“Not Dark Yet” (1997)

In not “Not Dark Yet”, Dylan unites atmosphere and tone so well. Most of the song, except for the third verse, captures a person acted upon by events, subjugated to fate.  In the third verse, he admits to going places, London, Paris, and following a river and making it to a sea. Elsewhere, he’s been stagnant, framed by birth and death, events he feels powerless to control.

What Dylan definitely wills in this song is many rhymes; each two lines are couplets, and he sings each one in such an unforced fluent and achingly beautiful tone.  Yes, the next to last verse shows his movement from Paris to the sea, but the speaker’s mind is stagnant, numb even.  He sings

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

(love that “numb”/”from” rhyme):

Christopher Ricks observes the Keatsian influence in the song–namely to “Ode to a Nightingale.” Much heartache in both, much nearness to the end (not dark yet), fading, even half loving death.  “Do I wake or sleep?,” Keats ends the poem; Dylan finishes the song with the refrain, “not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” “Getting there” … somehow by moving but standing still.

This song never fails to be moving.  In case you want to be moved again by it, here’s the official video:

 

“Man Gave Names To All The Animals” (1979)

Image result for slow train coming

Dylan hasn’t rhymed the word “glass” in over three decades.  When he last did it was in reference to that snake that he mysteriously does not name at the end of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals“:

He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake . . .

The “glass“/”grass” last rhyme of the song is the last time Dylan will be responsible for the rhyming–he leaves us to come up with “snake” from the rhyme with “lake.”

Clever.

We have to name him from the sound Dylan gives us, but he won’t say it/sing it . . . a rather snake in the grass move.  The -s sound helps, too, though; can you hear the snake slithering with all those onomatopoeic s’s?  We may not be able to see him, disappearing at all by that tree, but we can hear him and we can identify him, so ingrained as he is into our psyche.

Just  a little help, Dylan seems to be saying, is all we need to point out the snake though we can’t see it.

Here is is singing it in 1981 in London, June 30th, when he was smack dab in the middle of his gospel stage:

 

 

“Life Is Hard” (2009)

me” ends each verse of “Life is Hard,” but it rhymes with only one word in the song, and that word is “be”:

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

The friend you used to be
So near and dear to me
You slipped so far away
Where did we go a-stray
I pass the old schoolyard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

It’s a spillover rhyme though so the lack of rhyming at the end of each verse with “me” is consistent.  “me sandwiches” “be”– the lover he speaks of as the center of his “me“-ness.

Life is hard, maybe even possible without her.

I’d venture to say that just about every Dylan album has a can’t live without her song; the first perhaps “Girl From The North Country.”

The “went” rhyme in “Life Is Hard” conveys something gone but how we’re left with the traces, past never dead, not even past:

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

Way and will are gone, but their meaning remains with the speaker. If you think about it that is the way with all meaningful things gone–they are gone but what they meant to us remains; hard to shake what brings meaning to our lives, partly why life is hard.

Speaking of meaning, in “Life Is Hard” “meant” rhymes with “went” and the meaning known is what two things used to mean but not what they mean now; those two things are the will and the way:

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

Again, the will and the way are lost, but not their meaning from the past. The past is tied to being near someone who used to give the singer a way and a will, perhaps. Such nearness is essential. We underestimate the value of nearness; in this song, such nearness is essential; it’s echoed in the bridge, four times:

Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

The songs celebrates nearness, in a sense, for what happens without it.

One of my favorite songs is “The Nearness of You.” It helps me value and celebrate nearness. Here’s Sarah Vaughn singing it, a song originally sung by Gladys Swarthout for the film Romance in the Dark (1938) and written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington:

“John Brown” (1963)

 

Robert Shelton calls “John Brown” an attack on “the concept of war heroes.”  In it, perhaps Dylan does what most, if not all, effective anti-war literature does (Wilford Owen and Tim O’Brien come immediately to my mind, as does William Faulker’s Soldier’s Pay, and Peter Seeger’s cover of Baird’s song “Mrs. McGrath”)–it makes us feel what it’s like to be inside the shoes of a victim, specifically someone who returns as maimed and disfigured mentally from disillusionment as he/she is physically.

The stanza that houses the key empathy inspiring “shoe” rhyme is:

“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground, you were home . . . acting proud
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”

Yes, it’s what been done in those shoes (you’d know what a drag it was to be me?)–seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt while standing in those shoes by, as Owen says in “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” “children ardent for some desperate glory,” that makes the war hero’s return home the time for those tears.

Here’s a Bob’s memorable live performance of it on in Germany, 1998.

“Idiot Wind” (1974)

I like Carrie Brownstein’s observation that Dylan’s voice in “Idiot Wind” grows “stronger and more dangerous with each line.”  “stars” is used twice in the song, at the midway point and late, and this increasing danger is present in the lines with “stars”–the danger being the speaker’s increasingly damning finger pointing that paints him as the victim. The first time it appears is in the fourth verse:

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I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle

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Here “stars” is a rhymed word with “are.”  Stars are not shooting here, the visions are, and they are sexual (chestnut mare, bare chest, or lower . . .  chestnut hair?).  These physical visions are tough to escape, but later in the song what hounds him is more abstract, more profound, harder to overcome:

___________________________________________________________

Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory

___________________________________________________________

It’s her memory, all of her, not just the attraction of her body, that he follows, and the stars are comprehensive–blanketing the world above him and around him, not relegated to his head, making him see stars.  In this verse the stars are real. Real, too, was how he “came pretty close” to revealing his “personal life, he admitted to Bill Flanagan.

___________________________________________________________

Dylan sang this song in a memorable performance at Colorado State University with Sara Dylan in the audience.  The song becoming that much more dangerous: