Untold Dylan

All directions: where now Señor? There’s more than enough time to think

by Tony Attwood

This is episode 37 of “All Directions at Once”, a series which considers Bob Dylan’s songwriting in the order in which he wrote the songs, attempting to see Dylan’s creativity as a wave form, endlessly ebbing and flowing.   The most recent episodes are….

The full index to the series is here

We are now in 1977 and have in the previous article considered “Changing of the Guards” and “Is your love in vain”?  And the next song composed, Señor, has already been mentioned in my plod through Dylan’s songs as they are considered in the order written, noting that it contains an element of “Seven Days” in it.

And now as we move on we also have to take into account the fact that such reports as we have of Dylan’s private life, he was now in the first elements of conversion to Christianity, while also settling his divorce.


So perhaps it is not surprising that the tales we are told of the recording sessions for Street Legal are tales of chaos – Dylan coming and going, not settling, being in a bad mood etc etc, and the album that resulted is one that, according to the reviews I have read, was particularly disliked in the USA although not in all the countries where people took a particular interest in what he might do next.

But these events in Dylan’s life are of interest as I seek to explore his compositions as a continuing stream of events, not as isolated moment.   And so Señor, the next composition, is interesting in that  it was performed regularly across subsequent years, unlike songs such as, “Where are you tonight” which hit the dust before the end of 1978.  It would seem that Señor had something for Bob that lasted beyond the turmoil of this year.

In 1978 Dylan also told the story of how he was on a train going from Mexico to San Diego and how a strange old man got on the train, and Dylan felt the urge to talk to him.  But it seems the story told in the concerts started off as a fairly simple tale and gradually adding the notion that when Dylan finally did want to talk to the man, he had gone.  In short, over time the story changed, perhaps to fit Bob’s changing mood.

From the moment I first heard the song I felt a link to Bryan MacLean’s masterpiece “Old Man” which is found on Love’s “Forever Changes” album.  It is not just the opening verse which tells of a somewhat mysterious person

I once knew a man
Been everywhere in the world
Gave me a tiny ivory ball
Said it would bring me good
Never believed it would until
I have been loving you

but also the fact that Bryan MacLean was part of the Vineyard Christian ministry which Dylan joined.  “Old Man” was written in 1966, so pre-dates Señor, but I am sure Dylan would have known the song, and it is possible that MacLean was part of Dylan’s conversion.  The notion of the Old Man, the passing stranger, indeed the Wandering Jew, is of course ancient, and I cannot believe Dylan did not know “Forever Changes” – it is one of the albums that at the time everyone who had an interest in the way popular music could be expanded into something ever more insightful, ever more interesting, knew inside out.

If we accept that Dylan did know “Old Man” the ins and outs of Señor are easier to place

Señor, señor, do you know where we’re heading?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?

I also hear reference to a religious conversion in the song…

Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”

The later verse involving cutting loose from the past, walking away from all that was previously known, getting going onto the new life is certainly what MacLean had to do.  For he was offered a solo contract, once Love had broken up, only to have it cancelled because the quality of his work was not considered to be up to scratch.  One great song, and that’s it, it’s over.

The recording below is not from the “Forever Changes” album, but offers an extra insight into how MacLean saw the song himself.

Forever Changes was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008 as well as being added to the National Recording Registry in May 2012.  Sadly Bryan died on Christmas Day 1998 before these ultimate accolades appeared.

Now I am not suggesting that Dylan’s old man is MacLean’s old man in any way, but there are similarities and as I say, they did both go to the same church.

I am also taken with the fact that Christopher Rollason, in his review, called “Señor” “a wasteland with no easy answers… Political and religious readings are both possible, but, at least on first listening, this song propels the listener into a dark and desolate borderland world, where nothing can be taken on trust.”

In short, it is as if the Old Man on this occasion gives all the wrong answers – but the maybe suggests the positive answers were just around the corner.  Finding the Old Man was the key, but the journey was far from easy.

It is interesting that in Señor what we have is darkness, despair and destruction: the trainload of fools – just as Dylan is facing his divorce and all that this entails.

Indeed as Jochen has pointed out, Dylan’s tale changed over time, which is in keeping with his comment made on different occasions that various songs mean something different each time he sings them (which is the foundation of my view that it can be misleading to treat individual Dylan phrases as being carefully manicured to put across a specific notion; for me as often as not the words are like brush strokes in an abstract painting).

