All directions 55: “After the loss, the rebuild”

By Tony Attwood

Earlier episodes of All Directions are listed here

The last episode in this series, which looks at Bob’s songwriting as a continuum rather than at individual songs in isolation, or albums as a collection, ended with the surprisingly upbeat and bouncy, “God knows.” It is a good, fun song, and suggested maybe Bob was feeling upbeat or at least explorative once more.

And anyone thinking that would not have been disappointed, for the first composition of 1989, turned out to be one of Bob’s absolute sublime masterpieces, “Born in Time.”  And over time we discovered with great joy, this wasn’t a one off.  That break with the Wilbury’s had served a purpose.Bob was back as a unique, original and entertaining composer, big time.

Suddenly Bob is here, offering himself in totality – the ending is surely one of the greatest of any Dylan songs.

In the hills of mystery,
In the foggy web of destiny,
You can have what's left of me,
Where we were born in time.

The images are sublime and we have the sense that even the ground starts moving and the picture vibrates as the woman of the song walks along.  In the end he can’t take it, because he can’t focus enough to make it real.  So she appears like an image in a movie, she isn’t real, she is more than real, and as such can’t ever be held onto…

You were snow, you were rain
You were striped, you were plain

He can’t take it, he can’t let go of it, it is all just too much, too overwhelming, too, too absolute… until in the end, “You can have what’s left of me.”

And here we see Dylan exploring the musical world as well as the poetic, as he really, truly gets to grip with the “middle 8” –  that variant section that appears usually (when it is used) after a couple of verses.

Dylan first played the song in concert in February 1993 and gave it 56 outings before bringing down the curtain ten years later – so it wasn’t one of his all time concert favourites.  But what makes this not only such a beautiful song, but such an unusual song for Dylan, is the way the melody is woven above such an unusual chord sequence.  And that means unusual not just for Dylan, but in any folk, pop or blues music.  It’s not a unique sequence, but it is made to sound as if it is, because of what the melody does.

Also somewhat unusually for Dylan (in my personal opinion) what we have here is a song that is remembered for its melody – a melody built over a simple and (apart from the C minor) oft-used chord sequence:

G, Em, Am7, C, Cm, G

That sequence remains intact, as melody and rhythm change to accommodate the lyrics – the effect is loving and beautiful, as he announces that “You can have what’s left of me” – a phrase which again seems to tell us what he thinks of himself.

Indeed if we are listening to Dylan’s work chronologically we know what he means.  By this time he’s been seemingly everywhere possible with his lyrics, and with his music, and he’s just there saying, “I’ve done it all, if you can find anything still worth having here, it’s yours.”

But now he is facing the traditional problem of course; the problem of what next?   What could Bob write that would be up to the standard set in “Born in Time”?

The answer was that he continued to emphasise the uncertainty of the future or at least of his future in “God knows” – a remarkable rocker which starts with lyrics that suggest anything but certainly.   Indeed quite what those lyrics mean beyond the simple statement that the lady in question isn’t the prettiest girl in the club, is anyone’s guess…

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

And it is followed a little later by

God knows that when you see it
God knows you’ve got to weep
God knows the secrets of your heart
He’ll tell them to you when you’re asleep

It certainly reads as if Bob had written that exquisite first verse, and then wondered what he could do to keep it going, so just kept on writing.  Coherence?  Who needs it!  But it turns into one hell of a rocker as the live performances showed.

And maybe Bob was already thinking about Jimmy Swaggart, who is often remembered with his claim that he had a direct line from God (who conveniently told Swaggart that his activities with prostitutes didn’t matter) which led Bob naturally from “God knows” to “Disease of Conceit”.

Once more, as is the hallmark of this remarkable year, Dylan is musically adventurous, while retaining his new spirit of reflection upon human nature and the way it bounces up against issues of religion.  Thus Dylan has entered the arena of the tricky nature of people who say one thing, mean another and do something else.   It’s a very difficult subject to write about, especially within the confines of a popular song, but now long gone are the original blues concepts such as “my baby done me wrong,” and we are now going much deeper than that.

