Bob Dylan’s ultimate message: there is nothing you can do, nothing will be changed.

By Tony Attwood

I was writing recently about lines from Bob Dylan which are taken from within his songs (ie not titles or opening lines) and which really have moved me.

And pondering whether I could take this any further forward, I saw a comment on this site about Black Diamond Bay and what a tremendous piece of music it is, and I immediately thought of one line from that song.  It seems a totally innocuous line on the surface, but it still carries a punch and a half for me.   And so then I wondered if it was significant in a broader context.

Now I doubt if anyone else has ever particularly noticed it.  It reads…

There’s really nothin’ anyone can say

The final verse of the song is an absolutely astounding piece of writing – having told us the story of the strange goings on among the locals and tourists in Black Diamond Bay we are then told that despite these extraordinary, literally earth shattering events

Didn’t seem like much was happenin’,
So I turned it off and went to grab another beer
Seems like every time you turn around
There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear
And there’s really nothin’ anyone can say
And I never did plan to go anyway
To Black Diamond Bay

The horror stories from around the world ultimately leave us unmoved, we carry on our own lives.

It’s a valid point, but the man singing the line “There’s really nothin’ anyone can say” is the man who has had more to say about a lot of stuff than most people: Bob Dylan.  But I began to wonder, does Bob believe that things can change?

Clearly in a religious context he does or at least he did for a while, for he wrote so many songs telling us that if one will simply repent and accept the Lord God as, well, the Lord God, then we will be saved.   I am simplifying of course, and don’t want to get distracted by this point, but basically the message has always seemed to me to be, repent and love the Lord and then come judgement day you are ok.  Sinners like me have had it.  That’s all there is.

I have also commented before about the oddity I find in the LP “Times they are a-changing” in that the title song is about the world changing no matter what anyone does while the rest of it is pretty much about the world being as it is, and that’s that.

On the title track we have to “accept it that soon, you’ll be drenched to the bone”.  And so we have to swim along with the tide.  Us writers are warned not to speak too soon, for the change is going on, and we really don’t know where it is going.  And we can’t affect anything.

Our elected representatives are told not to get in the way or try to stop things – it is all happening.  And as for worried parents, all they can do is accept the new way and not do anything either.   In fact there is a lot of not doing anything.

Indeed as the last verse tells us “the order is rapidly fading.”   Change is set in time, and that’s how it is.  As for the rest of the album, it follows the same view: the road is set there ain’t nothing we can do.   Hollis Brown and his family die because rural poverty and deprivation never changes.  As long as people believe they have God on their side, there will be wars.  Those who want to keep moving on will just keep on moving on, the mining communities of North Country Blues will continue to die…

The one song that matches the hope of a new future that is shown on the title track, is “When the Ship Comes In” and yet even here there is nothing for us to do to make the world better.  We just wait for that magic moment for the ship to come in.

Charge forward through the years to “Things have changed” and you get the same notion, except that he has experienced so much that he can say that “Only a fool in here would think he’s got anything to prove.”

Indeed if you want a poetic couplet that conveys the whole message that there is nothing we can do try this one…

The human mind can only stand so much
You can’t win with a losing hand

Followed by the absolute statement of fatalism

Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet

And if you still haven’t got it

All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie

Or try “Tangled up in Blue”.   It is a song in which things happen, not a song in which anyone does anything to make things better, except maybe you could argue that he does do something – he walks away from her.   He meets her by chance, they drift apart, he gets jobs here and there.  Even at the end he’s still on the road heading for another joint.

Or if you still don’t believe this notion, try the song Dylan has played on stage more than any other: “All along the watchtower” – played over 2250 times.  “There must be some way out of here” – except no one has any idea what it is.  The end of the song says it all

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

It is just that stuff happens.

Of course much of this comes from the blues – the blues is in essence the music of the powerless, the drifting men for whom there is nothing except work, being cheated by fate, drink and sex.  That’s it, that’s all you have, there is nothing you can do about it.  It’s a pretty awful message for the women too.

But let’s jump to more recent times – and as with my song selections above I am staying with songs that Dylan performs on stage a lot.   Take “Summer Days” (just under 850 plays on stage at the last count.)

Well, my back has been to the wall for so long, it seems like it’s stuck
Why don’t you break my heart one more time just for good luck

And as that song bounces towards its end

Yes, I’m leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift
Gonna break the roof in—set fire to the place as a parting gift

My point is that from his earliest days to now, the central theme of Bob’s work is that the world is a pretty screwed up place and there is nothing anyone can do about it.  That is the message to a woman who wants to love him, that is the message to all of us.

And if we consider broader things, well, Bob’s just hanging on in there because it’s all right ma, it’s life and life only.  That’s how it is.  Forget progress, it’s just a mess.

This is not to say Bob is not brilliant at all this.  The couplet at the end of “Love Sick” is a masterpiece of despair.  I’ll add the two lines before, to give the context.

I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love; I’m trying to forget you

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you

Of course maybe he’s right, and maybe he’s always been right, that there is nothing any of us can do to make things better.  Maybe that really is just how it goes and how it is.

