Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dylan and Fifty Years of Change (Six Songs About Transitions)

When Dylan released his third studio album The Times They Are A-Changin’ in January 1964, it profoundly captured the times it emerged into. JFK had been shot down two months previous and a new generation, the largest in American history, was awaking to a world gone wrong. The title summarized the social upheaval that so characterized the Sixties.

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Over the past half century, change has been the one constant of our times. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that so many songs from our times deal with change, including these six from Dylan himself.

In Dylan’s fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, his tender song "Ramona" similarly addresses this theme in its culmination. It begins with a man comforting a woman broken by something that has died. Words cannot express anything sufficiently meaningful. What’s needed is a shoulder to cry on.

I’d forever talk to you
But soon my words
They would turn into a meaningless ring
For deep in my heart
I know there is no help I can bring
Everything passes
Everything changes
Just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you

* * *

In one of its Dylan retrospectives Rolling Stone listed the five Dylan songs with the most inscrutable meanings, and one of these was "Changing of the Guard." The song has always been and continues to remain among my favorites, both for its surreal story-telling style and the lyric avalanche of poetic perplexity. And yet, one thing comes through loud and clear. There’s a change coming on.

"Like Desolation Row" and "All Along the Watchtower," meanings require special attention and we will return to this significant Street Legal opener in a future entry. Here’s the stanza from which the song’s title is extracted.

Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

Of special interest to me here is the period in which the song was written. It’s the latter half of the seventies, the last album preceding his embrace of Christianity, a change with significant reverberations. Other songs on the album likewise foreshadowed this event, most transparently Seňor. Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Street Legal form a trilogy of sorts. The subsequent trilogy -- Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love -- came as the result of a change many never saw coming, Dylan’s conversion to Christianity.

Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
And stop being influenced by fools

In recent years two new songs featuring change have been created, both conveying what appear to be personal matters of the heart. The first is "I Feel a Change Coming On," and it feels as opaque and obscure as anything he’s ever written. Except the clear message that there’s a change coming.

The other has been his opening tune for most of the AmericanaramA Tour in 2013. It’s been performed in concert 525 times since 2000. It’s not only a commentary on the times, it’s Dylan’s response to these times.

I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road
If the Bible is right, the world will explode
I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can

That’s an interesting line. It’s been said that the prodigal son was running from God, but many of us know well this feeling, too… trying to get away from our own selves.

Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much
You can’t win with a losing hand

We play the cards we’re dealt, that’s the best we can do. Dylan’s card sharking has produced a lifetime of increased fame and influence. To what electrical box do all these lines and breakers connect? The rock bottom reality may be this summing up:

People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed


Dan Sullivan said...

An well-reasoned analysis. The one constant with Dylan is his recognition of the eternal nature of change. I enjoyed your column.

Anonymous said...

These are all great and obvious 'change' songs - the more intriguing 'change' songs are the classic non-linear 'time-slip' songs .... Visions of Joanna, Tangled up in Blue and Caribbean Wind ....

Ed Newman said...

Thank you Dan and thank you Anon. Those are some great songs that you cite, all intriguing. Visions and Blue are the more familiar favorites so it's nice to get the shout out for Caribbean Wind. It's not just the words that spark but the way he sings them.

Michael Hamburg said...

Thanks for your analyses
Changing of the guard is truly a great song

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