All Directions part 57: the 80s end on a musical high and the depths of despair

By Tony Attwood

The previous episode in this series was All directions at once part 56: Most of the time Bob’s a genius

The index to the series is to be found here 

1989 was a year of confusion, of mystery, of uncertainty – at least as portrayed in Bob Dylan’s compositions that year.  Uncertainty indeed could be felt in all directions,  and the measure of this uncertainty becomes ever clearer when we consider the songs in the order they were written.

It was a year that started with “Born in Time” (“When we were made of dreams”) which finishes with the singer knowing that he is done for, and he can’t fight any more, so “You can have what’s left of me.”

Even “God knows” which sounds like a statement of belief turns out to be anything but for the meaning of the phrase seems to be reversed as in, “God knows what this world is all about”, meaning “I don’t have a clue.”

In this world of uncertainty even the man of God can turn out to be a crook, as the “Disease of Conceit” seemed to confirm.

Uncertainty is everywhere and is continued 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….

Is it something important
Maybe not
What was it you wanted
Tell me again I forgot

And the only explanation for all this chaos turned out to be the chaos itself given that “Everything is Broken.”  For indeed when he said “everything” he most certainly meant “everything”

Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules

And please do remember, we are going through these songs in the order they were written, as they continue the feeling of Political World: this world don’t work no more.

True, on the face of it Ring them bells might seem a celebration, but in effect is a reflection, I believe, on the cascading sound of the bells in a broken world, not the bells symbolising hope.

The bells cascade, and so of course do the images conjured by the “Series of Dreams” – in both songs the images cascade, with everything tumbling over everything else.

Out of this confusion one could consider “Most of the time” to be a love song, but actually now seen as part of this series about tumbling randomness of the world around us, it has far more in relation to  “Visions of Johanna”.  Now the fog is of the singer’s making, not poor Johanna.  For as Visions says,

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

and that is the world I see proclaimed all the way through this series of songs.

Most of the time was desperate but the singer was still coping,

Most of the time
I’m clear focused all around
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path, I can read the signs
Stay right with it when the road unwinds
I can handle whatever I stumble upon
I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time

with “Where teardrops fall” there is still desperation as the singer admits he can’t cope

Roses are red, violets are blue
And time is beginning to crawl
I just might have to come see you
Where teardrops fall

And all he can do is trying and find a place “far away from it all… where teardrops fall.”

She’s gone to another place.  They have been together, taken things at a gentle pace, got to know each other, stood at the edge of the world (in the shadows of moonlight) but it is her, the woman who is in the place where teardrops fall, who can show the singer “a new place to start.”

And he needs that re-start of his world, because he has lost himself…

I’ve torn my clothes and I’ve drained the cup
Strippin’ away at it all
Thinking of you when the sun comes up
Where teardrops fall

He is certainly lost, while she is in a place where one cries gently over the passing of good times.  If they could only just get together again they could pull down all the barriers between them, – and that is part of the point of this series of songs, there are barriers and uncertainties everywhere.

And that is really what this year of writing is about.  It really is saying “everything is broken” at every level.  At the social level, political level, personal level… everything but everything that can be broken, physically or mentally, has been broken.

Whereas “Tangled up in Blue,” talks of two people in a mix of different times and different realities, where the story is in the wrong order, now everything at every level just keeps moving in and out, in and out.  Just consider “Shooting Star”

Listen to the engine, listen to the bell
As the last fire truck from hell
Goes rolling by
All good people are praying
It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

Where Dylan moves step by step down the chromatic scale

(C sharp minor) Listen to the engine, (C) listen to the bell 
(B) As the last fire truck (B flat) from hell
(A) Goes rolling by
(B) All good people are (E) praying

and again with

It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

This is what 1989 is all about.  Now of course I do appreciate of course that many people have seen this as an overtly Christian statement, and obviously there are many overtly religious connotations here but not even Revelations has a fire truck in it.  Nor a radio.

I find lines like “The last radio is playing” incredibly moving, and this is what Dylan does so well – that impossible contradiction in the image to suggest oblivion, desolation and destruction.   Not entering God’s grace, but a world on the very edge.  The next thing you know the stars are beginning to hide.

The final song of the year gathers all this collapse and all this menace together, and uses a time signature that is very rare for Dylan: 12/8.   To hear what this means in practice listen to the count in on the live version below – the counting is 1-2-3-4 but there are three beats on each of those four.  Musicians would count it

123 223 323 423

the first number of each three indicating the beat of the bar, the remaining “23” counting out the triples within each beat.

And the song is sung on the album version (see the foot of this piece) as if each beat of every bar is an effort to complete.  The start is uncertain, the harmonica plays three tentative fading notes, and off we go, plod, plod, plod.  When the harmonica returns there is a haunting feeling added to the plodding.  There’s less of that in this live version, but more pain in the voice.

Here’s the live version

What sort of world is this, where each beat is like a boot sinking into the mud and the only relief is a feeling of being haunted?  Dylan calls it “something menacing and terrible,”  although that comes through more strongly on the album version than on stage.

The effect of menace, when it does emerge, is achieved by the undermining of the four beats in a bar each divided into three concept.  Each start of the three beat process is of equal importance here; normally in rock the second and fourth beat of the bar have an extra emphasis to give the music its swing.  There is no swing.  We are stuck.  There is no escape.

This is a song of atmosphere; the atmosphere of despair.  The lover has gone, for the man left behind, everything is mud or possibly even glue.  There is no way to follow, there is no way out.  We cannot even lift a foot from the floor to try and find the exit.

Everything is useless in this experience, “every man’s conscience is vile and depraved”.  There is not even the chance of a way out through which one can push one’s own life forward.  Nothing is possible, because what will be will be.  There is no decision to be made.  We are trapped.   “People don’t live or die people just float”

Oh the horror.  There is no escape at all in this world.  Because you just have to accept what is thrown at you, and get on with it.   There really is no escape ever, at all, in any way, we are here for all eternity.  There is no argument to be had, no debate, no putting forward an alternative point of view.

The sense of continuing futility is overwhelming which ever way you look at it.   The blues chords used throughout (in C you would play C E-flat B-flat C for the opening line) tell their own tale.  No major or minor key here, it is just the flattened third and flattened seventh.

In fact even when the music gives you a sense of reprieve it is still so hopeless and awful.

people don’t live or die people just float

Rarely has Dylan written more poignant, sad, desperate lines.   There’s nothing, simply nothing.  Take away the hope and all is lost.

Everything is broken, there is no sense of direction.  That is 1989.

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