There’s something approaching a complete summation of this attitude that everything is screwed and there’s nothing you can do about it in “Watching the River Flow”

People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you wanna stop and read a book
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook

In one real sense what I would love “Watching the River Flow” to be about is a Taoist reflection on life and the ability of the mind to sit back and observe and contemplate and be at one with the world, but Bob takes it in another direction (as of course is his utter right – he’s the genius, I’m just the commentator).  And he’s thoroughly fed up.

The other great song from 1971 – “When I paint my masterpiece” has the same spirit of dejection and almost fatalistic hopelessness.

Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent
When I paint my masterpiece

Working on this website, trying to take in everything Dylan has written, trying (very inadequately I know) to get a grip on his genius and understand what drives him, I endlessly find myself coming back to lines such as

Maybe someday, you will understand
That something for nothing is everybody’s plan

Now if you have been reading here for a while you may have read my ravings over the live performances of “When He Returns” which I rate as one of the greatest renditions of any of his compositions Bob has given us.

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God
For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
It is only He who can reduce me to tears
Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn
For like a thief in the night, He’ll replace wrong with right
When He returns

Bob’s mafia that tours the internet taking down illicit copies of his performances have got rid of most of the live versions of this song, ahead of the release of one of them on the forthcoming boxed set, but of late several more have popped up.  Listen to it quickly before it goes

It’s not the same as the piano and organ version I’ve raved about before, but it is still worth listening to, and marvelling.

And here he is back on the piano with the organ accompaniment in the absolute ultimate classic performance :

So yes, Bob can be positive, can direct, can tell us what (in his opinion) we ought to do to make life better.  He can also, disavow his old edict “Don’t follow leaders” – one of the few notions he has offered outside of his Christian period as a guidance of what we might do – although of course as soon as you follow that notion you are disregarding it.

Now obviously I know there is nothing in the A to Z of how to be a genius that says you have to tell those who marvel at your abilities how to run their lives.  What Dylan writes is up to him.  And I suspect it is this disassociation from messages of hope for change has led him to write the wonderful semi-abstract observations such as “Visions of Johanna” and “Tell Ol Bill” which if I were forced to pick two songs from his complete songbook, I would pick as the ultimate creations.  Semi-abstract observations.

In the end I guess I don’t need Bob to tell me things are going to be all right, when I have music like that.   But I still utterly marvel at what he did achieve in the religious period, when he was incredibly positive.   Here’s one more, before they take it down.  This is the absolute classic.   If only Bob could just occasionally take that positivity and express it in music in relation to a non-religious theme.

But then, who am I to tell the great man what to do?

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.

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.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

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.



  1. Good piece. I’ve nothing to add, except for these lines from Lou Reed’s “Heroin”:

    Because when the smack begins to flow
    I really don’t care anymore
    About all the Jim-Jims in this town
    And all the politicians making crazy sounds
    And everybody putting everybody else down
    And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds

  2. Perhaps more like a fatalist. There’s just no escaping that simple twist of fate, but we can’t stop struggling against it. Excellent post, Tony

  3. See also ‘Bob Dylan And The Heart of Darkness’ -the influence of Joseph Conrad on TS Eliot and Bob Dylan – One More Cup Of Coffee.

  4. I believe that you understand and appreciate Bob more than most! Everything you write here certainly resonates with me. No one says it quite like Bob!

  5. Bob Dylan is a realist who understands that the world, earthly existence, is absurd and has no meaning in itself. Why, we won’t get into that. Christ is the crack in the door. When one gives up hope, as Jesus seemed to do late in his ordeal on the cross, light is able to seep through. Dylan was at this point when he began his Christian phase. Where he is now, I don’t know. I imagine he still believes, but realizes no one can save anyone else. Thus we get “It’s All Good.”

  6. It’s all there in his work. What you are wanting is there already. We have beyond the horizon for example. Positive and non religious.

  7. The best of Art comes through the artist, not from the artist. Such that what is shown is of greater significance than the particular window through which it is viewed. An artist’s individual personality forms a kind of lens that enables us to see things in a way that would otherwise not have been possible . But an artist does not create that which his art reveals. Black Diamond Bay is a picture called “Black Diamond Bay” which may reveal many things — but it is not a picture of Bob Dylan.

  8. “There was a lot of fights between the Black and White/There was nothing you could do.”

    This is a really interesting theme- even powerful men feel the state is beyond their control.

    One could see the Dylan story as a search for EFFECTIVENESS, through politics (revolution), religion (apocalypse), song (‘When You Gonna Wake Up?’) and then, after Time Out of Mind , hope (‘Highlands’) and then giving up (‘Pay in Blood’).

    The state machine is beyond everyone’s control, because of the productive forces and plutonian violence that fuels it.

    This is a problem for all men of heart and soul. But some people aren’t human, they ain’t got no heart or soul.

  9. The older I get the more I love and understand, Bob Dylan’s music! I think his best song is: (You gotta serve somebody), not just attend church on Sunday! You have to live (The Word) everyday in your life! Thank You to Bob Dylan, for spreading, The Good Word!

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