By Tony Attwood
Dylan’s Opening Lines: This is the fourth and final update on a theme we originally looked at eight years or so ago and which I have been playing with in the last couple of weeks. It incorporates all the suggestions made in the previous three articles, and adds a few more of its own, each marked “NEW”.
Of course the selection is utterly personal and really not meant to be of particular significance, other than to note that Bob Dylan really does seem to be rather good at finding opening lines that stay in the memory.
I mean when you consider that the alphabetical index of songs that Dylan has written and which appears on this site has 627 songs finding over 100 that to me have amazingly memorable open lines that is quite extraordinary. I wonder if Bob ever ponders the issue of the opening line as a concept…. But I suspect not.
So here we go: my final list of Bob’s greatest opening lines. I am sure that within 30 seconds of posting this I will think of another example, but then that’s what always happens to me, and if I kept coming back to every article I’d never get to buy my daughter a birthday card, which is top of the agenda today before the family BBQ. We won’t discuss Dylan, as it’s just Dad’s oddball thing, but some of these lines will be resonating in my head all through today, and tomorrow and yesterday too.
Anyway, I’ve also done a little pruning, taking out one or two that I thought, on reviewing the list, really shouldn’t be there. But of course you’ll make up your own mind.
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? (Visions of Johanna)
All the early Roman kings in their sharkskin suits bow ties and buttons high top boots (Early Roman Kings)
All the tired horses in the sun (All the tired horses)
As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden, the wounded flowers were dangling from the vines (Ain’t Taking)
At the time of my confession, and the hour of my deepest need (Every grain of sand)
Band of the hand (Band of the hand)
Been so long since a strange woman slept in my bed… (I and I)
Beyond the horizon, behind the sun, at the end of the rainbow, life has just begun. (Beyond the horizon)
Black Rider Black Rider you been livin’ too hard (Black Rider)
Buckets of rain, buckets of tears (Buckets of rain)
Bye and bye, I’m breathin’ a lover’s sigh (Bye and Bye)
Come around you rovin’ gamblers, and a story I will tell. (Rambling, Gambling Willie)
Crimson flames tied through my ears, rollin’ high and mighty traps (My back pages)
Darkness at the break of noon (It’s all right Ma, I’m only bleeding)
Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing (Up to Me)
Far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toll (Chimes of Freedom)
Fat man lookin’ in a blade of steel (Dignity)
Go away from my window, leave at your own chosen speed (It Ain’t Me Babe)
God knows you ain’t pretty (God knows). Those who have analysed the lyrics of what broadly might be called “popular music” invariably conclude that the genre has three prime subjects: love, lost love and dance. Bob of course goes his own way, but has no problem handling love and lost love songs. But this as an opening… well, I just don’t think anyone else ever has tried that approach.
God said to Abraham “Kill me a son” (Highway 61 Revisited)
Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride (Dirt Road Blues)
He sits in your room, his tomb, with a fist full of tacks (Can you please Crawl out Your Window)
High water risin’—risin’ night and day (High Water)
Hollis Brown he lived on the outside of town (Ballad of Hollis Brown)
Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun (Romance in Durango)
How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? (Blowing in the wind)
I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you (All I really want to do)
I can hear the turning of the key (Abandoned Love)
I crossed the green mountain, I slept by the stream (‘Cross the green mountain)
I hate myself for lovin’ you and the weakness that it showed (Dirge)
I got this graveyard woman, you know she keeps my kid (From a Buick Six). I’ve never quite been sure what that means, and to try and help myself I just looked up the topic of women and graveyards, but aside from learning about Islamic rulings on the matter I haven’t found much. Perhaps it is an American slang expression that has never come to England. Or maybe it is just something Bob invented. Whatever the answer, it’s a great line.
I ain’t looking to compete with you (All I really want to do)
I love you more than ever, more than time and more than love (Wedding Song)
I love you pretty baby (Beyond here lies nothing)
I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze (Balled in Plain D)
I was born in Dixie in a boomer shed (Freight Train Blues). Again a bit of looking up on my part. It seems “The Boomer Shed is an inclusive community shed for both men and women over 50 in South Auckland”. I take it that is in New Zealand. Has Bob played in New Zealand? I think I’ve missed something!
I woke in the mornin’, wand’rin’ wasted and worn out (Black crow blues)
If I had wings, like Noah’s dove (Dink’s Song)
I’m walking through the summer nights, jukebox playing low (Standing in the Doorway)
I’m walkin’ through streets that are dead (Love Sick)
NEW: I was listening to the voices of death on parade (You changed my life) I tried this one out on four Dylan friends and none got it, and to be fair I wouldn’t have remembered which song. But just look at that line, and remember that is the opening line of a song!!!
If today was not an endless highway (Tomorrow is a long time)
If you find it in your heart, can I be forgiven? Guess I owe You some kind of apology (Saving Grace)
If you see her say hello (If You See Her Say Hello)
If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait (This wheel’s on fire)
In the lonely night, In the blinking stardust of a pale blue light (Born in Time)
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need (Every Grain of Sand)
I’ve just reached a place where the willow don’t bend (Going Going Gone)
NEW: I’ve seen love go by my door (You’re going to make me lonesome) So simple and yet so different. He doesn’t say “I’ve been in love lots of time” or “I’ve lost so many lovers” but something quite different. It’s a really arresting start.
