There’s no-one here, the gardener has gone…

The hooded pilgrim advances along a thin, dusty dirt track. There is no moon. All along the skyline the fires rage. His hidden face contorts in shaded darkness. He burns inside. In front of him he seems to see the whole world, billions of outstretched hands calling for help. He clutches his hand over his heart, drawing his long black cloak around him. He slowly fingers the smooth metal shape next to his heart. The wires that are connected to it encircle his waist. He approaches the squat grey cooling towers, glimpsing the reactor for the first time. Now his heart begins to pump faster, as if the device has set him up as a clock. He knows there will be only just so many beats. Vengeance is his only thought. Vengeance against the screaming bombers who came down from the sky to tear the heart out of his father’s house. Vengeance against the unbelievers, the deceivers, all who stand in his path. He is possessed by an absolute conviction. In the face of such towering truths his own life, this pitiful tiny focus of attention, means nothing.

            He must bring an end to it all…

          Modern Times is one of those Dylan albums – like Highway 61 Revisited, John Wesley Harding or Blood On The Tracks which, through a certain consistency of imagery, seems to create its own internal symbolic system. In Highway 61 the poetic mindset is wheeling, hallucinogenic, as Dylan relentlessly spews out a mad-eyed view of history and literature filtered through a gallery of fast appearing and disappearing ‘characters’; some real, some invented, some borrowed – Napoleon in Rags, Ma Rainey, Beethoven, Mr. Jones, Queen Jane, Sweet Melinda, The Roving Gambler, Ophelia, Einstein, T.S. Eliot and many others. It’s a methodology Dylan also follows in The Basement Tapes and, latterly, Love And Theft. On John Wesley Harding the language is restrained, full of suggestive allusion, as a coolly distanced Dylan relates enigmatic morality tales like The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and I Pity The Poor Immigrant. Blood On The Tracks is a song cycle tracing a path through personal despair and rage in which the protagonist – presented as being both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the songs – appears to inhabit multiple personalities (as in Tangled Up In Blue) or be hiding behind a series of masks (as in Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts). The language is expressive, disparate emotional, full of colour, light and shade.
In each case the album’s closing track provides a kind of resolution. At the end of Highway 61’s Desolation Row the characters faces and names are ‘rearranged’ in a kind of glorious, if weary, celebration of the process of symbolisation itself. In the last of John Wesley Harding’s ‘symbolic’ songs the faceless Wicked Messenger declares …If you cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any… after which we are presented with Down Along The Cove and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, two apparently straightforward love songs. Blood On The Tracks ends with the wryly philosophical Buckets Of Rain, in which the pain in so many of the preceding pieces is seemingly resolved by means of an enigmatic ‘nursery rhyme’. All of these resolutions are – in their various ways – rather uplifting and hopeful. Yet Modern Times – its imagery a jumble of references and linguistic shifts – ends with a cry of existential despair. The symbolic landscape of the album, in which the scattered detritus of folk and blues song references and Biblical imagery is seamlessly interwoven to comment in oblique ways on the modern condition, is at its most heightened here. The song is set in a bleak moral universe and unequivocally concludes …at the world’s end… The protagonist is quite explicitly cruel and vengeful. He has, it seems, no hope of redemption.

As with so much of the material on Dylan’s last three albums, Ain’t Talkin’ is a kind of patchwork quilt of references. There is no apparent use of Timrod here, but the verse beginning …All my loyal and much-loved companions… is a paraphrase of lines from the Ancient Roman poet Ovid’s Poems Of Exile.  Lines like …yon clear crystal fountain… (from Wild Mountain Thyme, a Irish ballad performed by Dylan on a number of occasions)  and …the gal I left behind.. (the subject of an old prospector’s tune) are quotations from traditional songs. Such ‘quotations’ often have relevance to the themes of the song, as when the reference to …this weary world of woe… recalls the great American ‘spiritual journey’ ballad Wayfaring Stranger.  But in other instances Dylan will twist a phrase into a very different context. The phrase …Walkin’ with a toothache in my heel…, which Dylan makes so menacing, is lifted from the jolly if slightly surreal nineteenth-century minstrel song Old Dan Tucker (recently covered by Springsteen) in which we hear that Old Dan …died with a toothache in his heel… Hand me down my walking cane… is the title of another rather jokey traditional number which also contains the lines …The devil chased me round a stump/ I thought he’d catch me at every jump… The repeated chorus lines …Ain’t talkin, just walkin’… and ….Heart burnin’/ still yearnin’… are lifted from the Stanley Brothers’ Highway Of Regret, a stirringly uplifting piece of gospelly bluegrass (the title of which was also referenced in Time Out Of Mind’s To Make You Feel My Love). Yet while Carter and Ralph Stanley sing the lines jubilantly, Dylan’s narrator turns them into an index of despair.  The wonderfully gross …eatin’ hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town… is from Hog-Eye Man, another black-comic traditional song originating from slavery days. Again the phrase here symbolises how low the narrator has sunk.

As we have seen throughout this exploration of Modern Times, Dylan’s latter-day art is immersed in what can only be called a ‘spiritual’ devotion to the musical culture which originally inspired him. …Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book… he told Jon Pareles of the New York Times in 1997 …All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from ‘Let Me Rest On That Peaceful Mountain’ to ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’. You can find all my philosophy in those songs… In another interview, with Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times in 2004, Dylan revealed that …What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack in the wall and mediate, or count sheep or angels or money or something… I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song… People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’m writing a song… Although, like much of what Dylan says in interviews, we may be tempted to take this with a pinch of salt – it’s hard to believe he writes all his songs this way – the statement is highly revealing. A number of commentators (particularly on Christian or ‘faith-based’ culture-commentary websites and blogs) have referred to the plethora of Biblical allusions on Modern Times as ‘proving’ Dylan’s continual ‘faith in Jesus’. But this is surely just wish-fulfilment on their part. Dylan has always been fascinated by Biblical story and symbolism and regards it as a rich store of highly allusive material, a kind of symbolic treasure trove. His own ‘born again’ period – quite explicit and uncompromising though it was for a short time – ended many years ago. But for the brief period Dylan did immerse himself in organised religion (during his ‘Born Again Christian’ phase from 1979-80) his poetic imagination was narrowed and limited as never before, to such an extent that it took him many years to recover his full gifts.  Although the sheer intensity of his engagement with his ‘new found faith’ during his ‘born again’ period produced some of the most powerful performances of his career, his albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot Of Love (1981) represent diminishing poetic returns. The only truly great Dylan song of this period, Every Grain of Sand (1981) reflects movingly and with aching sadness on the abandonment of the faith which had given him such temporary joy and energy.

For the next few years Dylan languished in the most uncertain, confused period of his career, epitomised by his ditching of the brilliant Blind Willie McTell in favour of the dreadful doggerel of Union Sundown on the half-assed Infidels album (1983). Although the deeply cynical and doubt-ridden Oh Mercy (1989) provided a sudden burst of poetic inspiration after the career-lows of his late 80s output, it was only through his re-immersion in his basic source material through his two albums of covers Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) and his expansive exploration of traditional folk, blues and country material in the early years of ‘The Never Ending Tour’ that he was able to truly reinvent himself as a meaningful contemporary artist on Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times.  For Dylan, one kind of faith had supplanted another. Thus his concert performances in the late 90s and early 2000s of bluegrass spirituals by the Stanley Brothers and others can be seen as affirmations, not of the religion they proselytise as such but of Dylan’s ‘faith’ in the songs themselves. …Hallelujah!… he sings, in the Stanley Brothers song he’s covered most of all …I’m ready to go!…

Many of Dylan’s songs – and especially those from John Wesley Harding onwards – have been focused on a kind of spiritual quest. But to Dylan, as with his fellow seeker Leonard Cohen (who once claimed he’d never met a religion he didn’t like) his main interest and focus has usually been with religion as a source of imagery, of metaphor… Any ‘true poet’ can be said to be, in the very nature of their art, engaging in a ‘spiritual quest’, as ultimately all religions are poetic descriptions of the cosmos. As Dylan’s great antecedent William Blake wrote:

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity; till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood; Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

         In these lines from The Marriage Of Heaven and Hell Blake puts his finger on the tragic misunderstanding that turns religious understanding towards bigotry, hatred and tightassed fundamentalist closed-mindedness. You only have to open a newspaper to see how relevant Blake’s words are to our modern condition. While liberal humanism has made many advances over the last few hundred years, and the patriarchal religions have loosened the absolute grip they once had on our societies, religious fundamentalism – the creed of those who …forgot that All Dieties reside in the human breast… has, perhaps as a reaction to the general loosening of so-called ‘morals’, continued to grow in strength. Behind the rhetoric of both the so called ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘Jihad’ (‘Holy War’)  lies the blind moral posturing of those who take ‘the word’ literally, who refuse to understand that the religious texts they venerate may be metaphorical rather than literal. Metaphorical or poetic truth is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, allowing for many different interpretations to exist at once. The story of The Garden of Eden, for example, can be seen as a richly metaphorical statement of the human condition, which can be interpreted ‘poetically’ in many ways. But there are those, who – quite staggeringly, perhaps – believe it was an actual historical event, just as there are those who believe God planted dinosaur bones under the ground to ‘test our faith’. Of course, there are those who believe in Santa Claus, too. But they don’t generally control armies, or weapons of mass destruction. Thus the conflict between those who believe literally and those who believe metaphorically is central to the political and social conflicts which threaten to teat our world apart in these Modern Times. It is on this moral and philosophical battleground that the songs on Modern Times wage their war of words. …The hammer’s on the table/ The pitchfork’s on the shelf… as the narrator of Thunder On The Mountain tells us. The dark, devilish terrorist-hero of this great concluding song has given up ‘talking’ – or thinking –  about what he is about to do.  He is dedicated to purging what he sees as …the cities of the plague… The plague he wants to eradicate is poetic thought, individual thought, free thought….

Ain’t Talkin’ is a kind of cyclic song – it does not really tell a linear story but is set in an eternal, timeless present. Although its narrator is clearly a traveller through this …weary world of woe… by the end of the song he does not seem to have moved beyond the ‘mystic garden’ where he began. All the ‘action’ occurs in the narrator’s mind, consisting as it does of a series of personal ‘confessions’ and reflections on the misery and suffering caused by the …gal he left behind… This timelessness is reflected both in the musical presentation of the song and in Dylan’s vocalising, both of which remain steady and unwavering throughout, reflecting the unbendingly harsh and unyielding logic of the narrative. The track begins with an ominous flourish of piano, acoustic guitar and mournful viola before muted drums and acoustic bass take us into the verses, keeping up a restrained, repetitive rhythm over which snatches of guitar and viola occasionally surface. Such emotional restraint is mirrored in Dylan’s singing, which is a kind of almost-unwavering husky breath. The whole effect is to create a feeling of continual tension and dark menace. After the song ends, it’s as if you can hear its echoes, fading away into the distance.

There is something disarming in the first verse’s initial reference to …the mystic garden… It’s rare for Dylan to use such a pointedly symbolic term, which is reminiscent of the kind of introduction Van Morrison might use before going into one of his entranced meditational rants. Thus the notion of ‘mystic’ already seems somewhat dubious. We are being taken inside the mind of the protagonist, in whose mind this garden is ‘mystic’. In fact the ‘mystic garden’ is the world itself, perhaps imagined by the narrator to be in some kind of prelapserian condition. But the second line, with its striking reference to …wounded flowers dangling from the vine… already indicates that in the mind of the narrator this world is hopelessly corrupted. The next two lines counterpose the deliberately archaic … I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain… with the explicitly contemporary …someone hit me from behind… This is a quintessentially Dylanesque juxtaposition which Dylan licks his tongue around with relish. Throughout the song the narrator continually refers to the great wrong that has been done to him. By the second verse his sense of despair is clearly signposted. The narrator professes that he trying, in a conventionally Christian sense, to …love my neighbour and do good unto others… But such virtuousness is clearly not working, suggesting that dark, powerful forces are present here. What makes this verse so disturbing is the narrator’s appeal to …pray from the mother… counterposed with his final, heartfelt cry …But oh mother, things ain’t goin’ well … Clearly the ‘evil spirit’ inside him that he refers to earlier has won out over the feminine healing principle. From here on, he will have no choice but to let the ‘evil spirit’ take full control.

The narrator now begins an explicit descent into wretchedness and violent retribution towards whoever has …hit him from behind…  He tells his enemy he will …burn that bridge before you can cross… and mutters to him (or her?) that he intends to show ‘no mercy’ when his victory is complete. The next verse is perhaps the most shocking of all. After telling us how …worn down by weeping…and thoroughly distraught he is, he snarls …If I catch my opponents ever sleeping/ I’ll just slaughter ’em as they lie… Dylan doesn’t really give the line any special emphasis, but he sounds like he is wearing an uncaring sneer throughout. The following chorus indicates a soul in confused torment, walking through a world …mysterious and vague… as if vagueness itself is a kind of sin. The reference to …walkin’ through the cities of the plague… may be suggesting some kind of medieval context, which is further borne out by the reference to the …speculation/ That the whole wide world which people say is round… The narrator then rails against an unknown ‘they’ (presumably the ‘enemies’ he referred to earlier) who seem hell bent on victimising people like himself. The accusation that ‘they’ will …tear your mind away from contemplation… seems to suggest that the ‘enemies’ are some kind of opposing sect, again suggesting that the song may be set in some context where religious groups are at war with each other, quite possibly ‘burning’ each other. In this context it may be relevant to recall that the medieval mind saw plagues and the like as punishments from a (highly vengeful) deity.

