By Tony Attwood
Two episodes ago the article was called “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.”
The last one was “All directions at once, tangled up”
And falling apart and being tangled up certainly were the themes of the day in terms of Bob Dylan’s compositions, and now not only falling apart in all directions at once but in all times at once, so that not only is this moment one of muddle and confusion, the music also expresses the notion that it is impossible to understand the past, and so inevitably impossible to comprehend or predict the future.
Between writing “Angelina” in 1981 and writing “What good am I” in 1987 Dylan wrote, as far as we know, getting on for 100 songs, but I suspect only the most hardened and dedicated fans would be able to name more than 30, and quite a few of those are remembered primarily because they were on the albums, not because of their stand-out brilliance.
In those 30 there were some really good pieces, in my estimation, and maybe 10 were absolute Dylan gems. My list of songs in that category would include…
- Lenny Bruce
- I and I
- Blind Willie McTell
- Neighbourhood Bully
- When the night comes falling from the sky
- Dark Eyes
- To fall in love with you
- What good am I?
Now for your average professional songwriter that would be a pretty good haul across a few years of songwriting, but for Dylan, we are now a very long way from the days of 1974 in which ten utter masterpieces were knocked out seemingly effortlessly within one year. And we might also note that a number of these songs of this era were either not used at once, others never used at all.
Whether you agree with my choice from this period or are thinking “how can this idiot [ie me] have omitted x and included y” I have found in discussions that most people will agree that the long list of getting on for 100 songs between Heart of Mine and the early Wilburys songs does not include too many more absolute masterpieces. And to be clear I am not talking about songs that one quite likes, but songs that utterly stand out and which would be chosen if (as we have done a few times here) one was making a compilation album of one’s own.
Certainly when I compare the list of titles during this period with the period in 1980 when in sequence Dylan composed
- Every grain of sand
- Caribbean Wind
- Groom’s still waiting at the alter
- Yonder comes sin
- Let’s keep it between us
- Making a liar out of me
well, there is no comparison. Six amazing songs one after the other.
So, in my estimation (and of course that is all it is) Dylan wanted to write, and was indeed writing song after song, and very occasionally hit gold with songs like Blind Willie McTell, but often he simply wrote good songs, that deserved to be heard, but not majestic masterpieces. And to be honest there were a few fairly poor pieces in there too, which were never taken any further.
Now Dylan, as you will know if you have been following this series, had times where he stopped writing. In 1968 he wrote only one song. It is a song which we all remember (Lay Lady Lay) but that was it. Then in 1969 although he wrote maybe 15 songs, few of them stand out (“I threw it all away” is one of the few that did).
In 1971 there were six songs of which “Watching the river flow” is perhaps the one we all remember; 1972 had “Forever young” and the film music for “Billy the kid” and nothing else. 1973 was the preparation for a year of pure genius. But thereafter the writing becomes harder – or at least harder to create those moments of genius. Indeed I would be happy to bet that most Dylan fans would struggle to remember many beyond the songs I have mentioned above.
They are all out there, and are listed in our “Dylan songs of the 80s” index but unless you live a life totally centred around Dylan songs, I really do think you might struggle to recall too many of them.
Which perhaps explains why the invite to work with the Wilburys was attractive to Bob. And curiously, just before the Wilburys started creating their music Bob suddenly found a run of form once again with “Political World”, “What good am I?” and “Dignity”.
Indeed I find it endlessly fascinating that Dylan wrote “What good am I” and “Dignity” just before setting off the play with his mates. What came next were the Wilbury songs, and there is nothing wrong with most of them, but they are not really what we expect from Bob, and to my ear don’t match up to the quality of Bob’s own work..
Of course we don’t know how much Bob wrote of each Wilbury song, if anything although Tweeter and the monkey man clearly sounds like a Dylan song.
For myself, I see this as a period where Bob wanted a new direction, a new style, a new approach… a new uplift in his songwriting, and he couldn’t find it. When he did make breakthroughs for one reason or another he not only didn’t continue using that style or approach, as often as not, he abandoned the song that could have led to the new style.
