By Tony Attwood
The last episode in this series was All Directions at Once: Dylan at the end of 1990
The index to the series, with yet another attempt at getting the numbering to make sense, can be found here.
Bob Dylan had had times in his writing career prior to the 1990s when he had stopped composing – or at least stopped composing and releasing anything he had written (for of course, we can never be quite sure what he was up to in his spare time).
The first pause was 1968 when he wrote “Lay Lady Lay” and nothing else. 1971/2 was a different sort of pause, for in 1971 a couple of songs still highly regarded (When I paint my masterpiece and Watching the river flow) and in 1972 the music to Billy the Kid, and “Forever Young” but again nothing on the industrial scale of production we had seen earlier.
1976 saw another one song year (Seven Days) before the work on the next album began the following year with “Changing of the Guards” (which made 1977 the year not of a large number of songs but certainly a number of very significant and memorable songs).
1978 was a different type of year again – a lot of compositions, but most of them hardly remembered. “Slow Train and “New Pony” are the main exceptions.
Then suddenly in 1979, Bob was running on full speed, writing songs which all seemed to have (and indeed in the latter stages all overtly had) a Christian theme.
1980 gave us 13 new compositions, and a gradual movement away from the Christian theme, while 1981 gave us another variation: 23 songs (including the last ever gospel song, at the end of the year, but only maybe half a dozen of these would most people remember).
Across 1982/3 the number of songs written (17 in all) was less high, but included within its number various songs the average fan might particularly recall. Songs such as “Jokerman”, “I and I”, Blind Willie McTell,” “Don’t fall apart on me tonight,” “License to Kill”, “Neighbourhood Bully”, and “Foot of Pride” (although I probably exaggerate with that last one – many not might immediately recall it, it seems to be just me that rates it so incredibly highly). Quite a repertoire nonetheless.
But then once again, Bob stopped. For the period from 1991 to 1995 either had just four compositions, or none at all – depending on your point of view. The evidence is unclear, and of those four songs, only one Well well well has been noted as being of particular merit. And even then, Bob only wrote the lyrics, not the music.
And yet, the last two songs of this period “Tragedy of the trade” and “Time to end this masquerade” were co-written with none other than Gerry Goffin, who wrote the lyrics of “Will you love me tomorrow?” “Take good care of my baby,” and “It might as well rain until September” – to name but three out of his enormous catalogue.
But somehow the two geniuses together simply didn’t make it happen…
Although quite possibly Bob was telling it how he saw it, in the middle 8.
I forgot to milk the cow, but I don’t wanna do it now Like to sleep for a hundred years, till’ this old world just disappears
So what did we expect in 1996? Probably by then some of us were a bit downbeat about the chances of any more masterpieces, but of course Bob fooled those of us thinking that way for we got a whole set of masterpieces, and then some. Which ones you pick from the ten compositions of that year is obviously a highly personal choice, but I suspect “Mississippi” is going to be up there for everyone, along with “Not Dark Yet”. And many of the others are, I am sure, personal favourites among Dylan’s legions of fans.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because Bob’s return the world of writing started here…
Dirt Road Blues, is a 12 bar country blues: and for a composer like Bob returning to serious composition after such a long break, the old 12 bar is a good place to start. Indeed how incredibly appropriate it was that the whole process re-started with “Goin’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride” – a reflection on the endless “moving on” theme that had been part of Dylan’s writing and his life on the road, all these years until he seemingly called it a day.
So now, coming back to that favourite old theme, he tells us quite clearly that he is back to the old music, back to his roots. And, back to all that this implies: the hobo keeping on keeping on, walking down the highway ALONE.
Of course there is an eternal contradiction in singing this song to mass audiences of adoring fans and being anything but alone, but then whenever was Bob not a bundle of contradictions?
And more than anything let us not forget how this song ends: “Gon’ walk on down until I’m right beside the sun, I’m gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone.” And there are certainly moments in this collection of songs that tell us that is absolutely what he is doing. In a strange contradictory way he is writing again because he’s had enough. Of everything.
If this were just another Dylan song I’d perhaps not even think of these lines in this context, but this is the first Dylan song in years and years.