Jochen has another quote for us…

In some kind of way I see this as the aftermath of when two people who were leaning on each other because neither one of them had the guts to stand up alone, all of a sudden they break apart… I think I felt that way when I wrote it.”   But then again he says at Blackbush on another occasion… “This song is inspired by a man named Harry Dean Stanton. Some of you may know him.”   I really get the feeling that Bob is playing games.

But whatever the origin, “Señor” is the only song from the album that Dylan plays and plays in the years to come, and maybe that is because the song has (and again I’m indebted to Jochen for his review) bits of everything in it. “Even traces of Kafka lecture can be found again (just like on John Wesley Harding): the execution scene from Der Prozeß (‘The Trial’) seems to be the inspiration for ‘the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled’ (Josef K. also has to undress and go down on his knees), like the sobering ‘Son, this is not a dream no more, it’s the real thing’ characterizes Kafka’s entire oeuvre in one single line of verse.”

The late Jerry Garcia has always been a devout fan, and it was he who recorded “Señor” on the soundtrack of Masked And Anonymous.

So, Dylan had created a song he would hold on to in the years to come.  His own version of the “Wandering Jew” myth which dates back to the 13th century.  “The Jew Joseph who is still alive awaiting the last coming of Christ,” is the original statement from Flores Historiarum, and maybe, just maybe Dylan was thinking of the Old Man, the Wandering Jew, and himself, all wrapped up into one.

And then Dylan composed “No time to think”.  A suitable follow up…

In death, you face life with a child and a wife
Who sleep-walks through your dreams into walls
You’re a soldier of mercy, you’re cold and you curse
“He who cannot be trusted must fall”

If you want to give your ex a battering you can’t get much darker than this.  Indeed that last line “He who cannot be trusted must fall” rings so true.  How does anyone reply to accusations such as, “How could you actually think I could do such a thing?”

What Dylan has done is captured these snatched moments from his darker times and turned them into a song.

And let us not forget the imagery.  That gives us the thought that there is no literal meaning to each line, no need to analyse, we go around in circles, ideas bumping into each other like the lines bump into each other here.   This is “Not Dark Yet” but without the resignation.

There is also the element of being used – everyone wants a bit of Dylan for themselves.   As he says, “You fight for the throne and you travel alone…” only to be “Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss”.   

“Equality, liberty, humility, simplicity” – everything we ever wanted, all now seems to be mashed up in a melting pot (if you see what I mean).   The man destroyed by divorce has not recovered but he is partially here admitting at last that there is “No time to choose when the truth must die.”

I disagree with commentators who talk about this song having apocalyptic themes, the Bible and all the rest.  To me this is about the emotions of rejection, the arguments, love gone, now she hates me and wants to take me for every penny.  That is the start and the end of the song.   All the hurt comes pouring out.

But there is more, and I certainly get it until Jochen pointed it out that the weird rhyme scheme comes from a letter written by TS Eliot to Anthony Laude thanking him for dinner.   Jochen tells us that it is a “rhyme scheme that one will not find anywhere in the world literature: aab-ccb dd-ee-ff.”

Except here in this song.

In death, you face life
with a child and a wife
Who sleep-walks through your dreams into walls

You’re a soldier of mercy,
you’re cold and you curse “He
who cannot be trusted must fall”

high society,

You fight for the throne
and you travel alone
Unknown as you slowly sink
And there’s no time to think

As Jochen says later the lyrics actually consist of nine inverted sonnets, and my response on first reading this was, “so that’s why I’m confused.”

It was Jürgen Kloss’  in his article Rhyming With Bob who discovered the antecedent – the song  “Let’s Not Talk About Love” written in 1941

Here’s the final verse…

No honey, I suspect you all
Of being intellectual
And so, instead of gushin’ on
Let’s have a big discussion on
Timidity, stupidity, solidity, frigidity
Avidity, turbidity, Manhattan and viscidity
Fatality, morality, legality, finality
Neutrality, reality, or Southern hospitality
Promposity, verbosity
I'm losing my velocity
But let’s not talk about love

This is the Dylan I have been trying to write about – the Dylan where the words are more important than the meaning of the words, the phrases too being more important than their meanings, but where underlying feelings are expressed through the connections created which would otherwise never be considered.

If only we can escape the tyranny of the meanings of the words, and accept  the words as simply a part of the music, then appreciation becomes much easier.  No one (or at least no one I know) worries about the fact that Dylan might record a song in F sharp but then play it on stage in A flat.  No one gets worked up at how many times he uses the 12 bar blues format.   And, indeed, Dylan has made this oh so clear, as for example in a Playboy interview in 1977.

“It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They… they… punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose.”

