By Tony Attwood
1996 included the composition of a whole collection of brilliant songs including “Mississippi” and “Not Dark Yet,” and 1997 turned out to be no let down, as Bob worked to finish what became the “Time out of mind” collection.
I’ve already noted the negative approach to life and relationships in this burst of writing that began in 1996, and which came after the long pause between 1991 and 1995. And given the intensity of these feelings it is not surprising that this continued into 1997.
There was also a break from the end of November 1996 until February 1997 in terms of the concerts, when the tour started again in Japan.
This was the period when Bob finished off writing and recording all the songs that could be included in the album – this 1997 set being…
- Cold Irons Bound
- Trying to get to heaven
- Make you feel my love
- Til I fell in love with you
- Love Sick
It is clear that by the time of the recording sessions in January 1997 Bob knew what the album as a whole was sounding like, but in my estimation (although this of course is a guess) he was constantly reworking the order he wanted the tracks to appear in. To me it is almost as if he is regularly thinking, “OK that’s a great song to have in the album, but I need something else before it” (or less commonly, “after it”). Which is how “Love Sick”, the song that opens the album, came to be the last song in the series to be written.
It certainly is a mixed collection of songs, when looked at overall, and as ever I’m taking them here in the order these songs were written, to see what can be gleaned from this.
- Cold Irons Bound
This is an extraordinary song written on one single chord and rhythm – there is no musical variation in that regard. Everything comes from the melody and obviously from that rhythm that keeps running through the whole piece.
And it works because the message is so utterly simple and painful. He’s lost her, he’s desperate, and he’s walking away. It’s an absolute lost love song.
Well the winds in Chicago have turned me to shreds Reality has always had too many heads Some things last longer than you think they will Some kind of things you can never kill It's you and you only I'm thinking about But you can't see in, and it's hard looking out I'm 20 miles out of town, Cold Irons bound
We are told that the song came out of a rhythm David Kemper set up which Dylan heard and then wrote the song around – which explains why there are no chord changes – the rhythm is everything. One could say the rhythm won a Grammy.
Interestingly the song is placed after “Not Dark Yet” on the album – a song that seems to have the singer at his lowest point, just sitting and waiting for the end to come. In so doing the emphasis of the song becomes one in which having lost everything, at last the new era of getting up and going can begin. Up to that point everything has been getting darker and darker, now everything is cut down to one rhythm and one chord, drifting away is over, time to move on. Just one foot in front of the other.
But that avoids the key question, “What does ‘Cold Irons Bound’ actually mean?” The Dylan Song Analysis website uses, as ever, a literal approach:
“The expression ‘cold irons bound’ is ambiguous. It could refer to his intended destination, a place called Cold Irons. Or it could be telling us he’s in chains – bound in irons – and so incapable of moving anywhere. The fact that he’s already moved twenty miles suggests that the former describes his situation better.”
As a variation, I had a go at analysing the song using the mathematical approach that Dylan himself has cited, which takes us a bit of the way, but not all the way, and in the end I am left with a different thought (a thought which authors of long and learned books on Dylan’s use of language really dislike).
Either the phrase “Cold Irons Bound” means nothing in particular (it’s just a fun sounding enigmatic phrase) or else it means he is being transported to a chain gang for an unspecified crime, or it is that he loved her and she rejected him, and he’s forever more in emotional chains. Or …
The first (it’s just a phrase and there’s no deep meaning in the song) is the explanation most Dylan critics hate because it lays to waste their entire body of literature – all those learned books about the meaning of his songs torn to shreds because actually many of them have no meaning. The second has the disadvantage of being nothing to do with the rest of the album, and the third, well yes it sort of fits because he is sick of love. But I’m really rather uncomfortable with that – it feels like one is pushing to lyrics to fit a pre-ordained meaning. I really do think Bob heard the rhythm, thought of a great phrase to go with it, and wrote some lyrics. They fit with the rest of the album, because, well, that’s what he had been writing about these last few months.
Such an explanation doesn’t make it any less of a song; it’s a brilliant piece. It just says, “sometimes the lyrics just paint a feeling, nothing more. In short, the song is an abstract. We get hints of the meaning (for example that I’m going to be chained up within these negative emotions for a long time) but that’s it.
Next came Trying to get to heaven.
Just imagine it. “Trying to get to heaven” ends with this
Gonna sleep down in the parlor And relive my dreams I’ll close my eyes and I wonder If everything is as hollow as it seems Some trains don’t pull no gamblers No midnight ramblers like they did before I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door
“everything is as hollow as it seems” could easily have come from “Cold Irons Bound”. We may also note that “Not Dark Yet” begins
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away Feel like my soul has turned into steel I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal There’s not even room enough to be anywhere It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
My point simply is that “Trying to get to heaven” is just one step before “Not Dark Yet.” In the former he really is trying to walk away from all the sadness and sorrow to something better. But by the time he gets to “Not Dark Yet”, he knows he’s not going to make it. He’s giving up, he’s fading away. There’s no heaven, no hell. There is Nothing.
Of course how we interpret contemporary songs is always in part an expression of our own experiences. One can never fully escape. And as it happens, and as I’ve confessed before on this site, I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I have been to the funerals of my father, my mother and my best friend, all of whom did most certainly believe at the time of their passing – and if I am wrong and there is a heaven, they certainly made it. But for me, heaven or no, when I am no longer here, there is only the darkness. Not because I’ve lived an awful life (at least that’s my view), but because believing seems to be a pre-requisite of being able to have a chat with the Almighty.
The music of “Trying to get to heaven” is perfect for the song – a simple melody for the first four lines and then in line five Dylan takes his voice to the highest point of the melody while suddenly introducing a most unusual chord for Dylan (Am6) which adds a perfect spot of flavour.
So finally, he knows it is over, and he’s closing his eyes. The gambler can’t ride this final train into the eternal night, but he’s trying to make up for the bad moments in his life.
The metaphors are truly wonderful. “I’ve been wading through the high muddy water” – you can just feel him trying to make his way through life, trying to be a good guy, but like all of us, getting it so wrong, so often.
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
You might say, “it’s all done and dusted” but Dylan’s line above says it with such elegance.
So it goes throughout the song. Yes of course some of the lines come from old blues numbers, but every word that can be said, every notion that can be thought, all of it has been done before. What Bob does is package it all up in a way that just gets straight to my emotions.
It is said in some places that “Trying to Get to Heaven” is a prelude to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, but I think that’s too convoluted because we have to remember that just two songs later he says,
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Either the songs are connected in story-telling continuum, or they are connected through the exploration of descending and rising emotions, or they are not connected at all. For me, all the story-telling connections stretch the connectivity too far – if Bob wanted to write a story, he’d write a story.
The “not connected” theory doesn’t work for me either – there is a feel all the way through these songs which is quite different from the conventional concept of an album – the view that says “track 1 is upbeat and bouncy, track two is slow…” No, there are connections here, but in the order the songs are placed on the album this starts with the tide a long way out, and they it goes out further still, and only later, towards the end does it start to come back in.