The creativity of Bob Dylan: what was it you wanted?

By Tony Attwood

This article follows on from The methodology of genius: how Bob Dylan write songs

In my last article (above) I suggested that Dylan moved through different themes in his writing, and although certain themes came around time and time again (most commonly the notion of the eternal traveller always moving on without any place to call his own) he did on occasion move into other themes.

Such themes are often seen to be directly related to what was happening in his life – and of course in this regard Dylan is no different from many other – perhaps most other – creative artists.  It is the world around him plus his general outlook on life that gives him his themes.

Of course when he had a life-changing experience, such as his conversion to Christianity, that had a major effect on what was in the lyrics of his songs, but it is interesting to see how quickly the underlying themes pushed their way back into his song-writing consciousness.

As to the technique of writing, recordings from the 1960s – the hotel room songs for example – and the notebooks in which he wrote the lyrics down – show us exactly what Bob could do and how he could do it.  He could strum the guitar and evolve a song with outline lyrics, and then polish the lyrics while manipulating the melody and chordal accompaniment as he went until he got the result as he wanted it.

We also found that sometimes, because he had not got the song just as he wanted it, he would abandon the song rather than put it on an album – even though the general consensus was that here was a brilliant piece of work that should not left on the sidelines.  But Bob was always his own man.

Indeed although I would suggest the Basement Tapes Complete is near impossible to listen to all the way through without a nourishing drink along the way, it is of itself a most valuable document – showing us how Bob takes ideas, explores them, and then (most of the time) ditches them.   But gradually that process leads to something very much worth keeping.  Just think how fantastic it would be to have such sketches from other composers of merit.

Thus although many of the songs could well have been written very quickly, they were never considered to be absolutely set in stone.   While some rarely if ever have the lyrics changed (one thinks of the classics like Visions of Johanna, All Along the Watchtower and Like a Rolling Stone) many songs have been transformed musically in their subsequent performances.

This ties in very much with Bob’s obvious love of touring; he loves to be on the road, he loves to have the opportunity to re-write his songs.   And yet as we pass through this most obvious point, a certain irony appears.  The magnificent rearrangement of many of Bob’s songs have been kept for posterity only by the recordings made by fans.  Now however it seems to be the case that at the concerts the security has been stepped up.  No recordings, no pictures.  You’re thrown out if you are caught.

Now given that this upturn in security has happened during the longest spell without a new album of his own work that we have seen in Bob’s career I wonder, are we now going to get some more live albums released?  It would certainly explain what’s going on, and offer the fans what they really enjoy.

And what fascinates me is how Bob has managed to keep going, not only by composing more and more songs, but constantly producing songs of utter genius.  Unlike most popular music artists, his greatest creations did come just at the start of his career.

But of course he had difficult times artistically.  Coming out of the religious phase (which is where I ended the last article)  he really did not seem to have a clue where to go next.  Of course you might not agree with the themes that I hear in Dylan’s work in the 1980s, but once the impetus to write religious songs had left him, there was, for me at least, a sense of desperation in some of Bob’s writing.  The old certainty that simply wandering off down the road like the blues singers of old would solve it, that was all gone.

Now there was moving on, but without any real hope that it would lead to somewhere interesting.   Here are the 1980s in the same tabular format that I used in the last article…

Year No of songs Themes Albums
1980 13 Moving on, religion Saved
1981 20 Moving on, love, religion Shot of love
1982/3 17 Love, where now? Infidels
1984 10 Drifting on, moving on
1985 18 Being trapped Empire Burlesque
1986 10 Experimentation Knocked out loaded
1987/8 14 Self-doubt Down in the Groove
1989 12 The darkness Oh Mercy

My point here is not so much that Bob as a creative artist is influenced by the world around him – virtually all creative artists in all media are influenced in this way.  But rather that during the 1980s Bob found himself forced to respond – because he did not want the alternative which would have been giving up – but he really didn’t quite know how to.

Many artists in the pop and rock music business over the last half century have given up after ten or twenty years, and if they have carried on performing thereafter have done so by performing their old hits over and over.  And there is nothing wrong with that of course – it is what their audiences expected.  If you went to hear Chuck Berry you went to hear “Roll over Beethoven” and that’s what you got.

