All Directions at Once: Dylan at the end of 1990

By Tony Attwood

All Directions is a series of articles that considers Bob Dylan’s compositions in the order they were written, looking for links between the songs which perhaps on occasion reflect how Bob was feeling about himself, his friends, and the world.

The series index is here.  The previous episode was All Directions 59: Going down down down

My thesis in that previous article was simple: although some people see the songs of the early part of 1990 as “children’s songs” those songs are much darker and deeper, and in fact continue the negativity of 1989.  And with this much negativity going on it was probably a great relief for Bob to return to the Wilburys for a second expedition (called volume 3).

There were 11 songs all told in this second collection but most commentators suggest that four of them (New blue moon, Wilbury Twist, Poor House and Cool Dry Place) had little to do with Bob Dylan the composer.   They have been considered briefly on this site, and I think that’s enough.

Which leaves seven songs starting with “The Devil’s been busy” – which itself seems to have some of the negative thoughts of the earlier songs from this year and the previous year, still lurking within.

You see your second cousin
Wasted in a fight
You say he had it coming
You couldn’t do it right
You’re in a western movie, playing the part
The devil’s been busy in your back yard

Apart from that, I’m not sure there is much to get excited about.

With the next song, “If you belonged to me” I am ready to get very unexcited by the title – I really don’t like references to one person in a relationship owning the other… I thought we removed that in the 1960s.

There is some fun such as with “You say let’s go to the rodeo to see some cowboy fall,” and some real negative nastiness reminding us of day to day reality…

The guy your with is a ruthless pimp
Everybody knows
Every cent he takes from you
Goes straight up his nose.

That darkness that has beset Bob last year and this, sure is still there.

Inside Out takes Bob into an area of concern I am not sure we have had much of before, with the issue of the environment.  And musically Bob does something very odd – although it is possible that George Harrison is the one who threw this in… he suddenly jerks to a new key, with “Be careful where you’re walking…”  I really do wonder if that came from a quite separate Harrison song and was just thrown in the middle.

But the negativity is still there…

The other link we find here

You’re saying that you’re all washed up
Got nothing else to give.
Seems like you would’ve figured out
How long you have to live

which is a sort of mirror image of Positively 4th Street – which is about as negative as you can get.

But then we really do have a song that is Dylan through and through, a tribute to a slow 1950s doo-wop type of music that might be associated with a B side of a 78rpm by the Platters or the Teenagers.

“She’s my baby” was copyrighted by Dylan and there’s a fair amount of his feeling for the opposite sex in it.

My baby
She’s got a body for business
Got a head for sin
She knocks me over
like a bowling pin.
She came home last night and said,
“Honey, honey, honey it’s hard to get ahead.”
My baby

And then, finally Bob came up with something that I think is worthy of this array of talent gathered together for no purpose other than to make a follow up, a song that has Bob Dylan with a bit of help from Tom Petty written all over it: “Where were you last night” (not to be confused with Nightwish).

What makes it Dylan is the unusual chord structure – after the first 8 bars there are a couple of unexpected minor chords which really makes the listener jump back, even if one doesn’t know why.

There’s also a bit of the sloppiness in the lyrics that were typical of Dylan at this time – rhyming “week” with “tree” really won’t do (although I have seen it written as “creek” – which rhymes but is out of context.)

But what makes this work is the melody – only occasionally one of Dylan’s strong points -combining in a perfect way with the lyrics, and mixing with that irresistible bass line.

What did you do, who did you see?
Were you with someone who reminded you of me?

It is not just a lost love song – there is the twist – “who reminded you of me” is one of the most interesting lines that I think Bob wrote around this time.  You’re not going out with me, but with someone who reminds you of me, because….    Well because I’m in the studio with the guys or I’m on tour or…

The purists tend to dismiss these albums as being quite unnecessary, but there is fun and laughter here, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  And it is even funnier when we have

You weren’t waiting where you said
You sent someone in your place instead.

That’s the twist. What on earth is going on?  So now, who is reminding who of whom?  Who is taking whose place?

Maybe as said, everyone was throwing lines and ideas in, and Bob Dylan popping in occasionally.  Heylin also makes the point that Dylan recorded everything before letting the rest of the band get on with it.  Maybe all that is so, but this song hardly feels like that at all.

Yes it is a pop song, with no deep or profound meaning but it works perfectly in the genre for which it is made.  The confusions within the song fit perfectly with the “where were you” notion, and the bounce and life and indeed sheer vivacity within the piece adds to the notion that the singer is searching here there and everywhere

But it is a pop song with twists.  Take the chords for example.  The first line runs

D G Gm D A D

Then we get a C minor included, and later in the middle 8 we have a modulation to E major.  Unexpected or what?

Maybe everyone was throwing in ideas – although I’d still say this was mostly Bob with a bit of Tom Petty, but for me this makes the album worthwhile, first because I really enjoy it as a song, and second because although Bob is still in his negative mode (his woman didn’t turn up) he is having fun with reality.  This is much more “who’s who, and who’s where?” rather than “the world gone wrong”.

The negative songs that beset the last couple of years seem to have been pushed back, just a little bit, and in retrospect we can see just how important that was because after this set of songs Bob was about to set off into a prolonged period of not writing.

Four compositions have been suggested between this point and 1995

but all four could equally be considered as part-pieces from 1984 as well as 1995.  I only rate one of those four as really interesting – “Well well well” and we know that Bob only wrote the lyrics not the music.  But either way, and irrespective of whenever it was written, I think it is a stunning piece of music.

We have two recordings of Well Well Well and I’ll include both here because they are so good.

In this first version by Danny O’Keefe, there is  talk first about how he came to write the song with Bob Dylan, which is ok, but could put you off… so I would beg you to stay with it, or reset the counter to 1’16” and listen.  This is so worth hearing…

And then go to Ben Harper

And if you enjoy the Ben Harper version do get some of his albums.  You will not be disappointed.

I would love to say these songs were Bob’s return to real live songwriting of genius but no.   What happened next was a long period of not writing after the second Wilbury’s album.  That not-writing period lasted for around about five years and as noted above at most during that time Dylan wrote four songs, only one of which is particularly memorable.  However when he did hit the floor once more he was most certainly running.

He hadn’t got rid of the blues – far from it in fact – but he came back with the blues like we had never heard them before.  It made that wait worthwhile.  Oh, so worthwhile.

And then some.

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2 Responses to All Directions at Once: Dylan at the end of 1990

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    “In Where Were You”, ‘tree’ rhymes perfectly with ‘see’ and all the ‘me’s….so it might be said that it is the assonate ‘wee(k)’ that is “sloppily”rhymed.

    And if one were to substitute ‘up a creek’ (ie, without a paddle) for ‘up a tree’, the meaning of the two phrases can be taken to have the same meaning, ie: in a difficult situation.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Besides, were one to write, say:

    “She fell asleep
    Beneath a tree”

    It’s not considered a ‘sloppy rhyme’ but instead an acceptable assonant “rhyme”.

    (Should be ‘assonant’ in the above comment as well)

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