All directions 55: Reflective, invigorated, moving on. Towards the end of the 80s

By Tony Attwood

This series of articles under the title “All Directions at Once” seeks to see Dylan’s writing not as a series of individual songs but as a response to the ebbs and flows of his emotions and feelings, and to his own creativity.  The songs responded to what he had written before, and what was going on around him.

It has turned out to be a complicated affair – and much longer than I ever imagined.  So complicated and so long that I have managed to get the numbering system of the articles mixed up, but I think I’ve got it sorted now… Below are the most recent articles with corrected numbers (just in case anyone is still with me), and there is a full index here.

So now, this really is episode 55 – the start of 1989.

And by here my thesis is that during much of the late 1980s Dylan was casting around for a new direction in which to take his writing, and because of the frustration of not finding this at once, I believe he was tempted by the notion of the Travelling Wilburys project in 1988.  And yet ironically just before that took off, he did produce three songs of astounding merit, “Political World”, “What good am I?” and “Dignity”.

These, it can be argued, had a certain biographical quality within them, reflecting Bob’s attempt to get a grips with what he had become and the world in which he found himself living.   Those songs give a sense that Bob himself didn’t quite know where he was and what would happen to his reputation.   Was he going to be known, later in his life, for those magnificent early songs – a troubadour who carried on that bit too long and whose writing suffered an inevitable decline?  Certainly “Dignity” can have an element of that meaning within it, as indeed can “What good am I?”   Or was it the fault of the world around him – the political world is which we lived, and which despite the protests of the 1960s was never going to be changed?

That he saw himself as one of the old gang whose involvement with radical new musical forms of expression was now long gone, is reflected to a degree by his engagement with the Wilburys.  The band produced some interesting and enjoyable music, but not necessarily anything that could be compared with Bob at his greatest moments.

And yet, after the Wilburys, and seemingly out of nowhere came, “Born in Time”.   And here we have Bob suddenly leaping back to the top of his creative form.  For it is not just that the lyrics are have an elegance and beauty associated with some of his earlier works, the music goes to places we would never previously have associated with Bob.

But it is not only this and the Dignity group of compositions that are themselves remarkable.  Nor that it is extraordinary that these songs had to wait until this moment to emerge.  But it is that feeling that it is almost as if Bob suddenly remembered that he really did have the ability to take his music and lyrics anywhere he wanted.  Certainly he did this with “Dignity”, and he must have known in himself that works such as “I once knew a man” and “Dark Eyes” were profound, different and of the highest creative content.  He was just not connecting them together and seeing them as the outliers of a new round of renewed creativity and musical innovation.

Thus to me, looking at these songs not just as individual items but within the flow of Dylan’s work, we now reach a point where he thought, “oh yes, I remember where I was and what I was saying.  Right let’s have a go at sorting this out.  How can I say this differently?”

As a result Bob then he wrote this song of staggering beauty and we, his audience, gained  Dylan revitalised.  And not just for one song, for after this we were given some absolute classics such as Series of DreamsMost of the TimeWhat was it you wanted and Everything is Broken and onward until we reach Man in a Long Black Coat

“Born in time” was played 56 times in concert thus helping us see that this song occupies a pivotal spot at the change over from the Wilburys back into writing specifically for himself.  Given the changeover taking place it is not surprising that Dylan spent so much time (in this song at least) changing things around.

The lyrics vary from version to version as Dylan did his thing of exploring and experimenting to see just how far this work could be pushed.  And the beauty of the cover versions also shows just how much Bob was experimenting with the musical form as well as the words.  Only the last four lines of the second bridge remain the same between these versions.

In the Red Sky version we have bridge 1 as

Not one more night, not one more kiss
 Not this time baby, no more of this
 Takes too much skill, takes too much will
 It’s revealing
 You came, you saw, just like the law
 You married young, just like your ma
 You tried and tried, you made me slide
 You left me reelin’ with this feelin’

And bridge 2 as…

You pressed me once, you pressed me twice
 You hang the flame, you’ll pay the price
 Oh babe, that fire
 Is still smokin’
 You were snow, you were rain
 You were striped, you were plain
 Oh babe, truer words
 Have not been spoken or broken

But in the Tell Tale Signs version we have

Just when I knew
you were gone, you came back
Just when I knew
It was for certain
You were high, you were low
You were so easy to know
Oh babe, now is time to raise the curtain
I'm hurtin'.

And then after the instrumental break

Just when I knew
who to thank, you went blank
And just when the whole
fires was smokin'
You were snow, you were rain
You were stripes, you were plain
Oh babe, truer words
Have not been spoken
or broken.

