All Directions at once, tangled up

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 or an individual theme through Bob’s career.   The index of all the articles published so far is here.

I have been looking at Dylan’s work in the early 1980s, and called one episode “Dylan post Angelina: step by step it’s falling apart in all directions at once,” which took us up to the composition of “Foot of Pride.”

And falling apart certainly was the theme, and now not only falling apart in all directions at once but in all times at once, so that not only is this moment a mess so it is also impossible to understand the past, and inevitably the future.

Understandably expressing such a vision is difficult, and quite often painful, not least when there are legions of critics and fans pouring over your every word and every note, with the self-appointed, anxious to show that they have the definitive opinion, the clear understanding, the final word.  And their view seemed to be: Bob’s lost it.

Most people in their working lives try to do a decent job day by day.  If one has a bad day, well, everyone has bad days and people just shrug and let it go.  It’ll be all right tomorrow.

But consider the poor creative artist…  The actor’s interpretation of a part on stage or on film can be hammered by critics who have never acted in their lives.  Novels can be dismissed (“not as good as his earlier works…”) art can be incomprehensible (“what’s that supposed to be?”).  And as for the songwriter… Somehow every song is expected to be a masterpiece and the fans give the singer-songwriter hell if it isn’t.

And of course I join in, even though I know the pain of criticism of my own very modest work as a writer.  Except my view is that Bob has always gone for meanders into arenas where the songs don’t quite work.  And each time he has come back the stronger.

I think many writers have this experience – the difference is that we’ve got copies of most of the work Bob himself has rejected, and some of us feel that maybe Bob himself wasn’t the best judge of his own work, in terms of what should be released.

Even so, to say Bob went for a meander towards the end of the 1982/3 songwriting era is a little of an understatement.  A meander with a zig-zag, a couple of diversions, a 360 degree turn, and well, any other metaphors you can find for going walkabouts.

Yet what is amazing is that within that meander there are works of sublime genius which were by and large set aside… “Foot of Pride”, “Angelina”,  “I once knew a man”…

This last is so beyond the edge that it is not even listed on, while Heylin (who to his credit does note it) calls it a re-working of an old blues, that still defeats attributionists.  He gives the song four lines in his 600 page review.

As for me, I think this song is brilliant, so yes, I have been an defeated attributionist on this occasion, as have many Untold readers who have helped me out.  We can’t find an original, and clearly nor could Heylin or else he wouldn’t have put the lack of a source down to the research failings of others.

All of which suggests it is a Dylan original.  Bob might have taken the song from elsewhere (and suggestions as to the source have been made on this site) but if Bob did, the changes he has made to the song are so profound, it has to count as an original.  I certainly don’t know a song that has the sort of complex rhythms in the opening line, nor do I know of anyone else who would write lines such as

I once knew a man opening a door
In by another
Opening a cupboard
Never to be here no more
Yeah I once knew a man

Well I once knew a man
Creeping in the side
Opening a door
Falling thru the floor
Setting someone for a ride
Yeah I once knew a man

This is certainly not just another 12 bar blues – rhythmically and lyrically it is way, way beyond that. Yet it seems that Bob was unconvinced too, for after performing the song just once we just seem to get sketchbook ideas and variants on other people’s work such as “Dirty Lie”, which is a straight copy of “Stray Cat Strut”).

In short Bob heads towards experimentation with no sense of direction (which is after all just another way of saying, “all directions at once”.  The results aren’t poor songs; there’s nothing wrong with “Go way little boy” written for  Lone Justice, for example, but it is not a great song in itself.  And songs such as  Drifting too far from shore are experiments which just don’t hit the high spots Bob has reached in the past.

And I guess Bob knew this, which is he turned to Woody Guthrie for Danville Girl….

which was then re-written as Brownsville Girl.   As Robert Christgau said in an oft quoted comment, the version released on the LP was “one of the greatest and most ridiculous of Dylan’s great ridiculous epics. Doesn’t matter who came up with such lines as ‘She said even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt’ and ‘I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran’ — they’re classic Dylan.”

It was co-written with the highly regarded American playwright Sam Shepard who had worked on the 1975 Rolling Thunder review, and who among other things gained the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play Buried Child.  New York described him as “the greatest American playwright of his generation.”

This is how he describes Dylan in the diary…

“One thing that gets me about Dylan’s songs is how they conjure up images, whole scenes that are being played out in full colour as you listen. He’s an instant film maker. Probably not the same scenes occur in the same way to everyone listening to the same song, but I’d like to know if anyone sees the same small, rainy, green park and the same bench and the same yellow light and the same pair of people as I do all coming from “A Simple Twist of Fate”. Or the same beach in “Sara” or the same bar in “Hurricane” or the same cabin in “Hollis Brown” or same window in “It Ain’t Me” or the same table and the same ashtray in “Hattie Carroll” or same valley in “One More Cup of Coffee”. How do pictures become words? Or how do words become pictures? And how do they cause you to feel something? That’s a miracle.”

