Chapter 24
‘A day above ground is a good day’ 1


BOB DYLAN – the ‘Voice of a Generation’ in the 1960s, the self-appointed gypsy and divorce poet in the 70s, the sulphur-fuming prophet in the years around 1980, who through a series of mediocre albums in the following years lost whatever he may have had left of commercial status – what does he have to say today, forty years after he first entered the stage? Quite a lot, actually.

In 1997 Dylan released Time Out Of Mind, which not only became his best-selling album ever, but which was also generally lauded, by critics and fans alike. The follow-up Love and Theft has already positioned itself at the top of the charts, and all worried predictions that Dylan would do as he usually has done: follow up a masterpiece with an unengaged embarrassment, have been put to rest.

Dylan and Christianity, Woman, and Love

When Dylan issued the album Slow Train Coming in 1979, it was a surprise to most of his fans: the protest singer, beatnik, former Jew even, had converted to Christianity, and to one of the more extremely evangelist directions, at that: the Vineyard Fellowship in California. The message that is conveyed on Slow Train Coming and the two following albums, Saved and Shot of Love, is uncompromising. The lyrics, especially on Slow Train, are marked by the strong conviction that we are living in the endtimes and that Judgement Day is just around the corner.

As it turned out, that particular day didn’t dawn (although Dylan himself saw the events in Afghanistan in 1980 as a confirmation of his exegesis of the end time profecy of the Revelation), and the original fire gradually changed into a more nuanced understanding of Christianity, in which there was room for more than dystopias and over-zealous evangelization. In the years since, there have been much speculation about Dylan’s religion. To the extent that religious themes have occurred in his lyrics, the threads have gone to Jewish just as much as to Christian thought.2 At the same time, he has on several occasions stated that he does not believe in organized religious communities: ‘I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. . . . I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe in the songs’ (Newsweek, Oct 6, 1997).

Several authors have pointed to another motive that seems to have been inseparable from Dylan’s religiosity: Woman and Love. Dylan’s own salvation history can be read as the story of the development of his relation to these two, which for Dylan are almost one and the same. Not only was it through a woman (the actor Mary Alice Artes) that Dylan came in touch with the evangelic Christianity. This is also a topic that recurs in many of the songs, both from the time of his conversion and the years before it: the redemption, salvation even, through carnal love. In a song like ‘Shelter from the Storm’ from Blood on the Tracks (1975) Dylan gives the I-character christological overtones (‘In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes . . . ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm‘’), while the association between salvation and earthly, carnal love is explicit also in the songs after his conversion (‘Change My Way Of Thinking’ on Slow Train Coming, 1979 has: ‘I got a God-fearing woman, One I can easily afford | She can do the Georgia Crawl, She can walk in the spirit of the Lord’).3

Analysing Dylan lyrics

Dylan is often credited for having brought meaning into popular music through his lyrics. That is not the same as saying that it’s always clear what his songs mean. On the contrary, Dylan’s poetics is based on a resistance against clear-cut meanings; instead he puts together seemingly unrelated images, characters and situations in a collage which becomes confusing if one searches for exact meanings. But if one lets that go, it is easier to approach his technique: some of his greatness as a poet lies in his ability to serve the listener with a web of associations and semi-graspable connections, in a way that imitates how the mind works, and which therefore gives the listener a point of departure for creating meaning, which by far exceeds what ‘meaningful’ lyrics, which say what they want to say but nothing more, can give.

One of the texts that is often mentioned in this connection, is ‘Desolation Row’ (1965), which may serve as an example here, both of Dylan’s technique and of my own analytical vantage point. The song begins: ‘They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown. The beauty-parlor’s filled with sailors, the circus is in town.’ The cast that glides by in the song, is slightly surrealistic: Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, Dr. Filth with his world in a leather cup, the death-romantic Ophelia, Cinderella as a street-sweeper, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting it out on the Titanic.

What, then, do these brown-painted passes mean? Is it a grand metaphor of suppression in the modern society, an expression of the status of art, or something completely different? It is hard to tell, first and foremost because Dylan usually does not take his images and metaphors from coherent motivic circles, which would have opened up for ‘holistic’ interpretations where the motives support each other. I therefore prefer a simplistic model of interpretation, where ‘brown passports’ means ‘brown passports‘, Cinderella is Cinderella, and Romeo is the lover of Juliet, and then see what happens.

