…Soul of a nation is under the knife…


Dignity, like Series Of Dreams and God Knows, was originally written and recorded for Oh Mercy. It was eventually released in remixed form as a single some five years later and also appeared on the MTV Unplugged album in 1996. Tell Tale Signs features two radically different versions of the song from the Oh Mercy sessions. The song has also been performed live on many occasions, with a number of lyrical variations. In Chronicles Volume One Dylan describes how all the attempts at recording the song for Oh Mercy, including an evening spent with a local Cajun band, ended in apparent failure. But by looking at the different versions of the song we can trace a different story. What the various versions of the song have in common is their wild juxtaposition of images. In searching for such an indistinct inner quality we are taken on a mad ride through another ‘series of dreams’. The singer is a kind of Don Quixote figure, rushing madly at disappearing windmills and inviting us to ride, like Sancho Panza, at his side.

Speaking of knights on quests, the first released version of the song brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s poem El Dorado, itself constructed like a song, and written very much in the clipped, nuanced style Dylan adopts on Oh Mercy. One can easily imagine Dylan himself singing these words in his nasal style, stretching out the syllables for effect, and with Lanois’ distinctive atmospherics in the background:

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old
This knight so bold
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be
This land of Eldorado?”

“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied
“If you seek for Eldorado!”

            The point of the poem is that – as with the search for the Holy Grail – it is the quest itself which is the important thing. Indeed, the quest is Eldorado. So it is, perhaps, with the quest for Dignity. That’s ‘Dignity’ with a capital ‘D’. The poetic technique utilised here – that of personification – is one which Dylan has used very rarely.  In the originally released version we are presented with a parade of archetypal characters, identified as ‘fat man’, ‘thin man’, ‘hollow man’ ‘wise man’, ‘blind man’ ‘sick man’ and finally ‘Englishman’, all of whom are presented in the present tense engaged in various activities connected with finding some kind of meaning in their lives. These moments of potential revelation pass by as if we are looking out of a moving car window as Dylan follows the jaunty tune. There is little emotional involvement in his voice. This is a picaresque travelogue. We go to ‘the land of the midnight sun’ (Finland, perhaps?), we meet someone called Mary Lou who Said she could get killed if she told me what she knew/About Dignity… and later the mysterious’ Prince Philip at the home of the blues’, who appears to be some kind of ‘super grass’ who Said he’d give me information if his name wasn’t used/He wanted money up front, said he was abused/By dignity…. Dignity, it seems, is a secret, an unknowable condition which you will search ‘every masterpiece of literature’ for in vain. Dignity is an enigmatic and playful song, yet it has a personal resonance. Perhaps its most telling lines come in the penultimate verse: … Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed/ Dignity never been photographed…  a rather cynical aside from one who has been photographed so many times since the start of his career and perhaps a veiled comment on the difficulty of maintaining artistic credibility when one is a famous celebrity.  The narrator never finds what he is looking for. What he seeks is a chimera, an Eldorado without a name.

The Oh Mercy outtake version of Dignity which appears on Disc Two of Tell Tale Signs is heavily rewritten, its music reduced to a simple repetitive guitar riff. Dylan still plays the role of the confused ingénue. The characters have been jumbled up. ‘Prince Philip’ now meets ‘Mary Lou’. A conversation between ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Don Miguel’ outside the Gates of Hell is recounted. Here Dignity is quite explicitly feminised. She is …a woman that knows/ a woman unspoiled/ a woman that’s light/ a woman that bleeds… The imagery is even more bizarre and confusing than in the released version. There are a few remarkable poetic snippets, especially in the evocative lines …Cities in a mess of jackhammer beats/ Buses roll by with burned-out seats/ A child’s eyes look through the creeping streets/For dignity…  But despite the dark undertones of this, Dylan still delivers the lines blithely. Towards the end it’s made quite explicit that ….Dignity got no starting-point/   No beginning, no middle, no end…  The final verse leaves us stranded with no definite answers …Looking at a glass that’s half-filled/ Looking at a dream that’s just been killed…

