By Joost Nillissen
Now that I am about to enter a new phase of my life, I look for a song to ease the passage into retirement. Rather morbidly I thought Tombstone Blues might be appropriate
I wish I could write you a melody so plain
that could hold you, dear lady, from going insane,
that could ease and cool you and ease the pain
of you useless and pointless knowledge
Then I heard a beautiful rendering of My Back Pages of his 1964 album, aptly titled Another side of Bob Dylan. Dylan was 23 years old at the time, this was his fourth album and he had already written Blowing in the wind, A hard rain is gonna fall, Don’t think twice it’s alright and The times they are a changing. One year later he would write Like a rolling stone.
The hardest or least accessible song on this album is My back pages. Most Dylan songs make sense to me in a poetic way, even though they may be enigmatic and hard to follow, but this one is almost beyond grasp. The refrain is almost a gimmick, a brilliant thought: I was so much older then, I am younger than that now. On the album he released eight months earlier he had the audacity to warn the Masters of War that he would “Stand over their grave to make sure that you’re dead”. He was much older then than the rest of his contemporaries. How young could he have been, writing My Back Pages in 1964? At the age of 23.
There is heat in the first verse when he tells of the crimson flames tied through his ears. Is it the fever of youth? He is setting out for more discoveries of what life is all about, learning on the way, avoiding traps on flaming roads and using his own ideas as a map.
Hot and sweaty, but proud, he meets someone and says: we’ll meet on edges soon. As so often in his songs, Dylan is leaving, changing direction, following another path. But he was so much older then. He’s younger then that now.
In the second verse prejudice leaps forth and causes him to scream: “Rip down all hate”, and a voice in his skull tells a lie: in life everything is black and white. He’d rather dream romantic dreams of musketeers. He was so much older then…
The path forward in so many young men’s lives are often demarcated by faces of pretty girls. But rejections and regret lead you to think useless thoughts and you find yourself memorizing politics of ancient history. He was so much older then…
On the move he listens to self-ordained professors who foolishly claim that liberty is just a quality in school. At first he is impressed and solemnly says the word “Equality” as if a wedding vow. But he was so much older then…
He is still on the road, learning as he goes. It’s a struggle and like a soldier he aims his hand at mongrel dogs who teach. He is not afraid to contradict himself when he starts speaking. On his travels he even follows boats who confuse him because there is mutiny from stern to bow. He was so much older then…
And then at last he makes his stand when abstract threats deceived him into thinking he had something to protect. He finally realizes it all comes down to good and bad, quite clear, no doubt somehow. But then again… he was so much older then, he is younger then that now.
So as I step into third age I can hear the echo of these lines, I recognize the road travelled, the wisdom gained, the useless and pointless knowledge. I am younger then that now, even though I am much older then I once was.
There are a few memorable performances by Dylan of My Back Pages. They’re all different, have all a different urgency. At his 30th-anniversary-concert in 1992 he joins Roger McQuinn, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton and George Harrison on stage to perform this incredible song. Dylan stands back, strumming his guitar, aloof, unsmiling, focused, may be insecure. There are eight guitar players on stage. It is awesome. Each one of them sings one verse and Roger, Tom, Eric and even George are in awe of the lyrics. Only Neil has tremendous, electrifying fun. https://www.theguardian.com/music/video/2014/feb/12/bob-dylan-performs-my-back-pages-30th-anniversary-concert-video
The are plenty of performances easily found on YouTube if you’re interested, but this is one of my favorites. Wait for 5:00 when he picks up his harp and does a heartbreaking duet with the violinist.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 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. A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that 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.