Friday, September 20, 2013

I Threw It All Away: Dylan Shows His Scars

“The characteristics that I have pointed out in Dylan’s protest songs continue through the years in his other kinds of songs. Dylan allows no easy-listening bystanders: he draws a listener into a song, often by mean of pronouns and other bland-looking words that acquire meaning in performance.” ~Betsy Bowden, Performed Literature

One of the books I’ve been reading this past several weeks is Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature while repeatedly absorbing Dylan’s latest Bootleg Series album (#10), Another Self Portrait. Bowden’s premise is that people who consider Dylan a great songwriter and lyricist/poet are missing the true greatness Dylan brought to this generation. Hence the title of the book, Performed Literature. It’s not just the words, but the way he delivers the words that impact listeners so profoundly.

This is not to suggest that the lyrics alone don’t have power. "Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall" is an incredible contribution to literature as well as music history. As has been repeated many times over a whole song could be written about each line in this seismic earth-shaker. But those who have been most attentive recognize something incredible happens each time he performs it and it is in the moment, the performance, that he breathes into the song new life, and sometimes new meanings.

What Bowden so forcefully explains is that the “how” of Dylan’s delivery is what makes the lyrics come so alive. And I fully concur. Yes, the Byrds and other artists translated Dylan’s lyrics for their various pop audiences, but that only served to draw attention to the original source. The lyrics they shared worked for the moment, but Dylan’s heartfelt interpretations of his own, and others', lyrics take these songs to another plane.

For me, what has continually grabbed me deepest is the rawness, the emotionally charged quality he so vividly conveys in the manner he delivers his lyrics in so many of his songs. Whether rage (Idiot Wind), contempt (Positively Fourth Street), longing (Where Are You Tonight) or tenderness (Sign on the Window), Dylan’s great skill is making an emotional connection to his listeners.

Here are three songs that resonate with nearly anyone who has been shattered by a meaningful relationship that has been broken. The last of these, which appears on disc one of Another Self Portrait, serves as a warning, flashing profound and poignant: “Don’t do what I did.”

Listening to this song the past few weeks brought others to mind, as this seems to be a recurring theme with Dylan. Most of the Time, the first cut on Oh Mercy, is delivered with that similar aching regret.

Most of the time
I’m clear focused all around 
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path, I can read the signs
Stay right with it when the road unwinds
I can handle whatever I stumble upon
I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time

Tangled Up In Blues
When you listen to this song it’s the way he states it that gets you, “Most of the time.” It’s like Neil Young’s “how slow and slow and slow it goes to mend the tear that always shows.” The songwriter is trying to keep a stiff upper lip, project victory, confidence. But underneath it’s a wound that won’t heal.

It’s fascinating how he sings this song in such a low-key manner, not extravagant, playing down the pain so that it’s just a matter-of-fact matter. But when he says that last “most of the time” you know all too well the rest is just a put-on, and he’s not healed but hurting.

The second verse ends with this declaration:

I can survive, I can endure
And I don’t even think about her
Most of the time

The third verse makes this claim at the end:

I can smile in the face of mankind
Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time

This sounds very personal to me because Dylan was a performer and though he is famously stoic on stage, he was still a performer and had to “smile in the face of mankind.

The final stanza goes all out:

I don’t cheat on myself, I don’t run and hide
Hide from the feelings that are buried inside
I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend
I don’t even care if I ever see her again
Most of the time 

Aside: Gene Lafond’s performance of this song last spring in Weber Hall excelled at conveying this same wounded anguish. Thank you, Geno, for putting so much of yourself into this great piece.

Another haunting song comes to mind here, from Bootleg #8: Tell Tale Signs... "Born In Time." This one again exemplifies the point Bowden makes. It’s relatively simple as far as the lyrics go, but the manner in which Dylan delivers these lines sears flesh, shatters bone and tears the heart.

The begins with a moment many of us have experienced at one time or another, the lonely night…  But the way he sings it so melds the emotion with the words.

Just when I thought you were gone
you came back
just when I was ready to receive ya
You were smooth, you were rough,
you were more than enough,
oh babe, why did I ever leave ya
or grieve ya?

Dylan failed someone he cared about. 

This leads us directly to "I Threw It All Away," which first appeared on Nashville Skyline (1969) and re-appears here on Another Self Portrait. It’s so basic. I once held her, we made promises, but…

I Threw It All Away

I once held her in my arms
She said that she would always stay
But I was cruel, I treated her like a fool
I threw it all away.

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
rivers of grandeur every day
I must have been mad, I never knew what I had
until I threw it all away…..

In the end the scribe offers this word of advice, which to his regret he learned the hard way:

If you find someone who gives you all of her love
take it to your heart, don’t let it stray
One thing for that's certain 
you will surely be a hurtin’ 
if you throw it all away.

Maybe the songs of this period appeared lyrically so simple that a lot of listeners missed how nuanced they were. It's a mistake we all can make at times.


  1. I Threw It All Away first appears on Nashville Skyline not Planet Waves. Bob performed it live on the Johnny Cash TV Show.

  2. Dear anon. Good catch. Foolishness on my part. Nashville Skyline is possibly one of my most played Dylan vinyls so I have internalized all those songs, but have been listening to Planet Waves again recently and did a dyslexic memory thing there. I posted your comment to show I am human, am grateful I was able to correct it and it's not printed in a magazine with circulation 80,000.

    1. Glad we caught that too. Great song and great album. Great article here too! Thanks.....Galen

  3. The heartfelt renditions on ASP, some stripped of all their defences, prove you right in this emphatic fine piece of writing... even where it does not concern his own writing, he elevates a song to a level where the word transfiguration from his crazy interview with Rolling Stone takes on meaning, ambiguous of course, cause that is his force... And maybe just because his motivations during Self Portrait were so contrary to themselves, getting back to the core of things and at the same time shaking of the lunatics idolising him, he failed back then, and maybe it was even too much yet to bare his heart the way he did with Bromberg and Kooper, so he kept back the best anyway... For sure he corrected that with Dirge and Wedding Song, which led to Blood on the Tracks... And the tentative Oh Mercy got back to that well as well... Thanks again for your insights
    hans altena