By Tony Attwood
The classic analysis of the content of lyrics of popular songs is that there are three options: love, lost love and dance. And indeed for many a long year those three subject areas have dominated popular music.
Of course the blues added another dimension: the fact that the world has all gone wrong, and the singer is left with nothing.
But still that is not everything, for it is possible to write a song to put across a message; the protest songs are an obvious example. It is possible to write a song to tell a story – for exactly the same reason as any story teller writes a story: for entertainment, or to give a moral.
One can also write soings to offer a particular view of the universe – this being an approach by religious leaders or civil rights activities. And of course over time there have been many other approaches, and as we know Bob Dylan has ventured into many of these different approaches to lyric writing.
But in looking at all these different types of lyrics, there is one thing that has often concerned me, and that is the propensity of some analyists of Dylan’s work to insist that most of his lyrics related to issues that Dylan believes in and that all the lyrics have to make sense.
Which raises the question, why should Dylan be different from any other story teller? Why should the stories have significance? Why should they make sense?
One of the songs that I adore in the Dylan library, and one that I have come back to time and time again, “The Drifters Escape” doesn’t really make sense at all. OK if you play with the meanings a bit, it sort of has a meaning, but one has to do quite a big of jiggling around to get there.
But I love the song not because I find a meaning, but because of the sound and the way the individual images fall over each other while the music stays static. Curiously, I don’t enjoy hearing Dylan’s re-working of the song in the recordeings of his live performances – to me those versions miss the essence of the song. But then who am I to tell Dylan what’s right and what’s wrong?
However the overall point is that just because many stories that we hear make some sort of sense, have a start and an end, and maybe even a moral, it does not mean that all songs have to be like this. It does not mean that “Visions of Johanna” has to be about something – it can, like a painting, be an image or a set of images that just roll back and forward across the canvas, offering different reflections and shades of light depending on which way you look at them.
Now all this seems fairly obviously to me: but clearly not to many people, because many of the discussions on this site and indeed on other websites and in countless books, are about the meaning behind Dylan songs, with writers saying, “X in Dylan refers to Y” where X and Y can be anything from a joker to the state of Israel.
And maybe that is true sometimes – but I rather suspect most of the time not. To me many of the songs deliberately make no sense at all, because they are instead the equivalent of a set of pictures which simply set a scene. Johanna is clearly like this, to me, as is Tell Ol Bill – another song I mention whenever I have a chance. It is a set of images, with a sort of hint of a situation, occasional pasts and presents.
Of course there was a time when Dylan tell us very clearly what his songs were all about – during his Christian period of songwriting. And here is the great irony. The one time when we didn’t need to be told what Dylan was saying – (“When He Returns” for example) is clarity beyond clarity – we can’t mistake what it is about. But when things are not clear, he leaves them misty and uncertain.
Of course arguing about the meaning of the song is the easiest way to debate a song – it takes us onto concrete ground – we can argue from a sort of logical basis and see if the logic holds up.
But really I think it is a false route: most of the time we should be talking about feelings not meanings. And yet I know I am as guilty as anyone in travelling down the meaning route time and again in my reviews, and if I have time I’ll go back and change them to correct my own mistake. Although a mistake that has taken me years to grasp.
OK “Abandoned Love” is about, well, abandoned love. And that is true in many cases. But by and large I think this is an exception. Most of the time the songs are abstracts. And the more we see them as abstracts, to my mind, the more enjoyable they become.