By Tony Attwood
Under your spell, written for Knocked out Loaded, and indeed containing the phrase “Knocked out and loaded” is most certainly a very strange song and indeed is one which Dylan has never played in public.
It was co-written with Carole Bayer Sager, herself no mean songwriter, and based around a track that Dylan supposedly recorded without any lyrics in November 1985, which is why I include it as the final composition of that strange year. (Strange for Dylan that is, not strange generally).
But as I say there were no lyrics at this time, and so they must have been added later, either by Ms Sager herself or by the two of them, perhaps with Ms Sager writing some and then Dylan writing some. (More on this in a moment).
Certainly by this time we had had a number of songs that Dylan had created and then passed on with a seemingly imperious flourish as if to say, “see if you can do something with this!” That is in effect the central story of 1985.
But what hauls us back from this analysis are lines like
Well the desert is hot, the mountain is cursed
Pray that I don’t die of thirst
Baby, two feet from the well
which surely is pure Dylan at his most obscure.
And then there is the construction. In the classic pop song you get a verse of maybe three, four, six or eight lines, followed by a second verse, followed by a middle 8 (which is a short section using different chords and a different melody), followed by another verse.
In short, it goes
Verse, verse, middle 8, verse. Or A A B A as musicians are wont to put it.
But not here. What you get is
Verse, verse, verse, verse, verse, verse, middle 8, verse, verse, verse.
There are also a few breaks of varying lengths thrown in from time to time. And the last word of the third line of each verse rhymes with all the other last lines. It is a most unusual structure.
Now of course there is nothing wrong with being unusual, but people like me often want to know why, and for the life of me I can’t really tell, although I am about to make a guess.
As for the meaning… he’s out of it either physically or mentally or both, he knows she needs help but he’s in a mess… but then, well I don’t really know what happens after that.
So it is an impressionist song about worlds falling apart, about people trying to make good from a mess. But really what are we to make of
I’ll see you later when I’m not so out of my head
Maybe next time I’ll let the dead bury the dead
Baby, what more can I tell?
I have no idea.
And all of this is before we get to the music. The melody sounds very Dylan, but the chord sequence is most unusual for our man. And yet the story he tells is that he was there at the writing of the music, which was a chord sequence out of which a melody emerged.
OK maybe so, but if I could find a way of resolving the issue I would happily put a bet on the fact that Dylan didn’t write this chord sequence by himself.
The verse runs
A E+ F#m Dsus4 D Dm A
Even if that is all gobbledegook to you, you might well recognise that we haven’t had E+ before as a chord, and there haven’t been too many Dsus4 chords around either. (In case you are interested the chord of E contains the notes E, G# and B. The chord of E+ (usually said as “E augmented”) contains E, G# and technically B#, but B# is the same note as C so we could say E, G# and C).
Thus where I have got to is that it sounds to me as if Dylan wrote at least some of the lyrics and Carole Bayer Sager wrote the music, except that Dylan suggests he wrote the music.
Maybe we should try one other option: that Ms Sager wrote some of the lyrics, and Dylan, having a bit of fun, put in bits around it. Dylan wrote the chord sequence, and one of the band added the augmentation to the E.
So we could imagine that the good lady wrote a song that went
I will be back, I will survive
You’ll never get rid of me as long as you’re alive
Baby, can’t you tell
Well it’s four in the morning by the sound of the birds
I’m starin’ at your picture, I’m hearin’ your words
Baby, they ring in my head like a bell
Everywhere you go it’s enough to break hearts
Someone always gets hurt, a fire always starts
You were too hot to handle, you were breaking every vow
I trusted you baby, you can trust me now
Turn back baby, wipe your eye
Don’t think I’m leaving here without a kiss goodbye
Baby, is there anything left to tell?
That’s a nice classic A A B A structure and it sort of makes sense. And Dylan then had a bit of a lark by adding those extra verses at the start and the end.
OK, maybe not, but really, you’re guess is as good as mine.
But what of Carol Bayer Sager? She co-wrote with Toni Wine (herself a songwriter of note) “A groovy kind of love” which everyone of a certain age in Britain will know and which I am reliably informed was also a hit the the US. Actually it was also later a hit again for Phil Collins, but I digress.
She wrote lots of hits, wrote lots of soundtracks including that to “Arthur”, had a platinum album and eventually married Burt Bacharach with whom she wrote “That’s what friends are for” for which they won a Grammy, and later (after a divorce I am sure) married Robert Daly (who was chairman of Warner Brothers).
There is much much more to her career, including being on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in the Songwriters Hall of Fame – but this composition with Dylan remains a profound oddity which I am struggling to resolve. Certainly the co-writing with Dylan doesn’t even get a mention on the Wiki article about Ms Sager so presumably her fans who created the page didn’t rate it. (And yes, I knew some of the stuff about her before I got to Wiki, but I was just checking the facts – honest).
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page Untold Dylan or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit.