Bob Dylan’s greatest, yet still obscure, lines

by Tony Attwood

Getting on for five years ago I wrote a little piece in which I tried to highlight a few of Bob’s great lines which were not the ones that everyone would immediately know.

Most of my choices were lines that every Dylan fan would surely know, but three of them were lines that although the avid connoisseur would identify at once, not everyone would.  Furthermore they are lines which, although we might be able to explain them, are still lines that can make us (or perhaps I should just say, “can make me”) stop what I am doing and think.

And then think some more.

Here are the three I found in that earlier article.

  • My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost
  • Everyone is wearing a disguise
  • There’s a black Mercedes rollin’ through the combat zone

The point is not just that they are a trifle obscure in the sense that there will be many Dylan fans who can’t place these lines at once, but also they have that level of enigma that I really love about a lot of Dylan’s work.

Lines such as “There must be some way out of here said the joker to the thief” have that enigma as well, but we are so used to such lines that the initial impact has long since gone.  They have now become part of the vocabulary.  But where we can find lines that have slipped through the net of general consciousness, such lines can give us a further pause for thought.

Two suggestions that were given in the earlier article about this very much met my criteria of enigma and not being a line that maybe not every Dylan fan knows were

  • I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
  • Never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine

Stretching my criteria somewhat (because the song is short and surely everyone knows it off my heart so I thought I might squeeze in)

  • You are a walking antique

which is not the politest thing ever said.  That is perhaps a line in a different category – great, challenging lines, which have become commonplace among the Dylan audience, but which really ought to be taken out of context and considered, just occasionally.

However as my meanderings continued I found that what I really wanted were lines that even some Dylan fans who know the works very well might take a moment to place, and which having placed the lines they would perhaps really think about for some time, out of the context of the song from which they came.

The point being that having the lines divorced from the rest of the song, the sheer enigma of some of Bob’s writings can be felt full-on.  (Or at least that is how it seems to me).

To give an example

  • That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.

You might of course immediately say “Dirge” and you’d be right, but what exactly does it mean, and why, does that line does it stay with me?   It is, I suppose, the juxtaposition of the martyr crying for the sins of humanity, while the angels – God’s celestial intermediaries  – are to be found playing with sin.   I don’t fully get it, but the image has been occupying my mind since I first had the idea for this little meander, last weekend.

Of course obscurity isn’t everything, nor is it, I find, essential.  I mean I get the meaning of

  • I’ve paid the price of solitude, but at last I’m out of debt

which gives us a simple image of not owing anyone for the favours of the past, but it is said in a way that seems to give the lines a deeper meaning.

Some of the lines I thought of are descriptions of feelings but done in such an interesting way that although the words are simply everyday language a single line can give me a sense of “otherness”, of being somewhere else, unknown, unknowable.  As in…

  • I’m stranded in this nameless place

A nameless place is impossible, a contradiction, everywhere has a name.  It is what humanity does – it gives names out to everything.  And yet it is a feeling I have shared on some occasions; a feeling of being utterly lost in terms of my own place within the world.  A nameless place is a place without meaning, so being stranded there is to have no meaning in one’s life…

Sometimes in doing this I come across lines which are known by every fan, I’m sure, because the song is so brilliant, but the meaning of which is still obscure, and yet one can absolutely feel it at certain times.

  • There’s not even room enough to be anywhere

Of course in flipping around through the songs I have come across some whose meaning is not obscure, but where, in so few ordinary everyday words, Dylan manages to capture the depths of a specific emotion.  For example,

  • You trampled on me as you passed

is one of those.  One meets a person and really feels drawn to that person, and yet they show no reciprocation, no interest.   I can’t recall that emotion expressed so succinctly elsewhere.  Maybe I should do a search for that category of “clear emotions expressed, but not as expressed by others, in obscure lines of Dylan” except that is getting a bit complicated.

But from the same song I immediately think of another such line

  • They’ll drag you down, they’ll run the show

The line is clear in its meaning, but who will?  I am not sure “Tell Ol’ Bill” really tells us.

If you have such lines – lines that just really seem to have no meaning at one level, but which in ways that can’t be expressed, do have an untouchable meaning at another level – do write in and tell me.

Do you have a tale to tell via Untold Dylan?

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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 Response to Bob Dylan’s greatest, yet still obscure, lines

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    To be picky, Bob Dylan sings, not “at last” , but “at least I’m out of debt” which shades the meaning somewhat …as may or may not be realized by listeners to Dylan’s recordings, the lyrics written down on various sites cannot be trusted.

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