The lyrics and the music: Key West – a very, very personal experience.



I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

The lyrics and the music.   Looking at how Dylan’s music relates to his lyrics and vice versa.   By Tony Attwood

Creating a song that lasts nine and a half minutes implies doing one of two things: having a lot of musical variety, or having a song that creates either a story or plays with a set of endlessly rotating images around a theme.

Dylan, as we know, is often no that not much of a coherent storyteller – which is not a criticism, it is just not a format that he chooses to follow.   And so with long songs he tends to select a wider than normal range of images.  Although of course being Dylan, that’s not quite an explanation to cover all the long songs, but it is a starting point.

And Dylan is something of an expert at unusually long songs.   Indeed at nine and a half minutes “Key West” only clocks in at number eight on his personal list of long compositions – although I might have missed something along the way.  I’m thinking that…

  • Murder Most Foul
  • Highlands
  • Tempest
  • Sad Eyed Lady
  • Desolation Row
  • Joey
  • Brownsville Girl
  • Tin Angel

… are all longer.

But here’s my problem.   Looking at the list, what strikes me is that apart from “Desolation Row”, none of these I choose to play when I am just looking for a song to listen to.

And part of the problem, I think, is that in a number of cases Bob has created a really long song without too much thought of melody or rhythm – they are recitations in which the words utterly dominate.  The music is pure accompaniment.  Not always of course, and Desolation Row stands out in this regard, but in a number of cases the music takes very much a background seat.

Now if we look at the issue of poetry and music without the context of Dylan, there is no reason why this format of half-sung half recited pieces with a minimal musical background should not exist.  It is another form, which because we know Dylan as a SONGwriter, we choose to label as a song.   And indeed Bob has performed this piece over 200 times on stage amidst the songs.  So for him it is a song, not a recitation.

And this is in contrast to Murder Most Foul, Highlands, Tempest. Sad Eyed Lady,  by way of example, none of which are shown on the official Dylan has ever being performed live.

So, we may conclude perhaps that Dylan likes the notion of the recitation of lyrics to a simple musical background as an art form, but thinks that probably it is not something the audience that attends his shows wants to know too much about.  Or rather he thought that until now.

For this time Bob seems to have taken the notion of a recitation to an accompaniment to an extreme – and has reversed his general policy – this piece has been performed over 200 times on stage.

So let us consider the opening lines…

Wherever I travel, wherever I roamI'm not that far before I come back homeI do what I think is right, what I think is bestHistory Street off of Mallory SquareTruman had his White House thereEast bound, West bound, way down in Key WestTwelve years old, they put me in a suitForced me to marry a prostitute

And what I personally find so curious is that there is no coherence here.   But I stress, I find this “curious” as in the sense of unusual and unexpected, not in any way in the sense of “poor art” — indeed exactly the opposite.   Take out the musical background and I don’t think this works too well at all.  Add the music and the images come pouring out from the recording straight into my heart and mind.

I have lived most of my life in England, the country where I was born, although I have lived abroad and have travelled the world (United States, Australia where one of my daughters lives, China, Sweden, Algiers where I lived for a year…) but I don’t have any relationship with Key West.

So the question for me is what do I get one from this song about a place of which I know absolutely nothing?   And the answer is “atmosphere”.  Not of the place itself, but of the situation portrayed via this vast array of images and the gentle lilting background music that so contrast: the gentle background and the endlessly changing overlay of images.

And that is really the key here.   The music is unchanging suggesting to me that no matter how much life’s events change and take us in different directions, it is still our individual journey through our life, from which we can pick out incidents and places, and maybe say “that’s the place I like to be.”  Our memories may be incomplete and inaccurate but they are what we build our vision of ourselves upon.

So I think of Sydney, Australia, where I have been six or seven times to visit my family, and the Great Wall of China on which I have walked once, and the Twin Towers in New York one of which I ascended just a few weeks before the atrocity of 9/11… these are the memories of totally different occasions and situations.   And they are bound together as parts of my life journey, parts of the memories that slowly fade…

And this is how I feel the song.   The unchanging background music of one’s life, which is always one’s life no matter how much things change.  I can’t remember the names of my different companions on many of these adventures, but they are still part of my history.  But do I pick out one place now where I want to be?   I guess so: it is my house, where I now sit and write this, a house in a village so ancient it is listed in the Domesday Book.

And it is having made this meandering journey in my head that today I think I appreciate Key West as a song (not a recitation) more than I have ever done before.   So now I think about my journey in life (I am six years younger than Bob, and have no fame, but still have had quite a journey) and now I can make sense at last of Key West, and perhaps a bit more sense of my own meandering life.

Not that not making sense of the song worried me in the past, but now I get it, I like the song more.  As Bob says in the second line, “That’s my story, but not where it ends.”  Snap shots of life, knowing that nothing from the past can be changed.   Suddenly realising that yes, that was my life, how on earth did I manage to a) do so much, b) make so many mistakes, c) still have a good time, d) still be doing ok.  And what such thoughts need is a ceaseless gentle lilting musical accompaniment.  Nothing else.  And that’s what we get.

Thus none of this enjoyment and insight would have worked for me if this piece had been a song in the conventional sense, rather than primarily a musical recitation.  It is the provision of the music and the half-sung approach that stops me just hearing a song, and starts me thinking of the journey of my life as well as enjoying the song.

That’s quite a breakthrough.  I’m glad I’m writing this series.  I’m glad I wrote this piece today.  Having listened to this song more carefully today than ever before, I am more of a person than I was yesterday.  It wouldn’t have worked as a poem.  It works as a recitation.

The songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…

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