Perhaps the reason Dylan never originally released this song is that the appropriate combination of words and music for the song proved as elusive as the search for ‘Dignity’ itself.  The search for ‘Dignity’ is in many ways the quest which Dylan set himself in the 1990s. He came to fame as a precocious young man, howling bittersweet poems at the world. Later he sought solace in love, in religion, and in what his ubiquitous concert intro calls …a haze of substance abuse…  By the late 1980s his loss of ‘Dignity’ was most eloquently demonstrated by his performance as the burnt out rock star Billy Parker in Hearts of Fire, a dreadful mess of a movie featuring two new original Dylan compositions, Had A Dream About You Baby and Night After Night, which were almost excruciatingly banal. He was playing a part, right? Well, maybe… It was not long after Hearts of Fire that, as Dylan later claimed, he experienced his ‘Determined to Stand’ epiphany which led to the Never Ending Tour and his eventual transformation into his current ‘wicked old man’ persona. The dilemma he was facing in the late 80s was how to reinvent himself, how to remake his art, as a much older person, in late middle age. Achieving the kind of ‘Dignity’ which was so clearly missing in his embarrassing attempts at 80s production values on Empire Burlesque and on the vacuous songs like Knocked out Loaded’s Got My Mind Made Up or Down In The Groove’s Ugliest Girl In The World became an absolute necessity. And so, on Oh Mercy, he began this process. Yet both the eventually released version and the version of Disc Two of Tell Tale Signs suggest a lack of resolution and of real emotional engagement. ‘Dignity’ is occasionally glimpsed, but never found. Of course, that in a way is the point of the song. Yet there is a sense in which Dylan never quite seems to take the song seriously. In live performances in 1985 and 2000 he shuffles the verses around as if they are interchangeable, which perhaps they are. The song is mildly engaging, a kind of clever intellectual game, but it is rarely revelatory or in any way moving.

The ‘piano demo’ version of Dignity on Disc One of Tell Tale Signs is, however, a very different matter. As shockingly stark as the versions of Mississippi and Most Of The Time which precede it, here the song is stripped down to its essence. Whereas in the other versions it seems to meander happily, here it is sharply focused and performed with a raw, tortured emotional edge. The bouncy riff is absent, replaced by Dylan’s stabbing solo piano which perfectly complements the tone of the performance. Here the song has a clear structure, rising to a crescendo of bitter irony. The journey being depicted is scary, intense – a voyage into inner pain in search of inspiration, a graphic description of the struggle of the artist’s creative soul to come into being. Dylan’s enunciation of the lyrics is precisely honed – he is fully engaged with the pain he is feeling.  Here his vocal performance, with its strange dips and hoarse expression, prefigures the ‘new voice’ he would begin to adopt on the Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong ‘return to roots’ albums of the mid-90s. This version is, just like its predecessors on the album’s track list, ‘merely’ a first take, a ‘demo’ version of the song. But it is here, rather than on subsequent versions in the studio or live, that he really nails the song.

And he really nails it. Here there is a real effort to place discordant emphasis on certain words. In the first verse his voice jerks and falls at the mention of the three ‘men’: ‘fat’, ‘thin’ and ‘hollow’. The piano has an eerie, gospelly quality which is matched by the extraordinary vocal.  …Wise man looking in a blade of grass’ … he intones deeply. Then before the next line there is an odd semi-stutter …Er… young man looking in the shadows that pass… as if he is ‘testifying’, letting out guttural shrieks involuntarily. The first five verses follow the lines of the released version, but it is in the later (presumably later rejected) verses that we really get to the meat of the song. The ‘stranger’ in verse six stares down into the light/From a platinum window in the Mexican night…  Suddenly the song has a location, somewhere hot and sticky and drenched in Catholic guilt. The stranger is engaged in Searching every blood sucking thing inside/ for dignity… These lines give the descent into the land ‘where the vultures feed’ far more resonance than when the same lines appear in the ‘original’ version. This search for Dignity is no search for Eldorado. The singer has no hope of paradise. He has opened the gates of hell. Dylan’s acidic pronounciation of the killer line in the last verse …. Soul of a nation is under the knife… universalises the singer’s predicament. We then get another piece of personification as the Grim Reaper himself appears Death is standing in the doorway of life…  The irony is grim and unmistakeable. There is a heavy, violent threat hanging in the air, a sense of extreme existential despair, now vividly contrasted in the final lines with domestic violence … In the next room a man fighting with his wife/ over Dignity…  Then the song abruptly peters out, as if the singer’s sustained drawn breath (which began with his stuttering testifying in verse two) has finally evaporated. The Dignity he has found is a cruel illusion and its exposure has opened up a spiritual void. Thus this version of Dignity dramatises the pain involved in the loss of religious faith which Oh Mercy songs like What Good Am I?, Ring Them Bells and What Was It You Wanted imply, no more so than in the despairing lines which here are thrown into the sharpest relief Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men/ It all sounded no different to me…

The mood of this early, supposedly ‘unfinished’ yet devastating powerful version of Dignity is less reminiscent of Poe’s idyllic quest than T.S. Eliot’s bleakly modernist view of the ‘meaninglessness’ of human existence in the first verse of perhaps his most despairing work:

We are the hollow menWe are the stuffed menLeaning togetherHeadpiece filled with straw. Alas!Our dried voices, whenWe whisper togetherAre quiet and meaninglessAs wind in dry grassOr rats’ feet over broken glassIn our dry cellar

