By Allan Cheskes
Dylan only recorded two songs in 2005. “Tell Ol’ Bill” was one of them and Tony Attwood whose work I admire, puts this song, musically and lyrically, at the pinnacle of Dylan’s prolific song output. Out of esteem for Mr. Attwood, I included some coverage of Tel Ol’ Bill in my Dylan music appreciation course, but I must admit, my heart was not in it.
It was easier for me to get my arms around the second song Dylan recorded in 2005, Can’t Escape From You which Tony is puzzled by when comparing it to Tell Ol Bill. For him, Can’t Escape From You is musically, too simple and the lyrics lack punch and loses interest along the way.
I believe there is an intangible and subjective quality in evaluating music and even the lyrics. From my perspective, this song deserves more attention.
I agree with Margotin and Guesdon in Bob Dylan, All The Songs, that this “is a romantic song, but with a dark message (“All my dreams have gone away”). It is reminiscent of the rhythmic structure of My Prayer, by the Platters:
For me, Can’t Escape From You, is nostalgic. Since Time Out of Mind, I think Dylan has given up on the old world, or at least has given up the fight to try and change it. He freely draws inspiration from the past. His songs during his classic phase focus less on the future and more on the past, where he can at least draw some comfort, although many times, this comes with painful reminders of love lost and regrettable mistakes.
Through the album, Time Out Mind, I thought Dylan was struggling with his faith in G-d, but at the end of the album, he reached a “eureka” moment with the realization that he can still cling to G-d, not by conventional religion, but simply through music. In his own way, I think that is where Dylan has comfortably settled in.
Let’s chew on the first verse:
“Oh, the evening train is rollin' All along the homeward way All my hopes are over the horizon All my dreams have gone away”
The first utterance is “oh”, which is gratuitous except that it conveys, in my mind, an acceptance or resignation of what is to come
What is coming is “the evening train (which) is rollin’”. The train is just “rollin’”, so it is like A Slow Train Coming, except it is not coming, necessarily, for all of humankind, but coming for DYLAN, personally. (“DYLAN” is the made-up narrator, a character or actor in a role, Dylan adds to each song). “All along the homeward way”, in my mind, triggers, All Along the Watchtower, but again, this is not a message necessarily for all of humankind that G-d is coming for them, but that G-d is coming for DYLAN. With the line, “All my hopes are over the horizon”, one thinks of Beyond the Horizon, which soon follows this song in the upcoming Modern Times album. Just like in the Beyond the Horizon, “over the horizon” likely means beyond life on earth. If “all (his) hopes” are there, then DYLAN is hopeful of an afterlife.
In his current life on earth, there is no future, as “All (his) dreams have gone away”. Again, DYLAN’s focus is no longer on changing the future in this world.
The next verse also gives us something to chew on:
“The hillside darkly shaded Stars fallin' from above All the joys of earth have faded The night's untouched, my love”
With “The hillside darkly shaded”, like the reference in Cold Irons Bound to a muddy hillside, Dylan steps away from the common use in literature of a hillside being a backdrop for blooming flowers and carefree summers in love. The hillside is “shaded” paints a gloomy image. (In Dirt Road Blues, DYLAN is also near the end of his life journey, also “looking at (his) shadow”. A star usually symbolizes, in many cultures, divinity and hope. For example, the Star of Bethlehem. However, a falling star, could metaphorically mean in some cultures, bad luck or that something is ending or even an ascent to heaven.
That is the meaning I derive in “Stars fallin’ from above/ All the joys of earth have faded”. The last line of the second verse, for the first time, references “my love,” and at least allows for some, perhaps little time, left on this earth, as “The night’s untouched”. (Is this the time needed to repair a lost relationship?) At this point, it would not be hard to guess that “my love” is DYLAN’s lost love. (Dylan has a proclivity for the “Lost love” theme during his classic phase of writing songs).
Rolling along, as Dylan would say, to the third verse:
“I'll be here 'til tomorrow Beneath a shroud of gray I pretend I'm free of sorrow My heart is miles away”
“Beneath a shroud”, makes me think of the Jewish custom to bury all Jews in a simple white shroud. DYLAN is not quite buried though, because he is not beneath a white shroud. However, we get the sense that DYLAN is close to being buried. From this verse, we know DYLAN is in despair and he is removed from the world. His “heart is miles away” echoes Million Miles (away) in Time Out of Mind.
In the fourth verse, the train is near:
“The dead bells are ringing My train is overdue To your memory I'm clingin' I can't escape from you”
In Ring Them Bells, the bells are a warning from G-d. “Dead bells” are more like the bells that ring at churches to announce the death of someone. DYLAN’s bells are ringing as his “train is overdue.” The last lines of the verse, suggests DYLAN is suffering from lovesickness, in the memory of a lost relationship.
In the fifth verse, we can understand where Dylan’s head space is at:
“Well, I hear the sound of thunder Roaring loud and long Sometimes you got to wonder God knows I've done no wrong”
“Thunder”, “roaring” and “God” references, again makes me think of Thunder on The Mountain in Dylan’s upcoming album, Modern Times. However, this time, the stern and loud message from G-d is directed at DYLAN personally, even as he seemingly pleads his case that he has done nothing wrong.
In the song, especially beginning in the next verse, I get the feeling that Dylan’s writing might be personal. Is DYLAN, Dylan in this song? I try not to fall into this trap where many people interpret Dylan songs to be personal, about himself and others he intimately knows, much to Dylan’s chagrin. Sometimes though, Dylan has only himself to blame as the writings can be taken as indicative of his personal life. As he is addressing “you” in the song, is DYLAN talking to Dylan in the next and sixth verse:
“Have you wasted all your power You threw out the Christmas pie Now you're withering like a flower You'll play the fool and die”
With all his gained fame and power that comes with it, is Dylan or DYLAN is asking himself if he has wasted it? Throwing “out the Christmas pie” might mean he is no longer celebrating Christmas as Christmas pie is associated with that Christian holiday. Like a flower that is fragile and temporary, now the time is coming to an end.
This last verse is very powerful for me because I connect it to Psalm 49, which traditionally, in Judaism, is recited in mourning, immediately after a loved one’s death. Let’s look at some lines from this Psalm which I gather from the Silverman edition:
“They who rely on their worldly power,/ And boast of their great wealth,/Verily, not one of them can save himself from death/ By offering God a ransom for his life.”
Also from Psalm 49:
“Can man expect to live forever/ And never go down to the grave-/ When he sees that even the wise die, / Just as the fool and the knave do perish;/ And all leave their wealth to others?”
Clearly and humorously, DYLAN doesn’t see himself as wise as “You’ll play the fool and die”. He also realizes that despite his power and fame, he will not take his wealth with him when he dies. When a community of Jews recite this prayer in memory of the dead, one is really reading this prayer for oneself and collectively, to remind us that we all shall die. Reciting the prayer also forms a spiritual bond with our lost personal relationships and our collective past. This latter concept ties directly with the song’s title, Can’t Escape From You.