You changed my life: why Dylan’s song was left behind

By Tony Attwood

It appears Dylan had quite a large number of attempts in the studios to get this song right, but finally gave up on it, never played it live, and allowed it only to resurface when the first bunch of outtakes appeared on “volume 1-3”.

It is lively, jolly, bouncy and pushes us along, but the message (at least most of the message) is one that we’ve perhaps heard quite a few times – that the world is a pretty evil place full of traps for the unwary, but give yourself to the Lord and all will be well – no matter how late in the day you give yourself over for forgiveness.

But there are some moments in the song which really make me pause and wonder.  Right in the first verse such as, “Working for a system I couldn’t understand or trust”.  Is he saying that he was trapped inside the capitalist system of record production and concert touring?  Inside the profit motive of the corporations?   Well, yes, aren’t we all.  But most of us don’t write protest songs along the way, and then move on.   That (for me, and of course as always this is just my perception) is the key contradiction in terms of Dylan’s “protest” period in which he wrote about how awful things were in songs like Hollis Brown.

Now that is interesting stuff, but unfortunately (for me at least) the point doesn’t get further explored in this song, and I am not sure where it is explored.

And in the next verse

You do the work of the devil, you got a million friends

Well yes Bob we remember

I got a friend who spends his life
Stabbing my picture with a bowie knife
Dreams of strangling me with a scarf
When my name comes up he pretends to bark
I got a million friends.

And the point is… ah well, you see, I am not sure.  Bob had a million friends (probably ironically) and now who is this “you”.  Is he talking to himself?

Then we have the old surreal imagery that Bob used to do so well

The call of the wild is forever at my door
Wants me to fly like an eagle while being chained to the floor

Who does?  How?  In what context?  I can make a million guesses, but a bit of a clue from the writer at this point would be helpful.  It is a hell of an image.  I just wish I knew what it meant!  Are we back with the capitalists making money out of him, and so tying him down to a terrible life of forever having to write and perform?  That doesn’t quite seem to fit…

And so the piece goes on, we’ve got the hang of it, that descending bass line driving us forward in each verse, and then suddenly…

You changed my life
Came along in a time of strife
You came in like the wind, like Errol Flynn
You changed my life

Errol Flynn was a great swashbuckling actor who was fantastically popular until post-war styles changed, and he found there was no need for his type of character any more.  As Wiki puts it he had “a reputation for womanising, hard drinking and for a time in the 1940s, narcotics abuse.”

He was also associated with the expression “in like Flynn” which was (and indeed is still) a sexual term taken to reflect the way women fell for him, and how easy it was for him to seduce them.  He originally called his autobiography “In like me” but the publisher was worried about 1950s repression in the US and called it “My Wicked Wicked Ways” .  The official Errol Flynn web site run by his daughter, however retains the title “In like Flynn,”

So what are we to make of the simile You came in like the wind, like Errol Flynn, which presumably refers to the Lord?   It makes sense in that Dylan’s conversion seems to have been rapid, rather like Flynn’s supposed ability to seduce a woman, but somehow this just seems a trifle inappropriate when speaking of the Almighty.  To use Flynn’s way with women as a comparator to how God converted Bob… it really seems a bit, well… actually I am lost for words.

Having not listened to the song for quite a while and coming back to it now, it just leaves me with a feeling that it is jolly, happy, but… well, but what???  Bob’s been converted, and good for him, but it is almost as if Leonard da Vinci had given up on the notion of painting the Last Supper and instead drawn a self-portrait.  He did of course paint many such, but he also painted the Last Supper and he kept the two separate. One is not to be confused with the other and that seems to be Bob’s problem here.

Unless the song were to be called “Tangled up in God”.

So, for me Bob’s got confused in his purpose.  Yes his conversion to Christianity was quite something, but somehow the song at the end seems to be more about Bob than God.  And maybe Bob thought something along the same lines, but just couldn’t bring himself to cut that last verse in the recording.  After all, it is what makes it – at least for us pagans.

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  1. Dylan is actually rather consistent in the content of his songs; it’s the world that is confused.
    Rousseau says we are born free but everywhere we are in chains, and Blake that man has closed himself up until he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern. Dylan says we are expected to fly like an eagle but are chained to the floor. Add in some modernist Existential angst, why not?
    We are trapped by society’s pliars and, more than
    that, by time itself, by an amoral Univetse. One day, we shall be released
    from it all.

    As an artist, Dylan searches for a way out, a way to reconcile these differing points of view in which he finds himself entangled.

    So one interpretation of You Changed My Life is about Time itself. Personified as a caring woman.
    But a terrifying image, nonetheless, taken from the Book of Daniel:

    “Your eyes were on fire/
    Your feet were of brass”
    (Dylan: You Changed My Life)

    “And his eyes as lamps of fire/
    And his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass”
    ( Daniel: 10:6 )
    Though transgendered by Dylan,
    she certainly puts things into perspective, does she not? Don’t get diseased by conceit because you are just not nearly as lasing as Time; you are but a tiny grain of sand upon a windy beach. Best to celebrate what you have.

    There are other possiblre lyric interpretations, of course, but the concrete images inside the garden gate do not lend themselves to be easily carried off in all directions.