Dylan’s own ‘hollow man’ appears in the first verse of Dignity , but really all the characters in this version of the song are hollow men. As such they are projections of the singer himself, whose search for the chimerical ‘Dignity’ has become a futile search for meaning in the humid atmosphere of a symbolic desert landscape. His faith has evaporated and he has, as yet, found nothing to replace it. Later Dylan will take as his touchstone the foundations of the cracked voices of singers like Dock Boggs, Hank Williams and Ralph and Carter Stanley. He will take from these men the foundations of a new kind of ‘faith’ from which will flow a new kind of inspiration. But here, it sounds like he has downed a bottle of tequila and has smashed it against a wall. As he stares out of that ‘platinum window in the Mexican night’  his own soul is naked, exposed and ‘under the knife’. And finally, in reaching down into his inner depths and dredging out his true feelings, he has surrendered all artifice and pretence. It is the only way he can hope to find Dignity.


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The ‘Drawn Blank Series’, the exhibition of Bob Dylan’s paintings currently showing at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre, provides a valuable insight into Dylan’s creative and imaginative processes. The paintings are based on a series of drawings Dylan completed in the late 80s and early 90s. In what the exhibition catalogue describes as ‘an intense burst of creativity in 2007’ Dylan began applying paint to blown-up versions of these black and white, impressionistic images of scenes he’d experienced or imagined in the early stages of his Never Ending Tour.  Many of the drawings (like ‘Train Tracks’ above) are presented in their illuminated form in a series of different versions. The effect of the addition of colour is akin to his ‘going electric’ with his music, illuminating the harsh outlines he has drawn and creating a means by which his basic template can be the subject of endless variation. This is a similar process to the one being enacted on Tell Tale Signs, wherein we get an intimate glimpse into the evolution of Dylan’s songs. Tell Tale Signs makes the ‘secret’ that Dylan bootleg collectors have pursued from the legendary Great White Wonder onwards public – namely, that there really is no definitive ‘final’ version of any Dylan song. Sometimes what are arguably the most memorable versions of Dylan’s songs may only exist on the ‘cutting room floor’ of his recording studio. Just as the three versions of Mississippi featured here demonstrate three different moods and types of emphasis, so the three versions of Train Tracks take us from blazing desert sunshine to the vibrancy of spring to the darkening storms of late summer.

The version of Most Of The Time which follows Mississippi on Disc One of Tell Tale Signs is perhaps the album’s most startling surprise variation on one of his existing ‘templates’. A solo guitar and harmonica take with a style highly reminiscent of the early Blood On The Tracks sessions, it sounds utterly different to the familiar Oh Mercy version, with its swampy, spooky background ambience deriving from Daniel Lanois’ trademark production traits. The version of Disc Three of Tell Tale Signs is quite close to the Oh Mercy version, though it sounds a little less ‘produced’. The lyrics are identical to the earlier-released version though the instrumentation is more muted, and more emphasis is placed on the vocal. Most Of The Time is an exercise in irony and rueful self-deprecation from an artist engaged in the severe self-analysis that permeates the album (which could well have taken its title from the self-explicit song What Good Am I?  In each verse the singer enunciates a long list of his own positive traits, which the repetition of the title line at the end of each verse immediately deflates. We soon realise that the singer has been deserted by his lover and is conducting a supposedly defiant internal dialogue. … I don’t even notice she’s gone… he tells us.  … I don’t think about her… and, more graphically, …I don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine…  In the original version Dylan sounds tight lipped, with a clear edge of bitterness. He delivers the lines sardonically, barely letting those constrained emotions out. The performance is a kind of dark study, with the narrator apparently drowning in self-delusion. Lanois uses muted bass and drum patterns with swirling, heavily treated guitar sounds to emphasise the singer’s predicament.  The overall effect is somewhat dreamlike, as if the narrator is both inside and outside the action. The prevailing mood is a kind of reflective gloom. Written at a time when Dylan was struggling for inspiration (on his last album Down In The Groove he had produced no new lyrics whatever), the song displays the mood of an artist struggling with a muse whom he fears may well have deserted him ‘most of the time’. The ease in creativity he once had has gone. He is bent in contemplation, hoping for the rare moments of clarity to come.

