Chapter 4
The Momentum of Standstill

OR: Time Out Of Mind AND THE BLUES

TIME OUT OF MIND is a blues album. Dylan finally sounds like the old blues man he wanted to be when he was 20. In the beginning of his career – before the folk music got in the way – he was considered a blues singer first and a folk musician second. His voice treatment and his phrasing, as well as the songs he performed and the models for the songs he eventually began writing himself – they’ve all got their roots deep down in the Delta. Robert Shelton wrote in his review of Dylan’s first major gig – the review that may have helped Dylan get his first record contract:

Mr. Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty. He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch. All the ‘husk and bark’ are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs [. . . ] Elasticized phrases are drawn out until you think they may snap. He rocks his head and body, closes his eyes in reverie and seems to be groping for a word or a mood, then resolves the tension benevolently by finding the word and the mood (from the liner notes to Bob Dylan, 1962).

The blues: twelve or eight fixedly patterned bars of three-chord music – seemingly a low standard for exellence. But that depends on the perspective. One thing is that the twelve-bar scheme isn’t the one, never-changing cliché it is normally presented as; there are numerous variations within the pattern. These are still small, though, and it doesn’t raise the bar considerably. The real excellency of a good blues musician lies elsewhere: in the phrasing, in the tiniest rhythmical changes (which is what creates the ‘mood’, the ‘feeling’), in the timing. The Blues – even when played instrumentally – always seems to give a nod to the rules of vocal delivery – and being plentifully rewarded for it. Sometimes it could be seen as a way of speaking more than a way of singing, with all the almost unnoticeable nuances of speaking available, to help achieving the goal of speech – to express oneself and to be undestood. This is available to a large extent because of the blues’ freedom from the confines of notation. But at the same time, what gives the blues it’s peculiar power is the combination of the expressiveness of speech with that of music.1

Music can be defined as ‘organization of sound in time’. It posesses detailed systems for how this organization is to be brought about: rhythmical hierarchies, harmonic ‘laws’, frameworks of different kinds, upon which melodies are built.

One of the most fundamental features of this organized object called music, is the regulation of tension. It can be defined as that expectation of a release, a return to a level of rest, which is created by a deviation from this level. This is a very open definition, which must be supplied with extra information specific to each particular style, such as: what counts as a deviation, what counts as a return, which means are considered adequate to effect this return, and which musical parameters are involved?

So what is the neutral level for a blues melody? There is the key note, of course. That’s where most melodies start and end, and what comes between is what is supposed to compell us to keep listening. If no deviation from this note occurs, we lose interest, of course. Then there is the twelve-bar pattern itself, using some kind of variation of the three basic chords tonic (key note), subdominant (a fifth lower) and dominant (a fifth higher). But there are other such neutral levels. The blues is an oral musical tradition, and like most of these, it consists of a highly devloped set of standardized formulae – short snippets that are appropriate in specific connections. They can range from the shortest lick to a complete melody. This is a feature that is has in common with both indian raga and Gregorian chant. Now, what separates an expert performer from the strummers and hummers, is the ability to use these licks in an interesting way: to balance between the traditional material which defines the style, and the new, the inventive. As a harmonica tutorial puts it, after giving numerous examples of blues licks: ‘To play a blues solo, all you have to do is to put some of these licks together. To play a good blues solo – now that’s a different matter.’ To rephrase this using our terminology: the licks of blues may in themselves represent a neutral melodical level, where a new twist to a well-known formula may suddenly give it that compelling character that keeps us seated (or perhaps: brings us to our feet, dancing).

Similar elaborations can be made concerning rhythm and hamony: what is musically interesting is (among other things) the interaction between the basic pulse and the tiny expressive deviations I’ve been talking about above, or between the twelve-bar scheme and whatever changes are made to it.