This is not as simple as it may sound: in order to do this, we must first know what a brown passport really is, which involves all the associations we have to each of the words, the connection between them and between similar concepts that are invariably actualized in the juxtaposition of these concepts: ‘brown passport’ then becomes the outcome of the cluster of meaning ‘colour – identity – document‘, etc., with all the layers of symbols and associations that each of these brings with it – in short: a never ending chain of connections that can in principle not be delineated: in the end it embraces our entire world and world view, seen from one perspective: that of the brown passports.

Usually it is not meaningful to stretch this horizon of understanding and interpretation beyond the song itself and its references to someone’s (Dylan’s, the listeners) reality.4 A close reading of Love and Theft, however, seems to support an interpretation of the entire album as a more or less unified whole, where certain central motives turn up in song after song, weaving themselves around and within each other throughout the record: the main motives are the same, but their value changes, gets reverted: the important becomes unimportant, the innocent becomes dangerous, and what remains when a song is over, changes from song to song, depending on which motives are connected, and how. Sometimes several motives are combined in an action- and idea-packed narrative of great dramatic force, other times the ‘narrative’ comes to a halt, and the world is regarded from one single perspective – be it good or bad – that dominates entirely. This can perhaps be likened to the function of the aria in opera: characters steps out of the action for a moment, to present their view of things, from their perspective.

This motivic web even extends beyond the songs on this album, and include both Dylan’s earlier production, and a more general Western symbolic universe, above all the Christian and the American, and the combination of these: the Christianization of ‘Americana‘.5

The primary legitimation for using a model of analysis like this, which might easily turn into a self-fulfilling hunt for hidden connections, is that this procedure has a precursor in Dylan’s own production. The four-hour film Renaldo & Clara from 1978 was composed around motives, characters, colours, symbols, in a similar manner. Allen Ginsberg witnessed the process, and explains the working method as follows:

He shot about 110 hours of film or more, and he looked at all the scenes. Then he put all the scenes on index cards, according to some preconceptions he had when he was directing the shooting. Namely, themes: God, rock & roll, art, poetry, marriage, women, sex, Bob Dylan, poets, death – maybe eighteen or twenty thematic preoccupations. Then he also put on index cards all the different characters, as well as scenes. He also marked on index cards the dominant color – blue or red . . . and certain other images that go through the movie, like the rose and the hat, and Indians – American Indian – so that he finally had a cross-file of all that. And then he went through it all again and began composing it, thematically, weaving these specific compositional references in and out. So it’s compositional, and the idea was not to have a ‘plot‘, but to have a composition of those themes (quoted from Clinton Heylin: Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades. Take two, Penguin Books, p. 460).

I will particularly emphasize three such motives on Love and Theft. They can be called: The Apocalypse, The River, and Love. Along the way, several others will turn up.

The Apocalypse

The apocalyptic is the carrying motive in two of the songs, which can be regarded as the pillars around which the whole album and its motivic threads spin: ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Highwater (for Charley Patton)’.6 The outer connection between the two songs is evident: Highwater takes its point of departure in Charley Patton’s description of the big flood in Mississippi in 1927 – the Apocalypse in American form.7 This is a prominent feature in both songs. In Highwater it is the thread that goes through the whole song, dominating it to the degree that whatever positive bits of thread that are weaved in, lose their good appearance and become twisted images: Dance: ‘You dancing with whom they tell you to, or you don’t dance at all’;8 Art: ‘I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind’; Justice: ‘Judge says to the High Sherriff: ‘I want him dead or alive, either way, I don’t care’; God: ‘I’m preaching the word of God, I’m putting out your eyes’. Love seemingly keeps its good connotations (‘I just can’t be happy, love, unless you’re happy too’), but still: this is an ambiguous message: he isn’t actually saying that he’s happy, only that he can’t be happy unless she is, and judging from the gloomy mood of the song, there really isn’t any reason why she would be. All that remains is the threat of the not-lasting, destruction, the Apocalyptic – hammered in through the refrains: ‘It’s tough out there’, ‘Things are breaking up out there’, ‘I don’t care’, ‘It’s bad out there’, ‘It’s rough out there’.

