By Tony Attwood
“All directions at once” is a series which looks at Bob Dylan’s writing as it evolves over time, rather than focusing entirely on individual songs or albums. The index of all articles is here.
We have reached the early 1980s…. The last article in the series was “Farewell to the Almighty, welcome back Bob” and took us as far as the writing of “Dead man dead man”. The Christian era is over, the extraordinarily brilliant transition era from “Every Grain of Sand” through “Angelina”, has delivered a stunning array of works of genius, and now once more Bob seemed somewhat unsure where to go next.
What we got were some 16 or so songs including a fair number that only the most ardent fans will immediately remember, and indeed many followers of Dylan simply will not know at all.
But I think many would agree “Heart of Mine,” at the start of this next period of writing, is a really good song – not up there with the greatest works, but most certainly one that is worth listening to in its various cover versions….
But after that, we come to a run of songs that for most people are much harder to recall. Indeed, some like “Is it worth it?” don’t even get a mention on BobDylan.com. Obviously we’ve reviewed them all on this site, because that was the original task we set ourselves, and you can see the full list of compositions of the era here.
But Dylan returned to form with the last few songs in the sequence: “Dead Man,” “Trouble”, and a song for the Hawaii 5-0 TV series, and “Watered down love,” are memorable pieces, but are dwarfed by the next composition: “Lenny Bruce”.
What strikes me strongly in listening to these songs in the order they were written is that they are mostly negative – the positive message of Christianity has not been replaced by any other positivity; things are certainly not right. And I think this is a thought worth holding as we move on through Bob’s list of compositions from here on. It’s not all dark yet, but it’s not that hopeful.
Indeed I feel it is possible to argue that Bob had reached a view that things in the world in general were falling apart, and the bits which had not fallen apart yet were in the process of tumbling down.
“Lenny Bruce” is a song from this period which Heylin describes as trite and simplistic, yet is one that Dylan clearly had an affection for, and it is one that highlights the contradictions that were entering Bob’s new world-view. Lenny Bruce, the man who loved to make fun of organised religion, the man who when alive found it hard to get work because of the nature of his approach to comedy, and yet who was revered after his death.
Certainly for me (although clearly not for Heylin), “Lenny Bruce” is the highlight of Dylan’s compositions of 1981; the melody, the lyrics, the simplicity of the arrangement – all redoubled when one listens to it as part of a review of Bob’s writing at this time. Hearing those compositions in sequence makes one feel, this is Bob with reaching into his new direction.
And yet, as if to disprove my point, after that Bob wrote two more religious songs (“Jesus is the one” and “Thief on the cross”). The last two openly religious songs, although with a spot of uncertainty creeping in as well.
Of course with “Lenny Bruce”, Dylan was no stranger to writing about individuals – and no stranger to getting hammered by the critics for such works… From Catfish to St Augustine, from Rubin Carter to Rimbaud and Verlaine from Jessie James to F Scott Fitzgerald, from Joey Gallo to … well the list goes on. But I do find Lenny Bruce turning up next to “Jesus is the one” somewhat arresting. Was it by chance or by design?
“Thief on the Cross” got one live play on 10 November 1981, and that was that. Either the urge to create new Christian songs had run its course, or that was a deliberate epilogue. Interestingly (for me at least, if no one else) the song has a riff that runs throughout which is basically the same as in “Cover Down Break Through”, which suggests either that Dylan had lost his creative drive in this form of writing, or he is deliberately wrapping the era up.
Here is the one and only recording of the song that exists, recorded in New Orleans. The band is Bob Dylan (vocal & guitar), Fred Tackett (guitar), Steve Ripley (guitar), Al Kooper (keyboards), Tim Drummond (bass), Jim Keltner (drums), Arthur Rosato (drums), Clydie King, Regina Havis, Madelyn Quebec (background vocals)
There were two thieves on crosses. In Luke 23 one of them declares that there is no divine presence, everything is hopeless. The good thief attempts to convert the bad thief while the Son of God is crucified.
Well everybody’s been diverted Everybody’s looking the other way Everybody’s attention is divided Well they may not afford to wait There’s a thief on the cross his chances are slim There’s a thief on the cross I wanna talk to him
And that was it – the end of the gospel era, and the last song of the 23 pieces written and recorded in 1981. Now Dylan took another long break. When he did return it was in a completely different mode, with Jokerman – which maybe tells us something.
Jokerman has (for me, if no one else) the feel in part of “Caribbean Wind” – and indeed Dylan has said it was again written in the Caribbean. Although we might well feel that this is another song about the end of all things, the message is more about the futility of mankind’s ways than it is about the utter certainty of how it will all pan out in the end.
So Biblical input was still there in his songs but it is combined with a style of writing that leads to an uncertainty of meaning. And when one thinks about it, these two notions are poles apart. With a religion such as Christianity, everything is certain. We know what happened in the past with Jesus Christ, and we know what will happen in the future with Armageddon and the Second Coming.
But the Caribbean Wind style of writing removes the certainty of meaning and seems to take us to the opposite end of the spectrum. Which is why I and I (again seemingly written in the Caribbean period) is interesting: it appears at one level to be trying to balance the two – the religious feel and the uncertainty. But then maybe uncertainty won and Dylan travelled in other directions indeed.
I think that these opening two songs of 1982 show that Dylan really had found a new direction in his writing, for there was a new thought emerging from within – and that was that Bob’s country – the United States – was in real trouble, not just because of its politicians but because of the way that its people were thinking.
The songs from hereon in 1982 and moving into 1983 really do take us in a new direction, and contain some absolute masterpieces dealing with this new feeling that Bob was exploring.
Of course if you know the sequence of Dylan’s writing you’ll know that “Blind Willie” was about to be created, among others, but there is something else in this sequence that I think is an greater indicator of where his thinking was heading, as well as being an absolute monument of Bob’s writing – although as has happens so often with Bob, it took a recording by another performer to realise it.
In fact I see it as one of the all time most masterful and insightful realisations of a Dylan song ever.
And although it comes from later in the year, so important is this song in understanding how Bob’s thinking was evolving, I’ll finish this little piece with it, just so that if you are interested, you can see where I am heading. Then in the next episode I will endeavour to take up the story of this build up to Bob at his most nihilistic. If you are following my meandering through Bob’s writing career, you might care to listen to this now, because how Bob moved from Christianity to Foot of Pride really is something to contemplate.
(It is also reassuring that Lou couldn’t remember all the lyrics and so is reading them from a monitor to his right. Some years back I really struggled trying to perform this song and put my inability to get the lyrics down to early onset dementia. Maybe it wasn’t; maybe they just are impossible).
There’s a retired businessman named Red Cast down from heaven and he’s out of his head He feeds off of everyone that he can touch He said he only deals in cash or sells tickets to a plane crash He’s not somebody that you play around with much Miss Delilah is his, a Philistine is what she is She’ll do wondrous works with your fate, feed you coconut bread, spice buns in your bed If you don’t mind sleepin’ with your head face down in a grave
What’s on Untold Dylan
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