The last episode in this series was All Directions 60: After the interregnum, the compositions of 1996
The index to the series, with yet another attempt at getting the numbering to make sense, can be found here.
As the title suggests we are dealing with the compositions of 1996 which means, in order of composition, we have now got to…
- Marchin to the City (Doing alright)
- Million Miles
- Not Dark Yet
- Red River Shore
- Standing in the doorway
In the first part of this review of 1996 the themes in Bob’s mind were clear. The old favourites of moving on and lost love were well established, but now they had an extra element: being alone. Of course “moving on” often implies being alone, but now, this year, it is made utterly overt. He’s had enough of everything including people. This is the ultimate hobo
In the last article we reached “Dreamin of you,” so that now takes us on to “Marchin to the city”. It appeared on disc 3 of Tell Tale Signs.
And what this song did give us was more lines that are thoroughly arresting, as this song is the origin of “I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes” and the bit about London and Gay Paree, and following the river til it gets to the sea (all used, of course, in Not Dark Yet).
Consider the first verse…
Well, I’m sitting in church in an old wooden chair I knew nobody would look for me there Sorrow and pity rule the earth and the skies Looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Thus “Dreamin of you” is like a notebook of ideas concerning isolation – bits and pieces, some of which ended up in other songs. It also gives credence to the notion that rather than Bob Dylan working his way through complex sets of related ideas through using poetic forms and quotes, he does (at least on occasion) come up with lines that he rather likes and then fits them in where he can. And what is particularly interesting is that there are also lines from Not Dark Yet in Marchin, and Marchin certainly isn’t a prototype of Not Dark Yet.
What we have then is an early version of a song, of which bits were then re-used elsewhere – something that all artists in every art form are prone to do. We don’t know what Dylan would have done with Marchin later had he kept it, and indeed we don’t know he would have done anything. But given the way he changes his music time and again during the recording process and thereafter, there is every chance he might well have done something quite different.
However as it stands, it is an enigmatic 12 bar blues; enigmatic in the sense that you get the idea of where we are, but not at all where we are going.
Some of the lines show great promise such as
Loneliness got a mind of its own The more people around the more you feel alone
which really resonate because we are still in the laid back verse two, but each time we are dragged down by the chorus.
But this is the one that I think was out of phase with the rest of the writing, although Dylan is still writing about being lost with this 12 bar blues, but at least he’s trying to get back rather that just disintegrate. The mood has changed. Not totally but just a bit. Maybe not for all time, but at least for this moment.
Bob never played “Marchin to the city” in public, but the next song, Million Miles, fared better and got some 75 outings. Yet very few people have tried re-interpretations of the song. The lyrics offer so much. And the ladies seem to like it.
The theme is still the same: we are all isolated, we tell each other lies, I’ve been hurt, I’m alone…
You took a part of me that I really miss I keep asking myself how long it can go on like this You told yourself a lie, that’s all right mama I told myself one too I’m trying to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you
And then, and then, and then… suddenly, having only recently started writing again, and for the most part still playing around with the old 12 bar blues, Bob writes a second utter masterpiece (Mississippi being the first of this period in my view): Not Dark Yet.
What is extraordinary is how much Not Dark Yet stands out from the rest of Dylan’s work this year. It is still utterly dark but it is a different kind of dark – which I know sounds pretentious, but I find it hard to locate other words that express my feelings.
Something happened between “Million Miles” and “Not Dark Yet”. I wish I could tell you what, but I wasn’t there so I can’t. Except to take it that Bob kept on thinking about being a million miles away from you forever more, and then wondering what comes next, and the answer is of course nothing.
Remember, by now he had written “Mississippi” and maybe was already thinking that it was not right in some way and couldn’t go into the album – even though it is a perfect song of moving on and the self-admonishment of having stayed there too long.
But maybe Mississippi wasn’t dark enough to fit with his mood. And if that were the case “Not Dark Yet” sorts that little problem out. For even after all these years of living with Not Dark Yet I can still get tears in my eyes. (I won’t bore you with the connections I see and feel but I know a few other people who’ve admitted that this song resonates with specifics in their lives too).
I can also still remember exactly, in every detail, my reaction on playing Not Dark Yet for the first time – where I was and what I was doing and who I was. It is a song that from the moment I first heard it, took me over and wrapped itself around my life.
And maybe that is because like others who have earned a modest living in the arts I’m fairly emotional – certainly far more emotional than many of my friends who have worked in business or industry or farming.
I think there is a further clue as to what was going on here when we turn to “Red River Shore”, for there is a link between “Not Dark Yet” and “Red River Shore”, the final composition of the year, although it is the nature of that final song that led it to being cut from the whole album.
For if you just take the line “we’re living in the shadows of a fading past” that gives us a strong connection with Not Dark Yet, but the style and approach is out of phase with what had gone before, and what was to happen in the following year as the writing of the album was concluded. Thus I think it was absolutely right to drop “Red River Shore” from the album. Not because it is not a worthy song, but because it just doesn’t fit with everything else with that very special level of darkness that Bob was creating around him.
We can also ask if Mississippi have fitted into the album. When I first heard it, of course I thought leaving it out of the album was a crime, but looked at now from this far on, I once again don’t think so. Of the versions we have, the first version on Bootleg 8 is the one that still makes me stop what I am doing and listen again and again, but even so, in terms of the total meaning of this album, no, Mississippi doesn’t work. It’s a work of genius, but it comes from the next exhibition of insights, not this one.
The songs of the year were clearly Mississippi and Not Dark Yet but I think we were also given what is now a forgotten masterpiece with “Dreamin of You.” That too is most certainly a song worth re-visiting.
And so by and large, that was on hell of a come-back after all those years of silence. And whether a song was on the album or not, just think of all the reflections these works of genius have given us. Genius, let us not forget, conceived out of years of stubborn silence.