This is episode 38 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, considering how each song affected the next.
The previous episode was All directions: where now Señor? There’s more than enough time to think
By Tony Attwood
In this series we have now reached 1977, and when we look back at how Dylan progressed through the 70s to get here we find an extraordinary journey. It is a journey that I fear many commentators upon the compositions of Bob Dylan have not taken into account as they consider Dylan’s work song by song, looking only at what was happening to him at the time, rather than what he had written in the months or years before.
As such, these commentators don’t see the journey that his songwriting has been travelling. They miss the ebb and flow of a creative person’s world, instead treating each work as an object standing in isolation, rather than seeing it as part of the continuing evolution of the artist’s thoughts, through his evolving creativity, through thoughts influenced by interactions with the world around, by beliefs, friends, ideas…
So, to try and make this a little clearer in terms of how this progression has been working with Dylan in the 1970s, I’d like at this point to take an overview of how that decade has panned out thus far.
My aim in particular is to see how the composition of “No time to think” came out of all that went before. Because this is indeed what I think happened. I feel that over time there was a build up of thoughts and ideas which enabled Dylan to compose what I perceive as the utter, sublime masterpiece that is “No time”.
The start of the decade saw Dylan in retreat, composing what became “New Morning,” starting with the exquisite “Time passes slowly” – a song title which is the exact opposite of “No time to think” at the end of the period. Indeed these two titles alone should give us a clue as to what was happening to Dylan over these years. And that awareness should be leading commentators on Dylan to ponder how he evolved his writing across the years. Yet they have not done this, because generally they do not see Dylan as an artist whose work is itself an ebb and flow; a ceaseless progression of possibilities and ideas. Each creation, each song, is an isolated incident to be dissected without reference to anything beyond the immediate moment.
And yet across these years Bob moved from a comment that he was, “Starin’ out the window to the stars high above; Time passes slowly when you’re searchin’ for love” to one that says, “In death, you face life with a child and a wife, Who sleep-walks through your dreams into walls.” That is quite a journey, and it fascinates me as to how Dylan happened to take it.
After such thoughts of the rural idyll, 1971 was a year of pause and explorations, not least because unless one has a burning imperative in one’s work, and one has plenty of money, there really is no reason to go anywhere. Yet we can feel a contradiction here because this was the moment when Bob Dylan composed “When I paint my masterpiece” a song which expressed a yearning for greater artistic development which in itself suggested that the rural idyll was all right for a while, but not forever. He was ok where he was, but knew there would be a change somewhere down the road. The masterpiece was just slightly visible above the horizon.
As Dylan returned to contemplate the wider world around him he regained a fascination with the everyday reality of life, so it is not too surprising that there was also a venture into writing about a real person. The George Jackson song that followed annoyed many commentators who felt that art should be truthful rather than, well, artistic, but I feel Dylan knew where he was going with this.
Another pause followed until in 1972 we had “Forever Young” – a song which took us back to the family idyll of “no reason to go anywhere”, and then the composition of the film music – another exploration into the unknown.
So we find the emergence of the notion that there is more to art than contentment until the dam burst in 1973 and the songs began to pour forth once again without any form of restriction or desire to push everything into the same constraining idyll of rural life.
At first there is no direction so that as the creative genius flexes his muscles once more (if being a creative genius allows one to flex muscles) and Dylan seeks his new direction, exploring everything from “You Angel You” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” through to “Dirge” and “Wedding Song”.
And I do think it is worth pausing for a moment to reiterate the enormous steps taken between the first two and the last two of those songs. “You Angel”still has a lot of rural idyll within it; the notion of perfection, of pleasure, of the sheer joy of his feelings.
Could it actually be the same composer who in the same year also composed “Dirge”? It seems hard to believe but it was, and we can only conclude that something profound had happened to Dylan during that year.
To be able to switch style and genre in this way in the course of a year is remarkable, and most certainly those last two songs (Dirge, and Wedding Song) shout out to anyone willing to listen, that Bob is now travelling in a very new direction. Plus those last two songs of the year must have told Dylan (as if he didn’t know) that he could now go in any direction he wanted, and create the music that he wanted to create, no matter what it was.