Dylan and the Blues

So how does this relate to Dylan’s music in general and ‘Time out of Mind’ in particular? Let’s begin with the quotation from Shelton’s review: ‘Elasticized phrases are drawn out until you think they may snap. He [. . . ] seems to be groping for a word or a mood, then resolves the tension benevolently by finding the word and the mood.’ Anyone who has heard Rocks and Gravel from the Second Gaslight tape (The Gaslight Café, NYC, Oct 1962) immediately understands what Shelton is talking about. Here Dylan halts every phrase on some word, stretches it out and leaves it hanging in thin air for longer and longer time as the verses unfold.

Takes Rocks and gravel-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l, baby, make a solid road.

This is accompanied by an unchanging D major chord in a monononous fingerpicking pattern.

A long held note over an accompaniment where nothing happens – how can that create tension? For two reasons. One is that to holda tone like that is actually not normal procedure – it is in itself a deviation from the neutral level of melody. The other reason is that you never know how long he’s going to hold the tone – there is nothing in the guitar part that says that ‘now comes the turn’. Compare that to his unsuccessful first single, ‘Mixed up Confusion’, also from 1962. The similarities are striking, but so are the differences. Even here there are long held notes once in a while, in much the same fashion as ‘Rocks and Gravel’. But this time there is a band involved, and that makes all the difference. For a band to function, the band members must know when to enter, when to change chords, when the verses end. So the long notes are of pre-defined length, and the same length every time. It takes exactly one verse for the listener to discovered the trick, and that robs it of any tension-creating force it may have had. Predictability and interest never were close friends.

In the Evening

He apparently liked this trick, especially early in his career. ‘In the Evening’ from the Minnesota Hotel Tape from December 1961 synthesises what I’ve had to say about this. ‘In the Evening’ is a standard twelve-bar blues tune (with a text that is so paradigmatically bluesy that once when I was howling my own on-the-spot improvised blues clichés to this tune while washing the dishes, I suddenly found myself singing exactly the same words as Dylan. . .). Half ways through there is a harmonica solo which consists of one long draw note held during a whole twelve-bar verse, until the standard finishing phrase at the end.

The first time I heard this song, it struck me as a subtly brutal way of creating tension. With a single sweep, all the conventions of blues licks are swept aside, leaving us with an unfinished beginning. For it is normal to hold a note for some time – only not this long. And it is normal to begin a lick with a long note on the dominant, which is the note Dylan stretches here – but then only as a beginning of a lick that is supposed to end on the key note <ex: g f e c >, as it so often does in this particular style. In fact, on can say that melodically speaking this kind of descent back to the key note represents the neutral level of rest in this situation, and remaining on the dominant is a way of creating momentum through standstill.

Equally interesting is the end of the song. Another harmonica solo, another long held note. In fact the second solo is almost identical to the first one – identical on all but one point: the effect on the listener. Where the listener (this listener anyway) was captivated by the single note the first time – how long is he going to hold it? when does the expected ending phrase come? how much air does he have left? (was it true what he said, that he can hold his breath three times as long as Caruso?) – with all attention fixed on that single note, the second time it falls flat to the ground. It’s like reading a crime novel for the second time. We know who killed Mr Black. We know it wasn’t Mrs White, as the author would have us believe in chapter three. The similarity with the crime novel is striking, because in both cases the effect depends on a rather crude – in the case of the crime novel: literally brutal – technique, and the cruder the technique, the faster its aesthetic effect wanes, since everything depends on one single card. Once that card has been played, whatever power it had has been spent.

In musical terms, we can say that what the first time was surprising because of its defiance of stylistic rules, the second time has itself become part of the ‘work style’ or the ‘idiom’ of the song. It loses its place in the centre of the listeners attention, and slides into the background, while other things become more important, such as the guitar playing.

Thus, In the Evening is an interesting cross between Rocks and Gravel and Mixed Up Confusion. It demonstrates that the long note can maintain its effect even outside the very free declamation of Rocks and Gravel, but that there is a thin line between success and failure. If the effect is to be maintained throughout a longer song, the technique must be reshaped in different form – eiter more powerful or more subtle.

