By Tony Attwood
Our series looking at Dylan’s songs in the order they were written, to try and ascertain his thoughts and the reasons why he wrote these particular songs, has brought us to the end of the 1990s. The most recent articles were
- All Directions 60: After the interregnum, the compositions of 1996
- All Directions 61: 1996 part 2
- All Directions 62: Still completing the masterpiece
- All Directions 63: Completing Time out of Mind
In the last couple of articles in this series we have seen Bob write and record the music for “Time out of Mind” through 1996 and 1997. Having recorded the album, he stopped writing except for one song in 1999: “Things have changed” for the movie “Wonder Boys”.
(PS – leave the video running after the song ends).
It was released in 2000 and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Golden Globe Award also for Best Original Song.
When Bob received his Oscar he called it a song that “doesn’t pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature”.
And indeed, when has Dylan ever pussyfooted around or turned a blind eye? From the moment that Hollis Brown pulled the trigger , or if you prefer, from the moment the night started playing tricks when you are trying to be so quiet, everything has mostly been falling apart rather than falling into place, within the world of Dylan lyrics. There have been happy, jolly interludes from “Country Pie” to “Make you Feel my Love” and the like, and the 18 months period of writing songs about Christianity, but they were interludes. The feeling I get is that Dylan is at his absolute best when telling us that the world is not how it generally is portrayed, but is in reality something much darker.
And I think it is helpful when contemplating the masterpiece that is “Things have changed”, to remember that the previous compositions were indeed those from that most troubled and troubling album “Time out of mind”. True Bob had just had another break from writing but the previous compositions could be summarised by the line that “I was all right til I fell in love with you.” Or if you want the line of the song at the heart of that year’s writing, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
Indeed Bob’s vision of the world was very clearly expressed through lines such as
I'm walkin' Through streets that are dead Walkin' Walkin' with you in my head My feet are so tired My brain is so wired And the clouds are weepin'
Although the feel of “Things have changed” is different from “Love sick” the negative vision of human existence within “Things have changed” continues the theme from the album. After all you can’t get much more negative than the repeated line, “I used to care but things have changed” (apart of course from, “It’s not dark yet…”)
And if that doesn’t convince you consider…
Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose
It is not just the lyrics that give us this darkness, but also the way Bob sings the song. He’s not trying to convince us that his interpretation of reality is right, but rather is simply painting the world as it is. It is not up for discussion, this is the world, take it or leave it.
And this approach is all the more shocking because here is the man who, whether he agreed with the notion or not, was the voice of a generation who wanted the world changed, who wanted more social justice, who wanted an end not just to war but to the war industry, who was looking forward to dancing on the graves of the manufacturers of the weaponry of war.
Yet in a most curious way we have also gone back to “Don’t think twice it’s all right”. Because there really wasn’t any use in wondering why things happened as they do, but one was simply to accept the world as it goes along. Thus caring about the world and the people in it, is pointless. Did the man within “Don’t think twice” actually care? Not really. No more than the man who wrote “Ballad in Plain D” actually care.
Of course this is not to say that just because Dylan writes something in a song he actually believes it; there is after all such a thing as fiction. But what we do now hear is that he certainly doesn’t care now. And when he writes an album in which most of the theme is not caring, things really are pretty bleak.
In effect we are once again in the reality in which people come and go, talking but saying nothing. The past has not yet happened yet. The future was yesterday. I am you, you are him, he is not. Dylan’s subconscious is perhaps one more time taking him back to TS Eliot
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains...
So we have this dark image of a worried man who used to care but now… well now he’s just worried – and who would not be when (and please excuse the repeated quote, but it is, I feel, the very heart of the song) he is…
Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose Any minute now I'm expecting all hell to break loose
This is not the Darkness, it is almost as if one is standing outside the Dark looking in, for somehow in “Things have changed” there is a level of abstraction and removal from the real world which makes the song even more frightening than Not Dark Yet.
As a result of such negative feelings, we might have expected another long pause from Bob the songwriter, but no, in 2001 he wrote the “Love and Theft” an album for which he won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
But in the year of writing that album, and as unpredictable as ever he started out with an instrumental (King of Kings) for Ronnie Wood’s album, when seemingly Wood was expecting Dylan to produce a song with lyrics.
However having got that out of the way, the real songwriting started again and 12 songs followed before the end of the year. We were back to Bob the songwriter, working away, creating an album.
And interestingly, given the negative thoughts of both the last album collection and “Things have changed”, this was in fact Bob’s most productive spell since 1990 when he wrote the Red Sky songs.
So perhaps it is not too surprising that with “Summer Days” the first of the group to be written we get a straight 12 bar song in the classic format – a return to the roots if ever there was one, and as good a way as any to get going when an old blues man has decided to write another album.
And just to push home the message that the basic musical concept of the blues is good enough to express all that needs to be expressed, that was followed by another three chord piece, “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, taking us into the world of Lewis Carol (although opinion is divided on this).
The website Bob Dylan Song Analysis, for example, says of this piece, “The song deals with doctrine, both Judeo-Christian and Buddhist, while also being in debt to traditional nursery rhyme. The themes are love and theft, as one might expect from the album title, as well as desire, suffering, and redemption.
“Stylised characters and third person narrative initially lull the listener into imagining a comfortable distance between him and the song’s fictional world of bitterness and betrayal. We perhaps don’t even notice the descriptions which place the protagonists as much in our world as in that of the bible….
“By the end of the song Tweedle Dum has not developed morally. Rather than making up for the sin committed in Eden, he’s presented as compounding it. In Eden they were throwing knives at a tree. Now, in the land of Nod, Tweedle Dee’s innocent use of ‘throw’ in ‘Throw me something …’, reminds us of this.”
The article in Wikipedia says, “The opening track, “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”, includes many references to parades in Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where participants are masked, and “determined to go all the way” of the parade route, in spite of being intoxicated.”
So we have those two options, plus numerous others, but, however you perceive the song, the world it portrays seems to have fallen apart. That negative vision of humanity once expressed in the phrase “the world gone wrong” is still there, overseeing everything
One is a lowdown, sorry old man The other will stab you where you stand “I’ve had too much of your company,” Says Tweedle-dee Dum to Tweedle-dee Dee
The negative themes continued with “Honest with Me” which was written next… a lost love song which has moments of Tom Thumb’s Blues in it; these are songs of disaffection and disorientation. In short, we are still with “Things have changed”.
But then, having taken characters from Lewis Carrol, for the next composition Bob takes lines from Leroy Carr’s Blues before Sunrise”, a 1930s classic to create “Lonesome Day Blues.” And indeed if one wants to portray the world in a negative way, what better a model than the old blues songs?
After that, the notion of borrowing from the past continued, as for “Bye and Bye” Bob borrowed from a Billie Holiday song. And I feel, when listening to the songs in the order they were written, by now he was certain of what he was doing on this album. For with “Floater” the next track written, he goes overboard on the borrowing, with music taken directly from “Snuggled On Your Shoulders” by Lombardo/Young and lyrics taken from Junichi Saga’s novel Confessions of a Yakuza (translated by John Bester). Maybe after his Academy Award he just felt he could do anything he wanted to, and certainly given the list of his songs composed thus far, who could argue with that?
I’ll continue looking at this collection of songs in the next article in the series.
There are details of some of our recent articles on the home page, and some of our series in the links below the picture at the top of the page.