Indeed issues of the uncertainty of what people really mean and really want, come to the fore – this has now become Bob’s project in understanding the strange nature of people and their behaviour.   “What was it you wanted?” indeed focuses on the curious nature of people – not just those around the composer, but of himself too.   He is realising that he is drawn along the time lines just like anyone else; the era of great moral certitude is well and truly over.

So we enter the realms of mystery with, “What was it you wanted?”  Perhaps one of Bob’s most spooky and mysterious songs, at least in its original form, and it is a song that is absolutely packed full of possibilities….

Thus Dylan had composed two excellent songs, exploring new ground (“Born in Time” and “Disease of Conceit”) and he really was on a roll, as each song from here on seemed to be exploring a new and different arena, just as happened in, for example, in 1976.  Every song takes us somewhere new.  Dylan had his songwriting genius back.  Those chordal experiments in “God knows” have really paid dividends.

Bettye LaVette in her reworking of the song certainly emphasises the disconnect that the song stresses, but for once musically seemed to go too far for me.  The lyrics cover a very difficult subject but I am not sure we need to go that far to bring it across.   Roli Frei, however, seems to get it exactly right…

And thus, having got this far, and found himself in such a rich vein of form it is hardly surprising that Bob stayed with the theme that the world is falling apart.  For next came “Everything is Broken” (originally called Broken Days).  And thus the theme continues the feeling of Political World: this world don’t work no more.

The list of what is broken (that opens the song) is overwhelming , or at least would be if it were not sung to such a lively beat.  Whereas on all the personal tracks (ie those which appear to be about an individual, or a unique situation) Dylan sounds like he desperately cares, here he is facing the listener head on saying “this is the world you live in, and this is all you have got – and its your fault for not doing anything about it.”

Ok Bob doesn’t say that last bit, but that is the impression I get.  We are bouncing along in a post-modernist wreck of the world, walking over the ruins of a society that we once had, while those who are left scrabble around in the remains looking for anything to help salvage their lives.  Law and order has all gone and we’re just left jiving toward the world ends.

That feeling which is combined with one of, “well what did you expect?” is amplified by the fact that “Everything is Broken” is a twelve bar blues in construction: pure I, IV, V chords with no exception.  Even the middle eight is reduced to ultimate simplicity as the whole song rocks along.  Only the short intro with the nifty guitar solo and unexpected bongos gives a thought that here there might be something else, but then we are there, as the list of breakages continues as Dylan bounces along telling us there “ain’t no use jiving ain’t no use joking everything is broken.”

This feeling of a need to bounce finally reached its culmination with the live performances (of which there were 284).   And it is a wonderful contrast, for “everything is broken” should lead to a sense of loss, but we are still bouncing along.   This is the world gone wrong and we are having fun at the same time!   Everything is broken because everything is broken, because… well, get used to it and jive along, except there ain’t no use in jiving because everything is broken.

Even with the two different versions that we have: the original version which turned up on Bootleg 8 and the re-working of the song that was released on Oh Mercy we still seem to have the same breach between the brokenness of the world as described and the bounce of the song.

But the live versions have gone on a totally different route…

Everything within the house and within city, and within the society is smashed.  Bottles, plates, switches, gates, dishes, idols, heads, beds, words.  And it gets worse and worse for it seems like every time you stop and turn around something else just hits the ground…

And in the live versions it is so total there is no escape.  The instrumental verse which originally has quite a lively jolly harmonica solo, now becomes more aggressive, and lest we think there is a way out we always go straight back to broken hearts, broken ploughs, broken treaties, broken vows.    There really is nothing left.

Society has gone, and all we have now is the world of the individual, and even here we are running into trouble for as individuals we break the vows we make.  In fact we’re pretty useless at running things.  We need something else.  What could it be?  Oh hang on… but it seems Bob didn’t want to go back to religion here, he just wanted to tell us, it is all finished, and why don’t we  just leave it at that?

As the song says, “Who are you, anyway?”

Publisher’s note…

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