I Pity The Poor Immigrant

In 1976, I Pity The Poor Immigrant was sung in a similar manner. It was sung in duet with Joan Baez, and as so often was the case, this is just as much a duel. It all starts in the instrumental introductory verse: Guam, the band, plays through the whole song apart from the last line, but instead of tying up the whole thing with the expected reprise of the first line, everybody stops playing, except Bob himself, who does some odd strumming, as if to tune the guitar (that was my first impression when I first heard it: they have stopped, something went wrong, they have to tune the guitars) (maybe they should have . . . !). Then, suddenly, Guam breaks loose again for the final line, and the song starts again. This time with the vocals, one of the legendary Bob and Joni duets.

The performance, preserved for eternity on the Hard Rain TV special, is very energetic, until they reach the same place in the song. Once again the instruments stop. But Bob and Joni go on.


And on.


And on.


They hold their tones for three hours, twenty-three minutes and fourteen seconds. Maybe a little less, maybe only for the fourteen seconds, but the point is: they cross a line, the line between what is a normally long held note, and what becomes abnormal.

It is easy to imagine it as one of Dylan’s little ‘breaking Joanie’ tricks, but upon second or third hearing you realize that the tones aren’t that long – he’s not out there to prove that he has bigger lungs than her. Besides, they did this on every show (and on other songs – the most wonderful moment of this kind is the final note of ‘Railroad Boy’ as heard and seen on the Hard Rain video. If I could ever have fallen in love with Joan, it would have had to be there), and although they obviously have their little onstage skirmishes going on during the tour, it is not fought on this trivial level – in short: it’s not a trick.

The renaissance music scholar Rob Wegman has commented on a passage in one of the masses of Jacob Obrecht (1458–1505), that is quite similar, mutatis mutandis (quite a lot in this case) to the Immigrant case. One of the fundamental principles of renaissance music, is variety. Therefore it is quite remarkable when Obrecht, after a passage of a few measures, repeats the passage one step lower, then repeats this procedure again. And again. The third or fourth time the whole situation is beginning to feel uncomfortable. But when Obrecht just continues, the situation is transformed. Just like Dylan, he crosses the line between the normal and the abnormal. This is a dangerous line to cross; there is a thin ice between what is abnormal and what is ridiculous or mad. So what is this? Is it ridiculous, mad or something else?

Let’s examine more closely what is at issue here. What is he trying to prove? Or more fundamentally: what does this mean? It is easier (and more trivial) to do this when one has recourse to a text, but the idea here is a musical idea of some sort. Musical ideas are generally more difficult to grasp than other ideas, because they are not connected with a conceptual system, they don’t automatically mean anything. Any talk of meaning in music must either refer indirectly to and get its supply of meaning from an external conceptual system, such as a program or a text, or create its own meanings, which are then relevant only within the system: a purely musical meaning does not mean anything in the outside world. But it is also my contention that in order for an extra-musical meaning to be assigned to music (to say ‘this music is sad, this describes a sunrise over a desert’ etc), this will have to be related to the musical meaning, through analogies or conventions of interpretation.

By dragging an effect out of the ordinary, as in the case of the poor immigrant, the focus is shifted from the expected goal of the effect, to the effect itself, including the ability of the effect to reach the goal. The effect becomes a meta-effect, pointing to itself and its own effect-ivity. The danger lies in the possibility that the effect is not strong enough to bear the closer scrutiny that this metastasis involves.

The effects that are highlighted in this performance could be described from the point of view of both these spheres. On the musical level, Dylan creates a temporary point of repose in a cycle of hierarchical tonal relationships, but on a tone which is usually characterized by momentum rather than by standstill: he highlights an otherwise melodically unessential tone beyond the normal by stretching it out in time, and by doing so, he emphasises its directionality by singeling out the potentionality which on the face of it nulls out that very directionality. By standing still on the dominant, he holds time, musically speaking.

What is going on on the extramusical level, is necessarily less clear to define. A striking element of the performance, as we can witness it on the TV special, is how tired Dylan looks during the first few songs of the show. The circumstances certainly sound defatigating: an obligation to produce a TV concert, unceasing rain, a soon-to-be-divorced wife on the set, and, for all I know, a drink or two the night before. I’m not trying to say that the musical effect of holding a certain tone in a certain song a little longer than usual is what brought energy back to the band and the bard, but still, the change from the beginning to the end of the recorded part of the show is so pronounced, that I would hardly have raised a brow had someone told me that this was a carefully planned, staged enactment of questions of fatigue and energy, all set to music and culminating in this particular line.