But Ain’t Talkin’ is not, of course, a ‘medieval’ song, as we are reminded in the next chorus. The narrator is apparently …eating hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town…, a startlingly revolting image but one apparently located somewhere in modern America (or in a Mexican cantina, perhaps, in a Spaghetti Western) rather than in Europe in the middle ages. The narrator is eating a rather disgusting version of ‘humble pie’. …Some day you’ll be glad to have me around… he growls menacingly. Yet the suggestion of a medieval mentality seems to hint at the narrator’s true intentions, which are clearly destructive, in the name of some unnamed ‘faith’. In the next verse he combines further lamentations regarding his supposed victimisation: …They will crush you with wealth and power/ Every waking moment you could crack… hinting that he is nearing breaking point. This hint is reinforced by the next line …I’ll make the most of one last extra hour…suggesting that he himself is under a ‘death sentence’. In the verse’s final line he reveals that his mission is to avenge his father’s death. It seems he is determined to do this even if it costs him his own life. He seems to be ‘on his last legs’: …Hand me down my walking cane… he demands, as if his needs assistance to complete his task.

Thus Ain’t Talkin’, despite its suggested historical and Biblical contexts, taps into perhaps the most pressing of our contemporary fears. To say it is a ‘song about a suicide bomber’ is far too simplistic. After all, the narrator tells us he will ‘step back’ after wreaking his revenge. But the mentality of the ‘war on terror’ is one which forces us all to be afraid, especially of a stranger in the darkness on some monomaniacal religious mission. In the next verse, perhaps the most mysteriously enigmatic in the whole song, the narrator grows ever more possessed with angry self-righteousness. …All my loyal and much-loved companions… he scowls …they approve of me and share my code… The last word of the line is particularly challenging. Does the narrator possess, or think he possesses, some secret arcane numerical formula, a Da Vinci code or the like? What is certain is that he seems to think he has some kind of secret moral formula in his possession, that perhaps only his ‘loyal and much-loved’ followers understand. There is certainly a suggestion here that he is some kind of extremist cult leader. The next line …I practise a faith that’s been long abandoned… is deliberately and teasingly ambiguous, indicating that Dylan is not in any way attacking the proponents of any one religion but a certain type of religious mentality which inevitably leads to intolerance and extreme violence, which thinks it has the ‘secret codes’ to tell us all how to live. The narrator’s …long and lonesome road… lacks any ‘altars’ or formal religious institutions. He does not need them. He is walking – it seems – towards death, the end of experience, all innocence drained out of him. And he is breaking down. Even his mule is ‘sick’. And his horse, like that of the ‘little boy’ in Dylan’s strange ‘ecological nursery rhyme’ Under The Red Sky, is blind.

The song’s narrator is a kind of everyman figure, stumbling towards his own death across a barren landscape. He tells us he’s …carrying a dead man’s shield… suffering pain that is ‘unending’, with a …toothache in my heel…. Yet as the song begins to enter its final phase he looks upward for inspiration, seeing the heavens lit up by ‘flying wheels’ (of fire, presumably). He seems to see himself as having a direct connection to ‘the heavens’, as if he is some kind of ‘chosen one’. This, of course, is what all religiously-driven mass murderers choose to believe. …Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?… he asks, rhetorically. To paraphrase Dylan himself, the narrator thinks God Is On His Side.  Now the man begins to will himself towards his final task. He is determined to let us know that he is driven towards this still-unspoken destiny, that he has no doubts and is absolutely serious about his task: …I’m not playin’, I’m not pretendin’… he tells us, …I’m not nursing any superfluous fears… And then, suddenly, we are back in the ‘mystic garden’. But instead of being in darkness, we are in bright sunlight. And we are told that …there’s no one here/ the gardener has gone… The narrator has entered the ‘Gates of Eden’ once again, to find that its creator has disappeared. The ‘mystic garden’ is now the source, not of the world’s creation but its end. Finally it is described, quite remarkably, as an ‘outback’, a word suggesting an endlessly stretching desert, baked by the sun. As we see the narrator disappearing into the distance we are left here, high and dry, in a place where all vegetation has withered and all hope has gone. We are in a place where God has abandoned us. The implication seems to be that this is where, as a race, we are headed.

Bob Dylan first came to fame as a ‘protest singer’, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world seemed imminently to be consumed in apocalyptic fire. Many of his greatest ‘political’ songs, like Masters of War, When The Ship Comes In and With God On Our Side, couched their apocalyptic warnings quite explicitly in Biblical terms. Appalled by those who wanted him to become a ‘leader’ or to use them for their own ends for whatever cause they might have been espousing he abandoned this ‘prophetic’ stance, preferring to be seen as a poet, a family man, a fallible human being. Since the mid-1960s he has quite deliberately avoided what one of his songs from Oh Mercy quite disgustedly labelled as the ‘political world’. Yet his poetic stance and sensibility have continued to reflect the condition of the world in which we live. On Modern Times, and in Ain’t Talkin’ in particular, he produces a sustained poetic meditation on the modern condition. Yet all of the songs on the album have shifting contexts, placing us now in the past, now in the present… as if there is no difference. By deliberately being ‘unmodern’ Dylan jolts us into seeing the world in which we live with ‘new eyes’. The overall theme of the album seems to be that, despite what shiny surfaces the modern world gives us to polish, if we stare hard enough into them we will see not only the reflection of the past but also the possible horrors of the future. Dylan once said that his ambition was to write songs that would ‘stop time’. In Modern Times’ most effective moments we are placed in a situation in which past, present and future are fused together. We stop, we listen, we laugh, we shiver. And sometimes, we tremble…


Hello again… it’s taken some time to complete this series, but here’s the final installment…  The next big series (by popular request) will be Love And Theft Track By Track, before which I’ll be doing a few entries on Dylan’ ‘soundtrack songs’ Things Have Changed, Waiting On You, Cross The Green Mountain, Tell Ol’ Bill and Huck’s Tune… watch this space!

In the meantime, as always I’d very much appreciate your thoughts on this entry, which can be sent to

Or you could leave a comment below…

Thanks to all those who have written in with their comments. They’ve been very inspiring!

I’m also pleased to announce that my just-completed book Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles, published by the plotted plain press, is now available as either a printed book or download HERE

The book combines readings of The Beatles songs with fictionalised narratives which reflect on their life and times. My aim is to ‘reclaim’ The Beatles from nostalgia and institutionalisation and to focus on their role in giving expression to the sexual, social and cultural ‘revolutions’ of the 1960s.

More extracts from this will be coming up soon on this site. Dylan fans may be interested to know it contains many references to Dylan and his influence on The Beatles. A lot of writers have mentioned this in passing but I’ve attempted to look at specific Beatles songs and link these to Dylan’s songwriting techniques in some detail. Dylan’s influence can, as I’ve discovered, be discerned as much in Paul’s songs as in John’s.

I’ve already put up several extracts on this blog, including a ‘fictionalised’ account of Dylan’s first encounter with The Beatles – follow this link to read these

And of course, it makes a wonderful Xmas present!!!


For a (rather fanciful) Christian interpretation of Ain’t Talkin’ check out this page.
This is a good example of what I meant above by Christian writers trying to fit Bob’s Biblical allusions into their box!

Dylan news can always be found at the ever-reliable Expecting Rain

Visions Of Dylan is a site always worth checking out

Michael Gray’s site is here

Tant Mieux is a great new site I’ve just discovered edited by Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti- here’s a link to the Bob Dylan Section


MODERN TIMES Track By Track Part Nine


…I look in your eyes, I see nobody other than me,

I see all that I am and all I hope to be…

The secret language of the blues has always enthralled Bob Dylan. From his earliest days as a performer he has been irresistibly attracted to its sly, lascivious poetic sensibility, its subtle use of imagery and nuance, the codes and sub-codes and complex patterns of reference within its corpus. His ambition has always been to inhabit the mental condition of the great blues singers, to …carry myself like Big Joe Williams… as he once put it, to locate the body of his own work within the emotional world that the greatest blues singers of the form’s classic mid twentieth century period (particularly between the 1920s and the 1950s) had constructed. As a boy in the early 1950s, his ear craned to the radio, those singers must have seemed to him to speak from a mysterious, dangerous, yet often hilarious, place where life was being experienced to the full, in all its horror and ecstasy. Yet unlike the blues singers he has always eulogised with such awe Dylan was not born into poverty in the sweaty Mississippi Delta but in the cold, windy North Country at the opposite northern end of Highway 61. And unlike them, he was also highly (self) educated in the whole poetic tradition of Western culture. Perhaps his most original stylistic trait – as both a musician and a writer – is his often playful fusing of the sensibility of the blues with literary techniques and concepts. We think of lines like …Need a dump truck baby to/unload my head… Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues… I seen pretty people disappear like smoke… as especially ‘Dylanesque’, because of the way he seamlessly integrates symbolic imagery with blues vernacular.

As Dylan has grown older, he has re-immersed himself in blues imagery and attitude. World Gone Wrong, his immaculately executed 1993 album of covers of songs by the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Willie McTell and others, preceded his wholesale adoption of blues form on much of Time Out Of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times. On these albums he constructs many of his songs from scattered pieces of blues imagery, reassembling them in a kind of collage in a way that might well be called self-referentially ‘post modern’. Yet in doing so he reveals the way in which the blues of the classic period was ‘post modern’ in its own way, well before the verbose French intellectuals of the 60s and 70s strove to define postmodernism as our culture’s current condition. During the last decade Dylan has, in fact (in his own guardedly ambiguous, stoically po-faced way) identified himself more and more with the sensibilities of that period, exploring the ‘sentimental’ tradition of mainstream songwriting of the time in pieces like Make You Feel My Love, Moonlight, Bye and Bye and Beyond The Horizon. As part of this process he has gradually abandoned his disheveled jeans-and-stubble look in his live performances in favour of elaborately stylized and deliberately archaic suits. While other rock stars of his age (like Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger) try to present themselves as eternally youthful, Dylan has appeared to glory in ‘being old’. He even frequently sports a very ‘1940s’ style pencil-thin moustache, in the manner of Errol Flynn. It is as if he is quite deliberately positioning himself in the pre-1960s world, a stance which helps to give his latter-day work great ironic resonance. The blues singers of the classic period were not – as liberal folkies used to like to imagine – tortured souls dedicated to a purist musical ethos in the service of some quasi-political message. They were primarily entertainers, whose job it was to make people smile and to get them dancing on a Saturday night after a week’s hard graft. Most blues singers thus mixed in the blues with other contemporary song forms. It is this mixture which the modern Dylan – in his albums and his inspirational radio show – celebrates.

The Levee’s Gonna Break is – like a number of Dylan’s other recent songs – a dance tune, characterised by an insistent, repetitive, yet understated rhythm. It’s a showcase for the tasteful ensemble playing of Dylan’s current, highly unshowy, dark-suited band. In the context of Modern Times it provides some uplifting moments between the philosophical resignation of Nettie Moore and the apocalyptic brooding of Ain’t Talkin’. Despite its tone of ‘flirting with disaster’ it’s basically a cheerful work out, often used very effectively in live performance to build up the tempo of the shows. The song is, like Rolling and Tumbling and Someday Baby, an adaptation of a well known blues classic, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy’s When The Levee Breaks (1929), which in 1971 was developed into the Led Zeppelin song of the same name. The Zeppelin version, with its iconic and much-sampled ‘heavy’ drum sound, is undoubtedly a potent evocation of a kind of dread the singer feels at the power of nature. But Dylan’s take on the song- though it uses few of the original lyrics – returns to the more equivocal tone of the duo’s recording. Released two years after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which caused huge disruption among the black community in the state of Mississippi, When The Levee Breaks was one of a number of songs related to this event. Half a million homes were destroyed and the flood covered an area of 15,000 miles. The flood’s effects contributed greatly to the mass migrations of black people to Chicago and other Northern cities, which were to be further intensified by the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the depression a couple of years later. Yet the plight of such huge numbers of poor black people met with much indifference from the government and the media of the day. Despite this, singer Kansas Joe approaches this great disaster with apparent stoical indifference. The pretty, deft guitar picking by Joe and Memphis Minnie gives the track a lightness of tone. And though Joe tells us he’s …worked on the levee, mama both night and day… and claims to have ...nobody to tell my troubles to… it’s almost as if the flood is merely a kind of backdrop for his complaints about the ‘woman trouble’ that he keeps alluding to. Rather than being angry, he seems merely resigned to his fate. It’s as if the great effort he’s put it to prevent the dam bursting is more important as a symbol of the impossibility of him keeping his woman.