Here there is a disconnect between the singer and his lover from the past, just as there is with the movie which he watched twice.

The movie itself has been identified as The Gunfighter although the confusion is constant as Dylan says of a movie… “you know, it’s not the one that I had in mind.”   And through this piece Dylan is seeking (it seems to me) a new voice, a new format, a new approach to his music.  A sense of being lost – a sense which is touched upon in the original Woody Guthrie song.  And that sense of always moving on, that was the inspiration found in the Parting Glass and which travelled through “One too many mornings” and all the other songs of restlessly searching for things that are not there via unstable images that shift and dance.

The ultimate expression of what is going on comes in the original version with

I’ve always been an emotional person but this time 
    it was asking too much.
If there’s an original thought out there, 
    Oh, I could use it right now!
Yeah, I feel pretty good, but you know 
    I could feel a whole lot better,oh yes I could,
If you were just here by my side to show me how.

and in the final version with

Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass 
     but sometimes you just find yourself over the line.
Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now
You know, I feel pretty good, but that ain’t sayin’ much. 
     I could feel a whole lot better,
If you were just here by my side to show me how.

This is Dylan reflecting on the hardest thing for a creative artist to reflect upon – the loss of ideas.  Thousands of images and ideas have, since the 1950s, spun round in his head.  The old movie, the old song, everything he himself has done before;  but new coherent inspiration can’t break through.  He has become a character in his co-writers plays.

And so, being Bob he responds with a new type of song – a song that expresses that vision of the creative block.  Now there is no certainty; all he has are half-remembered scenes.  That is what the two editions of the song show us.

But one line comes out of all this confusion.  That line “Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on”  which comes in response to the confusion all around.  It is the reverse of, “Stick with me baby stick with me anyhow, things should start to get interesting right about now.”  For Bob things had been way too interesting for too long; he wanted a break.

He feels alienation everywhere

Way down in Mexico you went out to see a doctor 
     and you never came back.
I stayed there a while, till the whole place 
     it started feelin’ like Mars.

Even the amended version doesn’t find stability…

Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor 
     and you never came back.
I would have gone on after you 
but I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off.

But Dylan had of course tackled all this before, not least when he wrote one of his ultimate masterpieces, “Tangled up in Blue”.   And so, always it was a shock at the time, I guess it was not too surprising that now he chose to update it.

In essence Brownsville Girl (“Nothing happens on purpose, it’s an accident if it happens at all.”) meets “Tangled” (“he was laying in bed” not “she” – it’s time to let the old boy have his say, rather than simply expressing everyone else’s story).

With that simple “nothing happens on purpose” all of civilisation, all human progress, the whole Christian message, in fact every religious message, indeed everything that makes us human, is blown away.  As Eliot said, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

And in that fear “we’re busy talking back and forth to our shadows on an old stone wall.”  Indeed it all, Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.”  The handful of dust really is all around.

Disconnect with the world is incredibly difficult for even the most experienced writers to write about, doubly so for the popular songwriter who is constrained by form; it is so much easier for the painter whose journey into abstraction is mixed with realism.

Of course Dylan had tried this before, “Visions of Johanna” is just one example among many, “Drifter’s Escape” another.  And just as then he escaped into country music to finish off the JWH album so this time there was a limit as to how far he could go.

Indeed  Something’s Burning Baby, suggests everything is gone.  For “whereas we once knew, now we don’t.”  It sounds very much like the edge.

And that sums up Bob in this year.  He’s lost.  He knows he once had found the way, but now that is long since gone.  He can’t go back; indeed he doesn’t want to go back but where to go.  His sensational “I once knew a man” didn’t offer a new road.   There is no new road.  Worse, there’s no road at all.  All that is out there is darkness, looked upon with dark eyes.

The “All Directions” series will continue shortly.   There’s an index to some of our series at the top of the page under the picture, and there is more about our recent work along with contact details, on the home page.


  1. The struggle between what Nietzsche calls the mankind’s will or desire for power, and the external disinterested world out there is bound to cause an artist to become alienated – to stumble and fall at times.

    At least to those who employ the same one, for mankind language is a unique means of communication with the ‘other’.

    Like Poe and Blake, Dylan distances himself somewhat, though not completely, from the Romantic Transcendentalists who envision Nature’s flowers dancing in the breeze to some harmonious melody.

    Obviously with tongue-in-cheek, Dylan said: “It ain’t the melodies that’s important, man, it’s the words. I don’t give a damn about the melodies”

  2. Michael Karwowski presents somewhat the same idea but he overworks the singular idea that the song is about the too ‘worldly’ Roman Catholic Church in relation to Dylan himself – so much so that he fails to convince the reader that the argument is correct…better that he’d first said ‘it could be’ or ‘ might be’ so interpreted.

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