Another possible approach is through the comparison with ‘Lo and Behold!’, which, in Greil Marcus’ exellent interpretation stops and starts as if someone put another coin in the machine, with little or no regard for musical logic. Likewise with the Immigrant: it continues after the dissolution as if nothing has happened. No matter how exhausted the singer is, or how complete the break-down of musical material is, the end of the verse is splendidly unaffected.

Standing (Still) in the Doorway

If I Pity the Poor Immigrant is stopping time by brute force, but thereby concealing (or revealing, both possible outcomes of pointing out) the delicacies of the process, Standing in the Doorway is the direct opposite: subtly holding back time, only to brutally realize its power.

E                 /d#  C#m                 E/b  
I’m walkin’ through      the summer nights  
E         /d#       C#m   E/b  
the jukebox playing low  
E                   /d# C#m                 E/b  
yesterday everything    was goin’ too fast  
E    /d#                C#m    E/b  
Today   it’s movin’ too slow  
   A        D/a           A     D/a  
   I got no place left to turn  
   A                 D/a A     A  B  
   I got nothin’ left to burn  
E               /d#                 C#m        E/b  
Don’t know if I saw you if I would kiss you or kill you  
E                    /d#              C#m    E/b  
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow  
A           E       B               F#  
You left me standing in the doorway cryin’  
A                           E  
I got nothin’ to go back to now.

It’s all in the chords. During the first part of the verse, nothing happens. Nothing at all. What we have is basically an E major chord, sustained all through the first four lines. The only ‘ripple’ on this surface is the repeated, stepwise descent in the bass, but it doesn’t really change anything. This is a waiting progression, a technique for the prolongation of a chord, which usually takes place on a dominant chord, as in Friend of the Devil, after the bridge, or in Covenant Woman, after the chorus. In both these cases, it works as a suspension: the fourth time around the bass continues its descent, and reaches the tonic, the key note, and we’re home again. But in Doorway? Even here the fourth descent continues downwards, but this time we reach the Subdominant. This is quite in accordance with the general blues scheme: even here the subdominant is the first new chord that appears. Here the subdominant (A) alternates with its own subdominant (D), in such a way that it can be regarded as a sustained A with an embellishment. This too is replicated exactly in the blues – it is what lies behind the commonest blues patterns of all:

  E (tonic)                      A (subdominant)  
  .     .     .     .            .     .     .     .  
|-------------------------|    |-------------------------|  
|-------------------------|    |-------------------------|  
|-------------------------|    |-------------------------|  
|-------------------------|etc |-2---2-4---4-2---2-4---4-|  
|-2---2-4---4-2---2-4---4-|    |-0---0-0---0-0---0-0---0-|  
|-0---0-0---0-0---0-0---0-|    |-------------------------|  

Or to put it in musicologist’s cipher: T-T6/4-T and S-S6/4-S. After this it is back to the tonic (E) again for the final four lines. So far, and with the reductions we have done, Doorway and In the Evening follow exactly the same structure.

But then it happens: the second time the waiting/sustaining bass line reaches the subdominant, it doesn’t stay there, as it did the first time. What happens instead is a straight and persistent line, up through chords a fifth apart in the dominant direction: A – E – B – F#. Incidentally, this sequence occurs at the point which corresponds to the shift to the dominant in the twelve-bar blues. The rapid chord sequence can be likened with going up the stairs: each new step costs some energy, but also increases the potential energy in the form of a higher position. The energy it costs must be taken from somewhere, and in this case it is as if a lot of tension that has been held back during the first two parts of the verse, is suddenly released, and bursts out in one single, sudden and climactic effort. Then it is as if this was too much to take: in the last line we are back to the subdominant A again, which, after the rocketing of the previous line, seems like an anticlimax. We are back more or less where we started: to the motionless state of . . . What?

