylan’s version it is the slowness of the steps down hill accompanying the opening line which cries out, “I’ve done these steps too many times.”  In the Sojka version he’s nudging her in the ribs and saying, “you ok?”

Besides, the genius megastar asking how he can do his job and be himself at the same time is perfectly valid.  And the fact that he’s still balanced is shown by

I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings
And I’ve never been too impressed

My point is, after the last album which was full of other people (some real, some not) and other places, Bob is now writing songs about his life and his world.  And what he gets in response is Jon Pareles saying, “Dylan still needs a producer” is just too simplistic.

Yes the song in its original form is slow, and yes as we can hear above it could also go fast.  What’s wrong with that?  Real life takes ponderous steps much of the time, (or at least mine has).  But maybe music critics (or at least the ones I have met) don’t want realism.  They’ve just had a fantasy album from Bob, now they want another one, rather than one about himself.

Well, hard luck.  Bob is talking about a real simple dilemma within his life, not delving into a fantasy land inhabited by Louie the King, not attacking TS Eliot for his behaviour towards his first wife, not knocking the pretentiousness of the girl who laughed at Napoleon in rags, not listening to the central heating pipes in Louise’s attic, not portraying an exploding island.  He’s in the ordinary world, and maybe that’s  it.  Dylan isn’t supposed to get real.

And, at least according to David Weir, he’s not supposed to be a “devious, selfish, misogynistic, naive, self-deceiving egotist.”   Except I don’t think he is, any more than most of us are.  He was looking inside himself and noticing it was pretty dark in places, but not as dark as Dylan could ultimately imagine.

Maybe the problem for some critics is that Dylan is singing about his life and not fantasies or the eternal verities – and yet for me that is the key to this work.   It is the eternal verities and his real life as seen through personal conflict and experience mixed up with real everyday life.

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1 Response to All Directions 36: all hail the new direction

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Abstract paintings are a different media than a song … yes, they are intended to stimulate the imigination of the observer, but I repeat they do not vocalize or play music, but instead appeal through the eye , and not through the ear of the listener as a song does -from the words and music thereof, sensory images arise in the mind …
    When she comes round the mountain, she’ll be driving six white horses when she comes, and we’ll all have chicken and dumblings when she gets here.

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