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“Bob Dylan’s songs leave me clueless” Does Dylan have an underlying message?

By Tony Attwood

On our Facebook page I lately linked to a evaluate of the Rolling Thunder movie, a evaluation which had the headline “Scorceses Bob Dylan documentary leaves you clueless.” It included this comment:

“At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I must confess I’ve never understood what Bob Dylan sings. Except for the track Blowing In The Wind.  I am yet to decode what ‘Upon four-legged forest clouds the cowboy angel rides’ and ‘He just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette’ means.”

And instantly two trains of thought got here into my thoughts.  First, artwork shouldn’t be all the time filled with clear and overt meanings.  And second, Dylan is himself confusing as a result of his songs are typically overtly meaningful – however typically not.  Which may lead to the temptation to assume that because some are clearly significant (“Masters of War” serves nicely if you would like one example) they need to all be – if solely we will discover the key to unlock the meanings.

And to provide another area of clarity, “Positively 4th Street” and the other songs of disdain really do hit the listener in the face – what’s not to understand about “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” as an opening line?

Likewise, most of the love songs are clear (think about, “To make you feel my love”) as well as the lost-love songs (for example “Girl from the north country”).  And as you’d anticipate a lot of the spiritual items are additionally fairly clear resembling “When He Returns”.

Certainly, as I have talked about in passing earlier than, it has all the time struck me as odd that the one time Dylan gave his audience a lecture (and it actually was a lecture) on the which means of songs, was when he performed spiritual songs all through his live shows; the one time he didn’t want to tell us – it was all there for us to hear.

However like all masters of their art, and because the arrival and departure of the spiritual era exhibits, Dylan doesn’t all the time work in the identical means.  His art is ever different – and like so many nice artists he likes to play games, and he likes to deal in impressions, as a lot as he needs to offer a transparent message.

Take “Times they are a changin’,” recognised by lots of one of many seminal works of the period and one in every of Dylan’s nice early pieces.  A true monument of the protest movement.

Except whenever you come to the lyrics, it isn’t a protest track at all.  It truly says that things are shifting on, just about of their very own accord.  There isn’t a reference to protesting, challenging the political norms, none of the anarchism of “Don’t follow leaders.”  No, it’s a track that just says, quite clearly and overtly, things are changing and there’s nothing any of us can do about it.

As for the rest of the Occasions They Are a Changing album, as I have oft identified, it is all about issues standing still, and nothing changing.  When issues are dangerous individuals just decide up their belongings and keep on shifting on or hand over the uneven wrestle.

Now if I needed to attract a conclusion from this, I’d say the important thing factor of Dylan’s work at this point was not to promote social and political type, but quite to color a collection of pictures of American society as he noticed it.

But in fact Dylan may also be obscure, and “Gates of Eden” is a perfect early example.  Obscurity piles on obscurity as the writer quoted firstly of this piece suggests.  And it is to songs like this that the analysts are drawn – and yes I admit I’ve achieved my very own bit of making an attempt to type out meanings from some of Dylan’s strains.

However such analyses can lead us down strange paths, which maybe the composer never meant.   To see an instance, it is instructed on the “Song Meanings” website that

“At daybreak my lover involves me
And tells me of her goals

is reference to Paradise Misplaced, the place Eve tells Adam of the dream concerning the forbidden fruit, and off we go into an in depth examination of what Genesis is about.

And perhaps a few of the discussions that can be found in a thousand books and a billion net pages can lead to an understanding of what Dylan was considering when he wrote those words.  But my question is twofold.  One, does that help us recognize the track?  And two, does that assist us in any respect, since more often than not we gained’t have a clue if we’re really proper, as a result of Dylan isn’t saying.

In fact in one sense the reply could be “yes it does help” – the more we will get inside the top of the artist (regardless of the artwork type) the deeper our understanding.  But we also needs to keep in mind that phrases and ideas in Dylan songs could be lifted from the Bible, from a film, from an obscure Japanese ebook or anyplace else, not because they characterize some almighty fact that the composer needs to precise, however as a result of they sound good when sung, and Bob slightly fancied them.

And I might argue there’s absolutely nothing improper with utilizing a phrase in a music, just because it sounds good.  There isn’t any rule that claims songs truly have to imply something in any respect.

Thus simply as a painter of abstract artwork may choose a specific shade of pink because she or he likes that exact shade of pink, not for any deeper which means, so a songwriter may use a line “He not busy being born is busy dying” not because it is singularly profound, however as a result of it is in essence fairly meaningless however SOUNDS profound.

Now mentioning pink (not for any cause, it simply happened to return into my head) I was reminded of this remark I read on a site whereas researching this article about certainly one of my favorite novels. (I acquired distracted – it is a very common failing for me – however it’s also a way many artists use, choosing up typically disconnected concepts and ideas from life around them).

It says, “In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, we find our heroes in a stolen spaceship, on a course to crash into a local star as a special effect for the band Disaster Area. This is of course a reference to Pink Floyd, and their song “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”.