  2. In the’Great Code’, Northrop Frye presents the theory that the New Testament simply mirrors the mythologies of the Old as evidenced by this figurative portrayal of Jesus:
    “And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace” (Rev. 1:5)

    Any literary (albeit nonrational)correspondence to actual history is dismissed if words written are viewed as having taken on an independent life of their own, are self-referential, and altogether distinct from external reality and the writer thereof.

    But an artist can have his/her cake and eat it too:

    That is, why can’t Dylan’s attraction to Christ be likened figuratively to a sexual seduction if he wants to? Gospel and country songwriters sure do it enough!

  3. Dylan also refers to Errol Flynn in ‘Foot Of Pride’:

    “Sing me one more song about you love me to the moon, and the stranger/
    And your fall-by the sword love affair with Errol Flynn”

    Taking a shot at the morality of Christians who try to use him, Dylan mocks them by referring to Albert Camus’ ‘The Stranger’ where conventional morality is depicted as serving self-interest to the point that it becomes absurdist Existentialism akin to Andrew Marvell’s ‘Coy Mistress’ where the certainty of death is used as a ploy for seduction.

    In ‘Desolation Row’, one of his greatest songs, Dylan refers to Robin Hood starring Erroll Flynn with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian and Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck:

    “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk/
    Passed this way an hour ago with his friend a
    jealous monk”
    (Dylan: Desolation Row).

    The movie is considered one of the greatest ever made.

    Dylan, I repeat, does not haphazardly throw in words because they happen to fit. He draws upon
    the history of conventional morality as it roots spread out from the Scriptures, to, for example, Gothic novels, to Romantic Transcendentalist poetry, to Existentialist philosophy, as he comments on the lone individual’s plight in a complex social structure. And the band plays on as the Titanic
    plunges to the floor of the ocean. There’s always be the unexplained, unexpected, and the unknown:
    “You came in like the wind, like Erroll Flynn,”

  4. And, in ‘Foot of Pride’, there’s the Jackie Gleason reference from The Honeymooners:
    “One of these days, Alice…Pow…Straight to the moon!”…..’you love me to the moon’….certainly a double-edged lyric if there ever was one….Don’t get Dylan upset or he’ll bash you with words,

  5. Or, if you fear not that the centre cannot hold because of the dreaded Beast of Deconstructionism, following behind Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’, treading toward Babble On to be borne by the Post Modernist songwriters-

    “Did he make it to the top/
    Well, he probably did and dropped/
    Struck down by the will” (Foot of Pride)-,

    then maybe the reference is just to a conceit-filled
    love song by a Dylan favorite, big star Frank Sinatra:

    “Fly me to the moon/
    Let me play among the stars/
    Let me see what spring is like/
    On a Jupiter and Mars”
    (Fly Me To The Moon)

    Calm down, Bob, Sinatra never won no Nobel Prize!

  6. But for sure Dylan draws from the well of God’s speech to Moses on Mount Sanai:

    “Ye have seen what I did to unto the Egyptians,
    and how I bare you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself”
    (Exodus 19: 4)

  7. Moses climbs Mount Nebo and dies, not able to reach the Promised Land because he is punished by God for his pride, his hubris.

  8. “Yes, I guess I loved him too/
    I can still see him in my mind climbing that hill/
    Did he make it to the top, well he probably did and dropped/
    Struck down by the strength of the will”
    (Foot Of Pride: Dylan)

    Could be Moses, could be Jesus….

  9. Larry, as so often with your commentaries, I am overwhelmed. It is going to take me a long old time to unravel all the points you raise, but I am going to do it. Just give me time.

  10. Dylan relates to Sinatra because Frank dares to express that God’s love shows everywhere in Nature’s beauty
    and that you do not require organized religion to tell you how to be a decent human being – so many horrible things are done in the name of religion.

    Dylan, though he finds gospel music emotionly inspiring, eventually became disillusioned with evangelistic hypocrisy.

  11. As an uncultivate French I may not understand it well, but first I thought the song was talking about a girl, then i discovered in the last verse it was talking of God, and then again Errol Flynn jumped in and I found it really fun.

  12. Concerning the Errol Flynn line… In many of Flynn’s swashbuckling roles there would be a scene where he entered like Robin Hood by swinging in on a vine or during a sword fight he would grab the sash of a castle tapestry and swing from one staircase to another to continue the fight.In fact there are montages of this same device being used in many of Flynn’s films. Dylan’s use of this image is an example of Bob’s sense of humor being injected into a verse as a counterpoint to a more serious subject. Another example that comes to mind is in a later song Po’Boy. “Po’Boy in a hotel called The Palace of Gloom. Calls down to room service and says “Send up a room.” In fact I think that may be a Groucho line from a Marx brothers movie. Dylan using imagery from old movies that he(and us)would have seen growing up! All a part of our popular culture collective unconscious that Dylan likes to explore…

  13. “And the point is… ah well, you see, I am not sure. Bob had a million friends (probably ironically) and now who is this “you”. Is he talking to himself?”

    With the line “You do the work of the devil, you got a million friends”, he’s saying that if one wants to have a million friends, one should do the work of the devil because conniving, evil and deceitful people who become rich and succesful tend to attract others. So if you do the work of the devil, you will have a bunch of “friends”.

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