What kind of immobility does this song deal with? Is it a still summer evening at a lake, lying on the bank, with only the slightest ripple on the surface? Or is it a sultry day, flies buzzing around your ears as you lay in the grass, sipping at a cold beer, which is all you have the energy to do?

Neither. Let’s first have a look at the lyrics.

First verse: ‘I’ surrounded by signs saying ‘Nothing happening in here’. Here’s the heavy summer night and the quiet jukebox, streets where things move too slowly. But these are just the outer signs of what’s really at stake: the inner inability to act, because ‘I’ don’t know what is to be done. This is as exact a correspondence to what the music ‘says’ as one can possibly ask.

Then, in the last part, comes the real protagonist in absentio onto the stage: ‘you’. And all of a sudden there are signs of activity, talk about kissing or killing – and leaving. The emotional climax of the text, the title line, which contains both ‘you’, ‘I’, action and emotions, coincides with the musical climax, followed by the deceptive return in the last line, of the music as well as the text.

The same pattern is repeated in the rest of the verses. Strumming a ‘gay’ guitar, which doesn’t sound very happy at all; the possibility of an ominous threat come true – only that it won’t happen, not here and now, anyway; then the church bells ringing, and fatalistically accepted, although chance is they’re ringing for ‘I’ himself.

Then meeting ‘you’ and the ghost of our old love, always at the beginning of the last part of the verses. As the verses unfold, it becomes clearer and clearer that the forced inability to act is caused by this ghost: its presence (it ‘will not go away’) is completely overpowering any initiative on the part of ‘I’ (‘Last night I danced with a stranger, But she just reminded me you were the one’) – to the point that any attempt to fight its influence is treated purely hypthetically (‘if I saw you’; ‘I would be crazy if I took you back’).

And the last line of each verse: always back to the mire of the first parts, made even more desperate by the recurring intermezzo.

Here are the entire lyrics, the ‘I’ world in boldface, the ‘you’ world in italics.

I’m walkin’ through the summer nights
the jukebox playing low
yesterday everything was goin’ too fast
Today it’s movin’ too slow
   I got no place left to turn
   I got nothin’ left to burn
Don’t know if I saw you
if I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow
You left me standing in the doorway cryin’
I got nothin’ to go back to now.
The light in this place is so bad
Makin’ me sick in the head
All the laughter is just makin’ me sad
The stars have turned cherry red
I’m strummin’ on my gay guitar
Smokin’ a cheap cigar
The ghost of our old love has not gone away
Don’t look like it will anytime soon
You left me standin’ in the doorway cryin’
Under the midnight moon.

Maybe they’ll get me and maybe they won’t

But not tonight and it won’t be here
There are things I could say, but I don’t
I know the mercy of God must be near
I been ridin a midnight train
Got ice water in my veins
I would be crazy if I took you back
It would go up against every rule
You left me standin’ in the doorway cryin’
Sufferin’ like a fool.

When the last rays of daylight go down

Buddy you’ll roll no more
I can hear the church bells ringin’ in the yard
I wonder who they’re ringin’ for
I know I can’t win
But my heart just won’t give in
Last night I danced with a stranger
But she just reminded me you were the one
You left me standin’ in the doorway cryin’
In the dark land of the sun.

I eat when I’m hungry drink when I’m dry

And live my life on the square
And even if the flesh falls off of my face
I know someone will be there to care
It always means so much
Even the softest touch
I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
There’s no words that need to be said
You left me standin’ in the doorway cryin’
Blues wrapped around my head.

The last stanza is special. It seems conciliatory at first. The first part does not have the desperate apathy of the other verses – rather a reconciled contentment, a satisfaction with the small details of life (if you can call the softest touch a small detail). More than in the other verses, the words seem to be directed at someone – maybe ‘you’, maybe just ‘someone’. The effect is quite similar to that of Desolation Row and Gates of Eden (although this may be to drift too far from where we’re heading with all this: what the music is all about): after a long tirade reflecting ‘the World According to “I” ’ through scattered images, the narrator sweeps all that aside and tells us (someone) what’s really on his mind.