Although you might well be more familiar with
Gonna walk down that dirt road 'til everything becomes the same Gonna walk down that dirt road 'til everything becomes the same I keep on walking 'til I hear her holler out my name
And just in case we were thinking that Bob had used that first composition in so many years to get that out of his system, and get the old creative juices running via a familiar theme, his next piece suggested otherwise
I can't wait Wait for you to change your mind It's late I'm trying to walk the line Well, it's way past midnight and there's people all around Some on their way up, some on their way down The air burns and I'm trying to think straight And I don't know how much longer I can wait
and it ends,
I thought somehow that I would be spared this fate But I don't know how much longer I can wait
No this is not Bob bouncing along with the joys of being out on the road, for here we are right in the depths of lost love.
OK, so that was getting dark and gloomy, but at least after those two amazing if somewhat dark songs, Bob then produced one of the all time masterpieces, with that by now seemingly regular Bob Dylan reaction to a masterpiece – he dropped it from the album.
After which he moved onto writing Highlands. And when we think of these songs in the order they were written this truly is an extraordinary set of jumps both lyrically and musically – although the theme of the influence of the environment on how you feel is a dominant theme throughout.
So Dylan is still fascinated by writing about travelling and wishing to be elsewhere. Mississippi, the Aberdeen waters…we are moving on and on… “I crossed that river just to be where you are” onto “I’m going there when I’m good enough to go”; Dylan still feels like a prisoner. Just as he did as he did as he sang “I don’t know how much longer I can wait.” He’s trapped, and travelling is the only way out.
But there is a clarity in Bob’s singing on that outtake version which really does take us somewhere else. And that’s before we even contemplate the fact that he played it on the outtake version in D-flat. Now I appreciate that might not mean too much to you, but believe me, no one performs in D flat. I mean, you just don’t.
So then came Mississippi, in which Bob is still the prisoner – “all boxed in nowhere to escape”. I mean, how clear do we want Bob to be – writing about feeling like a prisoner in one song and then talking about nowhere to escape: I think we are seeing a theme here.
But in the midst of the singular message he can still write lines that have been part of the lives of so many of us ever since, while at the heart of this we still have the whole issue of moving on – the very essence of Dylan’s early songs. I’m immediately taken back to I was young when I left home in 1961, Rambling Gambling Willie in 1962, followed a little later with “Rocks and Gravel” and Down the Highway, Long Time Gone , Walking Down the Line and Kingsport Town – all songs of moving on, all written in 1962.
He stayed with the theme for many years but then “moving on” seemed to get a bit lost. “Ride this train” in 1986 was probably the last moving on song (although the words are impossible to make out), and maybe before this “Drifting too far from shore” (although again lyrics are obscure).
But now we are back with the moving on theme, as Mississippi has the new thought at as one travels on “Some people will offer you their hands and some won’t”. Indeed the mere fact that “I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down” shows how important moving on is. It is as if Bob is saying, I’ve not been writing anything because I lost the drive to keep on moving on.
So important is “Mississippi” in understanding the music of Bob Dylan you will perhaps forgive me putting up a third version – this being the first ever live performance of the masterpiece.
The pain expressed through some of the singing is hard to take; in fact the expression of the pain of not moving on overwhelms the desire to make the song something that we want to listen to.
Everybody movin’ if they ain’t already there Everybody got to move somewhere Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow Things should start to get interesting right about now My clothes are wet, tight on my skin Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
But now he is out of that corner, he’s off and most certainly is moving again.
As for Highlands – I guess I appreciate and understand it, but I’ve still find that mid-piece interlude in the restaurant where Dylan expresses the fact of being so fed up with everyone wanting him to do what they want, not what he wants, just, well, odd.
I say "All right, I know but I don't have my drawin' book" She gives me a napkin, she say "You can do it on that" I say "Yes I could but I don't know where my pencil is at" She pulls one out from behind her ear She says "Alright now go ahead draw me I'm stayin' right here" I make a few lines and I show it for her to see Well she takes the napkin and throws it back and says "That don't look a thing like me"
But of course even here, in this restaurant, he is moving on, because nothing in the Dylan universe is ever fixed.
Dreaming of You didn’t make the album, perhaps because of its lines which are derivative from Standing in the Doorway, but it is a truly remarkable piece of music and really deserved to be given a place. After all, couldn’t he have just re-written those lines if they popped up by mistake?
Means so much, the softest touch By the grave of some child, who neither wept or smiled I pondered my faith in the rain I’ve been dreamin’ of you, that’s all I do And it’s driving me insane
But the tale is the same: for all that travelling, he still can’t escape.
The series continues.