In 1965 Dylan made a comment to the effect that he used to know what he wanted to write about before starting a song, but that since then he has taken a different route. The implication is that he started writing and let the song itself direct where matters were going.
In this comment Dylan notes the two opposing routes between which all creative artists make a choice – plotting and planning the work (in whatever form it is) before one starts, or letting it happen.
I would never in a 100 lifetimes suggest that I am a creative artist of singular note, but I can give the briefest explanation of this from my own experience as a novelist. When I wrote the novel “Making the Arsenal” for example, I knew it was going to be the story of a fictional journalist in London in 1910, and would trace the events of what was a momentous year. I knew more or less what happened that year, but during the nine months it took to write the book I discovered a lot more and those discoveries forced me to twist the actions of the characters quite a bit. And I gave the journalist and the fictional characters he met lives – during those nine months they became real people. The resultant book was not the novel I imagined when I started.
This is the dilemma all artists face with all works – and it is what Dylan was referring to in his comment. We see it happening throughout his songs, but it is particularly interesting in My Back Pages because of the other issues that Dylan is seeking to resolve here.
Clinton Heylin adds to this perspective on the song the notion that Dylan changed quite a few of the lines as he worked on the piece just prior to recording, simply to make it easier to sing, and to make the words easier to understand. But in so doing he has made the meaning of the lyrics more obscure – and that gives an interesting effect.
He also makes the point that because of the Byrds recording of the song we have a different view of the song now – and the fact that they recorded only a portion of the song and that Dylan didn’t seem to mind, suggests that either he really didn’t have a deep meaning expressed in the song or he didn’t care about the song too much.
The simple meaning comes from the chorus lines – that when he was younger he thought, as the young often do, that he knew everything. Now he is older he knows nothing.
And maybe that is all there is… because … if that is the meaning, then what better way to express it than with a set of words where the meaning is completely obscured. Say it simply and you have no song – just the chorus. If you want the song to survive and be remembered it needs something else. That can’t be the music, because this is an acoustic album. So it becomes ever more obscure words.
Or, to go a different route, do we take the fact that Dylan himself didn’t perform the song on stage until a quarter of a century after he wrote it, as a sign that he felt it didn’t really mean anything?
In one sense Dylan criticising Dylan is a half way house between Blowing in the Wind (all the answers are out there, you only have to look) and Subterranean Homesick Blues (everything is so screwed we can’t even see what the question is, let alone the answer).
The song is simple, the chord sequence offers no surprises (any regular folk or rock musician could sit down and play it without thinking as a warm up). But they work together fine. The song is a song we remember, therefore, because the melody itself works its magic around the chords, and is the vehicle for a set of lyrics we only half understand.
Dylan also said in May 1965 that he was trying to write three dimensional songs, not one dimensional songs – a worthy aim indeed, but one which takes us into all sorts of problem areas.
To illustrate my point, consider John Donne who could take us into as many dimensions as he wanted with “Go and catch a falling star” through writing
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
But he wasn’t trying to get 3D out of music and lyrics. Donne called this famous poem a “song” but it remains for us just words. Dylan has to try and do all this with the words while fitting them against a never varying tune.
It is interesting that at the 30th Anniversary Tribute Concert in 1992, Dylan performed “My Back Pages”, using the Byrd’s approach, with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty,Neil Young, and Roger McGuinn all taking on a verse. (It is on The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration album.)
What does that tell us? That there are so many dimensions being attempted that each verse is disassociated from the rest? Or did someone just say “hey why don’t we do a verse each?”
Just taking the first three lines
Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
We have something that is impossible to disentangle. Could he be saying, “I see the world burning” – or is it something else?
If there really is a clue then I think it comes in that first verse with the lines
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
To me that simply means, right out at the edge of contemporary thought and analysis there is a new way of seeing the world. We can get there through many different routes, if we think about it enough.
So some of it does make clear sense such as verse two’s commentaries about prejudice, in verse three he moves on to the fact that he’s getting through quite a few lovers and would-be lovers, and the aftermath of failed affairs.
The eternal right wing propagandists get a knock as Dylan reminds us with the lines about the self ordained professor, that the world is much more complex than we can ever express
Yet, in the end, if you want the song summarised in two lines, it has to be
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
The song is simple, and in the end so is the meaning. “I have no idea what is going on here,” says Bob, but that at the time was not quite the message most fans wanted to hear.
The problem with the song is that at the time he didn’t have at that moment was a musical equivalent to that message of confusion. That would come, but it required a lot of amplification, a variety of instruments, and a rejection of the classic folk music format of rotating chords. Subterranean is a perfect example of where this journey took him.