At the same time, Highwater isn’t primarily a song about a natural disaster. Rather, the physical calamity is the metaphorical starting point for the real topic of the song: the way people react and interact when they are left to themselves in a pressured situation (be it flood or love), where the solitude and the pressure are allowed to dominate: ‘ “Don’t reach out for me,” she said, “Can’t you see I’m drowning too?” ’

Highwater is a monothematic movement  la Haydn, both lyrically and musically. Just as the feeling of disaster pervades the lyrics, so the sound is dark an monotonous. The verses are dominated by a solitary banjo, which not primarily (but also) is a reminiscing gesture to Patton and the delta-blues; even more, it underlines the loneliness and hopelessness in the song itself: it fills its part of the soundscape, high above the rest of the sonorous field and without any contact with it, where its manical plucking over a sustained chord turns into a musical representation of the nightmare situation where you run and run without ever getting anywhere. The refrains are accompanied by ominous thunder in the drums and growls from deep male voices.

The River

‘Mississippi’ is dramatically different, despite the common point of departure. Even here the Apocalyptic is the framework for the narrative, established already in the second line of the song: ‘Your days are numbered an so are mine . . . Nowhere to escape,’ and: ‘Sky full of fire, pain pouring down’. The song culminates in wreckage and death: ‘Well, my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast. I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past.’

But still, ‘Mississippi’ is a fundamentally positive, life-inspiring song. The difference from Highwater is noticable already in the music: Highwater is dark and heavy, Mississippi has one of the few ascending bass lines in Dylan’s production (with prominent exceptions, such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘), and a lighter sound overall. But even more interesting are the lyrical differences. Again, the disaster situation is rather to be interpreted as a human (and inter-human) condition, but unlike Highwater’s isolated fates, it is instead the possibility of communication that is explored. The River is still the river of flood and drowning, but at the same time it is used as an image of the Crossing of boundaries (‘I crossed that river just to be where you are’). If we bring the two together, we get a complex metaphor of the dangers of being close to someone – a human-life version of the Biblical 70,000 fathoms, if one likes: approaching another human being is a voluntary matter (‘some people will offer you their hand, and some won’t’, as it is said in the second verse), but doing so entails a danger, one enters unknown territory, and there is no way back (‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’, third verse).

A development seems to take place within the song, concerning the possibility of communication, from ‘We’re all boxed in’ in the first verse to ‘Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow’ in the last. One of the steps through which this development goes, is the insight: ‘All my powers of expression, my thoughts so sublime, could never do you justice in reason or rhyme’.9

Not only the border towards other people is crossed, but also the limits of time. Even here there’s a development through the song, from a perception of time as a physical burden (‘time’s piling up’), to an almost Augustinian concept of time, where time, in the moment of crossing, disappears completely (‘got no future, got no past’).10

All through the song, the boundary-crossing is represented as a journey, and here lies the main difference between ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Highwater’: in ‘Highwater’ the protagonist is content with his closedness and standstillness – and it all ends in disaster; here, on the contrary, the necessity of the journey is emphasised (‘Everybody got to move somewhere’), both related to communication and to time, and through the insight about this necessity (which despite its hints at ‘fate’s decree’ nevertheless does not end up in fatalism, because it is based on the necessity of choice), the fearful in the disaster dissolves. Therefore the apocalyptic climax in the central ‘wreck-scene’ quoted above, ends in reconciliation and harmonious redemption, not in fear: ‘But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free. I got nothing but affection for those who’ve sailed with me’ – one of the most loving lines Dylan has ever written.

Likewise, in Mississippi the presence of evil is counterbalanced by the good, and, unlike in Highwater, the good is allowed to stand for itself: Higwhater’s ambiguous concern is here explicit and clear: ‘I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too’. Thus, even though the last verse brings drowning and death as a consequence of the Crossing, and ends with the refrain ‘I stayed in Mississippi a day too long’, it is still the tender declarations of love that remain when the song is over: ‘give me your hand and say you’ll be mine’ – in dramatical contrast to Highwater’s ‘Don’t reach out for me, can’t you see I’m drowning too?’.

Two further motives are worth mentioning, because they show up in other songs as well. The transformation from the ‘Highwater’ian isolationism to the last verse’s empathy goes through the lines: ‘Walking through the leaves falling from the trees, feeling like a stranger nobody sees.’ The same foliage shows up time after time on the album, as a symbol of comprehension – either the one not reached, as in ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ (‘Last night the wind was whispering, I was trying to make out what it was’), or the appropriated, dogmatic truth of ‘Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum’: ‘They walk among the stately trees They know the secrets of the breeze’, see below). As a motive, this reaches back to at least two earlier Dylan songs: ‘Blowin’ in the wind’ from 1962 – the answer is there, in the wind, for whoever so wishes to pick it up, but at the same time: who can catch the wind? – and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’: ‘I heard ten thousand whispering and nobody listening.’