But all the same: this time it’s different; the bottom line of this doorway is that it’s still no use – ‘there’s no words that need to be said’. Just as the presence of ‘you’ for the first time is discernible in the first part of the verse, this time the inactivity takes over the place in the verse where ‘you’ used to come in. And the two last lines are as desperate as ever before, and so is the singing.

Which brings us back to the music and the question that was left hanging: what kind of immobility. What is described – musically – in this song, is a way of stopping time, holding back time. Or maybe rather: disregarding time, saying that it doesn’t matter. And at the same time it is a realization that it can’t be done – time is too strong to be overlooked.

There are three elements in this musical story. First the long standstill itself. Just like in In the Evening and I Pity the Poor Immigrant, the holding in itself creates tension. The longer the standstill, the more imperative it is that something just has to happen, and the stronger the focus on and the attention to the standing itself.

The standstill is accomplished through a figure that is normally associated with suspense and preparation for a return – but a return to the point where we already are. I don’t know if this kind of restlessness – because that’s what it really is – has a name: the feeling that you ought to go somewhere, get something done, but you can’t think of anything else to do or to be than what you’re already doing, being. This is the kind of inactivity: the apathy that stems from a dissatisfaction with anything you’re doing, no matter what, because what you really want is too big to be wanted, but still standing in the way of trivialities such as happiness, trout fishing or the coldness of the beer on a warm summer evening.

And the third musical element is the consequence of this intense immobility. The dominant of the twelve-bar blues is stretched, beyond the breaking point. And when something is stretched that far, it breaks. It’s a crash on the levee, so to speak. In accumulated desperation you run up the stairs, too fast to notice that there are only four steps, and you fall flat, despite the effort.

The brilliance of all this is the way he uses a blues-pattern as a template for the writing of an elaborate song, where the various parts of the pattern contribute to the expressive force of the song, but where this force is not limited to the pattern, but draws on sources lying way beyond the simple pattern. This is to say: it is not the blues that tells the story, it’s the way the (purely musical) elements of the blues are combined with other elements (a descending figure, a chord progression) and – through a web of expectations, connotations and analogies – to the text.

Ring Them Bells

He’s used the same elements before, without telling the same story: the bridge in Ring them bells is one of the most prominent examples. First: the same kind of standstill-like pendular alternation between C and Am that has earlier been used as an interlude between the verses:

C    G/b  Am  
Ring them bells  
              G/b     C  
for the blind and the deaf,  
     G/b  Am  
Ring them bells  
                  G/b C  
for all of us who are left,

But then it all breaks loose in the kind of seemingly never-ending progression that brings a smile to your face, a tear to your eye and a strong conviction that man can fly (luckily, I was living on the ground floor at the time when I first heard it, so I’m still alive). I’ve asked myself why this bridge differs so much from the bridge in Shooting Star from the same album. Harmonically they are almost identical.

C    G/b  Am  
Ring them bells  
for the chosen few  
Who will judge the many  
when the game is through.  
Ring them bells,  
for the time that flies,  
For the child that cries  
When innocence dies.  
Listen to the engine  
listen to the bell  
As the last firetruck  
from hell  
goes rolling by,  
G                         C  
all good people are praying  
It’s the last temptation  
the last account  
The last time you might hear  
the sermon on the mount  
F                  F/g  
 The last radio is playing.

Again the main difference, it seems, is one of pacing and phrasing. In Shooting star, the whole chromatic bass descent is part of the same phrase, just filling out the interval between Am and F, in a fairly straightforward chord progression Am-F-G-C, which is then repeated. This ‘one-dimensionality’ applies to the melody as well: it is all one phrase, beginning and staying on the same, high note and ending with a cadential turn.

Ring Them Bells works differently, in both these areas. The downward chromatic progression is slowed down. Every step gets its allotted time. Every musical ‘sentence’ is given its own meaning. Every meaning is given enough time to work. It is almost like a paragraph with short sentences. All the sentences separated by a full stop.

