All directions at once part 56: Most of the time Bob’s a genius

By Tony Attwood

Earlier episodes of All Directions are listed here

The previous episode was “After the loss the rebuild”

A while back I fantasized on the notion that Bob Dylan would one day knock on my door and in my living room, sitting over a coffee or a beer, would suggest that in the light of my work on this site, would I perhaps like to put together a compilation album.

Leaving aside the social interactions that would follow I set out what I would put on the album, and the fact that it was to be called “1980” gives you a pretty good clue as to what it is all about.

With the songs from the end of the decade I don’t have to indulge in such whimsy, because we have Oh Mercy, but if I was given the task of re-working that fine album I would put forward the idea of running the songs in the order they were written – although I think I would continue Dylan’s own decision making by dropping TV Talking Song.  “Series of Dreams” however would most certainly be in there.

I called the last episode of this series “After the loss, the rebuild” and rebuilding was most certainly what was going on in 1989 after the Wilbury’s adventure.  For 1989 gave us as good an outpouring of compositions one after the other, since 1974.   My imaginary album of 1989 would run…

  1. Born in Time
  2. God Knows
  3. Disease of Conceit
  4. What was it you wanted
  5. Everything is Broken
  6. Ring them Bells
  7. Series of Dreams
  8. Most of the Time
  9. Where teardrops fall
  10. Shooting Star and see Shooting Star and Hendrix
  11. Man in a Long Black Coat

In the last article I got as far as “Everything is Broken” after which Bob wrote Ring them Bells, a song which is a mixture of many different approaches and with a unique cascading piano part which defines the music from the start.

The only problem is that so many re-interpreters are tempted into using the piano as a way of reminding us that it is all about bells (as if we were so stupid we’d forget).   But when this is overcome, the depth of possibilities of the song are revealed.

Indeed that persistent desire to make the music represent bells is a tragedy because as a piece of music it works beautifully – the melody just gives us the chords, the chords give us the melody – one of those beautiful songs where everything seems to fit so naturally together, rather than have any feeling that the composer was searching to find a way, any way, to end a line or make a rhyme.

Stephen Inglis gets it right too…

There’s no hint of blues anywhere, and indeed where unusual chords are thrown in, as in the middle 8, they have nothing to do with the blues genre.  Rather they are stretching the song to see just how far it can go, and the answer is always… a very very long way.

I am a believer in following Dylan’s own suggestions that it is the sound of the lyrics, and the possibilities of meanings that fascinate him rather than there being deep literal meanings within each song, and here we can consider for a moment St Catherine, St Peter and Sweet Martha.  If we are looking for literal meanings the issue must be “why those three?”   We can all find explanations for each, but all three in one song?   True, we also have a reference to The Chosen Few  – which could take us to the Saints who will judge the world at the end of time (I could show off and say Revelations 20:4, but that would just be showing off), but then again why those three people, in this context?

The problem is as fast as we try and track down one reason for a reference the others fall out of sync with it.   Which leads me to see these references as reflections placed throughout the song as much for the sound of the words as any symbolism or direct pointing in any direction.

Indeed when it comes to how religious the piece is, I keep coming back to the 1997 interview for The New York Times, just four years after the Supper Club recordings, where Dylan said, “This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

Bells ringing are emotional; the calling of us all together and of course it can be argued that Dylan has Joel 3:11 at the back of his mind

Assemble yourselves, and come, all ye heathen, and gather yourselves together round about.

But quite why the bride is running backwards is beyond me.  But I still love the line.

Poetry at this time for Dylan (as so often in other eras of his writing) is as much about playing with words as it is about telling us to do this, not do that.  It expresses what non-poetic forms can’t express.   It is not always meant to be taken literally.

It can be deadly serious and insightful, it can be fun, it can make us sit up and take notice (Hollis Brown is a perfect example) and it can give us deeper insights into the human condition (Subterranean Homesick Blues does that I think).  But as often as not, it is not intended to be taken literally.

“Ring them bells” for me is an update on Times they are a changing and Chimes of Freedom.  My thought is that if Bob wanted to preach, he would preach, loud and clear.   Here’s he’s just giving us an update, and it is no worse a song for all that.

So by now in this year of 1989 Bob has composed

  • Born in Time
  • God Knows
  • Disease of Conceit
  • What was it you wanted
  • Broken Days / Everything is Broken
  • Ring them Bells

… which by any measure is a staggering collection of works to come one after the other.  But he absolutely wasn’t finished yet – not by a long chalk because we were only half way through this year in terms of writing, and there were five more brilliant works to come.

  • Series of Dreams
  • Most of the Time
  • TV Talking Song
  • Where teardrops fall
  • Shooting Star
  • Man in a Long Black Coat

As I’ve intimated before I can do without TV Talking Song, but just look at the rest of the compositions.  Many of us had not heard “Series of Dreams” before it was released on the first set of outtakes and we got Bob’s explanation for it not being on “Oh Mercy”, in Chronicles…

Although Lanois liked the song, he liked the bridge better, wanted the whole song to be like that. I knew what he meant, but it just couldn’t be done. Though I thought about it for a second, thinking that I could probably start with the bridge as the main part and use the main part as the bridge…the idea didn’t amount to much and thinking about the song this way wasn’t healthy. I felt like it was fine the way it was – didn’t want to lose myself in thinking too much about changing it.

And he was right, in my view, not just to reject Lanois’ view but only to think about it for a second.  The “bridge”

Dreams where the umbrella is folded
Into the path you are hurled
And the cards are no good that you’re holding
Unless they’re from another world

for me is a perfect bridge (or middle 8 as I’d call it), and I can’t imagine a reason to change this.

But it clearly wasn’t a real favourite of Bob’s as it just got ten outings in 1993/4, and was then set aside.  I guess it was just one of those that somehow he felt wasn’t quite right.

After that wonderful piece, Bob wrote another lost love song: “Most of the time” a song that takes me back to that earlier masterpiece “Visions of Johanna”.  Now the fog is of the singer’s making, while in Visions the fog covers the whole world; but in both songs the issue of self-delusion is at the forefront.    As Visions says,

“We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”

Now the emotions are totally ruling the body so that one can’t see the truth, the reality, the real world.  In Visions the mists come from without, here they come from within, but in both songs the feeling is out-of-body, uncertain, unreal.  However in “Most of the Time” the assertion is that the singer can handle it.  That is never the case with Johanna – which of course unlike “Most of the time” is not personal, but is third person.

The music too is unexpected – there’s an E major chord which throws the music out of kilter, and that pause at the end of the line after “or if I was ever with her” adds to the unreality.   He knows utterly that he was with her, but his denial is so overwhelming he doesn’t know it at all.  He’s muttering small talk at the wall.

And so we build up to the climax of denial by taking the assertions to ludicrous proportions.

I don’t cheat on myself, I don’t run and hide
Hide from the feelings that are buried inside
I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend
I don’t even care if I ever see her again
Most of the time

The music and the lyrics show that the singer is so deeply in denial we know that he is fooling himself from that open ethereal chord to the fade out.

And it’s not just a fantastic piece of writing; it is a piece of writing that came straight after the masterpiece that is “Series of Dreams”.

Not too many performers choose to tackle “Most of the time”, but for me this is the ultimate stand-out version, which captures every single moment of the lyrics and music.  I do hope, after reading my ramblings you’ll have a moment spare to listen to this – and indeed listen to it all the way through.

Publisher’s note…

You can read more about all our regular writers here

If you would like to read more commentaries, Untold Dylan also has a very active Facebook group: Untold Dylan.

If you would like to see some of our series they are listed under the picture at the top of the page, and the most recent entries can be found on the home page.

If you would like to contribute an article please drop a line to


  1. The trouble with “It’s The Sound Stupid, School of Dylanology” is that its advocates get all tangled up, and say things like the faster we figure out one reason for a reference the quicker others fall out of sync and then they wonder why the bride is running backwards like the Red Queen in Alice In Wonderland who runs faster and faster just to stay in one place.

    There is no preaching, no one deliberate literal meaning to look for, but the word imagery creates a feeling of chaos where figurative meanings rebound every which way and that.

