Not Dark Yet Version 1: at last we know how Bob got that edgy feel into the song

By Tony Attwood

I imagine I am with several million other people for whom “Not Dark Yet” is one of the greatest of all of Dylan’s musical achievements.  Not necessarily the greatest, but one of them.  An utter masterpiece portraying a sense that everything is “just slipping away.”

So coming to this early version which is so different from the one that we know from the album is a shock.  But ultimately a shock that reveals how Bob came to create such an amazing piece of music.

In this earliest of versions, we have the same song – although the lyrics travel a somewhat different pathway – as when Bob sings about love after “some kind of pain”.

"I got nothing left over from the love that we knew
A love that I know that I never can share
It's not dark yet but it's getting there"

And this simple textual change transforms how we appreciate the song.  Some of the other textual changes are interesting, and “I’m in the land of the lost” does give us a real clue as to the thinking processes going on.  But the return to his thinking about “her” and her tender lips, makes it quite clear that this is a “lost love” song – which I don’t think the album version that we have got to know, is, at all.

Of course, “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there” is indeed a concept that fits with the absolute pain of lost love – a pain can last, develop, engross, overtake, or anything else negative you care to name for years and years, leading to a total decline in the person.

But what Bob has also done here is added a repeated (with variations) short lead guitar phrase and used a totally different rhythmic approach, which after years of knowing the album version, comes as an absolute shock.   Now “just being in the same country as her is making me blue” does indeed fit with this repetitive rhythm.   Lost love can be like this, tied up in an ever-repeating set of thoughts that envelops the person who is lost.  So yes it works.

However, although it is a perfectly acceptable (or indeed an utterly amazing song), and one that we would have enjoyed had it turned up on the album instead of the version we got, it would have totally destroyed the overall concept of the version we did get.

And more than anything that thought comes with the line “I’m praying the master will guide me past”.  That thought is a total contradiction of the song that was released on “Time out of mind”.

In fact from the very start what we have with the “Time out of Mind” version is nothing to do with the Almighty, but rather an instrumental part that is a constant statement of that famous early line “Time is running away”.  In short, it’s not God, it just is.

Indeed what we have in the album version is an utter belief that the darkness continues to grow and there is not only no way out now, there is never any way out.  Ever.  The universe expands and eventually dies.  Time passes, we grow old, and die.

The percussion is utterly different and gives a sense of timelessness.  And this is where we start to get the clue as to what is going on, because this timelessness is achieved by the very unusual rhythm of the album version.  Indeed I would argue that although there are multiple changes between this early edition and the final version on the album,  it is the rhythmic change that transforms what would have been just another album track, albeit one with interesting lyrics, into one of the ultimate absolute masterpieces of contemporary music.

What the album version gives us is five bars of 4/4 time of music which makes it sound as if the band and the singer are somehow out of sync – which of course they are not.  Now this constant use of five-bar phrases is virtually unknown in contemporary pop, rock, blues etc and even if one has no musical knowledge concerning the construction of songs, there is something deeply unsettling about that fifth bar.  We are used to groups of four bars in a phrase – that is what every song has.  Until this one.

And the reason for having it is simple: it gives us a musical sense of the passing time seen in that famous opening line, “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day”.  It is that simple, but previously unexplored extra bar at the end of the line which gives us that sense of time breaking down.  Which in fact makes “and I’ve been here all day” believable.  (There’s a lot more on this, if you are interested, in “Not Dark Yet, the music and the covers” – see the footnote).

So what did Bob do in this first version?

Clearly from the off he was thinking about the phrasing of the song, because what he does is use a four-bar phrase for the lyrics followed by three bars of music.  Which sounds very odd when it is written out, but in fact that the last word of each line can be heard as either the fourth bar of the vocal lines, or the first bar of the instrumental lines.

If you listen again you’ll hear that that last word is extended over the instrumental part – a descending single word with the lead guitar taking up its repeated phrase.   So we get a sense that something slightly unusual and even unsettling is happening here, but it still somehow seems to balance out.  If we focus on Dylan’s singing, then that is a four-bar phrase.  If we focus on the instrumental at the end of each line, then that is a four bar phrase.  So the brain gives us a sense of “normal” or “balanced” musical phrasing.   It is only if we try to count out the beats that we realise that this is very odd as the both the vocal lines and the instrumental line are using the same bar as one of “their own.”

So Dylan had the idea of expressing the uneasiness of Not Dark Yet as a concept from the start.   But as I note, the brain has an ability here to play both games at once.  We get a slight sense of unease, but we let it pass because we can hear and feel both sides at once.  Musically it is brilliant, but our brains let it pass.

But in the album version, we very clearly get four bars of music with vocals, and then one and only one bar of instrumental.  So it is a five bar phrase, and that five bar phrasing is very odd.  Even for a person who knows nothing of four beats in a bar or four bar phrases, (which is what 99% of all popular music gives us)  it feels much edgier than this original version that we have now been able to hear through the release of the new album).

And this must have been a deliberate re-thinking of the music by Dylan as he changed the lyrics to be so much edgier, with that feeling in line two that “time is running away”.

Yes now we can hear much more clearly that time is running away, and although most listeners will not spend their time counting the number of beats and bars between each phrase.  But the edginess of the lyrics is utterly translated into the edginess of the music so now we feel it.  We now actually feel that time is running away.

I am so knocked out by having this version available, for I’ve so often wondered how Bob came not just to think of having an extra bar between each line of music but how he made it fit.  Now on hearing this first version, we know.

Thank you Bob.  Thank you record company executives.   I’ve puzzled over this for 16 years.   Phew; I shall die happy (although hopefully not for a while).

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One comment

  1. The use of the hubristic ‘we’ is problematic here ~ changing a few words around and the music a bit does not change the overall essence and emotive effect of the song much at all -at least as far as I’m concerned.

    Shocking? -hardly.

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