Dylan’s version of the song has inevitably been seen as a comment on the modern equivalent of the 1927 flood, the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, when again the plight of huge numbers of displaced black people met with great official indifference and neglect. Yet though there are a few passing (if ambiguous) references to such a calamity, particularly in lines such as …some people on the road carrying everything that they own… The Levee’s Gonna Break can hardly be called a ‘protest’ about the subject (though many have fondly imagined it to be so). As with the original song, the great flood alluded to (and the ominous ongoing threat of an even greater one) is merely a kind of backdrop to the singer’s more pressing concerns – his failure to keep or satisfy his woman and his concern with personal salvation. Dylan’s lyrics reference a number of other songs – in particular Carl Perkins’ Put Your Cat Clothes On (1956) and Charlie Jackson’s Butter and Egg Man Blues (1925). But the song also powerfully echoes Dylan’s own Down In The Flood (also known as Crash On The Levee) from The Basement Tapes (1967), a song which has featured widely in his Never Ending Tour live shows. The ‘crash’ in that song may well be an allusion to Dylan’s own semi-mythical motorbike crash which ended his ‘amphetamine clown’ period of the mid-60s. Certainly it is a song of rejection, for a lover who’ll have to …find yourself another best friend somehow… (which, by extension, might well be applied to the singer’s own audience). Yet it also dramatises a kind of spiritual struggle, firmly placing the responsibility for an individual’s chances of salvation on their own head: …it’s sugar for sugar, salt for salt/If you go down in the flood it’s gonna be your fault… In the blues, and in much of Dylan’s work, the imagery of flooding often implies a kind of judgement – divine or otherwise – on the human condition. A ‘hard rain’ will come to wash away sin and lies, as it does in the great biblical flood. Everybody’s making love, or else expecting rain. In two of his most powerful recent songs Dylan again evokes flood imagery. In Trying To Get To Heaven from Time Out Of Mind (1997), before embarking on a journey down river to New Orleans, he declares he’s …wading through the high muddy water/With the heat rising in my eyes… And in Love and Theft’s High Water (itself based on a Charley Patton song about the great New Orleans flood of 1927, to which it makes several direct allusions, the flood becomes generalised as an index of moral and corruption and religious hypocrisy.

In contrast, the voice of The Levee’s Gonna Break appears relatively nonchalant. Like Kansas Joe, Dylan maintains a tone of apparent indifference. His seems to have several concerns – spiritual, social and personal – all of which he refers to in a rather offhand way. At several points he hints at a kind of (presumably failed) spiritual quest. In the first verse we hear that …everybody sayin’ this is a day only the Lord could make… suggesting the flood has been the result of divine intervention. We hear the narrator tell us that …I got to the river and I threw my clothes away… suggesting some attempt at baptism or personal spiritual ‘cleansing’. Later there is the somewhat equivocal promise that …riches and salvation can be waiting behind the next bend in the road… and the oddly millenialist ….Few more years of hard work, then there’ll be a 1,000 years of happiness… But the singer never sounds convinced that such ‘salvation’ is at hand. If the flood he refers to really is some divinely inspired apocalypse, it seems that he’s hedging his bets on the results of Judgement Day. At the same time there’s a kind of social conscience at work – apparent resentment at the unnamed forces of authority who will strip you of all they can take… as well as the reference to displaced homeless masses who …don’t know which road to take… The narrator merely describes the situation rather than putting any political point of view forward.

The singer’s main concerns seem to be personal. A few verses in we get the sarcastic, resentful ...I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get… followed by the supremely laconic …You say you want me to quit ya, I told ya, ‘No, not just yet.’… In the great blues tradition, the singer’s political and spiritual concerns seem to be a kind of smokescreen for anxieties about his personal sexual life. There are veiled hints of his lover’s somewhat overpowering sexuality: …I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed/I ain’t got enough room to even raise my head… confessions of devotion: When I’m with you, I forget I was ever blue/Without you there’s no meaning in anything I do… and a final plea to his lover not to leave him. But there’s always a sense that the woman is far stronger than him and that he’s in fact being controlled by her: …I tried to get you to love me, but I won’t repeat that mistake… Perhaps the most revealing lines, though, occur in the middle of the song …I look in your eyes, I see nobody other than me/ I see all that I am and all I hope to be… This is a quintessentially Dylanesque paradox, reminiscent of earlier songs like It Ain’t Me Babe and Just Like A Woman where the identity of the ‘lover’ in the song is revealed to be partly an aspect of the narrator himself. Indeed the lines directly recall those from Denise, an unreleased cut from the Another Side sessions (1964) where the singer concludes: …I’m looking deep in your eyes, babe, and all I can see is myself… Although the image in The Levee’s Gonna Break describes the purely physical effect of looking into another’s eyes and seeing your own reflection, the rather philosophical emphasis of the following line creates an ambiguous suggestion that in addressing his elusive lover, the narrator is in fact (as with the almost intangible figure of ‘Louise’ in Visions of Johanna) using her as a ‘mirror’ for the imperfections of his own soul.

The original version of the song had used the threat of the breaking down of the levees as a metaphor for the frustration the singer feels at the way his lover has treated him. Dylan retains this dynamic in his version but also extends it into a kind of self-examination. Against a backdrop of apocalyptic chaos in the world outside he reflects on his own inner imperfections. It’s as if he’s sitting in a darkened room, casually flicking through the news channels, picking up snippets of information. But he’s not really concentrating on what he sees in front of him. He’s just thinking about himself. In that way the song very much reflects the modern condition – the indifference with which we accept great natural disasters. Yet despite the casualness of the narrator’s tone and the elevating lightness of the music that accompanies the voice, the constant repetitious pitter-patter of the rain that continues to fall may yet threaten us all. As the planet’s icecaps melt and floods of biblical proportions threaten to gather, we sit alone like Dylan’s narrator, preoccupied with other matters. The condition, perhaps, of our Modern Times. Here we sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price we will have to pay for our indifference. The final lines of the song add up to a portentous warning: …Some people are still sleeping… Dylan drawls, as if unconcerned …some people are wide awake…

Perhaps it’s time, then, that we woke up.


Hello again to my readers. So sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to this project but I’ve been hugely preoccupied with trying to earn a living for the last few months! Now hope to post very regular entries and move on (or back!) to Love and Theft and beyond…

Thanks to Ian Cooper for his help and encouragement with all this stuff

Please send any comments you may have

Check out Michael Gray’s site  at

Also the ever changing VISIONS OF DYLAN at

And the ever-reliable EXPECTING RAIN at






The world has gone black before my eyes…

Across the courtroom the judge reaches for his black cap. Now he is poised to settle it on his head. In that moment, for Lost John, time freezes. It is as if he has stepped out of himself, like he’s an actor in some projection of his own. First he is confronted with an all-enveloping blackness, as if the hangman’s hood has already been placed over his head. Maybe it already has. Maybe he’s already dead. He can hear no clocks ticking. Out of the darkness, images of the last few weeks flash in front of him. He’s sitting near where two railroad tracks cross over each other, both leading to unknown destinations, kicking his feet in the dust. And there is the beautiful Nettie’s face, looming up in front of him. Harsh, unintelligible words being exchanged. Then there is a bottle of whisky, being spilt. A knife flashing in the light. The world spinning off its axis. And then the creak of the gallows. As the judge utters those dread words, Lost John tries to pray. Maybe it’s not too late, even now, for him to be redeemed…


Nettie Moore is one of Dylan’s saddest, most tragic, songs. It begins and ends with an ominous drumbeat, which continues throughout. It expresses deep regret at a life wasted and its narrator sees no real hope for the future. The original nineteenth century folk song Nettie Moore – from which Dylan borrows the first line of the chorus – was the anguished lament of a male slave separated from his love by his darling Nettie being sold down river. The singer’s only consolation is the thought of being reunited with her in heaven. Dylan transposes this anguish into one of his favourite folk idioms, the murder ballad. In his Nettie Moore the singer has, in a moment of mad passion, knifed his love Nettie to death. Yet although he tries to reach for spiritual consolation, there is really little to be found. The scenario is located, as with so many of the songs on Modern Times, somewhere in a sepia-tinted past, some time between the Civil War and the 1920s. Yet at times we have a nagging feeling that this time may be now. As with so many of Dylan’s most complex songs, the narrative shifts and slides through time, as the narrator’s recollections overwhelm and confuse him.

The song begins by introducing the narrator, ‘Lost John’, who sits – in the time honoured blues tradition – ‘on a railroad track’. In the blues the railroad symbolised many things – freedom and escape especially – but this is a man with no sense of direction, an ‘everyman’ (a ‘John’) who is spiritually ‘ lost’. The traditional blues imagery in the first verse (blues fallin’ down like hail…) is counter posed against some oddly modern rhymes: …Something’s out of whack… the narrator muses. And the blues will …leave a greasy trail… Already there is a sense of uncertainty, of displacement, of a figure to whom these ‘modern times’ brings only confusion. Later we learn that the singer is sitting …where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog… a reference to W.C. Handy’s Yellow Dog Blues, describing a point in the small town of Moorehead (where Nettie comes from?) where two railways cross. Lost John is thus, as in Robert Johnson’s famous song where he ‘sells his soul to the devil’, at a kind of crossroads – he’s at the junction of two possible paths in his life. But he cannot stand. He merely sits, in despair, and weeps. His route on a ‘long dark train’ has already been chosen. Dylan’s voice veers between sweetness and harshness as the deathly drumbeat continues behind him. At first Lost John begins to dream – he imagines that he will follow one of those railroad tracks, travelling around the world with his ‘cowboy band’ to return to his love. He testifies to his devotion to his love, telling her he’d …walk through a blazin’ fire… to get to her. But as the first chorus kicks in, we may already begin to identify those flames as the licking of hellfire. Lost John has no escape. His happiness is over. Although winter has been succeeded by spring, the world has gone black before his eyes.

The next verse lurches oddly between a rather garrulous complaint about there being …too much paperwork… in the modern world and a reference to Frankie and Albert, protagonists of perhaps the most famous American murder ballad (covered by Dylan on Good As I Been To You). Then the narrator mutters …I’m beginning to believe what the scriptures tell… But it’s becoming pretty clear that he’s gone beyond the need for any spiritual guidance. Now the dead Nettie is whispering in his ear, promising to ride with him to the ‘top of the hill’, a phrase that recalls Dylan’s own It Takes A Train To Laugh (1965) in which the lover and his girl confront the prospect of looming death together. But while the originally released version of that song on the Highway 61 album is relaxed and philosophical, here we are presented with a growing sense of panic. After the next chorus we are taken into another flashback scene, as the narrator is overwhelmed by the lust he felt for Nettie, slyly (and in a manner typical of blues allusion) using food as a metaphor for sex: She been cooking all day, it gonna take me all night /I can’t eat all that stuff in a single bite… But then we are jolted into the real present tense of the song, as the hanging judge enters the room. He tells himself to …lift up your eyes…. But, of course, the world has gone black before those eyes and all he can do is immerse himself further in the past. Lust gives way to anger as he drunkenly accuses Nettie of calling him ‘dirty names’. The next line is very threatening: …When I’m through with you, you’ll learn to keep your business straight…

In the final verses, Lost John stands with the hangman’s hood over his head. He confesses that his love for Nettie is still overwhelming, obliquely revealing his murder weapon: …no knife could ever keep our love apart… In his last moments he repents, wishing to …raise the voice of praise… He is ‘standing in the light’, and in the song’s most heartrending line he cries … I wish to God that it were night…. But this is a deeper darkness, and though he tries to take consolation in imagining he will meet Nettie after death ( …a life time with you is like some heavenly day…) Dylan’s delicate and sensitive performance of this tortured narrative foreshadows the apocalyptic conclusion that Modern Times will accelerate towards in the next two songs. The voice swells with sympathy for his narrator’s plight, but it seems that no prayers can save him. A flash of a knife, and darkness has descended… permanently. The music never strays from its funereal tone. Nettie Moore investigates in a very moving way the consequences of sin – it weights a lifetime of good intentions against a moment of madness, when passion merges into violence. For Lost John, his Deal has gone down. There is no way out for him now. Religion will offer him no consolation. Yet the song aches with compassion, edging just this side of tears throughout, balancing nostalgia against unnameable dread.

The song dramatises the spiritual crisis which is the real subject of Modern Times. It is a very ‘modern’ crisis which affects us all. Many of Dylan’s greatest songs – from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to Desolation Row to Idiot Wind – have confronted, and even apparently embraced, a chaotic world view. … I accept chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me… as he once famously told us. In many others, from The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll to With God On Our Side to Hurricane – have pleaded eloquently for the need for natural, universal justice. Other songs like The Wicked Messenger, Blind Willie McTell, and Ring Them Bells have presented a vision of a world in which there are, and can never be, any real answers, only …power and greed and corruptible seed… Nettie Moore, and the songs which follow it on Modern Times, belong to this group. At the beginning of the album Thunder On The Mountain (another song which embraces chaos) smartly defies the Devil, but here the spirit of darkness cannot be denied. The bleak fatalism that Dylan conveys is deeply rooted in the world view of the blues. Just as a song like Robert Johnson’s Hellhound On My Trail (from which the line ‘blues falling down like hail’ is referenced) presents a narrator whose stance appears to be beyond any sense of ‘everyday’ morality – a sinner simultaneously dreaming lustfully and experiencing extreme paranoia – so Nettie Moore stares unequivocally at the face of Death and pronounces its own judgements on itself. There is no way out. Sweet talking will never do the trick. The narrator tells us that …Everything I’ve ever known to be right has been proven wrong… There is a kind of terror behind the song, a fear of a chaotic universe in which there is no God, no universal principle, no divine Mercy. In Nettie Moore Dylan bravely embraces chaos again, plunging himself into the expressive creativity which now serves as his spiritual solace. In his sad but not mournful tone, he wrestles with the sacrifices that the artist must make to do justice to his own creative spirit. Spiritual consolations must be rejected and chaos, it seems, must be embraced.




