By Tony Attwood
Type the phrase “how does Dylan write his songs?” into Google and you get about 13 million results.
Some of the pieces you will be led to are pure speculation, some are interviews, and many quote extracts from interviews.
I’ve had several days of reading through the result articles, and I can honestly say that for the most part I am really not much the wiser as a result of my efforts.
Indeed using the approach that most people use in writing articles about Dylan’s songwriting methodology is tough. Tough because he doesn’t say much about it directly, tough because when he does talk about it he sometimes contradicts himself, and tough because many of the people who have sought to describe what Dylan does in writing his songs start from their own point of view, and often use just a selection of Dylan quotes to back up their claims.
There are exceptions of course, and I’ll quote one below, and in a later article I will be relying very much on what Dylan said in one speech he made.
But mostly trying to unravel this is a bit dispiriting because although I am very happy with opinion and theories, I like to have a bit of evidence to show that the opinion and theory is valid. Not that I want absolute proof and truth necessarily, because without Bob telling us, it is hard to know, but at least a valid set of conclusions drawn from such evidence as we have.
So although in this series of pieces I am going to come back to what others have said about how Dylan writes, and indeed what Bob Dylan himself has said, I am going to start somewhere else: by very briefly considering the various types of art.
1 Representational art
A photograph can capture a moment, a portrait can get close to expressing what an individual looks like, a landscape can do the same for the area the artist portrays. Songs are rarely portraits, but if we accept that songs such as Plain D and 4th Street are indeed about real people, then Dylan is in this realm.
We never know how close Dylan is to expressing the truth (insofar as anyone can express the truth) about the individuals and situations he sings about, but this is probably the closest he gets to representational art.
2 Symbolic art
To be understandable the symbols used in symbolic art need to be recognisable by the audience – and this is where, in my view, a lot of the problems with understanding Dylan occur, where critics claim that a certain person, image, idea, place etc is a symbol for something else. Some of these suggestions look plausible, but most seem to me to be open to debate.
I would go down a different route and say that “One too many mornings” is symbolic of the lost traveller, the drifter, the wanderer, the sort of person who has haunted folk song from its origin. It is not about an actual moving on, but about all moving on, about a quality in the human spirit (and particularly I think in Dylan himself, given the Never Ending Tour) that some people bring to the fore.
Restless Farewell is another such song – not so much about him, but about everyone who moves on. Indeed if we turn back to the source of that song (The Parting Glass) the symbolism becomes ever clearer. Don’t think twice fits into such an analysis too.
These are symbols of broad ideas – and Dylan has produced many masterpieces in this form of art.
3 Abstract Art
Not too many artists try abstract art with words. In contrast music is just about the most abstract of the arts. Which means that songs are generally in that strange halfway house – half concrete, half abstract.
But occasionally Dylan has taken the words into a more abstract level – I would think of Subterranean Homesick Blues as an example. 115th Dream approaches this, and I’d say that Gypsy Lou has an element of it as well.
4 Surreal Art
I am not sure if many, or indeed if any, songwriters attempted to incorporate surrealism into rock music before Dylan, but when it got into it, he certainly kept going for a while. Tombstone Blues is a perfect example, as is Just like Tom Thumbs Blues. Obviously Five Believers, Tiny Montgomery, Million Dollar Bash… they all have strong surrealist tendencies.
5 Hidden meanings in Art
And this is where we run into trouble, because hidden meaning is what so many commentators on Dylan claim to have found. Many of the songs on John Wesley Harding are set up as pieces with all sorts of hidden meaning, and indeed there is a website that reviews Dylan songs totally from a religious angle, finding Christian messages in all sorts of places.
Thus Duquesne Whistle has the line “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling, must be the mother of our Lord …” and this, it is claimed is there to show us that Dylan is a Christian, rather than reflecting on the sounds he hears. And that the line in Pay in Blood: “I’ve sworn to uphold the laws of God … Man can’t live by bread alone, I pay in blood, but not my own, …” is a personal reflection rather than just a song about a set of images, in the way that a visual artist might explore a set of images.
6 Fictional Art
Visual artists can imagine landscapes, novelists clearly make up their stories, poets consider imagined situations and emotions. So does each song of Dylan’s have to be about somebody, about some clear and concrete thing that he wants to put across?
I can’t see why Dylan has to be so different from every other creative writer – he might take moments from his own life, twist them, turn them, explore them, look at them from every angle, and then write a piece that might sound as if it is from the heart, but in effect is from the imagination.
The Wicked Messenger thus could be a coded religious tract, but equally it could just be an imaginary story. I dreamed I saw St Augustine likewise. Positively 4th Street might be about a real person but could also be a song about an imaginary man being extremely annoyed with a woman.
Unless Dylan tells us, or unless someone very close to Dylan gives us clear information, we can only guess.
My view is that everyone working in the creative arts, creating new works of art, accumulates images, sound, information, ideas, feelings, smells etc, and spends his/her life re-working such ideas into art, by which time they might often sound or look as if they are about a person, place or thing, but often are not.
7. Religious Art and Propaganda
Religious art and Propaganda are the most obvious forms of art as message givers – the creator of the art knows what he/she wants to say, and the audience know it too. There can be no mistake either when one sees Christ on the cross or Lenin waving the red flag.
Dylan did, for a while, express himself as a religious artist, with albums such as Slow Train Coming and Saved and Shot of Love and there is one particular interview with Dylan which ran in Rolling Stone which I would cite here, because it helps understand the whole issue of grappling with Dylan’s approach to art.
The interviewer asked, “But weren’t three of your albums — Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love — inspired by some sort of born-again religious experience?”
And Dylan replied, “I would never call it that, I’ve never said I’m born again. That’s just a media term. I don’t think I’ve ever been an agnostic. I’ve always thought there’s a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come. That no soul has died, every soul is alive, either in holiness or in flames. And there’s probably a lot of middle ground.
What is your spiritual stance, then?
Well, I don’t think that this is it, you know — this life ain’t nothin’. There’s no way you’re gonna convince me this is all there is to it. I never, ever believed that. I believe in the Book of Revelation. The leaders of this world are eventually going to play God, if they’re not already playing God, and eventually a man will come that everybody will think is God. He’ll do things, and they’ll say, “Well, only God can do those things. It must be him.”
You’re a literal believer of the Bible?
Yeah. Sure, yeah. I am.
Are the Old and New Testaments equally valid?
Do you belong to any church or synagogue?
Not really. Uh, the Church of the Poison Mind [laughs].
I’ll continue with this theme of how Bob Dylan writes songs, and the meanings that we might find in them, in later articles