Listening to Dylan in the Age of Plagues


by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

‘I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world’

I’m writing this at dawn on January 3. There’s a new moon, bright and hard, with the shadow of the old clearly seen. Venus standing off to one side in stark clarity. It’s deceptively quiet here, in the wooded valley where we live, but there’s a planet out there facing another year of madness and peril. As Dylan says, ‘it’s tough out there…’ I look around for the fortune telling lady but I don’t see her.

Of all the perils facing us in 2019 and beyond, global warming is the most overwhelming to contemplate. I have trouble with global warming, not with accepting the scientific consensus and the reality of it, but coming to grips with my life in terms of it.

‘I think when my back was turned

the whole world behind me burned’

 Psychologists and social commentators have identified a new syndrome they call climate-change melancholy, a debilitating mix of pessimism, helplessness and anger. It goes with a ‘what’s the use of anything?’ mood; it’s all going down in the flood or up inflame.

‘The air burns

and I’m trying to think straight’

But I can’t think straight. Meaninglessness is de rigueur. “People are crazy and times are strange”. Why do anything at all; we ain’t goin nowhere. High water everywhere. And what’s with all this Bob Dylan stuff? Shouldn’t I dedicate my meagre writing talents to a worthy climate change blog that’s trying to make a difference, quit this slumming it with Bob Dylan, do something useful to the world?

Isn’t this ratting around in another man’s songs a privileged indulgence, along with cinnamon lattes on New Year’s morning and regrets over lost love? What good am I?

The air is getting hotter

There’s a rumbling in the sky

 That’s right! And I’m sitting here twiddling my thumbs, so to speak, playing over and over my latest Dylan performance obsession, his 2018 brooding version of Cry A While. A nasty, back-stabbing, double-crossing kind of song, with these grand, heavy, marching chords, rebooting my brain before the sun comes up. It must be someone else’s turn to cry:

And maybe that’s the point; for all that ‘darkness at the break of noon’ pessimism there is a resilience in a good Bob Dylan song, a celebration of our capacity to bounce back.

In the grim days of the cold war, following the Cuba crisis, a brave young voice of defiance could sing, ‘but it’s all right ma, it’s life and life only,’ or ‘it’s all right ma, I can make it.’ While ‘It’s all right Ma’ is a devastating attack on all things false and phoney, there is an affirmation in it. For a kid just five years younger than Bob, it was a message of hope and resistance. And later, in the seventies, when a whole lot of shit caught up with our generation, Dylan reminded us that no matter how much blood there is on the tracks you just keep on keeping on. Look at the inbuilt resilience of spirit in Buckets of Rain (my line arrangement):

Life is sad

Life is bust

All you can do

Is do what you must

You do what you must do

And you do it well

 That says it all. When it comes to climate change melancholy, Bob Dylan is my medicine.  It’s like what they say about the blues. Those old blues singers that Dylan loves so much didn’t sing the blues to make themselves sad, but as a cure to their sadness. They sang to uplift themselves. The blues is lit by humour and stoical resistance, full of complaints about whisky and women, and Dylan picks up on that beautifully.

The ancient Greeks coined the term “catharsis”, which refers to the elevating effect of a good tragedy. Catharsis is a kind of emotional discharge. defines catharsis as ‘the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.’ In short, listening to Dylan is inspirational. Even the darkest of songs, like Senor, give me courage to face the sun coming up and the unbearable light it brings to the world. Gives me courage to face the year, the madman cavorting the White House and other obscenities too numerous to mention.

‘Well, the road is rocky and the hillside's mud

Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood…’

Of course. Reality as always has too many heads, and we must do what we must do and keep walking the road, even the darkest part.

when the cities are on fire

with the burning death of men

just remember that death is not the end

Amen to that.

You might also enjoy “Cry a while”: gathering all the old blues into one song

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.

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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. Can I just add that I have never heard that version of Cry Awhile before and I find it utterly blisteringly overpowering and extraordinary.
    Am I the only person who missed this version?

  2. Great article, Kiwipoet Mike. And a great version of Cry A While, too. New to me – it is of course a cool reverence to Link Wray’s “Rumble” – including identical guitar solo & drums.
    Regardless; quite haunting, indeed.

    Your associations shed new light on some other songs from “Love And Theft” too, by the way. ‘Sugar Baby’, for instance:

    I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense
    I can see what everybody in the world is up against
    You can’t turn back—you can’t come back, sometimes we push too far
    One day you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see where we are

    Thanks and groeten uit Utrecht,

  3. Mock he may, but Dylan’s own lyrics indicate he’s aware that, in the comic opera, old man Don Pasquale’s loses his ‘booty’ in a fake marriage to the young widow, who’s disguised, for which he disinherits his nephew for wanting to marry, and has him see her being supposedly unfaithful with the man she really loves, the nephew in disguise. Oblique the allusion may be, but it’s there.

    Likewise, another possible oblique literary reference in ‘Cry A While’:

    But nothing mirthful could assuage
    The pensive stranger’s woe
    For grief had seized his early age
    And tears would often flow
    (Oliver Goldsmith: The Ballad Of Edwin And Angelina)

    Dylan is always down in the basement mixing up the medicine. Searching for obvious as well as possible recipes is just fun for some. Of course, it’s always helps to be crazy as a loon, if not a kiwi ‘ “following the southern star'”.

    PS: The ‘Loonie’ is what the Canadian $1.00 coin is called because the crazy-sounding bird’s on the back of it.

  4. At the same concert as this Cry A While, we find a stunning version of Don’t Think Twice, with exquisite harmonica solo:
    The audio is great although the visuals are blurred.

    Tony, this is as bit of a long shot, and may be a deceptive coincidence, but the repetitive, obsessive drive of this Cry A While seems to come, musically, from a similar place to Lonely Avenue, on which you’d just posted. Both songs carry you right along relentlessly.

    Thanks Larry for the background on Don Pasquale, didn’t know all that, just picked up on the double-dealing. And did you notice this in Pay in Blood to complement your southern star: ‘I’m circlin’ around the southern zone…’ Sounds a bit sinister to me, given the song.

    Thanks too Jochen for the Sugar Baby reference. I’d noticed those lines but they hadn’t clicked, nor had I heard Rumble. Re the sun, I also noted these lines from Pay In Blood:
    ‘What are you doing out there in the sun anyway?
    Don’t you know, the sun can burn your brains right out’

    Kia Ora!

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