    But the demand that a piece of art must have one unitary meaning, albeit not a literal one, by this ‘structuralist’ School of Dylanology simply results in its advocates throwing up their hands and concluding there is no meaning there at all, just nonsense really, it’s just the sound that counts.

    This School apparently wonders why Dylan even bothers putting lyrics to the music at all – except in order to create a good rhyme!

  2. Martha whose brother Jesus restores to life in the Bible is considered to be the same person as Mary Magdalene by some religious interpreters.
    According to religous legend, Saint Catherine is said to beheaded after the Roman wheel she’s tortured on breaks.
    The chosen people be the one-God Jews if not then at least some of the Christian Calvinists.

    Now there’s confusion for you.

  3. Sorry “….considered to be the sister of Mary Magdalene”

    I said it was confusing!

  4. Martha’s sister Mary and Mary Magdalene are not considered to be sisters by other interpreters.

  5. The bride running backwards is probably the religion which is not changing fast enough and adjusting to ever changing times.
    The church is part of the indoctrination people are subjected to from the day they are born. Religion is the opium for the people and it does more damage than good in my opinion. It is like television: it enslaves people, makes them dependent and it robes them from reason. It doesn’t make people better. It is just like a piece of clothing which people put on but underneath they stay as they are. Some good some evil but most just a mix of the two extremes. And it goes for everybody. The priests are not better that the people they preach too. And in some cases they are much worse. Today we learn about priests who raped children.
    “The child that cries when the innocence dies”. Those children are damaged for life. It makes you wander if we wouldn’t be better of without any religion. I think that John Lennon was right when he tried to imagine the world free of religion. In my opinion we should finally put ourselves and our welfare in the center of universe along with the whole life on earth instead of God. If he exists and indeed created us as an image of himself he is not faultless and certainly he can’t be our judge because the way we are is not our fault but his. So my point is that we should concentrate about our here and now, our life on this planet and not about our future in the Great Beyond which may or may not exist.

  6. Postmodernism is characterized by the use word association, like metonymy, to draw out meaning ie, like “bells” on his garment signifies that the High Priest is coming, often with a warning that the Commandants are not being followed. I would not call Dylan a Postmodernist per se, but perhaps a ‘poststructionalist’ who believes that there is a ‘higher meaning” to the Universe that needs to be tapped into by individuals if yet not achieved by all of humankind.

    That your ‘opinion’ can be drawn from ” Ring Them Bells’ would be helped along by a few more quotes from the lyrics, but I’m certainly not saying that you are wrong by any means.

  7. For sure, more than one Dylan song shows the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion that the ruled, rather than the rulers, are promised a reward in the Great Beyond, in the Hereafter, rather than in the here-and-now.

  8. That is, the rulers speak of what is ‘good’and what is ‘bad’ in the here-and-now while the ruled speak of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’ so they can make it into Heaven, priests acting as middle men who work both sides of the street, depending on the existing socio-economic circumstances.

  9. ie, “And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong”
    (Bob Dylan: Ring Them Bells)

  10. ‘False Prophet:
    Open your mouth
    l’ll stuff it with gold

    Greek mythology:
    To pay the Ferryman for transportation to the Land of the Dead,
    a gold coin is put in the mouth of the deceased

  11. An association with Mary Shelley:

    In ‘My Version Of You”, the narrator regrets, as God’, creating a monster that made in his own image (humans – that tell lies all night and day – in ‘Tempest’, even sing as the badly-designed ship goes down).

  12. Regarding False Prophet:
    “Open your mouth
    I’ll stuff it with gold”
    There is another possibility apart from the golden coin for a ferry to the underworld.
    “Centuries ago, having molten gold poured down your throat was actually the preferred means of death by molten metal. Marcus Lincinius Crassus, an astoundingly wealthy Roman general, is rumored to have died this way, as is Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder (though others contest that he was flayed alive)”
    (Google). Although I personally doubt that it was pure gold as people are simply too greedy to have used gold instead of any other metal.
    People are very creative in ways how to torture, humiliate and murder another fellow human.
    If we were as creative in making our lives better we would long ago have paradise on this earth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *