By Tony Attwood
As I have noted elsewhere, after Dylan finished writing “Desire” with Jaques Levy he had a long pause while he battled over the issue of access to his children through the divorce proceedings.
He wrote just one song in 1976, the year after Desire, Seven Days, but then towards the end of 1977 started writing again, with the songs that were to become Street Legal.
The tales that are told of the recording sessions for Street Legal are tales of chaos – Dylan coming and going, not settling, being in a bad mood etc etc, and the album that resulted is one that, according to the reviews I have read, was disliked in the USA. Curiously it found favour in the UK, and it certainly found favour with me upon its release.
Michael Watts of Melody Maker magazine in the UK said this was Dylan’s “best album since John Wesley Harding” and New Musical Express (the other leading rock magazine of the era in the UK at the time) said, it was Dylan’s “second major album of the 70s.” Q Magazine has since given the album a 5 star rating on re-release on two occasions.
Indeed for myself the list of songs from 1977 which went into the album are among my favourites as I come to look back on Dylan’s writing career, and create the chronology of the songs in the order they were written.
- Changing of the Guards
- Is your love in vain?
- Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)
- No Time to Think
- True Love Tends to Forget
- We better Talk this Over
- Where are you tonight? (Journey through the Dark Heat)
I have also mentioned Seven Days – the one song written in the preceding year, which was then re-used in order to create Señor. But whereas Seven Days quickly faded from the scene, Señor most certainly did not. It is the song that was continued to be performed over a number of years. Between 1 June 1978 and April 28 2011 it was performed 265 times on tour. “Where are you tonight” by way of contrast, got just 33 performances and was lost before the end of 1978.
In 1978 Dylan also told the story of how he was on a train going from Mexico to San Diego and how a strange old man got on the train, and Dylan felt the urge to talk to him. Apparently the story told in the concerts started off fairly simply and gradually expounded adding the notion that when Dylan finally did want to talk to the man, he had gone.
Given this explanation the context of the song is easier to place
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re heading?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?
(As I understand it Lincoln County is one of the far south-western parts of New Mexico.)
Señor, señor, do you know where she is hiding?
How long are we gonna be ridin’?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
Will there be any comfort there, señor?
Then for the middle 8 Dylan goes into a different vision – a look at the woman through a different time scale in a different place – it evens seems suddenly that he is transported onto a ship…
There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck
There’s an iron cross still hangin’ down from around her neck
There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said, “Forget me not”
But then he is back with the old man
Señor, señor, I can see that painted wagon
I can smell the tail of the dragon
Can’t stand the suspense anymore
Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?
And then again in the reflections upon this other strange land – the land of the marching band in a vacant lot, the iron cross…
Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”
This is a really strange set of contrasts back and forth between the notion of sitting on the train with the old man and reflecting on some sort of semi-revealed vision of a trainload of fools (see below for more on this) bogged down in a magnetic field. But somehow the singer is suggesting that the old man can deliver him and take him through.
Señor, señor, you know their hearts is as hard as leather
Well, give me a minute, let me get it together
I just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, señor
That taking through to another world, seems to involve cutting loose from the past, walking away from all that was previously known, getting going onto the new life.
Señor, señor, let’s disconnect these cables
Overturn these tables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?
Because the old life (wife and children) was shattered and torn, and the conversion to Christianity close at hand, many have interpreted this as a way of talking about that conversion. Maybe it was. Or maybe he still just had the feeling he was ready to move on.
But now, here’s the bit that I think is normally missed in discussions of this song. In November 1967 Bryan MacLean wrote and performed the song “Old Man” which was recorded by Love on their all time classic album (ok, for me their all time classic – although I’d suggest a lot of others agree) “Forever Changes”.
Here is an extract from it
Dear old man
He’d seen most everything
Gave me a piece of good advice
Said it would do me well
I couldn’t really tell until
I have been loving you
Now it seems
Things are not so strange
I can see more clearly
Suddenly I’ve found my way
I know the old man would laugh
He spoke of love’s sweeter days
And in his eloquent way
I think he was speaking of you
You are so lovely
You didn’t have to say a thing
OK, you are not going to see too much similarity without hearing that song, but there is a link because Bryan MacLean joined the same Christian ministry (the Vineyard) that subsequently converted Bob Dylan.
Dylan, as we well know, is utterly versed in all forms of popular music, and of course would know Love and Forever Changes. After all it was 40th on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008 as well as being added to the National Recording Registry in May 2012.
Dylan’s old man is not MacLean’s old man, in fact he is the reverse, but the concept is similar, and although of course in situations like this I can never prove anything at all, the similarity struck me long before I knew of the link between the two conversions to Christianity.
And anyway, if by any chance you have never heard Forever Changes, do go and get a copy. It shouldn’t cost more than $5.00.
Back with the reviews, Christopher Rollason called “Señor” “a wasteland with no easy answers.” He added, “Political and religious readings are both possible, but, at least on first listening, this song propels the listener into a dark and desolate borderland world, where nothing can be taken on trust.”
In short, it is as if the Old Man on this occasion gives all the wrong answers – but the positive answers were just around the corner. Finding the Old Man was the key, but the journey was far from easy, particularly if one is
lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don’t pull you through
What we have is the reverse of MacLean’s Old Man – in the Forever Changes song, the Old Man delivers a message of love and hope – everything that the summer of love offered in fact. In Señor what we have is darkness, despair and destruction – everything that Christianity offers to the non-believer. The trainload of fools is an update of the allegory “Ship of Fools” which dates back to a 1494 satire by Sebastian Brant and a c1495 painting by Hieronymus Bosch. We may note the sudden mention of the ship in the bridge section.
Thus the old man ultimately gave peace to Brian MacLean but initially horror to Dylan, who then found his own peace a little later. But I suspect in both cases he takes us back (as I have mentioned quite a few times in these reviews) to the Wandering Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. He’s been a part of English literature since the 14th century, and certainly plays a significant part in Chaucer. There’s no reason why he has to be Jewish or meandering around the English countryside as early literature of my country has it.
He is, in short, the warning, as when seen in the Canterbury Tales and in Señor, but ultimately transforms into the delivery into the light.
‘Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?’
Either Armageddon or the Old Man of Love’s song, seems to be the answer.
The Allmusic review of “Señor” suggests the song “could have been one of Dylan’s finest songs of the 1970s. As it stands, however, it is an ambitious song which doesn’t quite come off.”
I think that is harsh.