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Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Tell Tale Signs

I'm loving listening to Bob Dylan's Tell Tale Signs, which is Volume 8 of the wonderful Bootleg Series. One effect has been to send me back to Dylan's Modern Times, an album that is drenched in the imagery of journeying: "Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down/Some sweet day I'll stand beside my king".

Dylan as journeyman, as traveller, is the key insight of the liner notes for Tell Tale Signs where Larry Sloman signs off with a paragraph quoting a myriad of Dylan's lyrics:

"He ain't talking, but he's still walking, heart burning, still yearning. He's trampling through the mud, through the blistering sun, getting damp from the misty rain. He's got his top hat on, ambling along with his cane, stopping to watch all the young men and young women in their bright-coloured clothes cavorting in the park. Despite all the grief and devastation he's seen on his odyssey, his heart isn't weary, it's light and free, bursting all over with affection for all those who sailed with him. Deep down he knows that his loyal and much-loved companions approve of him and share his code. And it's dawn now, the sun beginning to shine down on him and his heart is still in the Highlands, over those hills, far away. But there's a way to get there and if anyone can, he'll figure it out. And in the meantime, he's already there in his mind. That mind decidedly out of time. And we're all that much richer for his journey."

Sometime ago I had a go at setting my sense of how we're all that much richer for his journey. It goes like this. 2, 3, 4 ...

"How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?" was the first of the questions that Dylan posed in Blowin' in the Wind. He didn't know the answer then - it was blowin' in the wind - and he doesn't now - because in the opening track of Time Out Of Mind, his end of millennium offering, he's still walkin':

"I'm walkin', through streets that are dead
Walkin', walkin' with you in my head
My feet are so tired,
My brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping." (Love Sick).

Dylan comes from the tradition of hobo singers (Woody Guthrie) and beat poets (Jack Kerouac) for whom the journey and the documenting of their experience is life itself. When we first meet him singing in his original voice, on Bob Dylan, he's "ramblin' outa the wild West,/Leavin' the towns I love the best ... ''Til I come into New York town" (Talkin' New York). At this stage the ramblin', gamblin' hobo is a conscious image worn in homage to Woody Guthrie:

"I'm out here a thousand miles from my home,
Walkin' a road other men have gone down.
I'm seeing your world of people and things,
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song ...". (Song to Woody)

Though he starts out on his journey in imitation of others what he sees on his journey is original, surreal and unjust:

"I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin' ..."
(A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall)

Ahead of him he sees a gathering apocalyptic storm and he resolves to go back out and walk in the shadow of the storm:

"... 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten,
Where black is the colour, where none is the number.
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect from the mountain so that all souls can see it ...".

He travels the paths of political protest, urban surrealism, country contentment, gospel conversion and world weary blues. On his journey he: sees "seven breezes a-blowin'" all around the cabin door where victims despair (Ballad of Hollis Brown); sees lightning flashing "For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse" (Chimes of Freedom); surveys Desolation Road; talks truth with a thief as the wind begins to howl (All Along the Watchtower); takes shelter from a woman "With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair" (Shelter from the Storm); feels the Idiot Wind blowing through the buttons on his coat, recognises himself as an idiot and feels so sorry (Idiot Wind); finds a pathway to the stars and can't believe he's survived and is still alive (Where Are You Tonight? Journey Through Deep Heat); rides the slow train up around the bend (Slow Train); is driven out of town into the driving rain because of belief (I Believe in You); hears the ancient footsteps join him on his path (Every Grain of Sand); feels the Caribbean Winds, fanning desire, bringing him nearer to the fire (Caribbean Wind); betrays his commitment, feels the breath of the storm and goes searching for his first love (Tight Connection to My Heart); then at the final moment, it's not quite dark yet but:

"The air is getting hotter, there's a rumbling in the skies
I've been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes.
Everyday your memory grows dimmer.
It don't haunt me, like it did before.
I been walking through the middle of nowhere
Tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door." (Tryin' To Get To Heaven).

What we have in the best of Dylan is a contemporary Pilgrim, Dante or Rimbaud on a compassionate journey, undertaken in the eye of the Apocalypse, to stand with the damned at the heart of the darkness that is twentieth century culture. Oh, and the answer to that question, however many roads he has travelled in the songs he has become a man, an Everyman.


Bob Dylan - Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Deep Heat).

1 comment:


This is a great collection of songs. Mysterious, elusive, enigmatic...just like the man himself. Songs with color and character.

And if you love the characters Bob's created here, you should (shameless plug alert) take look at my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, a murder mystery set in the rock world in which all the suspects are characters in Bob's songs.

An entire book built around Bob's creations? That's just the kind of depth this man has. Intrigued? You can get a copy on or go "behind the tracks" at to learn more about the book.