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 on individual songs or albums, or an individual theme through Bob’s career. The index of all the articles published so far is here.
The last episode was “All Directions at once, tangled up”
My point of late in this series, is that Dylan was by the mid 1980s seriously looking for his new direction, or at least a new theme. Having written his last gospel song in 1981 (one of 23 songs that year) he slowed down a little, writing 17 songs in 1982/3 and 13 in 1984, but then upped the work rate to produce 27 in 1985. (His all time record you may recall was 36 in 1962.)
But that intensity of writing did not come out of a certainty of what he wanted to write about. Rather it was the opposite – Bob really was trying all sorts of ideas out as he was looking for a new direction.
Now I have already suggested that as early as 1984 Bob was struggling to find a direction but it is also important to remember the songs that we did get during this period, songs such as “Jokerman”, “I and I”, “Blind Willie McTell”, and “Foot of Pride” (among others) would certainly be described by some (or at least by me) as masterpieces. But it is interesting that those last two, which I know I am not alone in describing as absolute masterpieces, were not released by Dylan at the time.
And that is the irony of this period. He was searching for a new direction, but each time he created a work that could have led him into a new arena, a new style, a new approach… he walked away from it.
Now of course not everyone is going to agree with me as to what constitutes a masterpiece, and it is not the purpose of this exposition to examine in detail what makes one song a work of genius and another an interesting work, but not one of the highest order. I’ll leave that for another series.
Certainly I believe “I once knew a man” from 1984 falls into the category of songs which discovered a new direction in Dylan’s songwriting. Yet it was performed just once in rehearsal and lost thereafter. And if that had been a one off, we might have shrugged and suspected there was some flaw in the work that Dylan could see but us mere mortals could not, perhaps even accepting Heylin’s evidence-lacking assertion that it was someone else’s work that Dylan had re-arranged, the origins of which the fans who seek out such things were too lazy or too ignorant to find. But I see no reason for that view; I am sure it was a Dylan original.
And this approach of creating a masterpiece and then letting it go, continued into 1985. Of course this could just be me deliberately valuing songs that Dylan ignored, but again I find here another sublime piece of work. And yet having written the lyrics in 1985 for “Well Well Well,” the work in question, Dylan handed the music over to be finished elsewhere and seemed to take no further interest in the song.
Of course some of the songs Dylan wrote at this time did make it onto “Knocked out Loaded” and “After the Empire” but I’m often left with the feeling that if there could have just been a little more attention paid to each one, some of these would have become Dylan classics, rather than resting hidden, waiting for someone to champion their cause.
“Seeing the real you at last” is one such: a song which has more than enough originality and drive to have been recognised as an excellent original rock song. The lyrics do describe something unpleasant; the person who hides their personality, but it deals with it in an energetic way that I have never come across elsewhere.
Well, I sailed through the storm Strapped to the mast Oh, but our time has come And I'm seeing the real you at last
Simple lines, but an image and a half.
And indeed I would say that the fact that in the midst of this period Bob did write some (rather strange and not too successful) songs with Gerry Goffin, suggesting he really didn’t quite know where to turn. As a result I get the feeling of a year that for much of the time could have been… it might have been…. something rather special.
True, “Maybe Someday” really is a stand out piece, not least because of its combination of energy and unusual rhythm effect from the percussion (something we also get with “Something’s burning baby” written in the previous year) which is simply not doing what you might expect. But I don’t think the recorded version we have is perfect as there is a bit too much do-wop from the female singers. Yet it is still a fabulous song.
But as noted above we do have Well well well. In this version the co-composer spends one minute 20 seconds chatting about the song (and why not; if I’d ever had the chance to put music to a set of Dylan lyrics, I’d still be there talking about five hours later) so you can flip forward if you just want to get to the music… And it sure is worth it.
Next on my list of the compositions that stand out from the rest this year comes “When the night comes falling from the sky” – one of Dylan’s epic recordings about the end of time which appeared on Empire Burlesque.
The title is one of those lines that can keep a person pushing forward and searching forever to find the origins – and that is exactly what the music gives us. That eternal search for personal answers. And quite a line to write after a year of working with others to try and find a new direction. Plus it is sung with certainty and enthusiasm.
And then of course, we have “Dark Eyes”. And suddenly Bob has taken a completely different direction – except for the fact that “When the night comes falling from the sky” has a certain link with other songs written around the time. “Dark Eyes” however is one of those Dylan songs that come out of nowhere, and indeed then seems to lead nowhere…
So, looked at this way, it was not such a bad year after all, especially if one can create lines such as…
I live in another world where life and death are memorized Where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls and all I see are dark eyes
Oh my! Every time I hear those lines I just have to stop and look out of the window at the trees blowing in the wind and take time out to recover. It takes me back to an earlier song of this year “Seeing the real you at last” which has a lot of the drive and vigour that can announce a great Dylan song, but somehow seems to fall just a little short.
But really to understand what was going on with all these songs in 1985 we just have to look at what happened next, which is to say what did Dylan write in 1986. And it must be noted that several songs from this era have dates of composition that are uncertain, but even so we can get a view of what was going on.
On tour Dylan came up with one absolute stunner of a rock song…
and a most staggering love song “To fall in love with you.”
So what was Bob up to here? He needed some more pieces for his albums, and here and there some real stunners popped up and were then simply abandoned. Quite why, of course, we don’t know. But they are remarkable pieces.
And indeed if we put together this abandoned pieces and combine them with a couple that did creep into an album, but never really gained full prominence, we do have an album’s worth…
- I and I
- Blind Willie McTell
- Foot of Pride
- I once knew a man
- Seeing the real you at last
- Well well well
- When the night comes falling from the sky
- Dark Eyes
- Rock em Dead
- To fall in love with you
Of course you may well disagree over what is and what is not a song worthy of inclusion in an album, and of course as I noted above, “When the night comes falling” did make it onto a contemporary album, as did “Dark Eyes.” But the rest were simply left, cast aside, abandoned.
I am not sure there was another period where Bob, (and of course this is just my opinion as a complete outsider), cast aside so many utter gems while clearly finding it difficult to write song of the brilliance that we had come to associate with him.
And even then it wasn’t all over, because the following year Dylan composed “Dignity” which was also abandoned for five years. It really was a strange time in terms of what Bob felt was worth putting on an album.
You can find more about our current series on the home page of this site. If you have an idea for an individual article, or a series, or you would like to write either, please email Tony@schools.co.uk