This article comes from the series “Bob Dylan: Year by Year”. You can see all the articles in the series by following the link.
by Tony Attwood
Much of the dating of when Dylan wrote songs comes from his touring, in which newly produced songs are recorded in hotel rooms or tried out during the sound checks before a concert. But during 1982 Dylan stopped touring, and as far as I can read the situation, stopped writing.
My best guess is that the first few songs on the list below were written in 1982, but it is hard to tell how many, hence 1982 and 1983 are loaded together in this chronological series.
By 1982/3 Bob had set aside the notion of writing songs about Jesus and his understanding of the Biblical texts, as his prime source for inspiration. And indeed by now he had already had a period of exploring other themes for his writing. This notion of exploration and commentary across a wide range of areas continued through this two year period.
However it is also clear that his explorations of a new direction in the past year or two were still with him, for Jokerman has the feel in part of Caribbean Wind – and indeed Dylan has said it was again written in the Caribbean. Although we might well feel that this is another song about the end of all things, the message is more about the futility of mankind’s ways than it is about the utter certainty of how it will all pan out in the end.
So Biblical input was still there in his songs but it is combined with a style of writing that leads to an uncertainty of meaning. And when one thinks about it, these two notions are poles apart. With a religion such as Christianity, everything is certain. We know what happened in the past with Jesus Christ, and we know what will happen in the future with Armageddon and the Second Coming.
But the Caribbean Wind style of writing removes the certainty of meaning and seems to take us to the opposite end of the spectrum. Which is why I and I (again seemingly written in the Caribbean period) is interesting: it appears at one level to be trying to balance the two – the religious feel and the uncertainty. But then maybe uncertainty won and Dylan travelled in other directions indeed.
Clean Cut Kid (written at this time, but held back in terms of an album release) and Union Sundown take on other directions – the latter returning to Dylan’s earlier concerns about America’s poor, expressed so often across the years.
But then were the pause in songwriting and then the mixed bag of compositions noted thus far, all by way of preparation for the next song: Blind Willie McTell? It is hard to make that case, because McTell sounds like nothing written in the months before or after it emerged. Indeed it most certainly doesn’t have any relationship with the next song Don’t fall apart on me tonight – nor indeed with very much else around this time. It just stands out alone, an absolute monument looking down on everything else that Dylan composed across these two years.
As we know McTell came out in two versions – the acoustic and the electric – and each tells a different tale, although neither really has that much to do with the real blues singer who reached far greater fame through this song than he ever achieved as a composer and singer. We get no sense of McTell as the great 12 string slide guitarist, of the man with so many different names it is hard to keep track of them. What we get is the man whose music was rediscovered many years after his passing (he died in 1959 aged 61).
The arrival of this song with no clear build up beforehand that we can hear in Dylan’s music, and no references back to it after, is one of the great mysteries for anyone who wants to understand Dylan’s method of writing, although maybe it is just possible to see Jokerman as the opposite of Willie McTell – the Jokerman telling us what isn’t true, Willie McTell telling it really as it is. But…
I fear I am stretching the point here for if I am going down this route then Man of Peace like Jokerman is a false prophet song. Blind Willie is the only one who tells it true, the other’s don’t. But I’m not sure if that adds much to our understanding.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that Dylan was once more finding he could write, and write all sorts of things, and that is what he was doing – enjoying the feeling that once more he could sit down and out came a song about… well anything. Sweetheart like you goes one way Someone’s got a hold of my heart goes another, then there is Neighbourhood Bully off doing its own thing again, and then Tell Me is utterly different again.
And then Bob was back with his notion of the “Caribbean Wind” style of writing where every line takes us in a different direction. But then again Foot of Pride clearly caused him some concerns, and like Willie McTell is was left behind, leaving the composer to travel off in yet another direction with a political rock n roll drama in Julius and Ethel.
In short this is a year in which everything is tried out, and perversely when it came to leaving songs behind, it was as often as not, the wrong songs were left behind. But with Bob it seems to have been ever thus. The year ended on what is for me a very poor note Death is not the end – but then again, that is what Dylan does. He tries everything out, and because it is all tried out in the recording studio, we can hear what happened.
Was this the most varied year ever in terms of Bob’s writing? Quite possibly, although I’d like to think about that question a bit more. But what I don’t have to think about is what was the highlight of the year: Blind Willie McTell, of course. I still don’t think it has anything much to do with Blind Willie, but as a song in its own right, it is right up there with the best of them.
What is on the site
1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.