Hello again. It’s been a while since my last entry as I’ve been working hard on the proofs for my forthcoming book on The Beatles, Who Could Ask For More (check out extracts top left on page)


More extracts from that soon


As usual I welcome any comments at


Check out Michael Gray’s site  at


Also the ever changing VISIONS OF DYLAN at


And the ever-reliable EXPECTING RAIN at




MODERN TIMES TRACK BY TRACK Part Seven: Beyond The Horizon


There’s always a reason

Why someone’s life has been spared…

Beyond The Horizon underlines the irony of Bob Dylan calling his latest album Modern Times. Once Dylan was one of the leaders of a musical movement which seemed to be aiming to sweep away the detritus of the past: now he celebrates the musical values which songs like Like A Rolling Stone and Desolation Row once seemed to have put into permanent eclipse. Dylan’s contemporary work is now quite explicitly steeped in a semi-mythical pre-war world; evoking an era when the phenomena of mass communications and mass fame was still new and dazzling. Nowhere is this more evident than on his delightful, teasingly endearing Theme Time Radio Hour, which has been running for around ten months now on XM Satellite Radio. Theme Time presents ‘Uncle Bob’ the ‘jovial host’, always ready with a merry quip, smirking behind his matinee idol moustache as he delivers a series of tunes from the 1920s to the 1950s – the pre-rock and roll world of hot jazz, primal blues, downhome hillbillies and sweaty crooners; a ‘pre-modern’ world we tend to see through a filter of sepia tones. When asked by an email correspondent why he plays so many old songs and so few new ones ‘Uncle Bob’ drolly replies … I ain’t got nothin’ against new songs… It’s just that there are a lot more old songs than new songs…

Take that how you will… Dylan, of course, has always loved to be mischievous and paradoxical. Modern Times is an album which delights in using the musical and lyrical styles he celebrates on his radio show with such cheerful perversity. Yet he twists those styles into new and alarming shapes. Beneath the apparently comforting surface of his ‘crooning’ style on Spirit On The Water and Beyond The Horizon he is asking searching questions – about creativity, about the ageing process, about the ‘meaning’ of life itself. Modern Times is – despite its use of ‘the past’ as a formal structure – a thoroughly contemporary piece of work, precisely because it challenges our notions of what is contemporary. Throughout the twentieth century popular music ‘progressed’ through many different styles which, by the 1990s, were already being ‘recycled’ into new forms. While 90s hip hop and dance remixers ‘ironically’ re-presented and re-formed the musical cultures of the 60s and 70s into contemporary forms, in the 2000s Dylan takes us beyond such irony: he straightfacedly presents the kind of musical styles that were once mocked by ‘hip’ youth as being only for ‘old fogies’; wearing them like a series of ironic masks, yet at the same time taking those styles perfectly seriously. The biggest irony of all this is that in many ways Dylan is still doing what he has always done: filtering the present through the past. His art has always been drenched in tradition: those early ‘protest’ songs were almost always based around ancient folk-melodies. Nearly all of them make references, in some form or other, to an ancient judgmental, biblical morality. Yet the Dylan of today is – despite his apparent continuing preoccupation with ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption’ – possessed by a type of ‘youthful’ joyfulness and lightness of touch which his more earnest younger self never enjoyed. Although Modern Times takes us into some of the darker places of the contemporary psyche, its dominant mood is confident, even triumphant. Dylan, remember, had always wanted to ‘stop time’ in his songs. Now he sings to us from a timeless place, teasing us and winking, twirling his ‘walking cane’, with a wicked glint in his eye. As he once sang …I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…

Beyond The Horizon is a song about transcending the fear of death. It seems to contain all those romantic, corny songs which tell us about a love which will ‘last forever’, and to stretch their sentiments to the logical extreme. It manipulates cliché to go beyond cliché. As far back as Nashville Skyline (1969) Dylan had played with the nuances of cliché. On the monumental I Threw It All Away, by the brilliant subtlety of his phrasing he turns an apparently clichéd line like is all there is/it makes the world go round… into something quite amazingly moving. In Beyond The Horizon he assembles a whole song out of clichés, taking us to ‘the end of the rainbow’ through ‘the long hours of twilight’, and ‘crimson skies’ and referencing various old songs like ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’ and ‘Round About Midnight’. But his pronunciation is precise and the way he balances such stock phrases is very careful. Over a soft shuffle of standup bass and a whisper of ‘Hawaiian’ steel guitar, Dylan’s voice is querulous, sighing… straddling a thin line between ‘Dylanesque’ harshness and a kind of appealingly innocent sweetness. He takes it all so lightly, skipping over the lines like Fred Astaire, with the calm restraint of Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby. Where once he had rewritten the supernatural ballad Nottamun Town for Masters of War, now he bases his song on the old romantic weepie Red Sails In The Sunset. Dylan’s admiration for singers like Cole, Crosby and Sinatra is quite sincere. He likes their self-restraint, their wry control of phrasing. So his own ‘crooning’ style is never parodic, even though we sense that he is somehow giving us the wink all the time.

The singer begins by conjuring up an imaginary world ‘beyond the horizon’ situated somewhere …in the long hours of twilight… This is a song written, of course, by a man in his 60s, aware of his own imminent mortality. Yet while on Time Out Of Mind’s Not Dark Yet – his most profound meditation on mortality – he tell us that …Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear… now he seems to look into the face of death with a sly shrug and a playful wink. Few Dylan songs express delight in such a way… the wistful Tomorrow Is A Long Time (1963) perhaps, or the pleading Emotionally Yours (1985). But whereas such songs profess great sincerity, Beyond The Horizon is infused with an overwhelming sense of relief and sheer dizzy humility. He presents us with a vision of a kind of Paradise imagined as an ‘all singing, all dancing’ Hollywood musical. The singer has entirely come to terms with his mortality… he is already in Paradise, a place where …life has only begun… skipping a foxtrot in tie, tails and top hat. It’s as if he has followed Dorothy ‘over the rainbow’ into a garishly coloured fantasy land. But this is not a land beyond death. He seems to be telling us that once our anxieties about death are cast aside, then we can experience Paradise on Earth. In this place …love waits forever/for one and for all… This is a place where earthly desires can be fully realized. The singer pines for his love, his ‘wretched heart’ pounding. He has been ‘kissed by an angel’ yet he experiences ‘mortal (not ‘immortal’) bliss’. Now he dances with his love, cheek to cheek: … Every step that you take, I’m walking the same… His love for his ‘angel’ has ‘redeemed’ him ‘just in time’, saving him from despair. For a moment he is thrown back in time to the place he has risen out of, where …it’s dark and it’s dreary… You can see the tear in the corner of his crooner’s eye: ..I’m wounded, I’m weary… he confesses …my repentance is plain…. Now he is down on one knee, offering up a single red rose, thanking her for the redemption she has given him. He marvels at his own survival, feeling that his ‘life has been spared’ to be here in this triumphant moment:.. I still can’t believe… he sighs…that you have set aside your love for me…

As with so many of Dylan’s ‘love songs’ one is left wondering who is being addressed. It’s tempting to imagine an ageing lothario being renewed by the caresses of some young ‘precious angel’, lying in bed the soft light of morning… as he watches her sleep, marveling at how her beauty and vitality has filled him with such ‘mortal bliss’. Yet for Dylan the spirits of women and the spirits of his muses have always been inseparable. He is, after all, a Late Romantic Poet, the heir of Shelley and Keats as much as of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Just as in Spirit On The Water he pleads with a lover who represents and embodies his own creative energies, here he seems to be marveling in the way that, ‘beyond the horizon’ of his expected creative life, he has been renewed by being able to once again be embraced by the creative spirit. In the song’s occasional moments of doubt, we sense a certain frustration that life may not be long enough for the singer’s poetic energies to be fully spent, but in the end he rejoices in having …more than a lifetime/to live loving you… and so celebrates the boundlessness of the poetic spirit itself. Beyond The Horizon, however, is also a kind of drawing in of breath, a preparation for the plunge into the increasingly dark, apocalyptic themes of the album’s three remaining songs, a fleeting glimpse of Paradise before we are led into the dark heart of our Modern Times.





It’s been a while since the last instalment of  Modern Times Track By Track as I’ve been busy working on final drafts of Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles (see extracts on this blog)   which should be avbailable here soon.  More entries in the Track By Track series will follow soon and I’ve had a lot of requests to do  the same job on Love And Theft….  so that should keep me busy for a while.


As ever I’d appreciate any comments. Use the ‘comments’ box below or email me directly at


There’s an interesting take on MODERN TIMES at

and another one called ‘There’s Hot Stuff Here And It’s Everywhere I Go’ [A Young

Person’s   Guide   to  Modern Times] by John Gibbens  at:


Daily Dylan news at the ever-reliable




MODERN TIMES TRACK BY TRACK 6) Workingman’s Blues No.2


Sleep is like a temporary death…

“You will perceive that in the breast

The germs of many virtues rest,

Which, ere they feel a lover’s breath,

Lie in a temporary death”

Henry Timrod, Two Portraits



Workingman’s Blues No. 2 is already the most celebrated, though perhaps the most misunderstood, track on Modern Times. Distinguished by a beautiful, shimmering arrangement and heartfelt vocals and crammed with memorable poetic twists, it has an anthemic, always ‘scarf-waving’ quality found in only a few other Dylan songs (Just Like A Woman, The Times They Are A Changin’ and Like A Rolling Stone might be said fit into this category). Without a doubt, it gets you right there. Most of the (overwhelmingly glowing) reviews of the album have already acclaimed it as an ‘instant classic’. It’s the track on the album you might like to play to a non-Dylan fan to try to win them over, to show them that Bob isn’t just this whiny folk singer after all – that he can write a ‘good tune’ and deliver it like a ‘proper singer’ if that’s what he really wants to do. The music and the singing carry the track’s overwhelming mixture of bitter nostalgia and defiant dignity in a way that almost anyone can relate to. As a song it is heart-stoppingly moving. It lifts the spirits. It can make you want to cry. But it is not, as a number of (perhaps hopeful) commentators have suggested, any kind of ‘protest song’. The feelings it conveys are ambivalent, complex, sometimes confused. Positioned at the beginning of ‘Side Two’ of the record, it radically changes the tone of Modern Times. The first five songs are concerned with awaking the spirit of creativity – they are playful and hopeful. Workingman’s Blues No. 2 begins Dylan’s examination of the ‘dark side’ of our Modern Times. Despite its attractive tune and lush presentation, it is the most opaque and ‘difficult’ song on the album.


The song is a ‘sequel’ to Merle Haggard’s 1967 celebration of blue-collar pride, Workin’ Man’ Blues. But here Dylan’s rationale is very different to his reworking of blues classics in Rolling and Tumblin’, Someday Baby and When The Levee Breaks. His Workingman’s Blues lifts only the chorus line …Sing a little bit of these workin’ man’s blues… While Haggard’s song is a straight twelve bar shuffle, Dylan’s version is not (in the musical sense) a blues at all. Yet it’s clear that any examination of No.2 must start here. Haggard’s narrator is an upstanding member of the ‘proletariat’ (although you won’t, of course, find that word in his song) who has been …a workin’ man dang near all my life… supporting nine kids and a wife with his ‘working hands’. He’s determined to keep working …as long as my two hands are fit to use… and in a pointed sneer at those no good hippies who were getting so much of the limelight at the time, declares (twice in the song, so we can’t fail to get the point) that he ..ain’t never been on welfare/that’s one place I won’t be… But as he sits drinking his beer in a tavern, he does confess that sometimes he does fantasise about doing …a little bumming around… and catching …a train to another town…   It is perhaps this part of the song, with its connection to the Woody Guthrie freight-train rambling ethos which originally inspired the teenage Dylan, which provides the clearest link between the two songs. Naturally, Haggard’s narrator’s moment of doubt is quickly excised as he reiterates his intention to ‘keep on workin’ ‘


In the late ‘60s a song like Haggard’s Workin’ Man’s Blues would have been seen as terminally unhip. Yet from today’s perspective it is a classic of Americana, and in its own way as much a product of the late ‘60s as the Jefferson Airplane. In this and other songs Haggard was reacting against the spirit of his times by reasserting ‘traditional American values’ but not in a gooey, flag-waving way. The narrator of the song may be proud of his stance, but we are left in little doubt that his life is grueling and unrewarding. He has to keep on working because he has no choice. No doubt he’s in that tavern a lot, downing a great deal of beer. It’s a significant marker of shifts in cultural values that earlier in 2006 we saw Haggard touring in support of Dylan, interspersing his songs with sneering references to Bush’s foreign and domestic policies and comic tales about hanging out and getting very wrecked with his buddy Willie Nelson. Dylan, of course, keeps resolutely mum about such matters. It’s also significant that we can trace the beginnings of such a shift back to the late ‘60s when Dylan himself, then regarded by the counterculture as nothing less than a living prophet, the ‘voice of their generation’, would have no truck with psychedelia. In seclusion in (of all places) Woodstock, New York State, he was creating recordings which, from The Basement Tapes (1967) to the much-misunderstood Self Portrait (1970) (despised by the ‘hippie establishment’ at the time but now standing as an important landmark in the development of ‘Americana’) daringly embraced country music and many of its values. Meanwhile, Dylan’s soulmate in this adventure, Robbie Robertson of The Band, was also involved in creating an imaginative new perspective which incorporated ‘workingmen’s values’ within a vision of what Greil Marcus was later to call ‘the old, weird America’. In Mystery Train, his wonderfully eccentric paean to Elvis Presley and The Band, Marcus calls The Band’s own epic of the ‘working life’ King Harvest (Will Surely Come) (1969) Robertson’s ‘masterpiece’. King Harvest, with its embrace of unionization and its steadfast ‘working man’’s perspective, seems to me to be the other key text we need to look at with reference to Workingman’s Blues No. 2.