None of this is new, none of it is utterly original on its own; it is original as a conception for a piece of rock music and set of rock lyrics.  It’s a game; but sadly, tragically, a game all those critics who think they know so much more, feel they can do without.

Thus where once we had arbiters of good taste, now we have arbiters of good song lyrics, arbiters of rhyme, arbiters of what works and what doesn’t, arbiters of each individual Dylan song arbiters of every rhyme scheme, arbiters of every single thing in a song by people who have never once written a single song in their entire lives.

And what Dylan does it make all these words and rhymes and games fit into a repeating chord sequence:

IV  I  V  I  IV  I  IV  V

To put so much into such an epic around just through the three primary chords is extraordinary.

And as for why all this convolution of words and sounds is necessary that is really not too hard to answer, for Dylan was fighting issues over who would look after his children, and worrying about the movie Renaldo and Clara. What a relief to spend a few hours or days or weeks being tangled up in rhymes and rhythms.

Plus meanwhile it was reported that a telegram arrived from the Japanese promoter, and in it he had a manifest of the songs he expected Bob to do on this tour.  So Bob was now a jukebox.  And then Renaldo and Clara was released to very poor reviews.

As it happens Japan turned out ok, as Budokan testifies, Bob and co toured Australia, came back rented a portable studio and recorded nine songs in four days.

Of course it may not have been “Let’s talk about love” that gave Bob the idea of writing in this way.  It could even have been a letter written by TS Eliot in 1964 to Anthony Laude after they had had a meal together wherein Eliot expresses his admiration for Anthony’s cat.

The gourmet cat was of course Cumberleylaude,
Who did very little to earn his dinner and board,
Indeed, he was always out and about,
Patronising the haunts where he would find,
People are generous and nice and kind,
Serving good food to this culinary lout!

With care he chooses his place to dine,
And dresses accordingly, if he has time,
Tasting all that Neville Road offers,
With never a thought for anyone’s coffers!
The best is only fit for the best he opines,
When he wants salmon, or duck, or expensive French wines.

There is that rhyme scheme again.  So, a 1941 song, or a 1964 poem – one or the other was the source of Dylan’s writing, as Jochen has pointed out before on this site.

In death, you face life
with a child and a wife
Who sleep-walks through your dreams into walls
You’re a soldier of mercy,
you’re cold and you curse “He
who cannot be trusted must fall”

high society,

You fight for the throne
and you travel alone
Unknown as you slowly sink
And there’s no time to think

It is a brilliantly clever piece of lyrical writing, and equally a brilliant piece of musical composition to make it all happen in a way that keeps the listener interested, while using a form that was invented for humour over a subject matter that was for the composer anything but amusing.

In effect the people who come out of this moment looking utterly foolish (and I count myself in this for writing about the song several times over the years without fully understanding what was going on) are those who pontificate and feel they can tell us all that Dylan had lost it.  No, not at all.  He had found it, “it” being a unique means for expressing all those ever changing tangled up emotions.

Do you have a tale to tell via Untold Dylan?

We now have over 2000 articles on this site, and many of them are personal tales about attending a concert, listening to Dylan, cover versions, or the individual writer’s own appreciation of Dylan and his music.

These articles are written for Untold by Dylan fans, and if you have a view of Dylan that you feel could be of interest to others, we’d love to hear from you.

To see the variety of approaches we have included in this site, just go to the top of the page and look at the various headings under the picture – each one contains an index of articles on a Dylan theme.  Or look at the latest series listed on our home page.  If you write a piece you can add to these, or create your own theme, or simply send in a one-off contribution.   As long as it gives a different insight into Dylan and his work, we may be well interested in publishing it.

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  1. The members of “It’s The Music, Stupid, School of Dylanology” are forever telling listeners things like ” escape from the tyranny of the meanings of words”, but as long as Dylan continues to employ English, his lyrics will still inherently have meaning that cannot be dismissed out of hand from the words that he chooses to use – they make up the language of a culture, and are not just sounds.
    So there is no reason why the supposed ‘tyranny’ of meaning , and the rhythm of the sounds of words ought to be separated rather than taken together.

    If Tony would just hum his articles, I might ‘get’ what he means.

  2. Literary analysts who structure words in order to downplay the importance of structure and meaning of the words therein, which are often emotional-laden, whether written, spoken, or sung, akin to the Deconstructionists end up eating their own tails.

  3. Dylan uses his creative imagination; in pointed shoes and bells, he rides around the circus ring with one foot on the back of a pony called “Structure”, and the other foot on the back of a pony named “Decontruction”….

    It ain’t easy, it’s a bumpy ride for sure.

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