And this wasn’t just happening in 1985 and 1986, this situation goes all the way back to 1982 with Blind Willie McTell and Foot of Pride.
But I must confess we also face a difficulty here with dating Bob’s compositions. Dylan often leaves no information of when something was written, and all we have to go with are dates of initial recordings.
However there is a fair chance that Political Word, not recorded until early 1989, was by that time, considerably re-written, and the same is true of “What good am I?” but there is evidence that this song was undergoing rewriting at that time, and indeed had already undergone quite a bit of re-writing prior to this time.
My view is that “Political World” was followed by “What good am I?” and “Dignity”, with “Tweeter and the monkey man” and “Like a Ship” coming later in 1988.
Which means that the most magical “To fall in love with you” which was abandoned preceded the fine run of “Political World” and onward.
Plus, what is striking to me about these songs is their sheer variety – they are different from each other and different from the songs written in the previous year or two. It really does sound to me as if Bob is seriously trying out different ideas rather than just letting the ideas come into his head.
What is also fascinating is just how different these songs are from each other. As I have commented before, “Political world” shouldn’t work at all – virtually no melody, one chord only, but but at the same time setting out the repeat of an old Dylan message in a completely new format… this world really has gone wrong. Not wrong in the Christian sense of falling from grace, but simply going wrong because it has gone wrong.
We live in a political world Where courage is a thing of the past Houses are haunted, children are unwanted The next day could be your last We live in a political world The one we can see and can feel But there’s no one to check, it’s all a stacked deck We all know for sure that it’s real
It’s not that mankind has turned its back on Jesus, but rather mankind has put its trust in politicians.
It was played by Bob 28 times on stage – and maybe it only got that low number because of those restrictions with the chord and melody make it less exciting to play than many others. The format certainly restricts what the instrumentalists can do.
This is followed by the same message but from an utterly personal perspective: “What good am I?” a real self-battering. It is not just the world gone wrong, Bob is not doing anything to make it better.
The answer as to what we could do to get out of all this mess came with the third song in the trilogy: Dignity. We need to hold onto ourselves, to keep our sense of self-worth, but not let it blow out of all proportion. For the issue we all face is not the issue of the world around us (although that can be horrible enough) but the way we perceive the world. If we can have a genuine self-respect based on honourable behaviour maybe, just maybe we can survive (but it’s probably not a good idea to put a bet on it).
In “What Good Am I” which in contrast to “Political World” got played 241 times, Dylan is saying is that in the end the only way out is honesty, out of which we get engagement, sympathy, kindness, support, understanding, empathy… these are the qualities of the really human and humane person. Each verse says it all; take this for example
What good am I if I know and don’t do If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you If I turn a deaf ear to the thundering sky What good am I?
What he then does is goes one step further and says, it is dignity (of which honesty is a pre-requisite) which encapsulates all these elements of being a good person. If you have engagement, sympathy, kindness, support, understanding, empathy, you can have dignity.
This is an astounding trilogy of songs, of which the full emotional impact and musical genius can only be understood if heard as a trilogy. And the tragedy is that we don’t hear them as a trilogy, because they have never been released that way. It is only by seeing the chronology of Dylan’s writing that we can understand.
What’s more they are three incredibly different songs – and it is interesting to ponder what Dylan would have done next after these three superb songs, written one after the other, each in its own way contemplating the mess that is our world, if he hadn’t already agreed to work with the Wilburys. But he had so the year ended with two Wilbury’s songs,
So Bob had had his distraction – his fun with the gang, doing their own thing. Would that refresh him and allow him to find his new direction? It is pointless but still fun to imagine what might have happened if Bob had not signed up to the Wilburys project. Would he have found his new direction sooner? I suspect so. But ultimately Bob did settle down in 1989, and after a couple of early try outs, he hit the ground running once more with a collection of compositions which well and truly build on all that had been going on through these years of uncertainty.
We’ll come on to that next time. But at least we can pause here reflecting on three works of genius, and the knowledge that at last Bob had cleared the blockage.