Those ambiguous Dylan lines I’ve half forgotten which stay with me forever

By Tony Attwood

I was reading an article in the New Yorker about individual lines from Dylan’s songs, and how they don’t so much become part of who and what you are, but are just there within you. Lyrics that don’t necessarily have a direct meaning but which can be transplanted into our own lives.  Lines that can exist in my head forever but for which I have no idea what direction they lead in nor from when they come.

So I thought of

All the world I would defy

What does that mean, if anything?  Well, actually I can make it mean anything I want.  It is that “would” that trips me up; such an ambiguous word in this context.  And how can I defy the world?  After all it is gravity which pulls us down all the time and destiny that drives us apart.  I defy other critics, and the mainstream views of reality with my original thoughts (or so I like to think) but do I really have a total defiance of “all the world”.  Can anyone?

This is a constant issue with me and Dylan.  I am not sure what some of the lines actually mean or if they mean anything at all – it is just that they seem to mean something, although not always the same thing as they meant yesterday.  Maybe it is just that they sound like they ought to mean something.  By which I mean, when Bob sings

I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive

we know exactly what he is thinking, and if we are lucky we’ve shared that feeling of buoyancy and vitality too, despite all that the world throws at us.  Likewise at the other end of the spectrum when he says

I can’t even touch the books you’ve read,

maybe we know that pain, that anger, that bitterness, after the loss of a loved one.

OK all that I get, but when we have

He took dead-center aim but he missed just the same
She was waiting, putting flowers on the shelf
She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair
And discovered her invisible self

then I have a mixed sort of image of what is going on, but I can’t translate it into any other words.  It is in fact the world of the Untranslatably Inexpiable Dylan.  UI-Dylan for short.  And I love it.

Often I can half appreciate the notion, as with

Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet

But when we have

All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name

that really turned my head over when I heard it for the first time – the notion that one might have such a strong negative opinion of people that one could then go a step further and change their actual beings.  Not giving them nicknames or put down names, no, something much further down the road than that.  Something that says I can actually change them, because reality is not the world, but the way I see the world.

Change of the fundamental reality is the eternal constant of Dylan’s songs…

And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin

But he expresses it in so many different, alluring, unforgettable ways.  Here’s another line it is hard to forget once you have heard it…

But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off

And why is that?  Well, because all the world (which “I would defy”) that we perceive is not real…  There really is nothing out there, apart from what I have created.

We’re idiots, babe,

Of course one of things we are always doing with Bob is moving on, because we’ve just gotta keep moving as Robert Johnson instructed now that the blues are falling down like hail.   And we can move on because the trains are everywhere in Dylan whether he has

Got white skin, got assassin’s eyes
I’m looking up into the sapphire-tinted skies
I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train

or whether he is on the bottom looking up, riding the mail train with so little left that he can’t even buy a thrill.   And maybe that contrast is the key to a lot of Dylan’s more obscure lines.  That change of place between the person at the top and the person at the bottom.

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you

And who are these people?  Often we just don’t know, for they are the shadow people, the people in the street, on the train, in the club.   She might be real to Bob, but she is not real to us.  For when you see her…

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.

More than anything Bob uses his lyrics to open up this secondary world that lies in the shadows of what we choose to call reality, but which in essence is just another construct of our minds.

Bring down my fiddle
Tune up my strings
I’m gonna break it wide open
Like the early Roman kings

There are always alternative realities available, and it is simply our fault if we don’t recognise this and start to consider the possibilities…

I fought with my twin, that enemy within
Till both of us fell by the way
Horseplay and disease is killing me by degrees
While the law looks the other way.

I am two people, with two realities, looking out into the unknown.  Of course we can’t reply on the law, because we can’t even rely on the world being as we think it is through our everyday common sense notions of reality.

Somehow there is a need to get away from all this, so that we can see the world as it really is, rather than the world that we see through common expediency.

Time and again with Dylan we get to see that there is no one single real world we face, but a multiplicity of worlds, all existing together, all pointing in different directions.

There’s a babe in the arms of a woman in a rage
And a longtime golden-haired stripper onstage
And she winds back the clock and she turns back the page
Of a book that no one can write
Oh, where are you tonight?

All these notions exist at once and have always existed at once

Having so much nothingness there is ultimately…

Now, too much of nothing
Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control

My point is simple.  Sometimes these lines have a coherence, but sometimes they are a reflection of those random thoughts that flock into our minds (if we let them in) and which lead in all directions and no direction, at once.  These are the thoughts that lead us to the palace of wisdom.   We might start from an image (“Louise and her lover so entwined”) or within the journey itself (“There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain, tears on the letter I write,”) but wherever we start, and whatever side of Dylan we are looking at, we are so often on the outside looking in.

And quite probably so is Untranslatably Inexpiable Bob.

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of 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.

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. More and more people in the global village have to continue theirs “Grand Tour”.
    When they finaly want to go HOME, they find out their empire has vanished.

    Mr. Tambourine Man:
    “Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand
    Vanished from my hand
    Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
    My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
    I have no one to meet
    And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming”

    Tangled up in blue:
    The only thing I knew how to do
    Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
    Tangled up in blue

    Grand Tour: (for Bob Dylan: Never Ending Tour)

  2. Hi Tony

    This is lovely to read. “Lyrics that don’t necessarily have a direct meaning ” could very well be lines that are composed of words that belong well together, or go with the flow of the melody, or sketch a scene, that could be absurd or out of bounds for our head.
    You writing makes me rethink how I experience those pieces in his songs.

    By the way, which issue of the New Yorker are you referring to?

  3. Really enjoyed this one. There are so many. The one that first came to my mind was,
    “someone who will die for you an’ more” and
    “Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles”. That’s the line that got me hooked. Buggered if I know what it means.

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