All Directions 69: Is this really going to be the end? 2006-2008

By Tony Attwood

This is part of the series “All Directions at Once” which aims to consider Bob Dylan’s compositions as a sequence of works, rather than individual pieces or songs that can be understood by being examined line by line.

Bob Dylan had returned to songwriting in 2005 after a three year break with the majestic Tell Ol Bill, and a couple of try outs that didn’t go too far.  Tell Ol Bill itself was a derivative song based on earlier works and snatches of lyrics from elsewhere, and as we know from the rehearsal tapes, Bob tried it in many different formats and styles.

Through 2005/6 he used the notion of borrowing extracts of lyrics, chord sequences and melodies from elsewhere while often expressing the notion of a future without too much hope.  In the last episode of “All Directions” we got as far as Nettie Moore, where Bob found he could still develop interesting and alluring pieces even when using this model of everyone else’s ideas, phrases and music.   Now he rounded the era off.

“The Levee’s Gonna Break” continues the approach being based on “When the Levee Breaks” by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.  It is a straight 12 bar blues in B flat without any variations – even the instrumental verses follow the theme.   Dylan has a guitar play a two-note signature when he’s not singing (D flat to B flat) which is quite attractive, although must have been the most boring part ever to play.   “Here’s your part mate – just play these two notes 32 times.  OK?”

And we get a bit of Ovid too.  “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones” probably comes from Ovid’s Tristia, Book 4: “there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones.”

“Aint Talkin” the next song written continues the theme, with more lines from Ovid, and a feeling that he is telling us once and for all that is the situation described in the songs is not made up for the sake of writing a song, but is real.  He is not pretending, not playing. His pain is real.

Finally in this year we get to Huck’s Tune where Dylan is in a world where life is a version of death, and even when things seem to be working out they can go wrong.  And they do go wrong.  He’s carrying a heavy load.

Bob then stopped writing again – and stayed silent on the compositional front until 2008 when he came back with a song that sums up everything that is wrong with the world in, but sticking with just one chord.  This really does tell it as it is, and by and large it is pretty much all over.

Indeed “Life is hard” as a title seems to sum up exactly where Bob has got to, using other people’s lyrics and other people’s music (often, it must be said, to great effect) but still knowing, Life is hard.

Life is hard is a straight strophic song – verse, verse, verse, verse, verse, with (as the title suggests) no uplift and nothing to make us want to listen again.

The nature of the song’s construction wouldn’t matter too much if the lyrics grabbed us in the way that Bob has done so often in his writing career but there really is nothing here to make us care, because Bob doesn’t care…

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

And indeed after that first verse there’s nothing in the accompaniment, the melody or the lyrics to keep us coming back.  So there is nothing more to say.  As the cover version above shows us, it can be turned into an interesting piece, but I am not sure this takes us to any new ground, which in the past has been Bob’s hallmark.

The friend you used to be
So near and dear to me
You slipped so far away
Where did we go a-stray
I pass the old schoolyard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

So Bob has told us , now we know.  There are no arresting images, no interesting instrumentation, no uncertainties to keep us guessing.

And that was it until through 2008/9 Bob wrote and co-wrote a series of songs starting with “This dream of you” in which we can find perhaps the influence of Doc Pomus who wrote, and a continuation of Bob’s negative themes.

How long can I stay in this nowhere café
‘fore night turns into day
I wonder why I’m so frightened of dawn
All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you
Which keeps me living on

In an interview at the time Bob spoke of

“…those people stumbling around in the night out there, uncertain or not always so certain of exactly where they fit in and where they were headed…”

“It’s me who’s singing that, plain and simple. We shouldn’t confuse singers and performers with actors….

“The more you act the further you get away from the truth. And a lot of those singers lose who they are after a while. You sing, ‘I’m a lineman for the county,’ enough times and you start to scamper up poles.”

Thus the song is not about Dylan’s experiences, any more than Jimmy Webb was a Wichita Lineman or repeatedly needed to get to Phoenix.   But the brilliant songwriter makes the experiences and emotions of those who are in the song become part of his world through writing and singing the song.  We feel the isolation of the Wichita Lineman we feel the isolation of sitting all night in the nowhere café.

Thus he argues that the expression of the opening…

How long can I stay in this nowhere café
‘fore night turns into day
I wonder why I’m so frightened of dawn
All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you
Which keeps me living on

is not an expression of what happened to Dylan – it is a fictional story that becomes real for us, and indeed for him, through his performances.

This is the only song on “Together through Life” that was written wholly by Bob Dylan, and not with Robert Hunter.  The theme thus is regret of what is lost, the power of the memories of the past and the feeling of utter isolation.

The opening lines are utterly evocative…

How long can I stay in this nowhere café
‘fore night turns into day
I wonder why I’m so frightened of dawn

… I can immediately picture the actual scene.  It is the sort of experience that has never happened, will never happen to me, but I can feel it, appreciate it, be part of it, wonder about it.

This is the feeling of the loner, or the drifter, or the man who has run away – that constant theme in Dylan – the man who knows that the next thing that will happen could well turn out to be very bad.  Somehow he wants to stop time, but of course can’t.  It is as Doc Pomus said…

I keep right on stumblin’
In this no-man’s land out here

Indeed one could argue that if there is a dominant theme throughout Dylan’s entire songwriting career – a theme that no matter how often he leaves it, he comes back to it –  it is this loneliness, leaving, isolation, fear, moving on, getting stuck, theme.  This inability to escape no matter how hard he tries…

I look away, but I keep seeing it
I don’t want to believe, but I keep believing it
Shadows dance upon the wall
Shadows that seem to know it all

This is indeed, as Bob has confessed, his tribute to Doc Pomus and his own return to his ever-recurring theme – although as a final footnote we might note that “curtained gloom” is a phrase in a line from Dylan’s favourite civil war poet Henry Timrod who in Serenade wrote

And let the zephyrs rise and fall
About her in the curtained gloom,
And then return to tell me all
The silken secrets of the room.

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3 Responses to All Directions 69: Is this really going to be the end? 2006-2008

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    The use of the royal ‘us’ is a bit troubesome -“nothing to make us care”

    Robert Hunter, like Dylan ..strongly influenced by TS Eliot – ‘DarkStar’ by Hunter – “Shall we go you and I ….”; “Prufrock” by Eliot -“Let us go you and I ….”

    Perhaps Tony is not aware of a British band also influenced by Eliot:

    Treat me kindly dear angel
    Deepest colour of the night
    Be merciful, be gentle
    For I have no strength to fight
    (Blue Angel: Dave Cousins)

    Then come along the following lyrics:

    I don’t know what’s wrong or right
    I just know I need the strength to fight
    Strength to fight that world outside
    (Life Is Hard: Dylan/Hunter)

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    *dear blue angel

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    Ezra Pound supported fascism and TS Eliot be oft accused of anti-Semitism due to his criticism of Modernist individualist-oriented ‘free-thinkers’ and ‘secular humanists’, including ‘nihilistic’ nonJewish writers like Thomas Hardy.

    I’m speaking of the Eliot’s influence of poetic style on Dylan’s song lyrics, and on others, not Eliot’s religious/cultural outlook, grounded in the organizational structure of the Established Church of Britain.

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