A huge difference.  And what we have here is a truly wonderful song from a man who has been mashed around by this romance but still is there loving her, forgiving her.  All that happens through the various versions is that Dylan reworks just how much forgiveness is delivered in those two bridge sections.

But above all we have the fact that at long last he had a song that he wanted to explore and develop.  A song that he loved and caressed and wanted to make ever more expressive.

I have one internet version; I am not sure if this is the one that Heylin thinks is the greatest recording of them all – it certainly has a huge amount to recommend it.

The whole notion of the song is that like dreams, there was no ultimate solidity in the woman for the singer to hold on to.   The problem for the lovers – how can you ever truly know a person, because in essence none of us ever know ourselves – is at the heart of the matter and beautifully expressed.   We have our views, our histories, our morals, our habits, but like dreams we can fade in and out of what we are, bemusing those around us, and quite often fooling ourselves.

And then came “God knows”, and here again Bob played and changed the song over and over.  Thus we really have come to the other end of  the line from “I once knew a man” where the band play seemingly with hardly a rehearsal, and the song is jettisoned.  Now we are having songs nurtured and matured and caressed.

Of course in the process it was re-written over and over although the central notion of the phrase “God Knows” is retained throughout, as is the very unusual (for Dylan) chord structure.

From all this reworking we have just two versions available, one on “Under the Red Sky” and the other the “Tell Tale Signs” version (this being the one originally recorded for Oh Mercy).   The next song he wrote after “God Knows” was Disease of Conceit.

But it is also important to notice that what is so different with this song, compared with those of a decade previously is that Dylan is no longer telling us that if we don’t accept God as our lord and master in all things, then no matter what good deeds we do along the way, we are going to burn in eternal torment when the Second Coming occurs.  That message in the earlier era was clear and simple: if we have not admitted that God is omnipotent, omnipresent and desiring of worship, then we’ve had it.

This song is different, and it is helpful that we have the two versions because (not for the first time) the one that Dylan chose for “Red Sky” is (in my humble opinion) much inferior to the version recorded for Oh Mercy and available on “Tell Tale Signs”.

There are many differences between the two songs, not least the ending.  Red Sky’s version has a very odd fade out during the performance of the verse (I can’t grasp a single possible artistic reason for this – which indeed may be my failing, but I’ve read all around this subject and I can’t find anyone who can put forward any explanation other than the fact that the engineer – or Bob – thought we’d all had enough by that point).  The “Tell Tale” version is much better in every regard, in my view.

Also when it comes to the lyrics, these are quite different.   Red Sky has as an ending

God knows we can get all the way from here to there
 Even if we’ve got to walk a million miles by candlelight

Tell Tale Signs tells us

God knows we can rise above the darkest hour
 Under any circumstance

I think those both have something to say.  What a shame they couldn’t both have popped up on the same version!

As it is the “Red Sky” version has (and I say this with all humility since I am writing about the greatest songwriter of our age) just about the worst opening line Dylan ever wrote…  “God knows you ain’t pretty”.

Ok he does redeem himself a little with the verse itself,

God knows you ain’t pretty
 God knows it’s true
 God knows there ain’t anybody
 Ever gonna take the place of you

but even so.  The Tell Tale Signs version is less offensive

God knows I need you
God knows I do
God knows there ain't anybody
Ever gonna take the place of you

Dylan obviously loved the song as he played it on stage no less than 188 times from 1991 to 2006, and of course that is in part what encouraged the re-writing of the lyrics.   I also suspect one of things he always enjoyed about the song was the use of the chord known in musical circles as “G augmented” (it is written G+ on song sheets), which I can’t recall him using anywhere else at all.  It comes half way through the third line and gives the whole song a different feel – although in the last three verses he drops this unique structure and sits with the more conventional G / C chords.

And this sudden use of a chord that Dylan has never (or to cover myself perhaps I should say “very rarely”) used before shows just how much Dylan was experimenting.  OK it is only one chord, but rock music composers rarely stray too far from their own favourite structures and approaches so suddenly to pop up with a chord that one has never used before, and which has such a different feel, really is something.

One unexpected chord doesn’t a great song make, but Dylan’s engagement and re-working of songs such as this and “Dignity” shows just how much he was now involved in taking his songwriting back to a level that he had previously achieved.  I’m not saying he was there yet, but there are some rare moments in these songs.  Something sure was happening here.

And yet – the song has seemingly been ignored.  There are no covers I can find.  Although maybe (not for the first time) I’m just looking in the wrong place.

The series continues….

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1 Response to All directions 55: Reflective, invigorated, moving on. Towards the end of the 80s

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    “Negative capability” as coined by Keats – which, for one thing, can perhaps mean a time away for a while from trying too hard to be creative can result in a renewed creative energy on the part of an artist.

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