Bob Dylan: Tangled up every step of the way

By Tony Attwood

This article follows on from Bob Dylan: the eternal wanderer, outside and beyond

In 1974 Bob Dylan wrote Tangled up in blue which I think most agree is one of his absolute classics, in which the very nature of time itself gets tangled up with the notion of moving on.  Something I attempted to explore in “the eternal wanderer” article.

And certainly the notion of eternally moving on was still part of his very essence with songs such as Dylan himself moved on and we get to songs like One More Cup of Coffee and in a different way the tale of the lost in Black Diamond Bay.  Everyone seems to be in transit.  The world itself seems to be moving on.

Bob’s feeling for these type of songs reached a peak, in my view with Romance in Durango

Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape

but then suddenly he changed direction writing a song which seemed to be a classic love song, speaking not of moving on, but of eternity.  If ever there was a song out of the sequence and out of time it was Sara.  And who knows, maybe that is what she thought too.

Yet this was followed the absolute disconnect of Patty’s gone to Laredo the disconnect within this strange song emphasized by the song only being heard through the disconnected conversations.

My point is this same theme comes back over and over – the theme of always moving on, always changing, always breaking free, and yet with an element of looking over one’s shoulder.   Where are you tonight? expresses this to perfection.

There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain
Tears on the letter I write
There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much
But she’s drifting like a satellite

You don’t get much more moving on that drifting like a satellite.

For although indeed there might be a deeper truth out there you are simply not going to get it because it is too obscure, too profound, too pure and so to live it you’d have to explode.

That is indeed why one moves on and on because there is never an end – it just keeps on keeping on.

However Dylan stepped back from confronting such issues (and who can blame him, for there is only so much of this anyone can take without falling over the edge) in his time with Helena Springs in 1978, and then at the end of that year, everything changed again with Slow Train Coming.  And it changed because although there was a slow train coming, Dylan most certainly was not on it.

And now there were not just issues that were there, and that was that, and they were issues that would always be there whether you engaged in them or not, there was an issue, one issue, and it was getting close to exploding in your face.

Through all these moving on songs nothing much had bothered Bob, but now suddenly

it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets

That for me was the crunch moment in Bob’s writing – the moment where the Slow Train suddenly popped up and where everything changed, and didn’t we know it!  Because almost the very next song written, the first song of 1979 was Gotta Serve Somebody.

Wow.  Not move on.  Not find somewhere new.  Not music in the air.   But absolute dead certainty with no doubt was in the air.  Except…

Except that he was still moving a bit because within a few moments Bob had written Every grain of sand with those magical lines

And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

OK, maybe the journey is the journey to the Lord that he now worships, but there is still a journey in those lyrics and you know what came after it was that absolute masterpiece of travelling on Caribbean Wind

Would I have married her? I don’t know, I suppose
She had bells in her braids and they hung to her toes
But I kept hearing my name and had to be movin’ on

And yes of course it could be argued that this refers to moving on to the Lord, but for me the feeling, that time of worship, had gone.  It was the wind and the water and the ship that was calling again.  For me it is the Caribbean Wind that blows Dylan back to his old ways.

True, in the coming years Dylan was expressing all sorts of concerns – concerns about his country as in Union Sundown but then as Dylan lost, or perhaps just moved away from, his intense interest in Christianity, (which of course has a journey of its own either into heaven or to hell), the whole notion of travelling was lost.  But when we get to 1987/8 and we get lines that say

Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?

I think we have a clue that the travelling is back on again.  Indeed it is

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Dignity  is indeed a complex song and it is easy to forget that it is about both physical and mental searching – or the fact that to Bob Dylan both have always been the same.  He’s moving again, but there was something now getting in the way.

For in 1989 found Bob not so much moving on as telling us that Everything is Broken and hereafter the writing stopped.  Absolutely stopped.  There is nothing to find.  Not even Heylin can find a scrap!

Until suddenly after five or so years of nothing much at all, Bob the composer reappears and he has got one topic on his mind: he’s moving on.   Song after song with moving on in its heart of soul.  Indeed one of the great masterpieces of the year Mississippi opens with “Every step of the way”.

And we have Dirt Road BluesHighlands, Marchin to the City (Doing alright), Million Miles, I mean to say – just how much travelling do you want to do?

There is indeed more movement and moving on than ever in these songs.  And even the ultimate sublime masterpiece of sitting in the old rocking chair just waiting for the end with Not Dark Yet still opens with movement of a kind – for the shadows are falling, and as we see “time is running away.”  Even if the old man can’t move on, time can now pass him by.

And if that weren’t enough the following year he was polishing off the songs for the album with Cold Irons Bound

Of course within all this moving on there is dislocation and nowhere is there more dislocation than in Things have Changed

This place ain’t doing me any good
I’m in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood
Just for a second there I thought I saw something move
Gonna take dancing lessons, do the jitterbug rag
Ain’t no shortcuts, gonna dress in drag
Only a fool in here would think he’s got anything to prove

Lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too
Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through


And that is the message reborn – I’m only passing through.  It took Bob quite a few years after the Christian period to find his musical (rather than spiritual) soul, but in those lines and all the songs of that led up to it, he made it back.  He was on the road again, well and truly.

He kept on travelling and yes by 2008/9 he was telling us he’d got there with Beyond here lies nothing

And right at the last he is still keeping on keeping on…

Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowin’
Blowin’ through another no-good town
The lights of my native land are glowin’
I wonder if they’ll know me next time around

Moving on – not the sort of tourism travel – the moving on of the gypsy, the traveller, the man who moves on because he just has to keep on keeping on – that is the constant message from Bob, all the way through the songs.

Of course I don’t know if he meant it that way, but that most certainly is what I hear.  It’s there – it is always there.

I walk by tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season’s dawn awaits
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate

And I love it.  Even in despair I absolutely love it.  Every step of the way.

What else is on the site

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ Dylan compositions reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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.

One comment

  1. Hi Tony

    Keep on going on-Keep on keeping on-moving on
    Keep on walking-Just for conquering his fears, day and night.
    And passing through without no point for rushing down
    Travelling, floating, he was given a key and a map to the door and whatelse he needed in these days.
    The following Jesus period was part of worship but even a process to liberate himself again. He felt free to sleep with nearly each girl around, he might wrote Every Grain of Sand in the early morning hours, while his temorary nightnurse was still sleeping,.
    Carribean Wind in the early version is more about lust and sexual healing than a travelling song. Could be a refugee-song. For both, and this time the girl left the hotel room before he could realize. Back in homecountry voices of his loved ones were creeping in his mind.
    Then red sand in his hands, boots, coat, holy hills in the background, trying to wake up a conscience for a world gone wrong. Moving on at his best.
    Shure it was more a stumbling through this decade, within midlife-crisis and certain kind of conflicts, but remember the Travellin´Willburys and the lyrics he put in.
    With „A series of dreams“ and „The man in the Black coat“ he said Goodbye to the 80ies and left us standing at the doorstep to the 90ies. And we find him on his journey through the world of old american songs, travelling roots.
    Uncovered some of this nearly forgotten songs, like he did in the last years.
    Twenty years ago we had an unexpected bunch of lyrics , which immediatly changed the view on his art again. Still trapped in the fires of time, but these lyrics came from a man in the fifties, not of an old man.
    Today you´re saying he made it back home but I even remember articles, were you was talking about large gaps of creativity and pushing him forward to write some new lyrics.
    May there were some scrapbooks on the load to Tulsa and lyrics of the beginning 90ies are waiting to be discovered.

    Tell on the Untold


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