I've often thought of becoming a foreign correspondent/journalist, for my love of the world, my sense of adventure. My trouble perhaps, or my strength, depending on who would or would not hire me, would be that I would become involved with my subject. I would be in the trenches. I would "Deal with dying" which is exactly what Dylan advises us not to do in his song "To Ramona", although he "cannot explain that in rhyme." I know that, regardless of what he says, I would make some attempt to make sense of it. That no, I would not try to make "rhyme" of it: not that. I would try to explain it in lines. Yet I would absolutely try to extrapolate some theorem or some equation: I would try to find the variables and plug them in and any missing variables, those I would seek out.
This is the only way to try to prevent more casualties, more deaths, more dying. This is the only way to end war, if in fact, war can only be ended if we can put a stop to it before it starts. Once begun, a war is already either lost or it is won. We all ought know this by now. But to "deal with the dying" - whether in life or in war - know the variables, work it out, figure out the equation, and then perhaps you can deal with the dying in some better way. You don't need a poem or "rhyme". That's the last thing you need; what you need is a mathematical equation with the right variables. The trick is knowing the variables - that's the hard part. But then it was Dylan who always said he was a mathematical song writer. Perhaps he cannot explain it in rhyme because there is only an equation with a solution: no rhyme will do here.
“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” Dylan said, was an “equation”. Dylan always said of himself that he was a “mathematical song writer” or a “mathematical” poet. Any true poet knows that poetry is math, thereby making the poet not really so much a poet but more of a scientist or mathematician. Poetry is more of a science than it is an art. At its finest, perhaps poetry, then, is alchemy.
Because Dylan’s work rings so many bells everyone wants to claim Dylan as one of their own. Some writers contend that Dylan’s body of work is a heavily-codified message with signs that trace back and have their origin in the Zohar as suggested in the book "Bob Dylan Approximately: A Portrait of the Jewish Poet in Search of God" by A Midrash (Stephen Pickering). From Pickering's book, “On the subject of death Dylan replied that he could “very easily accept it.” Believing, he emphasized, was likewise a “dangerous business”, that existentially one could not moralize eternity. You cannot negotiate eternity anyway, as Dylan knows, as anyone with any sense knows. In the same excerpt he noted that there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, only the present and that is it. All of the eternities that he puts us in like the one in “The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest” don’t really mean a whole lot to us in this concrete world. They are abstracts intended to throw us off kilter. They exist in the abstract. They are, in short, like Ein Sof - they are without definition and without limit.
For years Dylan has been asked if he chose the name Dylan after the poet Dylan Thomas. His answer has always been a quick, unhesitant “No”. It was “an uncles name” on his “father’s side” on his “mother’s side” of the family (which makes no sense: it seems unlikely that it would come from both, but who cares anyway). As Dylan said in an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, “I didn’t change my name in honor of Dylan Thomas. That’s just a story. I’ve done more for Dylan Thomas than he’s ever done for me. Look how many kids are reading his poetry now because they heard that story.” Apart from the fact that Dylan is fully his own in his own right, if his work is like any other poet in it’s unique word pairings it reminds me of Yeats. And Yeats, like Dylan, stepped way outside the box, lived outside of social confines.
This does not mean that I think that Dylan sat down to consciously be like, or copy Yeats. Dylan has made the point that he absolutely never does the same thing twice, even his own thing. That said, it’s simply inevitable that all or most of us who write will write something that is remarkably like something that has already been written. This is for the simple fact that our experiences are not as unique as we like to think they are and it’s all been said before, perhaps, in some or other way. Give it a spin but ultimately, it’s all be said and done. We can write of love, but it’s all variations on a theme and while we may experience it somewhat differently, rare is the love that is truly individuated and not universal. As Graham Greene said, "Happiness has very little fictional value…"
Yeats writes that words alone are certain good, but in the final account, they can only carry us so far. As for rebellion, he advises, go out and seek the truth, although it sounds dicey as to whether or not it can really be found in this world seek it anyway and with a vigor and force that is unrivaled. If you cannot find it here, then seek it in the world of dreams but do not sleep through your life. As the Yiddish proverb has it, “If you sleep, your dreams will not come true,” and as Dylan says in “I Feel A Change Comin’ On, ”Dreams never did work for me anyway / Even when they did come true."
Dylan’s streets were too dead for dreamin’, so he left to seek other horizons. He is free after such a long journey, after being so branded on his feet that he could hardly stand with a weariness so intense that it “amazes” him (which is almost painful to hear, if you’ve ever been that weary, you know what he means and if not, you surely have been close enough to imagine it).
It's been all Bringing It All Back Home. It was all Planet Waves, populated with outlaws like John Wesley Harding and a place where there was Blood on the Tracks with A Slow Train Coming. It was Blonde On Blonde with Desire and a Shot of Love. It was Infidels, Real Live, Knocked, Out, Loaded in a World Gone Wrong. It was Unplugged with Time Out of Mind. It was Biograph. It was Oh, Mercy and it was Saved until we finally got to the Tell Tale Signs that would bring us today’s Together Through Life and eventually, a thankful Christmas In The Heart that, like children, we were perhaps sitting on the edge of our seats like children, neck hairs pricking.