So what does he do? He gives us either his greatest ever, or at least one of his greatest ever, works (or at least a sigh of relief that it is not a bad work) in 1974 producing song after song of such utter and sublime genius that someone unfamiliar with Dylan on hearing it for the first time might mistake it for his greatest hits. And he does it through a unique approach to popular song writing: through exploring people with their different views of reality. Blood on the Tracks.
But that in turn leaves a huge problem. For what does one do after producing one’s masterpiece? Sadly for many creative artists throughout all art forms, the answer turns out to be that the artist declines as he or she desperately seeks to create something as good, or even better, but can’t, while the critics say of each new work that it is “not a patch on….”
Yet amazingly, Bob had no such problems for he immediately gave us an extraordinary song in a minor key (unusual for Bob) and a tale of an outsider performed as a duet, in “One more cup of coffee”…
You've never learned to read or write There's no books upon your shelf And your pleasure know no limits Your voice is like a meadow lark But your heart is like an ocean Mysterious and dark
followed by a gentle love/lost love song with “Golden Loom”. Indeed if one listens to “One more cup of coffee” and then “Golden Loom” it seems extraordinary that one was written after the other. This is an extraordinary progression both lyrically and musically.
And then if that were not enough Bob is off again, changing directions once more as we have “Oh Sister” continuing his back and forth exchange with Joan Baez, which had started with “Diamonds and Rust.”
So now we are clearly thinking families and close relationships. Thus “Abandoned Love” makes an obvious follow up and the songs are in a pattern; it is making sense as a theme. People, their ways of seeing the world, their thoughts…
This was how Dylan seemed to be considering the world through his compositions when Jacques Levy turned up and added a new level: not just songs that are personal but songs that are much broader. Songs in which real and mythical people are entwined with real and mythical places. People and places that are not just different in themselves but can change overnight.
One after the other they arrived, and if we listen to the songs in the order written it becomes clear: the real and the mythical are deliberately mixed, often as with “Joey”, even in the same song. Sometimes also with cynicism mixed with humour (as “Mozambique” is recast from war-torn poverty to an island paradise and paraded as a jaunty happy advert).
Next we had songs about actual real people. “Rita May,” and “Hurricane” as Bob lept thither and yon, playing with the history of real places (Black Diamond Bay, Mozambique, Durango, Laredo) and these real people. They all turn up in the next sequence of seven songs before we suddenly have another change, announced appropriately enough with the “Changing of the Guards”
To create this many changes of style, direction and message over the space of a few years is an utterly extraordinary creative endeavour, and it is not surprising that as we reach 1977 Dylan clearly felt he had done that and now a new sound and a new approach was required. So he goes a travelling on a “long-distance train rolling through the rain,” knowing that it is time to move on once more…
So, he’s admitted it is a time for change, a time for asking questions, and ultimately, just as the notion of religion is slowly emerging into his mind, he returns to the notion of the old man, the Wandering Jew as Chaucer has it, and (at least in his stories) Dylan meets the old man and writes “Senor”.
But in this new land where truth and fantasy merge (at least given the way that the story of the old man changes each time Bob tells it) it is clearly also an opportunity for Bob to look at creating new poetic and musical forms. And if the musical form is not totally new, at least it is a form that no one had ever used in popular music before. So we had “No Time to Think.” So complex indeed that Bob never once played it on stage, which is very much our loss…
To consider this song we have consider the purpose of the lyrics. Are they there to tell a story, describe feelings and emotions, paint a picture, encourage the listener to dance, express sadness? And the answer is yes of course, all that. But not just that because they can also portray the abstract. We have words and music, but not meanings that can be expressed as words alone. We have emotions and feelings that need more than words.
In such a situation the words may not make sense in the rational way, but they will still express something – and that something is valuable indeed because it is expression through words of an essence that cannot be portrayed through words. Jochen noted this in his review when he picked out, “Bible references, echoes of ancient mythology, unusual word combinations (so-called catachresis) and replicated fragments from old songs.”