‘The Tree’ is in itself a motive with branches in many directions, appearing both as one element of the idyll in ‘Floater’, with leaves rustling in a mild summer breeze and logs crackling on the hearth, and as menacing ghosts in the concealed murder ballad ‘Moonlight’ (‘The branches cast their shadows over stone. Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone’).11

Lastly, one of the Journey associations in ‘Mississippi’, is, maybe surprisingly, the Journey motives in the Biblical Christmas narrative. Both the wise men – ‘I got here following the southern star’ – and Mary’s mule – ‘Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall’ – are represented. In ‘Floater’ too, the Christmas motive shows up, as one of the joyful memories of the untroubled past (‘I had ‘em [i.e. dreams and hopes] once, though, I suppose, | To go along with all the ring dancing, Christmas Carols on all the Christmas Eves’).


Several of the other songs treat motives that may be referred to the Love motive in different ways. What they have in common is that they – again like opera arias – choose one perspective at the time, and try them out.

In an interview from 1981 Dylan comments on a phrase in one of his new songs – ‘the politics of sin’ – saying that ‘Yes, that’s what sin is: politics’.12 In ‘Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee’ he characterizes this version of the political man. The characters are borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, where they are the archetypical unruly brothers: well attuned to each other, but just as quickly at each others’ throats, if necessary – or if just so happens; not really evil, rather indifferent, unaffected, careless. In a central scene they recite the poem ‘The walrus and the carpenter’13 for Alice, where it is hard to tell who of the protagonists is the most greedy: one grabs most but the other one eats as much as he can (Alice concludes: ‘they were both very unpleasant characters’.)

Dylan’s couple isn’t much better. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee are in the mason’s trade (‘They run a brick and tile company’), and they fulfill every cliché about the slightly mafiotic craftsman with affairs on the side, who owns the world and takes what he wants: ‘Looking at a window with a pecan pie | Lot of things they’d like they would never buy’. They own the truth in the same manner (‘They know the secret of the breeze’). When they ‘trust their fate to the hands of God’, they don’t do so in religious confidence, but in somnambulous indifference – they certainly don’t feel any need to take fate in their own hands, but if he up there want’s to, that’s entirely up to him. They’re living in ‘the land of Nod’ – the land to which Cain was exiled after his fratricide. And it is not a nice neighbourhood that is presented in the song. All traces of love and good thoughts are twisted, with money as the only measurement of value, if at all there is one: ‘I got love for you, and it’s all in vain’, ‘My pretty baby, she’s looking around. She’s wearing a multi-thousand dollar gown.’ ‘Well, they’re living in a happy harmony . . . They’re one day older and a dollar short, They got a paid permit and a police escort’. The song is full of bizarre images and scenes, culled from the border land between the horror cabinet and the boy pranks:

Brains in a pot, they’re beginning to boil
They’re dripping with garlic and olive oil,
. . .
They’re throwing knives into the tree
. . .
Two big bags of dead man’s bones.

The song ends with a final assessment of their relationship: ‘Tweedle Dee is a low-down sorry old man. | Tweedle Dum, he’ll stab you where you stand. | ‘I’ve had too much of your company,‘ | Said Tweedle Dum to Tweedle Dee.’

‘Floater (too much to ask)’ is in a way a counter-image to ‘Tweedle Dum’. Throughout most of the song, we are presented with a relaxed, almost idyllic mood, where bees are buzzing, leaves are stirring, and trees inspire neither insight nor fear, but simply heat, as firewood (‘There’s a new grove of trees on the outskirt of town . . . /Timber, two foot six across, | burns with the bark still on. . . . You can smell the pine wood burning.’)

