The last article in this series appeared, and then had a technical fault. It has been republished here.
By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)
‘Windows were shaking all night in my dreams Everything was exactly the way that it seems’
Time Out of Mind is all about the hollowness of life, how empty and meaningless it can all be. This theme or emotion is not new to Dylan. The struggles for faith and meaning are deeply intertwined and go way back to ‘It’s All Right Ma’ and even earlier. We could go even further and say that that struggle has driven Dylan’s artistic development right from the start.
It’s just that in Time Out of Mind, it reaches a certain pitch and intensity, and is linked specifically with ageing. No song deals more explicitly with the ageing process than ‘Highlands’, that long, ungainly song that finishes the album.
‘I see people in the park, forgettin' their troubles and woes They're drinkin' and dancin', wearin' bright colored clothes All the young men with the young women lookin' so good Well, I'd trade places with any of 'em, in a minute if I could I'm crossin' the street to get away from a mangy dog Talkin' to myself in a monologue’
Anyone with a few years under their belt knows what it’s like to see young people partying and having fun, oblivious of their youth and the passing years, oblivious of some old person slipping by in the shadows. It’s a kind of jealousy or envy. Trade places with ‘em? Sure thing. It’s a feeling that alienates us, for we are forever separated from what we once were and would like to be again.
The whole song is one big monologue in which despair and meaninglessness are pitted against a paradisaical vision of ‘the highlands’. This how it begins:
‘Well my heart's in The Highlands, gentle and fair Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air Bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow’
By the end of the song the separation from the world is complete. A new, parallel world has come into existence, but it’s ‘over the hills and far away’. He remains ‘a prisoner in a world of mystery’.
‘The sun is beginnin' to shine on me But it's not like the sun that used to be The party's over and there's less and less to say I got new eyes, everything looks far away Well my heart's in The Highlands at the break of day Over the hills and far away’
The central event of the song is a confrontation between the Dylan persona and a waitress. This encounter has been likened to the central encounter in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, but that encounter is both sharper and more mysterious than the rather lumbering narrative in ‘Highlands’. The waitress asks Dylan to draw her, he does a drawing which she rejects as it doesn’t look like her:
‘I said "Oh kind miss, it most certainly does" She say "You must be joking", I said "I wish I was" She says "You don't read women authors do ya?" At least that's what I think I hear her say Well I say "How would you know, and what would it matter anyway?" Well she says "Ya just don't seem like ya do" I said "You're way wrong" She says "Which ones have you read then?", I say "Read Erica Jong"’
Dylan is probably referring to Jong’s Fear of Flying, (1973) which was still popular. But despite some Dylanesque dry humour here, and his ability to weave conversations into his songs is evident, this prosy story fits rather uneasily into the overall structure of the song, and it’s not quite clear what the story is intended to demonstrate.
Dylan rarely performed the song, which he débuted in 1999. I’m glad he sang all the verses and was not tempted to drop any out. It has a simple blues riff, but is not an easy song to carry in live performance. (18th Nov)
Dylan didn’t overwhelm his setlists with songs from Time Out of Mind. He slips them in here and there, augmenting his setlists rather than dominating them with new material. Along with ‘Highlands’, another new song that appeared in 1999 was ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’.
I have to put this latter song in my top ten (at least for the moment). It has a pleasing melodic line and musical structure, and is a further exploration of the hollowness of life. In his account of the song, Tony Attwood has suggested that it could be placed before ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ as a stepping stone to that final despair, and that’s a helpful way to see it.
‘When you think that you've lost everything You find out you can always lose a little more I'm just going down the road feeling bad Trying to get to Heaven before they close the door’
There is an elusive feeling here of a bygone era, both in the nostalgia of the lyrics and the overall musical effect, which takes us back to those 1930s and 40s which so haunt this album, and which Dylan consciously evokes.
‘I'm going down the river Down to New Orleans They tell me everything is gonna be all right But I don't know what all right even means’
Note the archaism of: ‘I was riding the buggy with miss Mary Jane…’ Mary Jane is a street name for cannabis, but putting that aside the scene could be from the civil war. The Dylan persona here has a ‘lone cowboy’ feel to it, also from a previous era:
‘Some trains don't pull no gamblers No midnight ramblers like they did before I've been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down Now I'm trying to get to Heaven before they close the door’
Despite a contemporary drug reference to LSD in Sugar Town, shaking the sugar down has a somewhat archaic feel of having pulled off a successful scam or deal. It is perhaps a rather unflattering reference to Dylan’s financial success.