Dylan’s begins memorably with his own piano intro to the song’s distinctive melody, underpinned as he begins to sing by Donnie Herron’s understated viola and George Recile’s clipped, military-march style drumming. The voice is warm and resonant, gentle and welcoming. The first image is of sunset: evenin’ haze settlin’ over town/starlight at the edge of the creek… , the words and the singing style creating an idyllic picture. After this, the next lines are perhaps something of a shock, as we are immediately transported into the ‘political’ territory of a kind of ‘Marxist lament’ : …the buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down/Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak… Yet Dylan’s delivery remains calm and melodic. The use of the term ‘proletariat’ sounds oddly archaic here, and the sentiment itself strangely nostalgic. We soon learn that the opening image is part of the narrator’s ‘sweet memory’ of a life that has been lost, and so the use of the term seems to be part of that ‘lost world’. At the end of the verse the narrator, still calm and reflective, comments that …they say low wages are a reality/if we want to compete abroad… This is already a widely-quoted couplet, which many commentators have used to suggest that the whole song is a protest against globalization. Despite the fact that it chimes with Dylan’s oft-expressed concern for the American working man, as expressed in his 1983 song Union Sundown (which for all its clumsy rhetoric really was a protest against globalization), his 1994 collaboration with Willie Nelson Heartland and most famously mouthed in his highly controversial comments at Live Aid in 1985 which led to the annual Farm Aid concerts, little of the rest of Workingman’s Blues No. 2 actually supports this claim. In fact, the narrator delivers the lines with a sense of acceptance – there is no real anger here.


The backdrops against which the narrator sings are constantly shifting. As with many of Dylan’s recent songs, it’s hard to figure out whether the action is taking place in the present day or in some past time. Sometimes we seem to be in the present day, sometimes in the 1950s, the 1930s… sometimes as far back as the American Civil War. The narrators of many of the songs on Love and Theft and Modern Times live in a kind of timeless dreamworld. Dylan has said that his ambition is to write songs which ‘stop time’. We are never sure whether the actions he describes are happening in a chronological sequence or not. The songs’ stories are told through the unreliable filter of memory. In the next verse we hear that the narrator is closing his eyes and …listening to the steel rails hum… suggesting he is now a vagrant, riding a freight train. But not because, like Haggard’s working man, he seeks the freedom of ‘bumming around’. Like the migrant workers of the depression, he has no choice. The whole song can be seen as a kind of dream vision seen through this dispossessed working man’s eyes. The great irony of the song is that he is no longer a working man at all. His work has been taken away. The hunger he is fighting to stop …creeping its way into my gut… may be real hunger, or a hunger for ‘what has been lost’. In any case he sounds tearful, and resigned to his fate, telling us he has hung up his ‘cruel weapons’. The love object he addresses, whom he implores to …come sit down on my knee… may well be a child who has now grown up. In his tearful vision the narrator remembers the child as they were when he was raising him or her. He wants to enfold the child with love. But his mind is continually restless. For like the narrator of King Harvest he’s a ..union man all the way… In his mind, there are still battles to be fought. In each chorus he fantasises that, together with his child he will again fight the bosses on the ‘frontline’. The final line of the chorus repeats Haggard’s modest refrain as if it is a sacred call to arms.


As the song progresses the narrator descends further and further into his dream-fantasy. He is an old man, raging against the dying of the light, crying ‘tears of rage’. He imagines dragging those who have dispossessed him down to hell, lining them up against a wall to have them shot. But he is weary, confused, his consciousness …tossed by the wind and the seas… Already he is sinking back into sleep, resigned to his redundancy in this cruel world that has rejected him: …Sometimes no one wants what we got/Sometimes you can’t give it away… As he descends into sleep, dark visions begin to overwhelm him. He …sleeps in the kitchen with my feet in the hall… Of course he has no house, only this tiny freight train carriage where the’ kitchen’ and the ‘hall’ are so close together. He imagines himself confronted by countless faceless enemies, crowding in on him. He knows that death itself is not far away. Sleep is comforting to him but it is …like a temporary death… He knows his death is approaching but he knows not when. In the darkness he feels the …lover’s breath… which in Timrod’s poem will be the force which will awaken the spiritual life within. But it is too late for that breath to work on him. He feels …the night birds call… He knows that the end is nigh. Yet there is no sense of panic, or despair. The music remains stately and unstressed; the band subdued and disciplined behind the singer’s masterful control of his breath.


Increasingly, the narrator becomes a Lear-like figure, exiled from his land and his children. Like the singer in King Harvest he has lost his barn and his horse and his money. He knows that …the sun is sinking… on his life. Like the narrator of that great song of generational anguish Tears of Rage (another song which echoes King Lear, written by Dylan with a melody by The Band’s Richard Manuel) he fears that his child has rejected him. …Of what kind of love is this/Which goes from bad to worse… he asks himself in Tears of Rage. In Workingman’s Blues No. 2 the narrator is even further down the line: …Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking/That you have forgotten me… The narrator tells us that the child has …wounded me with your words… He says that he will wipe the memories of his enemies from his mind, but that the memory of his child – the new ‘working man’ will always remain with him. In the final verses he tries to heal the rift between them – though he is possessed by a disturbingly dark apocalyptic vision of what will happen to the child: …All across the peaceful sacred fields they will lay you low/They’ll break your horns and slash you with steel … he implores his loved one to look into his eyes one final time. And then, as life begins to ebb away, he fantasises that the child will …lead me off in a cheerful dance… Everything will be remade anew… the old man sees himself with …a brand new suit and a brand new wife… He declares that he can live well on a meager diet. In the final moments he restates his pride in being a ‘working man’ by telling us that he is ready to work again, unlike those who …never worked a day in their life/Don’t know what work even means… Perhaps he is Haggard’s working man, now grown old, his world and his values in ruins. But in the end, as the sun sinks on his life, and although circumstances have overwhelmed him, he has something solid to cling to. His pride, in the end, is his salvation.


Although, with its opaque and mysterious surface, the song may appear to be at odds with much of Modern Times, Workingman’s Blues No. 2 is in many ways its central opus. It is a kind of ode to ‘Modern Times’ itself. Not only the modern world of the technological, globalised culture of the twenty first century but also the eternal process of evolving into ‘Modern Times’ that happens to every new generation. And Dylan himself, of course, is a ‘working man’ who for the last eighteen years or so of the Never Ending Tour has pursued the goal of finding his own salvation through constant work. There is a level on which, in Workingman’s Blues No. 2, he is addressing his audience, taking us through the times in which he himself felt abandoned, having only his own pride to fall back on. But the renewed confidence he now shows in his music and his writing – the result of years of hard work – can be felt in every moment of this transcendent, far-reaching piece, which stands with his very best songs. Like Visions of Johanna or Desolation Row or Idiot Wind or Jokerman or Blind Willie McTell it can be subjected to many different interpretations. And like those songs, every time you hear it sets off new trains of thought in your mind. All you need to do is close your eyes and listen to those steel rails humming…





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Bob Dylan’s Modern Times Track By Track






Between the complex metaphysics of When The Deal Goes Down and the luxurious poetry of Workingman’s Blues No. 2, we get a little light relief as Dylan communes once again with the ‘ghosts’ who loom behind the surfaces of Modern Times. Someday Baby is another ‘my baby done left me’ blues. Like Rolling and Tumbling it is an adaptation of an earlier song which has been developed through the work of a number of leading blues singers. The first known version, titled Worried Life Blues, was written and recorded by legendary blues pianist ‘Big Maceo’ Merriweather in 1941. Various versions of the song, some called Someday Baby, have been recorded by Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. A number of these artists have adapted or comprehensively rewritten the lyrics and many have claimed ‘authorship’ of the song. What all these versions have in common is the expression by the singer of a desire for eventual revenge against an unnamed female. The singer is always telling us that eventually she will come to regret leaving him in the lurch. The song consists of a series of excuses the singer makes to himself for how his ‘revenge’ will be delayed. Very often, the tone of the singer’s hurt is exaggerated and, by implication, self mocking, so that the song becomes – like so many blues songs – a kind of self-commentary. As with Rolling and Tumbling Dylan completely rewrites the verses, but the attitude he conveys is very similar to that of his antecedents. He pleads with us to ‘pity po’ me’ but his tone he adopts makes us question whether we should take this plea at face value.

The music here is more relaxed than Rolling and Tumbling, and the expression of the singer more equivocal. The lyrics are modest, as unpoetic and subdued as the singer’s tone. Only occasionally does a more deliberately self-analytical tenor creep in. It is at these moments that we are reminded of Dylan’s characteristically self-conscious use of the blues idiom. Modern Times is, like Time Out Of Mind (1997) , Blood On The Tracks (1975) and New Morning (1970), a kind of very personal testament; a series of songs through which Dylan attempts to work out his own personal place in the scheme of things. On New Morning he attempts to balance a simple joy in family life in the country with nagging self-doubt about what he should be doing. But the prevailing tone is of contentment. On the ‘divorce album’ Blood On The Tracks the main feeling we get is of rage, woven through complex stories about lovers who can never agree as to ‘what is best’. In Time Out Of Mind, as Dylan confronts his own mortality, we begin with a kind of tired disgust and end with dazed, exhausted detachment. Modern Times contains all these emotions, from the apocalyptic rage of Ain’t Talkin’ to the romantic heartbreak of Nettie Moore to the philosophical resignation of When The Deal Goes Down and Spirit On The Water. Yet its prevailing mood, at least so far, is of proud self-assurance. At the end of Time Out Of Mind’s closer Highlands the singer asserts that he has …new eyes/everything seems far away… Through those ‘new eyes’ Dylan now confronts the sources of his art. Having conjured up the inspirational forces that constitute his ‘new-found faith’ in creativity, he calls their spirits to him and lets them fill him up. In doing so he invokes the mysterious process of how the blues conveys emotion, a process that has been one of the central fascinations of his career. While the album’s more poetic pieces reference the blues as part of a wider lyrical vision, the more lyrically basic blues numbers convey their message through the subtle use of nuance.

On Someday Baby Dylan never sounds in the least depressed. At worst he offers a shrug at the world’s unfairness. The band is tight and disciplined, playing in a relaxed way that nevertheless hints at a certain tension. Dylan’s vocal is smooth and understated, even rising in pitch slightly as he sings the chorus line …someday baby, you ain’t gonna worry po’ me any more… One of his most distinctive vocal techniques has always been his use of unexpected stresses, a way of singing that has allowed him to continually reinvent the meaning of his songs and keep them wholly alive. Here, in contrast to his natural gruffness, the singing is smooth and assured. Only at the really crucial moments in the song, where genuine questions are being asked, does he sound less than certain of what he is telling us. One such moment is the end of verse two. As he complains …well, you take my money, and you turn me out… his voice glides over the syllables. But then, during the next line …you fill me up with/nothin’ but self doubt… he lingers just slightly on the first syllable of …nothin’… as if he is hesitating slightly over what he is about to say. Of course, his ‘baby’ has just ripped him off for all his money and thrown him out of his own home, so he has some right to be a little cross. But ‘self doubt’ seems a rather mild punishment for him to endure and seems a remarkably self-conscious phrase to use during a blues song.

In the next verse, the singer sounds like he might lose his cool. …You drive me so hard… he asserts …almost to the grave…. his voice becoming suddenly guttural on the final word. But the overall delivery is still so smooth that it’s hard to believe he’s really so hurt. This impression is verified after a short instrumental passage, with snatches of unflashy guitar building up the tension, when we hear that …I’m so hard pressed, my mind tied up in knots /I keep recycling the same old thoughts…, his voice gliding over ‘thoughts’, as if the singer’s problem is not really with the woman but himself. Thus the violent declaration that he will …wring your neck… in the next verse seems unconvincing, especially as he claims that he would only do it to preserve his ‘self respect’. The singer tries to be angry, telling the girl she can …take your clothes/put ‘em in a sack… and that he …gon’ drive you from your home… but it feels like an empty boast. Finally the singer can only reflect that …living this way ain’t a natural thing to do… and rather pathetically laments …why was I born to love you?. After a short instrumental passage, the track fades away. Nothing, as Dylan once had it, is revealed. But it’s hard to see this as any kind of anguished love song. It seems that Dylan is once again addressing his muse. It is the ‘Tambourine Man’, the spirit of inspiration, that he was ‘born to love’ and it is the pressure of expectation on him that has driven him nearly ‘to the grave’. He is ‘so hooked’ on his muse’s charms that he must continue to serenade the creative spirit, no matter how ‘unnatural’ it may seem to him to continue doing so. Yet he is worried that self-doubt and lack of inspiration (those ‘same old thoughts’) will overwhelm him. But the lack of any convincing panic in his voice or in the music conveys the impression that this is very unlikely to happen. In Someday Baby the singer fears that his muse may desert him. One day, he tells us, he will be gone, down a road from which there is no return. The tussle with his ‘self-doubt’ will then be finally over. That day still seems a very long way away. But the song is a reminder of the constant struggle between the artist and his imagination, between creation and the void. Modern Times represents the triumph of that struggle, demonstrating eloquently how Dylan has risen from the depths of lack of inspiration to forge a new, more self-aware, form of artistic expression.

Now we are halfway through the album, what would once have been the ‘end of Side One’. For the most part, the songs so far have been gently personal, playful, affirmative, philosophical. But from here on things begin to take a darker turn. The singer begins to survey what lies ‘beyond the horizon’ of his own perceptions. He begins to look outward, to the world outside. Having defined his own position, he is about to take the true measure of our ‘Modern Times’


Thanks for all your encouraging responses. I’d be happy to hear any comments you might like to make and hope to respond to everybody who writes in.

I’m happy to set up links to other ‘bloggers’ out there writing about anything relevant – let me know and I’ll link to you. I recommend the very cool Visions of Dylan

You might also be interested in taking a look at my website, From The Pen Of Chris Gregory.  This showcases my previously published books on THE PRISONER and STAR TREK and some of my poems and plays.

For daily news of Dylan and Dylan-related stuff check out  Expecting Rain

The official Dylan site (with all the lyrics except Modern Times) is here

For discussions on Dylan, check out Bob Dylan Forum

Next up will be Workingman’s Blues No. 2.

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Also look out for the first publication of an extract from my forthcoming book on The Beatles, featuring a ‘fictionalised’ account of their meeting with Dylan. Watch this space!!





…We all wear the same thorny crown

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Modern Times is its lyrical and emotional clarity. The lyrics of 2001’s Love And Theft, like so many Dylan albums before it, featured often wildly allusive patterns of reference. But here the songs are carefully constructed to convey specific emotions and themes in a way that we may not generally think of as ‘Dylanesque’. When The Deal Goes Down is perhaps the most precisely written and the least ambiguous piece on the album. It deals with mortality and the fragility of existence ‘in this earthly domain’ with great humility and dignity. As ever with Dylan, we are presented with a number of apparently very different reference points. Its rich fusion of natural imagery and restrained ‘plain speak’ is reminiscent of the poetry of Robert Frost. It is delivered in a breathy, almost whispered Willie Nelson-style croon which befits its bittersweet nature, in a tune based on an old Bing Crosby number. There is a sparing use of archaic language, including some lines lifted from the work of Civil War poet Henry Timrod. The song is also infused with the spirit, and some of the imagery, of the blues. Yet these disparate elements are quite seamlessly combined in a transcendent, sometimes almost heartbreaking, performance. The song is a kind of open confession, in which the singer lays forth his spiritual confusion in what becomes a kind of conversation with his audience, the rest of the world and himself.


When The Deal Goes Down is especially reminiscent of two earlier Dylan songs, both of which wrestle with loss of faith, mortality and the mysteries of the cosmos. Every Grain of Sand (1981) was written at the end of his most overtly religious period, following his dramatic conversion to Born Again Christianity in 1979. But here the moral certainty of the songs of two years before is replaced by profound self-doubt. Although he declares that he can …see the Master’s hand…. in every aspect of creation, he finally confesses that …sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me… as if his whole experience of God has been merely one of his own projections. By the time of Not Dark Yet (1997) the singer faces a complete loss of faith, feeling that his …soul has turned into steel…. and telling us that …sometimes my burden is more than I can bear… When The Deal Goes Down attempts to provide a resolution to this ongoing spiritual crisis. What makes the song so moving is the way it depicts a struggle for, and perhaps a final attainment of, a kind of grace, or spiritual enlightenment, achieved not through any conventionally ‘religious’ path but through making a personal ‘deal’ with the spirit of creativity. Dylan has stated that he now places his faith not in any deity but in the old songs he constantly revisits and refers to in his art, many of them (such as Hank Williams’ manic gospel number I Saw The Light) rather turbulent expressions of faith. As with Spirit On The Water and Rolling And Tumbling, Dylan makes the spirit of creativity his touchstone, his ‘God’, his ‘Tambourine Man’.


The song begins like a slow country waltz, with some mournful steel guitar and tense percussive brush strokes. In the first verse Dylan describes the state of spiritual confusion he has found himself in, confessing that he is ‘bewildered’ and that …we live and we die/We know not why… Any prayers that may be offered up are like invisible clouds, floating away unnoticed. The ‘pathways of life’ are dark and the singer stands in the symbolic landscape of …the world’s ancient light/Where wisdom grows up in strife… The declaration of …But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down… is the first statement of defiant faith, apparently contradicting what has gone before. Although the song sounds nothing like the blues, it has begun in the typical manner of a blues lament – by stating the singer’s troubles. The phrase ‘when the deal goes down’ is used in a number of blues songs, including Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down by Dylan’s particular favourites The Mississippi Sheiks and Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, originally recorded by Charlie Poole and The North Carolina Ramblers in 1925 (and covered by Dylan on several occasions). The ‘deal’ in these songs is a gambling metaphor which the singers extend to life in general, the idea being that you have to face life with whatever ‘hand’ you are dealt. Here, despite what the singer identifies as the apparent purposelessness of life, he is determined to hold onto the ‘cards’ he has been given.


As the band sticks to the minimal backdrop, Dylan continues with his understated delivery. The song continues to shift between the personal to the universal. The first lines of the second verse ...We eat and we drink, we feel and we think/far down the street we stray… suggests, in a philosophical tone, that we are all fallible creatures who will inevitably ‘stray’ from the path of virtue. The singer is ‘haunted’ by regret for ….things I never meant or wished to say…  The second half of the verse moves from plainspeak into more imagistic expression. …The midnight rain follows the train… is the song’s most ‘Dylanesque’ line, itself derived from blues imagery. ‘Rain’ is a frequent image in Dylan’s work, frequently symbolising chaotic confusion and spiritual desolation. …I’m out in the rain/And you are on dry land… Dylan cries in 1975’s You’re A Big Girl Now, expressing his exclusion and desolation. ..Everybody’s making love… he sings in Desolation Row (1965) …or else expecting rain… In A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall lies and confusion threaten to flood the entire world. Here the ‘midnight rain’ stands as a metaphor for life’s troubles, following the train which symbolises the progress of a human life. The next line …we all wear the same thorny crown… delivered with a kind of light, sighing compassion, is perhaps the song’s most resonant image, suggesting that the burden of sin is carried by us all. Despite the obvious reference to Jesus, this is decidedly not a line he would have used on Slow Train Coming or Saved. Dylan’s work has always been steeped in Biblical imagery and a concern with what he once called ‘the politics of sin’ has always been one of his central themes. The delivery of the line here is so moving because of the sense of dignity he imparts to what amounts to an almost tearfully world-weary acceptance of the inevitability of the burden we must all bear. Whereas in Not Dark Yet the burden seems to be too much for him, here he is able to bear it lightly. The next line, the exquisite …soul to soul, our shadows roll… further emphasises the idea that ultimately we are all equally mortal, our ‘shadows’ merging together in the spiritual world. Dylan caresses the words, with their neat internal rhyme suggesting his acceptance of a kind of universal harmony. The tile line at the end of the verse now begins with ‘and’ rather than ‘but’. The contradictions of the first verse have clearly, to some extent, been resolved.


The third verse depicts the singer in a twilight, moonlit world – as if he is the ‘pale ghost’ from Spirit On The Water. The mood of reconciliation continues. …We learn to live… he tell us …and then we forgive/ o’er the road we’re bound to go… The anachronistic expression give the lines a kind of timeless quality, with the reference to the ‘road’ of life echoing the ‘street’ on which we ‘stray’ from the first verse. Perhaps Dylan was recalling Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken with its final declaration that …I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence/Two road diverged in a wood and I/Took the one less travelled by/And that one has made all the difference… The tone of resigned acceptance of fate and the idea that the choices we make that determine our lives are not always thought through parallels Dylan’s position here. The next lines, partly ‘sampled’ from Timrod, focus again on the fragility of life: …more frailer than the flowers/these precious hours… Dylan adds the remarkable …that keep us so tightly bound… suggesting that we often keep the ‘flower’ of our lives, and of our creativity, ‘tightly bound’ like pressed flowers in an old book. The implication seems to be that life is infinitely precious and that it should not be wasted in futile struggle. Following this, the final lines are now triumphant, with the singer greeting his muse like a revelation, a …vision from the skies…


The final verse sees the spiritual seeker reaffirming his newfound acceptance of life’s turbulent path. Instead of following a ‘road ‘he follows a more natural ‘winding stream’. He tells us that picks up a rose, the Blakean symbol of love, life and death and that, rather comically … it poked through my clothes… as if he does not feel it pricking him now. He is immune to its effects. Although he lives in …this earthly domain/full of disappointment and pain… he now fully accepts his place in the scheme of things. Despite the ‘deafening noise’ of life’s mad confusion, he accepts the ‘transient joys’ of life, even though … I know they’re not what they seem… He confesses that he ‘owes his heart’ to his muse. He fully accepts the hand that life has dealt him. And he implies that when death comes – when his ‘deal’ finally ‘goes down’ he will be reunited with the spirit of creativity that he now places his faith in. Thus When The Deal Goes Down is a kind of summation of the journey through spiritual confusion symbolised in Every Grain of Sand’s heartaching line …the bitter dance of loneliness, fading into space… It rejects the dark visions of much of what follows, such as the terrifying final line of 1985’s apocalyptic Dark Eyes : …a million faces at my feet/and all I see are dark eyes… and the jaded, resigned millenialist moralism of 1989’s Ring Them Bells : …Ring Them Bells/For the chosen few/Who will judge the many/When the game is through…. Since the late ‘80s Dylan has pursued, through his Never Ending Tour, a thorough exploration of the sources of his inspiration. Caught in the grip of spiritual despair and artistic desperation he declared himself …determined to stand… whether or not he could still retain his faith. Now, with Modern Times he triumphantly reasserts his ‘conversion’ to a new kind of faith – faith in himself and humanity. When The Deal Goes Down dramatises the struggle he has been through to reach this point. Now freed from the shackles of dogmatic thinking that have plagued him for so many years, he has produced a fundamentally humanistic collection of songs which confronts mortality and the vicissitudes of life itself with heartfelt compassion and great courage.




Thanks for all your encouraging responses. I’d be happy to hear any comments you might like to make and hope to respond to everybody who writes in.


I’m happy to set up links to other ‘bloggers’ out there writing about anything relevant – let me know and I’ll link to you. I recommend the very cool Visions of Dylan

You might also be interested in taking a look at my website, FromThe Pen Of Chris Gregory.  This showcases my previously published books on THE PRISONER and STAR TREK and some of my poems and plays.

For daily news of Dylan and Dylan-related stuff check out Expecting Rain

The official Dylan site (with all the lyrics except Modern Times) is here

Olaf Bjorner’s site is the place for concert listings

For discussions on Dylan, check out Bob Dylan Forum

Next up will be Someday Baby. Also look out for the first publication of an extract from my forthcoming book on The Beatles, featuring a ‘fictionalised’ account of their meeting with Dylan. Watch this space!!




Bob Dylan’s Modern Times Track By Track

19 October 20







..I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs…

And so the thoughts revolve around the poet’s mind. He’s been up all night. Sleep has been impossible. He sits on the edge of the bed, watching the young woman sleeping, her luxuriant dark hair tossed across her face. He leans closer, brushes a few strands away. He can smell the light traces of perfume, drawing him closer and closer. He is tempted to kiss her neck, just at that spot that makes her shiver. But he knows he must not wake her. He draws back, walks over to the window, and watches the first rays of dawn rising over the tenements downtown. His notebook is on the table. But still the words will not come to him. So he closes his eyes. Begins to tap his feet. Maybe if he concentrates hard enough he will begin to hear some music…


Rolling And Tumbling is the first of three blues songs on Modern Times which are clearly based on established models. Since the album was released, blues scholars and Dylan enthusiasts have been feverishly digging around to find the sources, not only of these three songs, but of many of the lines from the other songs on the album. We now know, for instance, that a number of lines – scattered throughout the album – have been ‘lifted’ from the obscure American Civil War poet Henry Timrod (‘Timrod’, we are told, is also ‘nearly’ an anagram of ‘Modern Times!). Just as with the case of the expropriation of phrases from a Japanese novel in Love And Theft’s Floater, the ‘Timrod’ connection has provided column inches in national newspapers. The question has arisen – yet again – whether Dylan is a ‘plagiarist’. Those who know Dylan’s work well can only smile at this. From his earliest days, his songs have been ‘developed’ from other songs. Almost all the songs on his breakthrough album Freewheelin (1963) took their melodies and basic structure from traditional folk songs – Girl Of The North Country from Scarborough Fair, Bob Dylan’s Dream from Lord Franklin, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall from Lord Randall, Masters of War from Nottamun Town and so on. Such instances can be found throughout Dylan’s career. In a recent interview Dylan revealed that his songwriting generally begins with him playing old folk, blues or country tunes to himself and then gradually changing the words arounds. It is a method not uncommon amongst songwriters in his field. Blues singers in particular have always adapted and developed existing songs to their own ends. In Dylan’s case, this methodology gives his work a particular type of resonance – one song refers to another, or quite possibly several other songs – making the work rooted in cultural traditions and enriching the song’s poetic content by suggesting that it somehow ‘contains’ the work of previous poet/songwriters.