In fact?  I imply “OF COURSE”????

Now it is potential that Douglas Adams in writing “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” was listening to that Pink Floyd monitor and it gave him the thought.  However I’m not positive he ever stated that was the case, even if he did, does it matter?   What’s funny within the ebook is that within the far distant future there are two restaurants, one firstly of the universe (“The Big Bang Burger Bar”) and one at the end.  And the title “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” is simply inherently funny due to the juxtaposition of the top of all issues and going out for a meal.

But I think many critics journey down the well-worn paths of connecting the not necessarily related, not notably to light up our understanding of a murals, but merely to point out off, or as a result of the thought simply popped into view at the time of writing, and like the thought in the guide or the track, felt like a good suggestion at the time.  And maybe they feel moved by their concept as a result of they have not received maintain of the concept perhaps a music, like a painting, like a work of recent dance, or like a Beethoven piano concerto, won’t be about something, but merely is.   And through simply being, some individuals can get an enormous quantity out of it simply by wanting and listening.

To my mind, Dylan is a superb artist, worthy of the Nobel prize, as a result of he has taken an artwork type (well-liked music) which is usually very constricted when it comes to what it may possibly say, and the way it may be stated, and provided that art type new dimensions which allow it to say something – typically with which means, typically in abstract phrases.  Briefly he’s moved us from “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine” (a track which we might notice only has one other line – “They said you were high class, but that was just a lie”) and given us songs through which overt meanings, obscure meanings, quite probably no meanings, complicated constructions, easy constructions, unique strains and copied strains, collide collectively and get combined as much as give meanings and no meanings.   Songs which may have a which means in locations, but then which very often don’t.

Just consider Visions of Johanna.  It’s a vision; but a imaginative and prescient that isn’t clear, a imaginative and prescient that may be re-interpreted.  Examine Dylan’s numerous variations of it with Previous Crow Drugs Present.  We’d assume we have a grip on the meanings behind Dylan’s versions of the track both on the album or reside on stage, but now the which means modifications as fast as we try to get hold of it.

And so I might argue that although artwork might be about which means and messages, most of the time great artwork isn’t nearly which means, and indeed quite often nice artwork isn’t about which means at all.  A novel can carry an ethical tale, however it can be leisure (as in a detective story).  It can be unfaithful (as is all fiction) however can be informative (as with historical fiction that keeps to the historic reality).  It may be a few vision with no begin and no finish (think about the novels of Thomas Pynchon, after “Lot 49”.  There isn’t any limit to what you are able to do in a novel within the palms of a master.  Likewise, there isn’t a limit to what a music can do in the arms of a grasp.

Likewise visual art.  It may be representational – a drawing of something that exists, or it can be a great distance away from representing something.  I have in my house prints of works by Jackson Pollock and Bridget Riley and I spend a good bit of time at house taking a look at them.   But their which means?  I’m no nearer to that than once I was given the photographs 10 years ago.   Likewise think about the theatre of the absurd or should you want Dali and the surrealists.  What does it imply?  Ah, now there’s a query.

And yet within the midst of all this I come across individuals who keep on insisting that artwork needs to be either autobiographical or political.  Did anybody assume Elvis was singing a few previous love affair when he sang the three strains of Hound Canine?  In fact not.  And just because Robert Johnson quite probably did feel like he had a Hell Hound on his trail, does that imply that Tom Petty really did see vampires walkin’ via the valley as he was writing “Free Fallin”?  I doubt it.

Thus I reach the conclusion that just because an individual has an curiosity in religion that does not of itself make each murals spiritual.  Simply because a person creates a murals on a spiritual theme that doesn’t make that individual a convert – nor all of her or his work spiritual.

And I attain this conclusion by means of two easy steps.  First artwork may be many issues: leisure, insight, questioning, political awareness, social commentary, commemoration of the past, passing the time of day.  And second, individuals change.

In fact in our society in the present day individuals seek to know Dylan’s meanings as a result of western tradition has for years been beguiled by the scientific notion that the whole lot is understandable and subsequently (with a little bit of psychological shuffling) the whole lot has a which means.  Even life itself has a which means, at the very least as soon as we add a god to the combination.

However most of the time Dylan just isn’t like this.  And worse, from the attitude of those that search to know him, he is an artist who modifications.  Typically he’s autobiographical, typically spiritual, typically political, typically metaphorical, typically surreal, typically funny, typically obscure, typically simply poetic.

Let me take an example: the music Tell Ol’ Invoice.   I choose it not simply because I like it, but in addition as a result of it’s one in every of Dylan’s much less well-known items and so there’s a probability you may come to this afresh, and since it is a good example of how Dylan can mix meanings with options to offer us an general “essence” however not a straight “this is about x”.

