This review has been updated several times, the last on 13 April 2020, and some of the comments were written before this update was written.
by Tony Attwood
“Why? What’s the point?” was how I opened my first attempt at a review of “You ain’t going nowhere” as I tried to deal with the difficulty of writing a review relating to notion of absurdism in popular music.
What I found particularly hard to analyse at the time in a meaningful way, was the fact that the lyrics changed all the time. How does one review a song in which the piece is suggesting that because nothing much matters or indeed is real, nothing much means anything? I knew there had to be a way, but I just couldn’t see it.
It was only later when I took on what was itself an utterly absurdist task of trying to summarise the meaning or essence of each Dylan song in one word for the series on how the subject matter of Dylan’s lyrics had changed year by year, that I began to realise just how many songs from this period are like “You ain’t going nowhere”.
The title itself of course is the give away. The song goes nowhere. The song means nothing. If, as Roy Harper said, a little while before the writing of this song “Everything’s just everything because everything just is” then indeed there is nowhere to go.
What it took me a while to understand was that in this period Dylan was taking the absurdism further and further, taking us on a journey that no one else had ever attempted before in popular music, a journey into the realms of “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. And the point I kept coming back to was that when Gregor Samsa wakes up as a gigantic insect, he is not utterly freaked out by the situation but instead just experiences “slight annoyance.” That the rest of the world is horrified by him is neither here nor there. The cleaning lady, who we might expect to have taken a personal affront to there being an insect of this magnitude in a room that she is expected to keep clean (his existence being a reflection on his capability as a cleaner), in fact doesn’t seem to mind, and instead has a natter with Gregor, who by this time is quite happy as to his new lot.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance piece Dylan said, “I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.” And this is the essence of Dylan’s Kafkaesque songs which first emerged in the Basement Tapes with lines such as
Cloud so swift the rain fallin’ in, Gonna see a movie called Gunga Din
Just from that opening, you know its nonsense. But then so is Mighty Quinn. And it is a perfectly reasonable question to say, “Does it have to make it sense?” Unfortunately in my struggles to understand Dylan and write reviews of all his songs, for a while I stopped at that point and didn’t ask the question strongly enough. So I did not return enough to Kafka.
“Genghis Khan and his brother Don Couldn’t keep on keepin’ on” is however a pretty big clue. As was Roy Harper’s album “Come out fighting Ghengis Smith”, which I feel pretty sure Dylan must have heard, just like he certainly did hear the Incredible String Band as we have noted before.
So in analysing Dylan’s songs and their meanings I have perceived a move from surrealism to with songs such as these below – although it has taken me a while to get there. Mixed in with these were a whole series of songs about being trapped which I deal with elsewhere.
Looking back it seems to me that Dylan was interested initially in surrealism (Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again) and randomness(Leopard skin pill-box hat) before reaching out to Kafka with the John Wesley Harding collection.
The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest is in essence a Kafkaesque tale, as is Drifter’s Escape in which very clearly the whole of cause and effect breaks down totally. In All along the watch tower there is no watch tower, and ultimately The Wicked Messenger is wicked because messages are supposed (in our world) to make sense by now don’t.
And then, just to show us all how bizarre the world actually is, Dylan stopped. His next song was Lay Lady Lay – it was as if Kafka had not happened. Or indeed the cockroach had transmuted into a beautiful lady.
Thus when with “You ain’t going nowhere” Heylin says it is “one of those songs where Dylan never quite settled on a single set of lyrics,” it is for me a bit like saying that “Drifter’s Escape” fails as a song because the lyrics don’t make sense. The fact is, not making sense is the point. (Although musicians seem to forget this sometimes – and after Dylan’s surreal period it was not until 1984 that Talking Heads came back to the theme with the “Stop Making Sense” album).
The unwillingness of writers to see Dylan’s compositions as a journey through a whole series of styles and approaches led Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon to comment that in the 1967 draft, “the first verse sounds like a weather report,” although to be fair, they did actually recognise we were in the surrealist territory by this time. Personally I think if I had been writing reviews at the time I might have been tempted to the notion that “surrealism meets Hank Williams.”
Part of the surrealist fun continued when having never been released before, the song came out in 1971 on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II. I am sure someone must have spotted the Kafka in this, but if they did, I must have missed that review.
Meanwhile each new version of the song adds to the absurdity further. In case it is not Kafkaesque enough to have Ghengis Kahn popping up in the lyrics of a pop song, we now have his brother Don arriving as well.
The joke then went a little further when the song also appeared on “The Essential Bob Dylan” as if a single version of a song that changes all the time could ever be essential. Putting it on “Dylan” as well, seems to have a Kafka influence – the song doesn’t exist in any set form, but an album simply called “Dylan” suggests definitiveness. The two have no connection – hence they are there.
Then there was the “Pick up your money, pack up your tent” line which Roger McGuinn changed to “Pack up your money, pick up your tent” which makes the everyday line into a somewhat surreal line. Bob Dylan had fun with this by taking it even further singing “Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn, You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
With an inevitable lack of a sense of humour some critics saw this not as a continuance of the joke and absurdity, but a serious reprimand as if Dylan was saying “I can play with my lyrics but you can’t.” I think not.
The enduring popularity of the song shows the taste that there is among many fans of contemporary music for absurdity, for surrealism, for Kafkaesque landscapes and for sheer silliness – something that seems endlessly to be missed by critics who much prefer the serious high road to fun, laughter, surrealism and Kafka. And sadly rather missed by many songwriters. For all the fact that I don’t like the music of the Beatles that much, they did silly and surreal rather well when they tried, but after that, other than Dylan, we had to wait for David Byrne before we really got going again.
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