This is another way of saying that the sense of direction (or directionality) is different. The passage in Shooting goes back to the three chords which dominate blues, folk, and the rest of western (as in Western civilization, not as in C&W) music since 1450 (roughly). Am is the pivot between C and F, to both of which it is closely related, harmonically, but as a chord in its own right it can be disregarded. It works like this:

The Am and C belong to the same area, and the rest is a traditional cadence pattern, going through three fixed levels.

The passage in Ring Them Bells works like this:


The one-thought-per-step character in the chromatic descent and the fact that the descent continues past F, relieves Am of its role as ‘just’ a pivot chord and gives it a character of its own, as the chord that sets a progression in motion that spans the whole bridge, a continuous progression through the whole scale.

This changes our perception of the first half of the bridge, of course, but the strongest effects are on the second half, after the F chord – the half where Dylan’s voice and delivery really takes off and leaves the ground, flying. It has to do with the F chord and where in the scheme of the bridge it enters, but even more with the G chord, which isn’t even there until it is hinted at at the very end of the bridge.

The F chord first: It enters after four measures which in other cases, such as Shooting Star, would have led back to C again. I.e., it takes the place of the stable chord, and assumes its role. F becomes a second firm ground and a new starting point – like a landing in a staircase – not just a stage on the way back to C.

But G is the real beauty of this passage. In a sense, the second half is dominated by this chord, even though it is not heard. It is the complete absence of this chord that explains the expansive character of the second part of the bridge – the feeling that the music just goes on and on without ever coming to rest, ever needing to. The last phrases hover around the resolution that we know has to come, the final turn to G and C. This hovering begins with D7/f#, whose natural resolution would be to go to G, as the first step in a chain of chords a fifth apart which would eventually lead to C again: D>G>C. Here, that resolution is delayed by the detour to the F with its freshly gained stability, but it is only a temporary stability. And it is this ambiguity between fixity and progression which lends the bridge its special character, its expansiveness and its transcendency.

Another reason for the effect of this bridge is the contrast with the verses, which are also dominated by a descending bass line. It is like a twisted echo: where the verses sweep through a whole octave in one breath, the bridge is a slow chromatic movement, where the melody on each step of the descent becomes a phrase of its own.

Seen in isolation, each of these mini-phrases sounds quite like all the others, but taken together, they almost form a musical narrative: there is a certain expansiveness to the whole bridge, the voice seems to wish to break out of the repetition of the same phrase. (Does it succeed? Sometimes when I hear the song, I think so, other times not.)

Even live the same element has been used, this time more as a part of a purely musical dramaturgy. During 1995 Mr Tambourine Man was usually played in a subdued, slow acoustical arrangement with Bucky Baxter’s slide guitar solo as the climax. In Philadelphia on June 21, 1995, the song starts slower than ever, and the singing is very calm all the way through. Then, at the last harmonica solo all hell breaks loose. on that occasion the ‘story’ was one of testing how long and how much one can hold back (and it worked: the audience went wild, of course).


Time Out Of Mind ends with the seventeen minutes long Highlands. It is the closest Dylan ever comes to a successful attempt at stopping time. It succeed, not by trying to stop it in the tracks or hold it back, but by realizing that time goes on regardless of everything, and by tapping into its flow and disregarding it, instead of fighting it.

For this, the blues is a perfect vehicle. Musically, the blues is not a fixed structure with beginning, middle, and end, but an infinite loop, which can begin or end anywhere – or nowhere at all. The little riff that dominates the song is pronounced enough to be recognized as a separate entity, but unobtrusive enough to quickly fade into the background, like a clock ticking.

Time is an explicit topic in the song: turning back the clock, going back, stopping time. But more essential (to this interpretation, anyway) is its fragmented character, consisting of episodes without a combining narrative, interspersed with flashes of indefinite past and future.

A piece of wood drifting in a river does not move. An apple is completely still only when it falls from the branch. Free fall is weightlessness. ‘Highlands’ is free fall translated to music, freedom from the bonds of time, possible, in the end, only through complete submersion in time.