I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land (115th Dream)
I woke in the mornin’, wand’rin’ (Black Crow Blues)
Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement talking ’bout the government. (Subterranean Homesick Blues)
Like a lion tears the flesh off of a man, so can a woman who passes herself off as a male. (Foot of Pride). Like the lion tears the flesh off of a man, So can a woman who passes herself off as a male (Foot of Pride). I love Foot of Pride – and the fact that on some computers in some places the Untold article on the song comes up at the top of page one. I’ve included this before, but I thought it was time to break up my ramblings with a song.
Man thinks, cuz he rules the world, he can do with it as he please (Licence to kill)
May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true (Forever Young)
My love she speaks like silence. (Love Minus zero / No Limit)
My name is Donald White, you see (Ballad of Donald White)
Nobody feels any pain (Just like a woman)
Now the ragman draws circles up and down the block (Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again)
Of war and peace the truth just twists, it’s curfew gull it glides (Gates of Eden)
NEW: Oh all the money in my whole life I did spend (Restless Farewell)
Oh I’m sailing away, my own true love. (Boots of Spanish Leather)
NEW: Oh my name it means nothing (God on our side)
Oh, the benches were stained with tears and perspiration (Day of the Locusts)
Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside (Dark Eyes)
Oh, help me in my weakness (The Drifter’s Escape)
Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble, ancient footprints are everywhere. (When I Paint my Masterpiece)
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? (Hard Rain)
Old man sailin’ in a dinghy boat (Apple suckling tree)
NEW Our conversation was short and sweet, It nearly swept me off-a my feet (You’re a big girl now). OK those opening six words are not exactly that unusual, but combined with the next line it really leaves one wondering what on earth is going on.
Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night (Hurricane)
Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams (Ring them Bells)
Sad I’m a-sittin’ on the railroad track (Ballad for a friend)
Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying this land is condemned (Blind Willie McTell)
Shadows have fallen and I’ve been here all day, (Not Dark Yet)
She’s got everything she needs she’s an artist she don’t look back (She Belongs to Me)
Sometimes I’m in the mood, I wanna leave my lonesome home (Baby I’m in the mood for you)
Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press. (Idiot Wind)
Some of us turn off the lights and we live in the moonlight shooting by (Red River Shore)
Something there is about you that strikes a match in me (Something there is About You)
Standing on the waters casting your bread while the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing? (Jokerman)
Stake my future on a hell of a past (Silvio)
Ten thousand men on a hill (Ten Thousand Men)
The air is gettin’ hotter, there’s a rumblin’ in the sky, (Lucinda Williams Tryin’ to get to Heaven)
NEW: The guilty undertaker sighs (I want you)
NEW: The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod (When He Returns)
The pale moon rose in its glory out on the Western town (Tempest)
The pawnbroker roared also so did the landlord (She’s your lover now)
The river whispers in my ear, I’ve hardly a penny to my name (Tell Ol Bill)
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief (All along the Watchtower)
There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain, tears on the letter I write. (Where are you Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat))
There’s guns across the river aimin’ at ya (Billy 1)
They’re selling postcards of the hanging (Desolation Row)
They ask me how I feel
And if my love is real
And how I know I’ll make it through (I believe in you). Bob’s ability with simple words and turning them into everything you want them to be.
They say everything can be replaced, yet every distance is not near (I Shall be Released)
Today and tomorrow and yesterday too (I contain multitudes). No opening line could ever be more all-encompassing.
Twas another lifetime, one of toil and blood (Shelter from the Storm)
Twilight on the frozen lake (Never say Goodbye)
Up on the white veranda, she wears a necktie and a Panama Hat (Black Diamond Bay)
Well, if I had to do it all over again (All over you)
Well, it’s always been my nature to take chances (Angelina)
Well, the Lone Ranger and Tonto they are ridin’ down the line (Bob Dylan’s Blues)
Well, there was this movie I seen one time about a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck. (Brownsville Girl)
Well, my nerves are exploding and my body’s tense (Til I fell in love with you)
Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it (Absolutely Sweet Marie)
What good am I if I’m like all the rest? (What good am I)
What’s the matter with me, I don’t have much to say (Watching the River Flow)
NEW: What was it you wanted?
When she said “Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies” I cried she was deaf.
And she worked on my face until breaking my eyes then said, “What else you got left?” (Fourth time around). I really can’t think of many popular songs of any variety that start with something as powerful as this. Even now, decades after I first heard it, those opening lines have a real impact. (And yes I know I am cheating by going for two lines, but its my article so I can.)
When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime too (Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues)
While riding on a train goin’ west I fell asleep for to take my rest (Bob Dylan’s Dream)
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carrol with a cane that he twirled round his diamond ring finger (The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol)
You been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe (Baby stop crying)
You may be an ambassador to England or France (Gotta Serve Somebody). It’s a strange one – as in, well yes I might, but I’m not, But of course I get the meaning, and even though I profoundly disagree with the notion that I have to serve somebody, I can still appreciate the power.
You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand, you see somebody naked and you say “who is that man?” (Ballad of a Thin Man)
You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend (Positively 4th Street)