Even though the River isn’t explicitly mentioned in the lyrics, it is apparent that the story takes place by the riverside, and the very title of the song points to yet another aspect of the River as a metaphor: that which floats by, always and never the same. The ‘Floater’ existence should not be misunderstood as carefree, but the cares are not given any importance. Motives that in other connections (other songs) become fatal or problematic, just float by, not unnoticed, but without import, with comments like: ‘It doesn’t matter in the end’ and ‘We will just have to see how it goes.’ Some of the verses sound like comments on other songs. ‘They [perhaps the flood victims in ‘Highwater’?] say times are hard, | It don’t bother me, times are hard everywhere | We will just have to see how it goes.’ ‘One of the bosses‘ hangers-on [Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee?], trying to bully you, strong-arm you, inspire you with fear: | it has the opposite effect.’ The wind, which elsewhere make leaves whisper and boats sink, is here almost ridiculed: ‘Sometimes it’s just plain stupid | to get into any kind of wind.’

The perhaps most beautiful strophe tells lovingly about the grandparents: ‘My grandfather was a duck-trapper | he could do it with just dragnets and ropes. | My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth, | I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes.’ This description flows straight into a rejection of such things as dreams or hopes on the part of the narrator: ‘I had them once, though, I suppose’. And the context in which the strophe occurs, is far from idyllic: to begin with, he states that ‘If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again, | you do so at the peril of your own life. / I’m not as cool or forgiving as I sound’. What is described is a breakup scene; a demanding partner is thrown out, and the unyieldingness involved in this, stands in sharp contrast to the seemingly peaceful mood elsewhere in the song. But this is the central motive in ‘Floater’ – the cool, disinterested observation, as a price to pay to get away from the deeper problems. Both the price and the reward are paid in hopes and dreams: he has escaped them, but also had to let them go.

We find some of the ‘Floater’ mood also in ‘Bye and Bye’, only with the contrasts drawn to an even stronger extreme. Most of the song is dominated by an uncritical carefreeness, as an example of the above-mentioned phrase ‘I’m singing love’s praises in sugar coated rhymes’, and supported musically by the light swing-jazz arrangement. The last of these ‘sugar-coated rhymes‘ is: ‘You were my first love, and you will be my last’. But the very last strophe brutally turns the whole situation upside down, and all of a sudden we are back in the apocalyptic verbiage, this time explicitly connected with a love relation.

Papa gone mad, mama she’s feeling sad.
I’m gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war
Gonna make you see just how loyal and true a man can be!

The same sudden shift to a violent reaction in a seemingly calm and peaceful situation, can be found in just about every song on the album. ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ presents, in strophe after strophe, lost relationships, all in accordance with the first line of the song: ‘Today has been a sad and lonesome day.’ Twice motives from ‘Floater’ turn up: family ties, with the straightforward and honest ‘I wish my mother was still alive’ (Dylan’s own mother died in January 2000), and the breakup from a woman, this time left standing in the doorway, with the crushingly laconic remark: ‘Funny the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least.’ (Last time, on Time out of Mind, the roles were reversed – there it goes: ‘You left me standing in the doorway crying.’; see my The Momentum of Standstill – Time out of Mind and the blues for a discussion of this song). The end is heralded with the lightly reshaped quote from Virgil: ‘I’m going to spare the defeated, I’m going to speak to the crowd | I’m going to teach peace to the conquered, I’m going to tame the proud’ (The qoute is from book 6 in Virgil’s Aeneid, where Anchises exhorts his son Aeneas about how to rule:

‘Remember, Romans, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer
to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.14

In the final strophe there is again the echo of disaster, and again associated with love: ‘The leaves are rustling in the wood, things are falling off the shelf | You’re gonna need my help, sweetheart, you can’t make love all by yourself.’ We recognize the Help motive from ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Highwater’ – here it shows up from yet another perspective.

In ‘Moonlight’, the connection is more subtle. The refrain is an innocent invitation to a saunter in the moonlight, but small hints elsewhere in the text make us suspect that it may not be going to be a romantic stroll: the air is thick and heavy, twisted trees cast their shadows (See note ) and ‘the earth and sky . . . melt with flesh and bone’. Three lines in the middle of the song sound like a direct comment to ‘Floater’: ‘I’m preaching peace and harmony, the blessings of tranquility, yet I know when the time is right to strike.’ Perhaps should the song be seen in relation to the murder ballad tradition, as, e.g. in the traditional ‘Banks of the Ohio’, where the man takes his beloved’s life during a walk on the riverside? The narrator in ‘Moonlight’ does say: ‘I’ll take you ‘cross the river, dear’ (like a Charon across the Styx? – again a River metaphor), and we are suddenly not sure if the bells call to a a wedding or a funeral: ‘For whom does the bell toll for, love? | They toll for you and me.’15