I have two performances worth tuning into. This first is from 7th April, and is perhaps the sharpest and clearest recording. An example of how good an audience recording can be.
Tryin to get to heaven (A)
This next recording is from 30th April, and is a little more lush in its sound. Another powerful vocal performance from Dylan.
Tryin to get to heaven (B)
Besides these two new songs that Dylan débuted in 1999, he continued to develop Time out of Mind songs he’d introduced in the two previous years. ‘Lovesick’ is never going to change too much over the years. It has a strict form that doesn’t allow for too much improvisation. This one sticks pretty much to the album version, but notice how Dylan drops his voice at the end of the lines (the opposite of upsinging), creating a sinister effect.
We get the same effect from ‘Cold Irons Bound.’ Listen to how he drops his voice art the end of these lines.
‘One look at you, and I’m out of controool Like the universe has swallowed me whooole’
Dylan would use this ‘downsinging’ to great effect in the next couple of years, giving familiar lyrics an ominous edge. We are prisoners of our love, the song seems to be saying. This is a very hard-edged performance. Maybe the recording is a little on the sharp side, but so is the song. There is no way to sugar-coat this pill: ‘Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood’.
Despair and anger do make a good couple, don’t they?
Cold irons bound
Musically, ‘Till I Fell in Love with You’ has an archaic feel too. I keep hearing Jimmy Rushing or one of the old urban blues singers. It is driven by an unvarying bluesy riff, and with no bridge or other musical breaks, it relies totally on its lyrics and swing to keep it going. This is not so much rock music but pre-rock music, the more ancient blues and big-band era music. Replace the guitars with saxes and trumpets, and you’d almost be slap-bang in the dance-hall music of the late 1940s.
Dylan was consciously after that sound when he made the album. He apparently told producer Lanois that he was after the kind of sound of the early music studios, of what were known as ‘race records’ which brought forward many black performers. Lanois told him it could be done, but in the end the sound on the album was too sophisticated, too nuanced, to capture the raw sound Dylan was after.
On stage, however, he could do it, and does it brilliantly in this performance of ‘Till I Fell in Love with You’. Again I avoid the word definitive, but this one ranks as my number one version of the song. Dylan’s voice is up front, the lyrics crackle out, and the band swings along, a touch of bluesy swagger.
Till I fell in love
‘To Make You Feel My Love’ evokes the same era, but the sentimental ballad tradition, rather than blues. I can imagine Vera Lynn singing it (almost), it has that tearful ‘We’ll Meet Again’, feel to it.
These lyrics could have been written for Billie Holiday:
‘I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue I'd go crawling down the avenue No, there's nothing that I wouldn't do To make you feel my love’
Such lyrics are quite formalised, quite generic. Going ‘black and blue’ was not an uncommon phrase, and ‘crawling down the avenue’ has a similar well used feel to it. The lyrics are not intended to sound original, rather to signal the sentiment through familiar references.
‘The storms are raging on the rolling sea And on the highway of regret’
The effect of this is to evoke a sense of familiarity, as if we’ve heard the song before somewhere, maybe in a speakeasy in the small hours of the morning. Hasn’t every singer who’s ever pulled on your heart strings sung from ‘the highway of regret’? There’s a lot of traffic on that highway.
In this performance Dylan introduces it as ‘a song to my ex-wife, who’s a tennis player…’ Make of that what you will. And again, a performance that tops those of the two previous years.
To make you feel my love
The oddest aspect of these 1999 performances of ‘Can’t Wait’, which Dylan regularly performed, is the disconcerting ‘off key’ playing of Mr Guitar Man. Again, I have to ask, what does Dylan intend here, what does he think he’s doing? I ask the question because it’s clearly deliberate. It throws the song off-centre with guttural sounds. It makes its own weird sense but its relationship to the melody is problematic to say the least.
Perhaps, to return to Tony Attwood’s comments on ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’, it was not just that song, but the others as well, ‘Can’t Wait’, ‘Till I fell in Love’, ‘Cold Irons Bound’, that lead, somehow inevitably, to the total loss and despair of ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’. Seen that way, ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ could be seen as the quintessential song on the album, the song which pushes the darkness and alienation of the collection to the very extreme. An epic performance from a beautifully scarred voice.
It’s not dark yet
That’s it for now. I’ll be back soon with more goodies from 1999