By Tony Attwood
This article is part of a series in which the Dylan’s songs, considered in the order in which they were written, are considered as a sequence of writing, in order to see how the themes within his writing evolve. These articles are indexed in the Chronology Files – Dylan in the 1960s is here.
1963 saw Dylan expand his area of writing. He became a man who could operate in a whole wide range of song styles, and in musical terms, he had quickly become the ultimate storyteller. And it also saw him not only work again on the themes he had previously considered (songs of leaving, lost love, protest etc) but also brought into focus new themes such as individualism, and the thought that what defines us as individuals is not the way the world is, but the way in which we choose to see the world.
Towards the end of that year Dylan composed a most extraordinary set of songs ranging from two tales of the better world to come (When the ship comes in and The Times they are a-Changing along with The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll which portrays racism not as something that is part of individual incidents but as something utterly entrenched within American society.) Then to finish the year off he wrote two of the most powerful songs of leaving: One too many mornings and Restless Farewell.
Which raised a question: what on earth could he do to top that? He had composed 20 highly memorable songs in each of the last two years – could he keep it up?
The answer turned out to be most certainly yes – not only at the same extraordinary level of writing but also with the same level of variety.
Chimes of Freedom is a song which says that yes, things can change for the better. But it is also a song that expresses its vision through a form of imagery that Dylan is now exploring in ever deeper modes. He was, I believe not just influenced by the poets and novelists he was reading, but also by the understanding that the views he wanted to express could not be reported in normal everyday story telling. We needed to go somewhere else. As I wrote in my review of this song (and I think it was one of my better insights on this site) “We’ve given control of the world to the wrong people.”
In short, Dylan the story teller has moved into a new territory. Earlier songs were by and large totally clear in their message. Now we have layers of symbols on top of them. Dylan had kicked off the new year by changing his style yet again.
And if that composition were not enough, the follow up (and let me stress again, this is in the order of writing, not in the order of song release) was the amazing Mr Tambourine Man. Dylan appears to be completely in acceptance that it is not the world itself that is the issue, but the way we see the world. I’m not sure too many song writers had tried this approach before – and even more amazingly, it was not the only new development of the year.
But even after two such ground breaking songs, Dylan was restless, endlessly wanting to change directions, and so he went for the lost love and blame of I don’t believe you (She acts like we never have met). Which then is contrasted by Spanish Harlem Incident.
Already the year has become a tour de force, and Dylan kept it up with the crazy surreal Motorpsycho Nightmare and of then just to remind us that he hadn’t forgotten his triumphs of the end of the previous year a song of farewell: It ain’t me babe.
But I think there was a problem, because with this incredible level of creativity, and seemingly not too many people around who Dylan would listen to in terms of his artistic output (and of course we could argue “Why should he, with an output like this?”) Dylan could both get it right and make horrible mistakes. Mama you’ve been on my mind is a beautiful song of lost love, but Ballad in Plain D which was composed next is both highly repetitive and just plain vicious.
Of course songs can use repetition and can make viscous attacks, but I am not really sure this combination of repetition and nastiness actually makes for good listening or good art in this case.
Perhaps Dylan felt he needed to shake this feeling off for immediately after Plain D he came out with a flashback to his earlier days with a return to the talking blues with I shall be free number 10 and then in utter total contrast a tender love song To Ramona
But then, suddenly, Dylan had a change of direction, finding a new theme: individualism.
It started with All I really want to do which is a song of farewell, but which seems to edge away from the spirit of “It ain’t me babe” into a new field talking about himself rather than the woman.
And then, just when we thought it could not get any more varied along comes I’ll keep it with minem which is for me a break through moment. Who else could have written…
I can’t help it
If you might think I’m odd
If I say I’m not loving you for what you are
But for what you’re not
This really is a new area of work – a song about the individualism of the writer. And if we want a single line to sum it all up, how about My back pages – the next song in the sequence with
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
This really is about the individual seeing the world from his own unique standpoint. It is the “it’s not the world, but the way you see the world” vision from the start of the year, put firmly within Dylan’s own view of reality, and himself as a creative artist within that reality.
So my point is that Dylan had evolved his “not the world” notion, and combined it with his interest in songs of farewell, to create a new genre – the songs of individualism. And I can think of no way other than as a “song of individualism” to describe “My Back Pages”.
From this point of individualism, from the notion that it is not the world but the way we see the world that defines who and what we are, that Dylan now makes one of his greatest leaps of all into Gates of Eden. Protest, individualism and the notion that nothing makes any sense any more, all twirl together into one gigantic whirlpool from which comes the ultimate Dylan expression of this period It’s all right ma which has actually been reviewed twice on this site (you’ll find both reviews on the A to Z index on the home page).
Listening to this extraordinary sequence of songs through the year one wonders what else there was to be said, but of course this is Dylan we are talking about, and at this time he most certainly knew exactly what was to be said; he combined the song of farewell with his his recently formed interest in the expression of individualism to give us a quirky non-love love song, the antithesis of the two songs that he had just composed: If you’ve gotta go, go now
What a year!
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/ It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.
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 once you get there.