BOB DYLAN: Ain’t Talkin’

BOB DYLAN: Ain’t Talkin’

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…


A different version of this text appears in DETERMINED TO STAND: THE REINVENTION OF BOB DYLAN



































Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.