The ‘new’ version on Disc One has a very different ambience. In spirit if not in form, that same ambience is often found in the work of  blues singers like Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie Johnson and the Mississippi Sheiks, who describe the hard times they experience with a light touch which lifts the listener onto a different plane. In what was presumably a ‘demo’ version Dylan presented to Lanois before the song was rerecorded and treated, this version has the spirited intensity of Dylan’s best solo work.  The breezy harmonica in between the verses adds to the tone of optimistic resilience which makes the song a description of a defiant struggle rather than a glum wallow in despair. So when Dylan sings … I can handle whatever I stumble upon.. we really believe him.  In this version the self-reassuring doubt in the lyric works against the singer’s tone.  It is a similar effect to the Blood On The Tracks songs like You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go and Buckets Of Rain, taking us on a kind of emotional roller coaster which we somehow feel we may fall off at any moment. The singer maintains a delicate balance between prevailing optimism and underlying despair.

As with most of the Oh Mercy material the language is spare, terse, lacking in obviously ‘poetic’ imagery. The major lyrical difference from the recorded version comes in the second verse, where instead of the resignation of …it’s well understood… I wouldn’t change it if I could… we get the more pithy …I’m cool underneath… I can keep it right between my teeth… (a neat reference, perhaps, to the harmonica which does not feature on the Oh Mercy version. The self-analytical heart of the song comes in the third verse, which begins with the skewed self mockery of …most of the time/my head is on straight… (after which the retort of …I’m strong enough not to hate…is a little disappointing). In the Oh Mercy version the verse contains the song’s most remarkably ‘twisted’ couplet …I don’t build up illusion ‘till it makes me sick/ I ain’t afraid of confusion no matter how thick…  Here we get the far lighter and more positive…I got enough faith and I got enough strength/I keep it all away, way beyond arm’s length…

The fourth verse is a kind of bridge, varying the rhyme scheme and striking a note of reticence. The singer  begins to express doubts about whether his encounter with the unnamed lover even took place: …Most of the time/I can’t even be sure/If she was ever with me/Or if I was with her…  It is a sentiment that will be echoed again in Red River Shore, which takes on the same themes in a deeper, more tragic manner. Most Of The Time  is an almost ‘textbook’ example of one of Dylan’s ‘anti-love’ songs, a tradition that goes back to Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right , It Ain’t Me, Babe and Mama You Been On My Mind. Here for a moment the singer questions even the validity of his own feelings. In the final verse he admits to being …halfways content…. before building up his bravado in the final verse: …I don’t cheat on myself /I don’t run and hide/ Hide from the feelings/ That are buried inside / I don’t compromise or pretend… And finally, with apparently complete defiance: … I don’t even care if I ever see her again… Of course, by now we hardly believe him and the final equivocation of the last repetition of the title phrase demolishes all this huffing and puffing very neatly.

Most Of The Time is a song of psychological self-examination. As many great blues songs do, it adopts the stance of a jilted lover to explorer deeper inner themes. The singer appears to be reassuring his audience but we soon realise that he is only reassuring himself. The real subject of the song – as of so much of Oh Mercy – is Dylan’s own inner spiritual turmoil, his struggles with what in Street Legal’s Where Are You Tonight he called …my twin/the enemy within… To Dylan, spirituality and creative inspiration are inseparable. Only by truly facing up to this ‘enemy within’ – manifested as a lack of inspiration – can he overcome it.

The unexpected revelation of the Disc One performance of the song (it was unknown on the bootleg circuit before the album’s release) also raises the question as to whether Dylan was wise to accept the ‘production values’ foisted upon him by Lanois in Oh Mercy. In Chronicles Part One Dylan devotes a whole chapter to the recording of the album, relating how previous to making the album he had not written for some time, but then found himself pouring out the songs that later appeared on it. He seems to arrived at Lanois’ home studio in New Orleans uncertain whether the songs he had written were really worthwhile or not. Chronicles also hints at the tensions between artist and producer over the type of sound they were striving for. It seems that at the time Dylan felt so lacking in confidence that he felt he needed ‘producing’ (He claims that Bono had recommended Lanois to him one night when they were demolishing ‘a crate of Guinness)’. Yet the strength and originality and the brave self-searching nature of the Oh Mercy songs shows that Dylan’s fears of his own creative death were totally unfounded. Dylan brought back Lanois for Time Out Of Mind in 1997 (though on the latter album Lanois’ trademark production sound is considerably less pronounced) but all subsequent recordings he has produced himself (under the mischievous pseudonymn of ‘Jack Frost’). Much of Tell Tale Signs presents ‘de-Lanoisised’ versions of the material from these two albums, and it is tantalising to imagine what Oh Mercy would have sounded like if Dylan had recorded it as a solo acoustic album (as he later did with the ‘roots’ albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong). Here, on what may well have been the first recorded version of the song, he nails its tone of wavering emotions perfectly, with a masterful example of what his great supporter Allen Ginsberg referred to as his ‘breath control’.


For more on the Dylan exhibition check out this page

Check out some really great writing on Dylan by Lawrence J. Epstein here

  An unsual perspective on Dylan and other stuff here