All Directions at once 62: 1997. Still Completing the masterpiece

By Tony Attwood

The last episode in this series was All Directions at Once 61: 1996 part 2.  The index to the series can be found here.

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.

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8 Responses to All Directions at once 62: 1997. Still Completing the masterpiece

  1. Daniel says:

    Very helpful to read how these songs work their way into your understanding. The Bard is still covering the edge, reporting what he ‘sees’….

  2. Mark T says:

    I believe “cold irons bound” is a phrase Bob invented. Its meaning is the third of your options – the singer is in emotional prison because separated from his love. There is an old folk song, I apologize that I cannot now recall the name, about a daring young man being hauled away in irons or chains and never seeing his true love again. I assume that is the root of Bob’s phrase. Perhaps Jorgen will recall the name.

  3. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Hello, Mark,
    It so happens that I am immersing myself in “Cold Irons Bound” these weeks. An article series thereon will probably be published in a month or so. In anticipation of that: Dylan’s approach is undoubtedly The Stanley Brothers. The first verse is quite a giveaway; made up of “The Fields Have Turned Brown” and Stanley’s version of “Handsome Molly”. An educated guess then would be that the expression “Cold Irons Bound” is also indirectly indebted to The Stanley Brothers: in the chorus of “I’ll Fly Away” Dr. Ralph sings: No more cold iron shackles on my feet.
    If you did mean a different folksong, I’d be curious to know.
    Groeten uit Utrecht,
    Jochen

  4. Mark T says:

    Thank you for replying Jochen, and I apologize for mis-spelling your name. It’s not the song you refer to. I still can’t find the song title or lyrics. I do recall it came from Ireland or Great Britain, and that the male is captured and imprisoned in the first or second stanza and the lovers never see each other again. I vaguely think the female takes her life as opposed to pining endlessly for him. If it makes its way back to my attention, I’ll come back to this post and mention it.

  5. Mark T says:

    This is not the song that I was thinking if, but the phrase “cold irons bound” appears in the folksong The Banks of the Inverness.

    http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/HHH205.html

  6. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Thanks Mark, very kind of you to take the trouble.
    Very nice find. I immediately started searching. I have two versions of “The Banks Of Inverness”. In one John Healy sings “For he’s bound in iron chains along a foreign shore” and in the other Julie Mainstone sings “For he is bound in irons along some distant shore“.

    Furthermore, a Google search yielded variants like “For he’s heavy bound in irons strong upon a Turkish shore” and “ For he’s bound up in irons strong all on fair Turkey’s shore”.

    But the link you provided does lead to a far more telling description of the lyrics:
    “The sailor sees a girl sighing on the banks of the (Inver)ness. He asks her if she is available. She says she is engaged to Willie. He declares that Willie is “in cold irons bound” and will not return. She says she will remain faithful. He reveals himself”

    … from a version I am not familiar with, but a version that you remember. The expression is so unusual – I think you’re right, some version of “The Banks Of Inverness” most likely is a source for Dylan’s song.

  7. Mark T says:

    You might inquire of the person who keeps the collection or index at that Fresno State site for the source for the “cold irons bound” phrase.

    Continuing my search for the song I recall, which remains unfulfilled, I found a song in the Vaughn Williams Memorial Library called Cold Irons, It is just a transcription of a melody no lyrics.

    https://www.vwml.org/record/RVW2/7/1

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    Hey Mark, thanks for that. So that makes it a phrase from English folk song for sure if it is in the Vaughan Williams library.

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