But instead of seeing this work as a brilliant opening of the door onto a new dimension of song writing, some critics found it lacking.
Yet for me it is a towering masterpiece, not only as a single song but as a summation of Dylan’s work. It is such a perfect description of a world that doesn’t make sense. A world the human race is rushing to destroy, while praying to its own gods for salvation. A world where Christianity has flourished simultaneously as a power for good and a centre for child abuse. Where every image, thought, idea, complexity and contradiction crashes into each other, so that we really do have no time to think.
But because much of the phraseology doesn’t make sense in the conventional sense it is dismissed. And yet if the world makes no sense, why shouldn’t the song make no sense? Just consider these couplets…
In death, you face life with a child and a wife Who sleep-walks through your dreams into walls. Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss In the valley of the missing link ….the country priestess will want you Her worst is better than best. I'd have paid off the traitor and killed him much later But that's just the way that I am. Madmen oppose him, but your kindness throws him To survive it you play deaf and dumb. Warlords of sorrow and queens of tomorrow Will offer their heads for a prayer. You know you can't keep her and the water gets deeper That is leading you onto the brink You've murdered your vanity, buried your sanity For pleasure you must now resist. Lovers obey you but they cannot sway you They're not even sure you exist. Fools making laws for the breaking of jaws And the sound of the keys as they clink But there's no time to think. You turn around for one real last glimpse of Camille 'Neath the moon shinin' bloody and pink Bullets can harm you and death can disarm you But no, you will not be deceived. Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt, You can give but you cannot receive. No time to prepare for the victim that's there, No time to suffer or blink And no time to think.
There has never previously been a song like this. It is an utter monument to a way of portraying the emotions and feelings of uncertainty in a world moving so fast that even trying to decode a fraction of it means you miss the next bit.
Yes Dylan agrees, “I’m only a man, Doin’ the best that I can…” And it turns out that this best is so much better than everyone else, because no one that I can recall has attempted to venture into this territory through the medium of writing a song. It is The Drifter’s Escape in full glorious technicolor detail.
But sadly, many who analyse the songs from this period tend to forget the creations as works of art and instead become fixated by Bob’s life. Few, if any, get near the notion that this might just be Bob following his intellectual and creative direction as he has moved away from there being no reason to do anything at all. After all as Jochen said in his book on the album, “This is 1978, Dylan has been saying je est un autre for over a decade now, but to no avail.”
As Dylan says in interviews, “It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it… they give it purpose.” And the self-appointed (one sometimes feels one should actually write “self-anointed”) critics don’t like it. In fact I suspect they would have liked it even less if they had woken up to realise that the source of Dylan’s inspiration is T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” If you want the full detail there is no better place to find it than here.
In short, Dylan has taken an established (if not widely known) classic form of writing, and has found words to fit into the form. Indeed the form, not the message, has become the centre, the heart-beat, the essence. Of course it is ok if, as a listener, as a fan, you don’t take the form on board, and instead you listen to the music and enjoy it. But then it is also fine if you don’t like the music and you turn it off. As Dylan said, song long before, there’s no reason to go anywhere. Reason doesn’t have anything to do with it.
But the professional critic, the self-ordained interpreter of Dylan, the writer who invites the world to see his workings out and his opinions as definitive, really needs to understand that when the fans are faced by critics who miss the whole point of the creative endeavour, what is the point of the critics?
What we actually have here is Dylan creating a totally new artistic concept, taking his mood from a movie, and his form from an utter master of 20th century English poetry, while adding to it his own unique literary and musical style. And the result is a totally new direction for, what for want of another phrase, we call “popular music”
As for Bob’s 1977 problem, it was simple. After a masterpiece such as this which breaks every boundary we knew existed and then a few more that the rest of us hadn’t discovered, where next? Where next indeed.
There’s nowhere else because when there is no time to think this is all there is. Just play it again.
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