But we’ve had to go and we’ve gone with Dylan Together Through Life. And there we’ve learned, as if we had not learned (particularly as anyone who relates to Dylan knows,) “Life Is Hard”. But “Life Is Hard” is a slow blues, a crying blues, self-sorry, self-mocking, sad-sack, hang dog apology which is genuine but the best the narrator can come up with, and it’s the truth, “Life is hard….” We all know that. It’s the rest of the sentence, the whole sentence, “Life is hard without you near me.” It’s that last bit, “…without you near me,” that pleads forgiveness and a “baby, please come back.” Dylan’s low, almost chin-wobbling voice, are a whisper and a croon to the microphone and that makes us voyeurs to this private letter.
Dylan’s album Together Through Life is in many ways one of his most intimate records. It is the one in which we are invited along and not just told the story from the outside as we look in. We are being spoken to in a very clear and direct way. There is nothing oblique about the album Together Through Life. From “My Wife’s Hometown” an old style blues song that maybe wouldn’t resonate so much if it were not one of the few references that Dylan has made directly to “my” wife. Irrelevant whether fact or fiction, it lends the song a greater authenticity. Even on this optimistic record, hell is his wife’s home time, but it sounds like a helluva hell: “My love for her is all I know…” Even in “Forgetful Heart” the you is the answer to his prayers.
There something predatory in the Zydeco New Orleans shimmer of this album that makes you shiver. Songs like “Forgetful Heart” and “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” sound foreboding even if the lyrics are, on closer inspection, very optimistic and so absolutely definite. But that’s just it – they are so self-assured, cocksure, that it’s almost unnerving - a bit frightening. He has never sounded more sure, more self-assured, and more assertive and in this way it sounds a bit predatory the way “Lay, Lady, Lay” struck me as predatory when I first heard it as a young teen without realizing that all he wanted was to do was show her “all the colors (in her) mind”. The sound may be predatory but if you listen to the lyric the song itself is “all good” and the obverse is true for the song “It’s All Good”.
Together Through Life has a forward thrust and gives the same intangible but invaluable offerings as a song like “Lay, Lady, Lay” which is namely him. He offers all he has, “Everybody got all the money
/Everybody got all the beautiful clothes
/Everybody got all the flowers
/ I don't have one single rose.” But as he tells us “Life is for love and they say that love is blind. If you wanna live easy / Baby pack your clothes with mine.” He’s done with dreaming. “Dreams never did work for me anyway,” he tells us, “Even when they did come true.” Time to wake up and start moving through life. That sense of propulsion in “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” is so right on. His baby is walking toward him with the village priest. He can see her coming. You can sense union, communion, a marriage perhaps (or marriage, full-stop), but whoever she is they’ve
“got so much in common / We strive for the same old ends / And I just can't wait / Wait for us to become friends/ I feel a change coming on.”
The times they were a changin’ earlier on, only now it is more personal, more like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” which is also an optimistic song, a change from something that you sense wasn’t so great as he says, “It’s been a long time comin’, but I feel a change’s gonna come.” Some sources suggest that Cooke was influenced by Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” (1963), that this was a song about a change in race relations in the country (it seems more likely that Cooke would have been influenced by “The Times They Are A Changin’” (1964) which seems more directly related or by both, however Cooke reportedly wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come” in May of 1963 before the release of “The Times They Are A Changin”. Together Through Life is, like any of Dylan’s albums, not easy to categorize and so much the better. It’s not a political album. If I had to place it anywhere it is among the more personal and less guarded albums. Dylan sounds open, optimistic, just like the song he inspired Cooke to write, Dylan feels a change comin’ on and you know that a change is gonna come. You believe it because he sings it with conviction and again you have that sense of thrust and forward motion. Dylan has set himself and us in motion and will stay in motion unless or until he meets an object: the laws of physics; perpetual motion.
So when Dylan came along and said "I’ll Be Home For Christmas" in a hushed, down-home, shuffle of a song, you can plan on it,” I believe him. The background music sounds old and as if from that old mahogany radio Dylan talks of in No Direction Home. The old mahogany radio he found that he said had “mystical undertones” on whose turntable he found the single “Driftin’ Too Far From The Shore”. Dylan has cast some voodoo our way with “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”.
He keeps his promises. If he said he’d be home for Christmas even if it was in his dreams he now sees his baby comin’ and, “She’s walkin’ with the village priest” in “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”. Seems like whatever it was is all fate at work here again. You cannot get around the optimism of this song. Just the way he sings, “I just can’t wait, wait for us to become friends…I feel a change comin’ on and the fist part of the day is already gone.” Not a line is wasted here. His offer is simple, “If you wanna live easy / Baby pack your clothes with mine.” It’s not that he has money to offer because he’s quite clear that he does not. Not even “one single rose”. Nor does he have the hope of some absurd dream – “You got better things to do,” he tells her. And besides, as he has said, “dreams never did work for me, even when they did come true.” All of this, “I must be losin’ my mind / You’re the object of my desire.” The song has the same Zydeco-Cajun sound that swings the whole record: nothing over the top but just enough. All of Together Through Life and in particular the song “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” is forward thinking and optimistic.
