By Tony Attwood
There is an index to the All Directions series here. The idea of the series is to trace Dylan’s compositions in the order of their being written, to see what insights that gives us into what he was thinking, and where he was going.
The last episode ended “Everything is broken, there is no sense of direction. That is 1989.” and that is certainly the impression I got from Bob in the year which also gave us “Disease of Conceit”, “Series of Dreams”, “Most of the Time”, “Where teardrops fall” and ended with “Man in a long black coat”. Was there ever a more downward spiralling collection in terms of negative themes, combined with an upward spiral of musical and poetic inventiveness?
The question at this time was therefore, could Bob pick himself up and give us something a lot more forward looking and positive? Indeed did he want to? Or if not, could he at least retain some of the mystery without every prognostication being negative.
It certainly did not seem so with the opening song of the new decade, “Handy Dandy.” Negativity might not pull him through, but it gave him a lot of ideas…
Handy dandy, controversy surrounds him He's been around the world and back again Something in the moonlight still hounds him Handy dandy, just like sugar and candy Handy dandy, if every bone in his body was broken he would never admit it He got an all girl orchestra and when he says "Strike up the band", they hit it Handy dandy, handy dandy You say, "What are ya made of?" He says, "Can you repeat what you said?" You'll say, "What are you afraid of?" He'll say, "Nothin' neither 'live nor dead"
Bob created a lilting version of the song which gave a different musical vision – as if we can just drift along through this world without taking any notice of the world around us.
but the picture above tells us what the album really is about. The desolation of his home town, and other towns like it.
This version totally undermines the album version; it is much more insidious because it sounds so sweet and fine and ok when in fact everything is absolutely not OK. We are still trapped by the man in the long black coat and the disease of conceit. This remains a very dark world.
And just in case we thought this might be a passing phase (albeit one that was taking a hell of a long time pass) Bob had no hesitation in pointing out we were wrong. For the next song told us…
The cat's in the well, the wolf is looking down. The cat's in the well, the wolf is looking down. He got his big bushy tail dragging all over the ground. The cat's in the well, the gentle lady is asleep. Cat's in the well, the gentle lady is asleep. She ain't hearing a thing, the silence is a-stickin' her deep. The cat's in the well and grief is showing its face The world's being slaughtered and it's such a bloody disgrace.
Just because it is a rocking 12 bar blues, it doesn’t mean everything is ok. It sure isn’t. And it wasn’t going to stop. For if ever Bob had a theme that he wanted to pour through and look at in every possible way, this was that moment. 10,000 men takes us once more along the same route.
Ten thousand men on a hill, Ten thousand men on a hill, Some of 'm goin' down, some of 'm gonna get killed. Ten thousand men dressed in oxford blue, Ten thousand men dressed in oxford blue, Drummin' in the morning, in the evening they'll be coming for you.
This is not a world in which sometimes things are ok, and sometimes not. This really is “Everything is broken” over and over and over again. And not surprisingly, there are not too many cover version around. I mean, “Desolation Row” tells us just how bad the world is – how appallingly awful the world is – but at least if we can see the world as Bob sees it, we can talk with him, and share thoughts with him. And it has a nice tune.
But these songs have nothing like that. In Desolation Row we live in a broken world, but we can share some hopes together, some desire to make the world better, some comfort that we can give each other. Here we live in a world of utter and total bleakness. And that’s been the theme of one song after another after another.
My point is that the 1965 sequence of 15 songs from “On the road again” to “Ballad of a thin man” told us of moving on and disdain, of life being a jumble, of hopeless self-centred people etc. But by and large these are people who are as much as anything hurting themselves by their own attitude – which is why Bob’s lyrics in works such as “Rolling Stone” are so disdainful.
But now this is far worse. It is not the junkie who has hurt him or herself by overdosing the drugs but people who appear to be living normal lives but are just going to get really hurt by the world they live in. And like the cat in the well (a really pitiful and painful metaphor) we are stuck.
And he’s not giving up because the lyrics to the next song (Unbelievable) take us even lower
It's unbelievable, it's strange but true, It's inconceivable it could happen to you. You go north and you go south Just like bait in the fish's mouth. Ya must be livin' in the shadow of some kind of evil star. It's unbelievable it would get this far.
The song ends
It don't matter no more what you got to say It's unbelievable it would go down this way.
And there isn’t anything more negative than this.
The only question there was, was how negative could this get, and how long could it go on. OK that is two questions. But they get answered by the next song, “Under the red sky” – the song that Bob himself said was about being stuck in one’s backwater home town.
Let the wind blow low, let the wind blow high. One day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie. This is the key to the kingdom and this is the town This is the blind horse that leads you around.
And so it has continued song after song of total negativity. There is no way out. Perhaps the message became unclear because of the way Dylan chose to write the music, but the cat is most certainly still stuck down the well, only now the cat has become two young people whose lives are ruined by being born in a dead end town and having no way out of it.
Even when working with Willie Nelson there was no escape
There's a home place under fire tonight in the Heartland And the bankers are takin' my home and my land from me There's a big achin' hole in my chest now where my heart was And a hole in the sky where God used to be There's a home place under fire tonight in the Heartland There's a well with water so bitter nobody can drink Ain't no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can't speak Don't they know that I'm dyin', Why nobody cryin' for me?
And still the negativity went on with Wiggle Wiggle
Wiggle ’til you vomit fire
Was it possible to go any deeper? Well yes
How many paths did they try and fail? How many of their brothers and sisters lingered in jail? How much poison did they inhale? How many black cats crossed their trail?
And that was it. Bob, having taken us down so deep he couldn’t find anything much deeper now went back to the Wilbury’s (and it is interesting that the first song from the second collaboration seems to have been “The Devil’s been busy in your back yard”, but that takes us onto the next episode.
And I’m left thinking, it is hand’t been for the Wilbury’s, just how dark could Bob have got?