Since the early 1990s, when Dylan’s transformation into the renewed artist of today began, he has turned this method of anchoring his songs within the folk and blues traditions into a kind of modus operandi. Seven years passed between the release of the patchy Under The Red Sky (1990) and the brilliant resurgence of Time Out Of Mind (1997), during which time Dylan engaged in a thorough exploration of the art of songwriting itself, the ultimate aim of which was to renew his own sources of inspiration. As well as the two albums of traditional songs Good As You Been To Me (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1994) he performed literally hundreds of ‘covers’ on his Never Ending Tour, ranging from sea shanties to the work of contemporary songwriters. Very often these cover versions were the highlights of the gigs. At times he seemed to be merely ‘churning out’ his old hits while his own interest seemed to be most focused on this exhaustive exploration of his ‘roots’. As a result Time Out Of Mind was steeped in quotation from and reference to a plethora of folk and blues classics. Throughout his succeeding work, Dylan has continued to reference the huge body of work that appears to ‘stand behind’ his new songs. The majority of this material originated in the pre-rock and roll decades, from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Over the last year he’s been treating listeners to his fabulously quirky selection of tunes from this era on his Theme Time Radio Hour show.


At the heart of this ‘postmodern’ preoccupation with ‘pre-modern’ times lies Dylan’s devotion to the poetry and mystery of the blues. This has been a lifelong preoccupation. As early as 1963 – in the Freewheelin’ sleevenotes – Dylan declared that his ambition was to learn to …carry myself like Big Joe Williams… Very many of his albums were punctuated by his exercises in the idiom – from Highway 61’s It Takes A Lot To Laugh to Blood On The Tracks’ Meet Me In The Morning. His epochal summation of the ethos of the blues in 1983’s Blind Willie McTell was a kind of humble act of supplication to the timeless relevance of the form (although at the time, caught in the grip of artistic and spiritual uncertainty, he lacked the confidence to release it). Having essayed the form in Love And Theft’s Lonesome Day Blues, Cry Awhile and Honest With Me, using the blues as a loose structure for that album’s more scatalogical approach, in the more direct Modern Times he intersperses his meditational ballads with pure evocations of the form. Rolling and Tumbling is built squarely on the version of the song made famous by Muddy Waters and since recorded by a number of prominent rock/blues acts such as Canned Heat, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and Dr. Feelgood. Waters’ version is a development of the earliest known version, Roll and Tumble Blues, recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern in 1929. Robert Johnson adapted parts of the song for his apocalyptic blues If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day. The real ‘author’ of the song is unknown.


Rolling and Tumbling uses the archetypal twelve-bar blues form, with two repeated lines followed by a rhyming line. Dylan’s version preserves the basis of the first verse but extends the song to eleven verses. He throws in various phrases from other blues songs: …I must have bet my money wrong… Let’s go down to the Greenwood Glen… My sufferin’ heart is always on the line… and more. The song is a kind of ‘patchwork quilt’ of references, a presentation of key blues imagery. As such it can be regarded as a kind of ‘dissertation’ on the blues itself, focused as it is on the archetypal ‘woke up this morning/my baby left me’ theme . The band’s playing is relaxed but the performance is full of energy, with Dylan twisting and turning the words around to bring out their full ambiguity. As with the other songs on Modern Times, however, the writing is very precise. The blues is a specific form of expression which has its own symbolism, particularly centred around sexual matters. As a poetic form it often works on several levels of ambiguity. Sex is conveyed in all sorts of colourful ways – references to milk, butter and cows for example are normally related to women’s sexuality. But the really skilful blues performer can stretch the ambiguity further, so that the sexual references may symbolise some deeper struggle. The ability to tease such levels of meaning out of a song depends greatly on the way the singer phrases the words. And Dylan, of course, is a master of phrasing, having developed the ability to alter the meanings of songs by varying the way he times his pronunciation. This is the lesson he has learned from the blues masters.


Rolling and Tumbling is a tribute to those masters. Though it appears to be a song about a woman, its real subject is the how a blues song is formulated. And, through the subtleties of Dylan’s phrasing, it also reflects on the process of composition itself, and of an artist’s struggle to find inspiration. On those prophetic Freewheelin’ sleeve notes Dylan also stresses the understanding he had of this process even at such a tender age. Blues singers, he tells us, sing not just to express their pain but in order to make themselves feel better. The performance of Rolling And Tumbling, although it begins by expressing a soul in turmoil, is sprightly, uptempo, full of joy. He stretches out the word …cried… in the first two lines, lingering on the syllables, as if …I cried the whole night long… is celebratory rather than depressing. The last line of the verse changes the original’s morally confused …I couldn’t tell right from wrong… to the more equivocal …I must have bet my money wrong… In the next verse, after the standard …I got troubles so hard, I can’t stand the strain… he spits out the extraordinary …some lazy slut has charmed away my brains… The (rather offensive) word ‘slut’ sees the singer adopting the hard-drinking, hard-womanising persona that so many blues singers hide behind – he insults the woman here but soon we see how desperate she has made him. The last part of the line suggests that the woman’s wiles have somehow weakened his resolve, or taken away his creative focus.


The next few verses alternate between blues cliches and clever, knowing asides which give us some insight into the fact that the singer’s macho stance is merely a front he’s created to hide the fact that the woman has clearly twisted him round her little finger. The self deprecating …I ain’t nobody’s house boy, I ain’t nobody’s well trained maid…almost makes the whole situation farcical. We get two particularly ironically funny lines, delivered in Dylan’s best deadpan tone: …this woman so crazy…he tells us …I ain’t gonna touch another one for years… and then, even more self-mockingly, ..ain’t nothing so depressing as trying to satisfy this woman of mine… The phrasing, while cramming the words into the metre, is immaculate. The song becomes a little darker, though the undiminished fervour of the performance seems to belie this. The singer returns to the classic blues refrain: …Well I got up this morning/Saw the rising sun return…Then he sneers …sooner or later/You too shall burn… as if wishing for revenge. He becomes even gloomier, retreating from morning to night: …the night’s filled with shadows/the years are filled with early doom…which he rhymes (in another miracle of phrasing) with perhaps the song’s key line: …I’ve been conjurin’ up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs… In order to come to terms with this woman draining away his vital energies, sapping his inspiration, he has had to ‘conjour up’ the ghosts of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hambone Willie and all. Dylan delivers the line with relish, twirling his Vincent Price moustache…


Finally he makes a plea for forgiveness, suggesting to the woman that they …forgive each other…and, as a celebration…go down to the Greenwood Glen… (Not, as some have rather comically surmised, a ‘Robin Hood’ reference but an allusion to the black district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, an important centre for jazz and blues in the prewar era). The last verse repeats the first, changing the last few words with what sounds, at first, like a typical ‘signing off’ line in a blues song: …I think I must be traveling on…In fact Dylan sings …traveling wrong… a line which echoes …bet my money wrong… showing that the singer has realised that his approach to his problem with his woman, or his creative problem, has been mistaken. After this clear resolution the track ends abruptly. In Rolling and Tumbling the blues is used as a metaphor for the artist’s struggle with the creative imagination. This is conveyed through the song’s confident, witty execution. Never does Dylan sound the least bit miserable. In fact, the tone of the song, despite its comic asides, is triumphant. A lesson has been learned. The blues, when correctly applied, is powerful medicine. And Dylan has swallowed a good dose here.


I’d love to hear any reactions to this, or suggestions for links

Email me at

Part Four, When The Deal Goes Down, should follow soon…

Other new entries in the blog – poems, film reviews etc can be accessed through the links to the right of the page.

You may be interested in looking at my website, which has a bunch of stuff about my other work.

Check out Visions of Dylan, a very cool new Dylan blogsite.

Expecting Rain is a great source for daily Dylan news

Dylan Chronicles  for all Dylan setlists

For a fascinating article on Dylan and Timrod check out this site


through the links to the right of the page.

You may be interested in looking at my website, which has a bunch of stuff about my other work.

Check out Visions of Dylan, a very cool new Dylan blogsite.

Expecting Rain is a great source for daily Dylan news

Dylan Chronicles  for all Dylan setlists

For a fascinating article on Dylan and Timrod check out this site 






After the apocalyptic thunder subsides, a soft, jazzy shuffle takes us back to the beginning of all things:


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  (Genesis 1:1)

The voice is the tender whisper of an ageing crooner. The music rolls in a steady tempo, with deep, subdued double bass, delicate brushes on the drums, gently tinkling piano and tasteful snatches of violin and guitar.  As he lures us into the song, it is as if the singer’s spirit is indeed hovering over on the surface of the primordial ocean, gliding in air in the moment before creation. His heart, it seems, is light.  He is in love, besotted with some young Princess or other. He can hardly sleep. …You got a face that begs for love… he coos. Yet it’s clearly him who’s doing the begging. He trembles with anticipation as he looks forward to the moment of a great awakening.  He is ready to confess his deep devotion, to express his humility and to give thanks for the sheer privilege of being allowed merely to stand in the presence of his beloved. Hers is the spirit that moves upon the face of the water. His is the darkness. He is down on his knees now, as if in prayer. And he is ready to confess…

Of course, he doesn’t have a hope in hell with her. The Princess will wrap him round her little finger.  Yet he seems to revel in every moment. He wants us to believe that he …can’t explain/the sources of this hidden pain… But we know better. He takes on the traditional role of the self-effacing, martyred lover: …If I can’t have you… he breathes … I’ll throw my love into the deep blue sea… He wants to allow us to share in his heartbreak, to experience the bittersweet taste of his tragic disappointment. Like a true romantic fool he tells her …life without you/doesn’t mean a thing to me…  But we can only begin to pity him as the evidence accumulates that she is using him: …You do good all day/You do wrong all night…  We can almost see the tears of joy, mingled with traces of his ‘hidden pain’. The lines …When you’re with me/I’m a thousand times happier than I could say… are delivered with cute nonchalance, as is the following …What does it matter/What price I pay?…  Although the singer may wish to dismiss his own suffering, trying to make us believe that just spending some time in her presence makes the humiliation he must face bearable, but the lightness of his tone betrays him.

Up to this point, the language of the song is a kind of understated plainspeak. But now the singer begins to throw out more imagistic phrases that take us into more mysterious realms. Much of MODERN TIMES is steeped in the nuances of the language of the blues, with its sly sexual innuendos. Here the singer implores his love to …put some sugar in my bowl/I feel like lying down… The plea is a straightforward come-on but the cool, resigned delivery of the lines conjures up a world-weariness that suggests that a ‘lie down’ is really all he needs. Certainly, it’s all he’s likely to get. The next lines are the most remarkable and moving in the song, as the singer’s self-effacement has him picturing himself fading away, the substance of his body becoming like mist and shadow. …I’m as pale as a ghost…  he sighs …holding a blossom on a stem….  Not a ‘flower’, mind. What he offers her is something incomplete, faded, barely even visible. Though he tells her that he …can’t believe these things could ever fade from your mind… we can be pretty sure that they will. His pleas become increasingly hopeless. He tells her he will accept any humiliation to be with her, and begins to dream of a kind of eternal union which might extend even beyond the grave. Yet the strange confession in the penultimate verse, that he cannot join her in ‘paradise’ because …I killed a man back there…  (With its odd echo of Johnny Cash’s line in Folsom Prison Blues: …I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die…) suggests that he considers himself – as a miserable sinner – unworthy of her. He ends jauntily, suggesting that, even without this ‘paradisiacal’ union, they could still …have a whomping’ good time… together. But Paradise has been lost. Together they could have had their own moment of creation, with her spirit moving over his ‘dark waters’ to create a flash of blinding, inspirational light. However, it is not to be.