Together Through Life swings hard and low as well. The song, “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” has a hard, serious tone. Its undertone is predatory and intense; it takes you somewhere. It takes you to a place that is way beyond the horizon - to a place where there “lies nothin’ but the moon and stars.” The music of the song pricks and unsettles the nerves and the “beyond here lies nothin’” refrain sounds ominous. It’s not unless you listen to the rest of the lyrics that you understand that it’s all good, because “beyond here lies nothin’ but the mountains of the past.” This is a strong man who is moving forward, beyond the horizon, past the nonsense of every dayness. He’s over it, had it, done with it. “My ship is in the harbor and the sails are spread…” I say go with him. It's a bit like the "shoeless hunter" in Gates of Eden who seeks and eventually finds his way.
For some critics and fans the album was too optimistic and summarily dismissed; not to be taken seriously. That’s an interesting take when you consider the song “It’s All Good” which is nothing if not ironic. If we are to take the lyrics literally, they cannot possibly be all good, it’s a tongue in cheek, or perhaps more of a resignation statement…”it’s all good, what can you say.” Don’t let the swinging rocking, almost rockabilly, nature of the song throw you off. The way he says, “You know what they say, they say ‘it’s all good’.” I wouldn’t take it so literally. If “Big politicians telling lies,” is good, then we’re in big trouble and Dylan knows it and so should we. “Wives are leaving their husbands, they’re beginning to roam…” Dylan says “I wouldn’t change it even if I could” (a refrain he’s used before in “Most Of The Time”). “People on the country, people on the land, some of them so sick they can hardly stand…it’s hard to believe, but it’s all good.” How anyone could miss this and consider the album “light” is to profoundly misunderstand or simply not listen to the lyrics and only listen to the sound, not the combination of the two.
You cannot separate the sound from the lyric. It’s tongue in cheek, a political statement. “The widow's cry, the orphan's plea / Everywhere you look, more misery” The optimistic note, and maybe this is the part that pisses people off is the, “Come along with me, babe, I wish you would / You know what I'm sayin', it's all good.” An escape hatch. Dylan reminds us, “If they could they would.” There is some connection between this song and Most Of The Time although I'm still trying to puzzle out exactly what. It's a step from one type of disillusionment that is personal to a more global sort of disillusionment; here the bite is more personal. Everywhere you look there is "more misery", but he would't change a thing, babe, even if (he) could" because "You know what I'm sayin'…" It's all good. It's like a spin on "The Times They Are 'A Changin'" a sort of call to arms that calls out the problems of our times but that has, again, more of a bite and snarl than The Times They Are 'A Changin' has. I think all of these songs segue at some point. There is a confluence of the personal and the political - and it's not such a fine line.
In "It's All Good" what "it" is, whoever they are, they're not above doing it to getcha, without sounding paranoiac but I don't think Dylan means to sound that way either and I don't think he does or is; he just sounds right on. Whatever it is, if they can, they will. If history teaches us anything it is this. People will get away with whatever they think they can get away with when they think no-one is watching or if they think they won’t get caught. One philosopher noted that the man who could choose to have any superpower, would choose that of invisibility; he was the man who could not be trusted and would be the most immoral. He would be so in that he would necessarily be the one who would do whatever he wanted without fear of social consequence or judgment. One could argue that one can do this without being invisible; live your life opening and who cares what people think; be that outlaw. I think Dylan is and was right, "To live outside the law you must be honest" and I think the group Big Star were also right when they begged the question, "Would you be an outlaw for my love". The Greco-Roman philosophers knew that some things trumped established social and state mores and this is how change was effected. Without this, without something that we look on as "rebellion" (a dirty word), we would not have equal rights, civil rights, we would not have an equal rights bill that is to this day, still not constitutionally passed. So women have some things, but not all.
I'm not advocating taking up arms against the government, but what Dylan did and said was, "all I ever do is protest." That's different from writing "protest songs" (though one could argue he wrong those too, like "Only A Pawn In Their Game" and others, but he's long denied "message" songs or "protest" songs). It means writing, it means saying what you have to say until you get through somehow, until you can effectuate any possible change - if change is to be possible. It means playing "your harp until your lips bleed" if that's what works.
There’s always the standard cry for more Blood On The Tracks which I get because it's a great album, but it's also tortured and deeply sad; that doesn't take away any artistic merit, it just is what it is.
We’ve traveled so far with Dylan and we continue on that trajectory to be sure, but Dylan has to make a punctuation mark somewhere and he has. Together Through Life was a punctuation mark. Now with the release of the Witmark Demos and other bootleg recordings (officially) Dylan's taken what was old and made it sparkle and shine. He's put the official stamp on it, revamped it, and given back music to his fans (or given what never was officially released).
What was old is completely new again.
thanks for listening,