If we undergo the lyrics under the music appears to be about an exile writing back to an ex girlfriend in his homeland.  We get the thought, perhaps, that the singer is about to undertake one last act however what that act is, we don’t know.  Nor do we know why he wants to do this, nor why he’s an exile.

Briefly we know little or no.  Nearly nothing in truth.   And the tiny fragments we do know may be contradictory.    What, for instance, inside the context of the track, can we make of

Why should you come down off of your excessive hill?
Throw my destiny to the clouds and wind

Who is the enemy on the gate, when the singing is singing to himself alone?  And above all why should the recipient of the message

Tell ol’ Invoice when he comes house
Something is value a attempt
Inform him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die

Or come to that how may be alone and not alone?

In fact solutions might be discovered to the questions, but those answers usually are not clear – and I might argue that this is the intent.  They don’t seem to be meant to be clear.

Readability, can come from a myriad sources.  For instance, one can create a work of art that appears or sounds obscure however is explained in a flash by its title.   Dylan chose not to do that, calling the track “Tell Ol Bill” which tells us nothing in any respect, as a result of plenty of the detail that we’d like for an rationalization is missing.  We’re getting snatches of the state of affairs – like listening to a report on the telephone which keeps slicing out.

Because of this obscurity, art can just be itself: the artwork, moderately than the expression of a which means.  If it strikes you, or provides you insights, or you simply likes the shapes, the colors, the patterns, the sounds, then high-quality.  Very often that’s all the artist needs to provide you – sufficient to develop your appreciation and delight but not an absolute statement.

So my point is that some artwork is about precise issues, some is about nothing that we will categorical in language, and some is half method between the 2.

To offer an example of a work of art that’s itself obscure but is explained by the title, we might contemplate “Guernica” the world famous masterpiece by Pablo Picasso is about one thing – the informal bombing follow on the Basque town of Guernica throughout Spanish Civil Struggle.  Right here the information of what it is about, by way of the title, provides us an understanding of the painting which I think most of us would never grasp, if we did not have the title.

Now let’s attempt another example.  “Visions of Johanna” by Bob Dylan is, like “Tell Ol’ Bill” obscure.  We get the thought, but we by no means know fairly what the music is strictly about.  We have to work it out ourselves, find our own photographs, discover our own meanings – or perhaps not discover meanings in any respect but just take the emotions that we get from the track.

We will also go digging in history to seek out out extra.   We will take a look at Picasso’s political affiliations which give us additional perception.   We will discover that Tell Previous Bill appeared in a compendium of American people songs by Carl Sandburg’s compendium of American folksongs from 1927 which does indeed open with the line Tell Previous Invoice when he gets house.

And perhaps that provides us a transparent that Dylan actually is just choosing up strains that he likes and reusing them to make a set of meanings that are not clear, and unlike Picasso’s work isn’t meant to be clear.

We’d additionally notice that Dylan takes a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s “To one in paradise” …

(Such language holds the solemn sea
To the sands upon the shore)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
Or the stricken eagle soar!

At which point we will in fact get a bit labored up about the fact that Dylan nicked (or in the event you choose borrowed) a line for Edgar Allen Poe.  Nevertheless what I’m making an attempt to say is that though it is fascinating to know that Dylan has used phrase from Poe, as it’s certainly fascinating to see all the sources of Dylan’s strains, we should always not, in learning these origins, lose monitor of the general impression of the work as an entire.  For that’s what it’s.  It isn’t a set of particular person strains – it is a complete piece of art which opens a window on one other world.

My view is thus that it is fascinating to analyse the lyrics intimately, simply as we’d take a look at a portray and analyse using individual colors or brush strokes, and that such detail may help us understand the artist’s work.  However we must additionally take a look at, or in Dylan’s case hear, the general work.

For me, Dylan’s masterpieces (Johanna, Tell Ol Invoice, Things have Modified, The Drifter’s Escape and so forth) are absolutely the masterpieces because of the overall feeling they provide.  Or one may say, the general “impression.”

And that is true each in songs where the which means is obvious as a lot as those the place the which means is obscure.  “Not Dark Yet” for example, has lyrics that make it clear what the track is about.   But beyond that, the simplicity of the opening line, “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day” itself paints a picture.   Add the music which Dylan has created around that line (technically the point is that he doesn’t begin singing on the first beat of every bar) provides us a sense of the world falling aside and every little thing coming to an finish.

Briefly, what we get is a total package deal of music and phrases – and it doesn’t matter whether or not you’ll be able to recognize where the bars within the music cease and start, any more than not understanding about paint and brush stroke method inhibits one’s enjoyment of the visual artist’s work.

I don’t have to know what Previous Bill was as much as and why he’s where he is, or certainly why Bob Dylan wrote the track.   What I get from these strains is a imaginative and prescient of a spot, and of a man’s emotions, and in understanding and appreciating that, I’m enhanced.  I have discovered just a little more about life.  And for that I am grateful.

Tell ol’ Bill when he comes house
Something is value a attempt
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die