The songs on MODERN TIMES are, like so many of the great blues songs, sung by what the literati like to call ‘unreliable narrators’. We have to ‘read through the lines’ of what they so convincingly profess to see what is really going on. As with songs like Moonlight and Bye and Bye on LOVE AND THEFT, Dylan’s adoption of the ‘easy crooning’ style in Spirit on the Water (and later on in the even more arch Beyond the Horizon) is a kind of subterfuge. He appears to be embracing the sentimental style of 30s crooners like Bing Crosby in order to cast himself in the role of an ageing roué. Like the ‘Southern Gentleman’ look he has appropriated for his live performances, this is another ‘Dylan mask’, a kind of self-mocking way of presenting himself to his public in his mid-60s. In his youth Dylan used the form of the ‘love song’ to present often harshly realistic pictures of imperfect relationships – songs like Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, Mama You Been On My Mind, One Too Many Mornings, All I Really Want To Do, I Don’t Believe You and (most brutally) It Ain’t Me, Babe all explicitly rejected the sentimental conventions of the form in favour of ‘authentic’ truthfulness. Later, in his ‘country’ period – in I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Lay Lady Lay, I Threw It All Away and If Not For You – he appeared to embrace the possibility of ‘true love’ , even if his rather deliberate use of romantic cliché (…Love is all there is/It makes the world go round…) seemed somewhat guardedly ironic. By the mid ‘70s, with the domestic idyll of his Woodstock days now a shattered dream, he delved deep inside him to produce the emotionally gut-wrenching song-cycle BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which depicted in graphic detail the depths of pain which love could bring. …I’m going out of my mind… the singer in You’re A Big Girl Now tells us …with a pain that stops and starts/like a corkscrew to my heart/every since we been apart…  From there on, as his personal despair found refuge in faith, his love songs become increasingly ‘spiritual’. Oh Sister from DESIRE was a kind of love song to the spirit of womanhood itself. I Believe in You from SLOW TRAIN COMING was apparently addressed both to a woman and to God, as was To Make You Feel My Love from Time Out Of Mind, another album of disillusioned love songs. By then, Dylan’s faith in any notion of personal ‘salvation’ had become shot to pieces. When once he declared that all he needed was a Shot of Love, now he was thoroughly Love Sick. The album’s most moving track, Standing in the Doorway, plumbs emotional depths as deep as any on BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. On the album’s delightfully deadpan closer Highlands Dylan’s description of his encounter with a young waitress who mocks him mercilessly shuffles a kind of spiritual emptiness with a strange new kind of ‘awakening’. From here on Dylan – free from his demons, liberated by the distance his age has given him – is free to be playfully creative again. …I’ve got new eyes… he declares …Everything looks far away…

And so, on LOVE AND THEFT and MODERN TIMES Dylan feels free to play with the form of the love song again. On LOVE AND THEFT’s Mississippi he uses the geography of America as a kind of metaphor for a failed relationship. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the other way round. In the epochal Sugar Baby he appears to be bidding a cracked farewell to love itself: … You spent years without me.. Might as well keep going now … Now, on MODERN TIMES – an album which, in its own way, is as preoccupied with love as TIME OUT OF MIND, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS or NASHVILLE SKYLINE, he steps behind a series of disguises. He becomes a kind of ‘ghostly’ figure in the background of the songs’ shifting personas. Spirit on the Water epitomises this new approach. The flower of his youth may have faded but he is still holding that fragile blossom on a stem, dreaming of eternal bliss, with a fair measure of lust thrown in for good measure. The song seems to literally float past us and Dylan brings a new assurance and confidence to his use of the conventions of the ‘romantic’ song. Behind each sighing gasp of romantic despair there is a touch of ironic lightness, a sense that whatever tearful protestations he may be presenting us with, the singer has in reality been liberated from the ‘hidden pain’ that love brings. It is hard not to read the final lines as a message to his audience that he’s not ‘over the hill’ just yet.

But with Dylan, as ever, little is what it seems at first. In many ways the playful spirit of MODERN TIMES harks back to Dylan’s mid-60s masterpiece BLONDE ON BLONDE, a series of sly, trickily worded songs which (on the surface) were each addressed to different women, from the tragic lovechild of Just Like A Woman to the girl to whom he was Pledging My Time, to the shifting eternal female-symbol of Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Hovering behind them all is the figure of Johanna, the mysteriously fading …ghost of electricity… All these women are, on one level, aspects of B.O.B. himself. Dylan uses the forms of the ‘female principle’ – the ‘visions’ which ‘conquer his mind’ to reflect on both universal and personal dilemmas and to counter pose symbolic elemental forces within himself. Like the ubiquitous Johanna, the actual subject of Spirit On The Water is entirely absent from the song. She is not a ‘real woman’ but a symbol of creativity itself, a ‘Johanna’ for ‘Modern Times’. The song is a kind of address to his own inner creative spirit, without which life ‘doesn’t mean a thing’. Of course, there is a ‘price to pay’ for such devotion – the individual who surrenders his life to creativity can become like a fading ghost (just like Johanna again). But here, just as he once luxuriated in the fabulous image of the ‘ghost of electricity’, Dylan pictures himself as a ghost, the ghost of one who has surrendered all his emotional substance to the creative process. And he revels in the freedom his new role brings – unencumbered by physical form he can dance lightly – walking, perhaps on water – yet freed from desperate lust, freed from the agony of spiritual searching. It has been a long, tortuous journey – many times he has laboured in the slough of despond, trying to convince himself he’d ‘found Jesus’, evoking the spirit of a dead bluesman on the discarded Blind Willie McTell, then caught in the despair of ‘inspiration fatigue’ of the late ‘80s where he thought he’d have to quit because the ‘spirit’ of creativity was no longer with him. He has had to reach back, not only into a poetic-mythical pre-war ‘weird America’ and the ‘roots’ of the blues but also into the deepest depths of his soul. Now, having grown into a new persona – the ghostly figure, perhaps of some Civil War poet that you might have in some old painting on your mantelpiece – he can again be as playful as he was in his halcyon days when the spirit would descend upon him and visionary songs would pour out of him as if they were already written, dictated to him by ‘the powers above’. Thus Spirit On The Water is a kind of autobiographical song, a manifesto for the album, and perhaps for the rest of Dylan’s career. With the calmness of experience, the wisdom of age, he has finally learned – or to be more precise, re-learned – a way in which the spirit of creativity can be allowed to move through him so that he can speak the words that bring him – and us – into the light. He was so much older then… he’s younger than that now…

Part Three of ‘MODERN TIMES TRACK BY TRACK’ should follow some time next week.



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Bob Dylan’s Modern Times Track By Track

MODERN TIMES TRACK BY TRACK 1) Thunder On The Mountain


‘Everybody got to wonder
What’s the matter with this cruel world today’

MODERN TIMES begins, as it ends, in an apocalyptic landscape.  The earth itself is in tumult.  Volcanoes, hurricanes and whirlwinds scour the land. The power is cut. It’s like Hell’s Kitchen. Everything is broken. Hot stuff everywhere. For the singer, the writing is on the wall.  He’s already offered up some prayers. Now he has to clear out of town fast.

Soon it will be morning. He grabs his trombone and blows. He’s driving north, his eyes blinded by tears. Rain lashes the windscreen. He grabs the steering wheel in fury. The images almost overwhelm him. A beautiful face flashes in front of his eyes. A vision of perfection. He licks his lips around the name…. A young singer. Alicia KEYS…. perhaps she will be the key, his salvation. He keeps his eyes open for her all through Tennessee. He will devote himself to her. He wants a REAL GOOD woman who will obey him. And he will find her. He will never betray her, even when he stands before God. Now the sun is shining, almost blinding him. ….

But he doesn’t need a map. He already knows where he’s going. He begins to fantasise. He will raise himself an army. The toughest sons of bitches. They will ravage the countryside. And God, of course is on his side.

A conversation is going on in his head. Between a man and a woman. Maybe it’s still Alicia, maybe not. Maybe it’s a demon, talking to an angel. God conversing with the Devil.  And after all, you gotta serve somebody…

His  fantasies become lascivious. He’s got the porkchops, she got the pie. Ha ha ha. Slaver slaver, drool drool…. But she won’t play ball. She cries SHAME on his wickedness. SHAME on his evil schemes.

The elements coverwhelm him. The demon takes the form of a whirlwind bearing down on him. Something bad’s gonna happen. He panics. Like everyone else, he wants to leave the country. Maybe if he keeps driving he’ll reach Canada. Then he can become a farmer. He’ll renounce the demon. Put down his pitchfork. Lay down his hammer. Finally he hears her pitiless voice, telling him he ought to take pity on himself. 

It doesn’t sound as if his sins are going to be redeemed.

MODERN TIMES is, as a number of commentators have already commented, an ironic title. Dylan’s new album is couched in the musical and lyrical language of the pre-war blues, Western swing and crooning styles. Like an old-time musical entertainer, he switches between styles smoothly. You can almost see him up there, twirling his cane, a glint in his eye. There is a reference, if you like, to Chaplin’s balletic masterpiece of the same name, the last gasp of the great poetic art of silent movies. Chaplin’s film railed against modern styles and modern life, showing technology dwarfing the scale of humanity. And Chaplin’s film was made in the late 30s, as the world moved inexorably, stupidly, lumbering towards a great apocalyptic cataclysm. In his next film Chaplin became Hitler himself. Dicing with the Devil.  And so it is with Dylan’s new album, which could be subtitled ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’… Great title, but it’s been used before. Like Chaplin, Dylan sees the only response to the coming cataclysm in mocking humour.

Dylan’s last album, LOVE AND THEFT, was released – spookily – on September 11th 2001. Already the portents were present. High Water flooded the earth. In ‘Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum’ Dylan wrote, in six short words, the best description of war ever: ‘Two Big Bags Of Dead Men’s Bones’. In the years since its release, war and paranoia have increased around us daily. Those big bags have overflowed. And in Washington, where in THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN the ladies are ‘scrambling to get out of town’, America’s leaders kneel and pray. Our own lovely Tony Blair kneels with Bush to be reassured that God is on their side. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

Nothing fires Dylan up more than hypocrisy, especially in those early protest songs (‘Even Jesus would never forgive what you do!’- Masters of War) and again in the songs of his so-called ‘born again’ period. Time and time again he warns us that the Hard Rain is falling. The Hard Rain, he tells us, is LIES. And now, on MODERN TIMES, he reaches back into the soul of America, of the modern world. Often, as with LOVE AND THEFT, we are in the 1920s. At other times we go further back, to the American Civil War. On stage Dylan dresses like a Confederate dandy, a riverboat gambler out of Huckleberry Finn. In Chronicles he tells us how relevant the Civil War is to the condition of America today. Dylan has said that he wants his songs to STOP TIME. The Times, he once sang, Are A-Changin’. When he sings that song now it’s a slow lament, a recognition of universal processes. In LOVE AND THEFT and MODERN TIMES he takes us a trip on a kind of magic swirling time machine. One moment we’re in the 1930s, next moment we’re meeting Alicia Keys or getting ready for a ‘bootie call’. We’re seeing the present through a prism of the past. Looks like tomorrow is coming on fast, he sang in SILVIO, from his unlamented late 80s low point DOWN IN THE GROOVE. And he kept singing that song. Seen better days, he would drawl, but who has not…

THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN has one of the greatest openings to any Dylan album. Appropriately, there is a roll of drums. A guitarist picks out a blues groove. There is a pause, just for a millisecond, so we can draw breath. Then the whole band kicks in. Of course, we’ve heard the tune before. It’s the speeded up blues lick that Chuck Berry used for JOHNNY B. GOODE, his apocryphal tale about a boy with a guitar who heads for the big city. Chuck liked the tune so much he used it on a lot of his other records. Its unlikely he invented it, though. Nearly all of the blues is handed down through time from God knows where. On MODERN TIMES Dylan steals liberally, both musically and lyrically, from many sources, just like all the great bluesmen did. The band plays it cool. They are tight, unfussy. The relative flashiness of guitarists like Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell is gone. These guys – Kimball, Freeman, Herron, Garnier, Recile – are Men In Grey – they play together like they’ve been doing it nearly every night for a year (which of course they have). The groove they set up is relaxed and smoothy, allowing Bob’s vocal variations to make the song flow. And what a voice he has now. You can hear it in the gigs he’s been playing in 2006. The characteristic Dyan rasp is still there, but now it’s modulated by a deceptive sweetness of tone, achieved by Bob’s clandestine study of the crooners of the 30s and 40s. In his early years he sang in a deliberately alienating nasal drawl. He forced you to listen to the words. Made you sit in your seat and wouldn’t let you dance. Now you can dance to all Bob’s music. Finally he has achieved his ambition, as stated in his callow youth, to ‘carry himself like Big Joe Williams’.

For the first few verses, he is as cool and detached as his musicians. Occasionally the voice threatens to break, as when he pronounces ‘waaall’ in the third verse. He even sounds pretty cool about Alicia, innocently baffled by her presence in the song. There is a musical break, allowing the band to stretch out. When he sings ‘Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day’ he sounds quite calm, self-assured. But when he comes to ‘I want some real good woman to do just what I say’ he wobbles a little.

The next musical break steps the tempo up a little. He sounds hopeful, cheerful even, belying the tension in the words, his voice lifting at the ends of lines…  ‘some sweet day I’ll stand before my KING….’ he lilts. Then, as he threatens to raise an army and stages his lustful conversation, his voice becomes rougher, more caustic. In the final section he sounds rueful, still with that glint of humility in his voice until the music dissolves in a classic blues crescendo, finally returning us to the guitar flourish it began with.

THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN is a moral drama. Or a moral maze. The narrator seems  to be one who has few moral boundaries. It’s with great relish that he declares, in the song’s most audacious extrapolation of traditional blues imagery ‘I’VE SUCKED THE MILK OUT OF A THOUSAND COWS!’. In the blues such imagery is usually related to a kind of frustrated sexuality, as in Robert Johnson’s MILK COW BLUES (covered by the young Elvis and the young Dylan). But here we feel that the narrator has sucked the lifeblood out of Mother Earth herself. The singer may have said his religious vows, but he seems like a potential mass murderer. All around him the Earth seems to be erupting in chaos. But only the voice of the female figure he is pursuing seems to bring him down to earth. In the end he promises to lay his ‘pitchfork’ and his ‘hammer’ down for her, but there is no escape, in this chaotic landscape, for the confusion he has wrought. The last words are pure acid: ‘For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself!’. There seems little chance that he will.