But Dylan was not like that.  He would always do his own thing – the problem (and of course this is just my take on the matter) was that in the 1980s he didn’t have too much idea any more what his own thing was.

One thing most creative artists will agree on, (if happy to talk on the subject of their own creativity), is that their creativity is not under their control.  It comes, it goes, and when it has gone, it cannot be brought back by working ever harder.

What Dylan in his genius did however was to use these darker times as a theme to get his creativity working again.   What was it you wanted is a sublime example of using the uncertainty of an artist who has to some degree lost his way, as a theme in his writing.   That uncertainty was expressed further, later in the year with Most of the Time – a song of holding on to the last few strands of reality that are left as the world falls apart.

The year indeed ended with Man in a Long Black Coat as the mask of death walks by his door.  But it was “What was it you wanted” that truly marked out Dylan’s genius.  His ability here was to use even this situation of being lost, of knowing that the music he had been releasing in recent years was nowhere up to his previous standard, as a theme for a song.   And that was something very very few artists have been able to do.

What was it you wanted
I ain’t keeping score
Are you the same person
That was here before?
Is it something important?
Maybe not
What was it you wanted?
Tell me again I forgot

Really just how lost can someone be?

What Dylan had discovered by the time he wrote “What was it you wanted?” was that he could indeed still write powerful, demanding songs, and that the questions he so cleverly asked in What good am I were now being answered.   Bob may well have felt that he didn’t have the answers by then, but he was at last now really able to ask the question.

It took five years to notch up 22 performances of “What was it you wanted?” and to my mind those live performances never matched to absolute lostness (if I can create a new word for the experience) of the original recording.  But here’s an interesting alternative mix.

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

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4 Responses to The creativity of Bob Dylan: what was it you wanted?

  1. L FYFFE says:

    And when it’s all been said and done
    I never did know the score
    (Red River Shore)

  2. Kiwipoet says:

    Thanks again Tony for these posts. This is a huge topic, but the idea of ‘eternal wanderer’ does, I feel, have its roots in the wider meme or trope of the holy pilgrim. Have I been listening to too much Dylan to start hearing his voice in, for example, the opening lines of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘AS I walked through the wilderness of this world, I came upon a certain place where there was a den,and I lay down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a dream.’
    In that dream the narrator must turn his back on his family and friends and take the hard road to the ‘City if Gold.’ He must pass through a spiritual geography, the Slough of Despond, for example, and encounter various souls who will never make it, hypocrites, sophists (‘too much educated rap’), men stealers and unbelievers.
    The whole of Dylan’s career could, without falling into reductionism, be seen as the life of the eternal pilgrim, forever setting out (‘I don’t care how rough the road is, just show me where it starts.’) forever yearning for the City of Gold, never arriving, forever ‘still pushing myself along the road, the darkest part.’
    Your chart of themes could fit quite neatly into this Dylan Theory of Everything, these themes seen as stages along the way, echoing Bunyan’s pilgrim’s progress. And by the time we get to Time out of Mind we have a classic expression of the Dark Night of the Soul, another stage along the Narrow Way. This is a rich vein you’ve struck here, Tony.

  3. Ted F says:

    The mood painted by this song matches the artistry of VOJ. However, it is a very different time and the juxtaposition of these two songs is telling. When Bob wrote VOJ, he was on top of his game and in total control-the king of cool. In 1989, things had changed.
    You got it absolutely right about WWIYW-Bob is not only confessing his “lostness” but vividly demonstrating his confusion with the music industry, unawareness of his audience and uncertainty with his personal relationships. Who are you anyway?? Very painful to listen to but the stark honestly is beautiful and it is so Dylan.

  4. Mark Thompson says:

    The CD changer has been in the Dylan 80s section this month and now it’s at Oh Mercy, which I’ve always loved but now, with hindsight, it fascinates me that, of all its wonders, it turns out that “The Man in the Long Black Coat” is the one song that most prefigures the next 25 years of his oeuvre.

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