The bells are ringing in ‘Summer Days’ too. These bells are explicitly wedding bells, but not even here can we be absolutely sure: ‘What looks good in the day, at night is another thing.’ This ambiguity is implicit already from the song’s title: ‘Summer days’ foreshadows a light an merry summer song, which is also supported by the poignant rockabilly arrangement. But what the song really is about, is autumn: ‘Summer days are gone’. This song too is constructed around a series of images and motives that we recognize from other songs: the Help motive (‘She’s lookin‘ into my eyes and she’s a-holdin‘ my hand’), Time (‘She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past,’ | I say ‘You can’t? What do you mean you can’t? Of course, you can’,16 The River (‘standing by God’s river, my soul’s beginning to shake’), and the breakup – again violent ad surprising: ‘I’m leavin’ in the morning . . ., gonna break in the roof, set fire to the place as a parting gift.’

On the surface ‘Cry Awhile’ is the most explicitly hostile song, with the refrain ‘I cried for you, now it’s your turn, you can cry awhile’, and the final point ‘I always said you’d be sorry, and today could be the day. | I might need a good lawyer, could be your funeral, my trial’.17 Thus, the song seems to point back to ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Floater’, from the perspective of the repenting sinner: ‘I’m on the fringes of the night, fighting back tears that I can’t control /. . . | But I’m crying to the Lord, trying to be meek and mild’. Thereby it is also, in a twisted way, the most loving song – even though the perspective entails that it may perhaps be too late.

All these songs, then, relate to the same basic motive – a breakup from a love relation. It is treated in different ways, from different perspectives, but in the final end, the outcome is always the same. It is as if Dylan wanted to say: no matter where one starts or how one attempts to solve the problem, it ends in disaster. All roads lead to Rome (or to Doom) – whether one wants to get there or not.

The last song on the album, ‘Sugar Baby’, is a ‘Grand Ballad’ of the same cut as the closing songs on several Dylan albums. The song begins with the large overview, where the narrator stands alone against the rest of the world, but is in possession of esoteric knowledge, thanks to his alienation: ‘I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense. | I can see what everybody in the world is up against.’ The recurring theme is again separation – ‘Sugar Baby get on down the road, . . . | you went years without me, might as well keep going now’ – but here the perspective is more distanced than in the earlier songs: sober and motto-like, the state of affairs is presented in cliché-like turns: ‘Can’t turn back, you can’t come back, sometimes we push too far’, ‘Some of these memories you can learn to live with, and some of them you can’t.’ His own painful experience of the separation is drawn into the same distanced framework of both understanding and language: ‘Your charms have broken many a heart, and mine is surely one.’ The deeply personal is mixed with the general, without ever dominating: the generalization ‘There ain’t no limit to the amount of trouble women bring’, leads directly into the next generalization, about love, but with the opposite value: ‘Love is pleasing, love is teasing, love – not an evil thing.’

The apocalyptic element is there, but only as a shadow, in another cliché phrase: ‘You got a way of tearing the world apart, love’, followed by the album’s only direct reference to the Apocalypse in a Biblical sense: ‘Look up, look up, seek you maker ’fore Gabriel blows his horn.’18 This might be read as if the circle is closed, that the religious redemption is the solution to love’s problem, but this would be reading too much into it. Rather, the message – if there is a message – is that just as unfathomable as religious redemption, just as difficult is the ‘redemption’ of earthly love. By using the one to describe the other, the problem is brought to an existential level, where religious themes are relevant, for comparison or description, but we are not offered any solution. As I pointed out in the introduction, this is the strength of Dylan’s poetic, and in Love and Theft it is generally treated with great care and skill.

From the survey so far one might get the impression that Love and Theft is a dark and somber album, and there are certainly plenty of dark strands in the weave. But an equally salient feature is the exuberant joy of pouring out words: the lines are filled to the point where they seem to burst, and the songs are mostly long. They are also filled with humorous flashes, especially puns of the kind that Dylan from time to time has delivered from stage during his shows: ‘Call down to room service, say “send up a room” ’, ‘Politician got on his jogging shoes, he must be running for office, got no time to lose.’

The Music

Love and Theft is not a cycle of poems, it is a record, so a few words about the music is appropriate. Most striking is the total mix of styles, and particularly the unabashed use of swing-jazz from the ‘30s. On several occasion Dylan has expressed his liking for artists like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, but he has never used such a style in his own music.19 This may, perhaps surprisingly, explain the musical freshness that pervades the record: when Dylan relates to a style that is new to him (in the capacity of listener, not of performer), it calls for an attentiveness and concentration which is not as compellingly necessary when he sails in the well-known waters of the blues. The same phenomenon could be observed when he, with the fervor of the convert, turned his attention to Gospel music in the late 70s. Add to this that Dylan this time has left more than usual to his musicians, mostly taken from his very experienced and tight touring band. Especially the two guitarists Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell demonstrate a full command of the various styles that Dylan explores, be it swing or blues. Therefore, Dylan can, for the first time in his carreer, let his own guitar, one of his trademarks, be as good as absent (and his other trademark: the harmonica, is not heard at all).

It needs to be said that the appealing notion of the 60-year-old Dylan who all of a sudden turns into a 30s’ crooner, isn’t entirely truthful. There is a reason why the record is called ‘Love and theft’. The title seems to be a direct comment to its origin: he has not just ‘stolen’ the general style of music that he loves – at least four of the songs have ‘borrowed’ (read: stolen) both melodies and the entire arrangements from songs that were actually written in the 20s and the 30s, performed by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday and others.20 This does not diminish the album’s musical merits, but a note on the album sleeve about the origins and composers of the songs, would have been welcome; no such thing can be found.

The other main group of songs consists of variations of the blues pattern. Being a performer who has played the blues during an entire 40-year carreer, there is remarkably little ‘straight’ twelve-bar blues in Dylan’s catalogue. He is a master in varying the simple blues patterns; it seems like a self-imposed constraint against which he constantly fights. The same can be said about Love and Theft. Ca. half of the songs fall in this category. This might have created a certain monotony, but so is in fact not the case. By exploiting large parts of the range of subgenres to which the blues has developed during its 100-years’ history (delta blues, rockabilly, heavy, electric Chicago blues etc.), and through variations in phrase length and playful use of little riffs and licks, Dylan and his band manage to keep the listener’s attention even in songs that otherwise might have felt too long.

If one particular feature is to be emphasized, it will have to be Dylan’s continuous ‘struggle’ against the dominant. In its most common form the blues pattern is a principally unconcluded, cyclic form, where each round through the scheme ends with a strong dominant figure (e.g. the ‘turnaround’) which leads back to the keynote and the next verse. Dylan, on his part, has always preferred to tone down this function, either through different ‘diverting maneouvres’, by modifying the dominant chord (e.g. by using an 11th chord, which in effect is a subdominant chord with a dominant bass), or by leaving out the dominant altogether. This is the case for most of the blues numbers on Love and Theft. Particularly elegant in this respect is ‘Cry Awhile’, which is never even close to the dominant, but precisely through its absence where it is expected the most, makes itself all the more felt. By treating the dominant in this way the character of chord progressions is weakened – the different scale steps are instead treated as stations, freed from the course of time. In a subtle way this accords with the way the course of time is treated in the lyrics, both in the time-dissolving ‘Mississippi’ (‘got no future, got no past’) and in ‘Sugar Baby’s abstract, timeless catchphrase condition.

One song sticks out from the ones mentioned so far: ‘Po’ Boy’. It deals with a poor guy who washes the dishes and feed the pigs, pays too much in the store, has the police on his back and is (probably) made a cuckold by some Freddie, but who is still basically happy and satisfied. In the middle of the song we also get a glimpse of a conversation between Othello and Desdemona, about what actually happened with that poisoned wine. All in all a text that fits Dylan’s own description well, as a tune that sings itself and a text that doesn’t interfer with the tune:

That song sort of plays itself. . . . Because, that’s a song that could exist without any lyric. It exists just on chord structures . . . and the lyrics are just trying to stay in the path and not to lay too much emotional rhetoric here and there.21

It’s a charming little gem.

‘The Voice of a Generation’ is getting older, but Love and Theft proves that he still stands comparison with any of the other generations to which he has belonged. He can still be poignant and playful like in the 60s, pensive and bitter as in the 70s, apocalyptic as in the 80s. Age has extended the field of possible subjects, but this comes in addition to and not instead of earlier periods’ preoccupations. This is a particular kind of novelty: to be able to keep the old when the new is added. Not many artists master that art form better than Dylan.