Shakespeare in the Alley

Show three: the joker and the thief






Show three introduces the transitions and turns, the seeming opposites found so often in Dylan's songs. Is he a folk singer or a blues man? A laid-back Nashville crooner or a distraught rocker? In "Not Dark Yet," on his 1997 Time Out of Mind album we find a man, after multiple changes in style and attitude, telling us to be wary about seeing change: "It may look like I'm moving but I'm standin' still." And indeed, what I hope to show in this series of radio programs is that very thing, that throughout these four decades Dylan has alternated between these seemingly opposite poles which are in reality two sides of a coin.



Welcome back, folks.  This week’s show will give you some perspective.  I’m going to take you on a quick tour of four decades of Dylan songs, but not just to get an overview.  I want to show you a thread which runs through all of Dylan’s 500 plus songs, through all those changes from folk to blues to country, from songs crying out for social justice to songs exploring inner angst, from albums of excess to albums of moderation, from songs by a 20 year old to songs by a 60 year old.  Through it all, I find a pattern, and this week’s show is meant to reveal that pattern. 

Some would argue that change itself is what makes Dylan Dylan: his constant change from one musical style to another, from one voice to another, from one perspective to another.  The most startling transition was probably the first one.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It's somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin' for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
In the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten


That was the move from the folk sound of the early years, 1962 to ‘64, to the new electric sound of  1965 and ‘66.  The sound got labeled “folk-rock” by the media –even though those three mid-sixties albums contain more blues than rock’n’roll.   Dylan himself described it as a “wild mercury sound” that made it possible to write and perform a new kind of song.

Whatever it was, many of the lefty political types felt betrayed.  Dylan, by 1965, had come to be seen—or rather heard as the voice of the two major protest movements.   “Blowin’ in the Wind” especially had become a standard at Civil Rights demonstrations, sort of the white parallel to “We Shall Overcome.”  And the growing Peace Movement looked to “Masters of War” as its anthem.  But Dylan felt cramped by the label “protest singer” and put out an album titled Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964.  The title was a clear signal of the coming change, but since it was still all acoustic music like the first three albums, most listeners didn’t hear the change coming.  Listening to the most well-know song from the album now, however, we can read between the lines and hear his declaration of independence from these movements:  “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is almost an anti-manifesto you might say.  Like many of Dylan’s songs which seem to be about the love relationship, its really much more than that: 


Go 'way from my window,
Leave at your own chosen speed.
I'm not the one you want, babe,
I'm not the one you need.
You say you're lookin' for someone
Never weak but always strong,
To protect you an' defend you
Whether you are right or wrong,
Someone to open each and every door,
But it ain't me, babe,
No, no, no, it ain't me, babe,
It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe.


At the time most folks just took this as a new version of “Don’t Think Twice,” a nice breaking up song, not reading the other levels of significance.  Both Cher and Johnny Cash both recorded covers.  But when he strapped on the electric guitar and added a blues band, that got people’s attention.  Some objected, but he didn’t look back.  He replaced his Huck Finn cap and his denim shirt with a wild head of hair and a motorcycle jacket.  His metamorphosis from rebel with a cause to rebel with an attitude moved him from king of the folk music world to a major player on a much larger stage.  He was no longer the big fish in the little pond of folk music, he had moved downstream into the wild sea of popular music.  And to some that seemed to be a sell out.

One of the most widely discussed scenes in Dylan’s career is his performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.  Only two years earlier Joan Baez had introduced him to this crowd as the darling young folk song writer.  This time, though, instead of him alone with guitar and harmonica on stage, he came out with the Butterfield Blues band and played some of his new  songs.  When it was not received well—or maybe it was just a bad sound mix—stories differ on this story—he left the stage.  Pete Seeger and others convinced him to return to the stage with only a borrowed acoustic guitar.  What did he sing?  A song about himself, his old self as addressed by his new self.  Yes, one mask was being replaced by another and it was time to tell the orphan that “it’s all over now, baby blue.”

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.
Look out the saints are comin' through
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.

Dylan’s own description of this change in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Vol. 1 is worth noting:

…[W]hat I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude ot them, use catchphrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved ito something different that had not been heard before.  Silber scolded me in his letter for doing this, as if he alone and a few others had the keys to the real world.  I knew what I was doing, though, and wasn’t going to take a step back or retreate for anybody. (67)

This new Dylan mask included both a serious and comic side.  In the 1965 Playboy interview which he and Nat Hentoff sort of worked on together, we hear this exchange.  Hentoff asks about the meaning of his songs.  Dylan gives one of his famous cryptic non-answers.
DYLAN:  Anybody can be specific and obvious.  That's always been the easy way.  The leaders of the world take the easy way.  It's not that it's so difficult to be unspecific and less obvious; it's just that there's nothing, absolutely nothing to be specific and obvious about.  My older songs, to say the least, were about nothing.  The newer ones are about the same nothing--only seen inside a bigger thing, perhaps called the nowhere.  But this is all very constipated.  I  do know what my songs are about.

 “And what's that?” Hentoff then asks, giving him the  straight line.

DYLAN:  Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.  (Retrospective 134)

But while some who felt rejected criticized the change, more flocked to hear this new Dylan, this new sound which led Dylan to write a break-through song which became his first top ten hit—the one Rolling Stone magazine calls the greatest rock song ever, the one Griel Marcus devotes an entire book to: 

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?


“Like a Rolling Stone” struck a deep chord in the psyche of America.  The naiveté and innocence of the ‘50s was gone.  In 1963 Kennedy was assassinated, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis which had us on the  brink of World War III.  Civil Rights marches led to church bombing and midnight lynchings.  Malcolm X was assassinated in ’65.  Riots in LA.   Peace marches protesting the war in Vietnam. The hippies spreading out from San Francisco throughout the country.  It was a time of dramatic change in America.  Dylan produced the song which crystallized it all:


Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.


That was the kind of song that got him labeled “protest singer” but if you listen, you hear a voice more of prophecy than protest.  It’s a subtle distinction which we’ll come back to in a later show.
But these kinds of songs gave way to something quite different:


I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
No, I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
Well, I wake in the morning,
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin' me insane.
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

That’s from Bringing it All Back Home, released in January 1965.  In under two years Dylan produced two more incredible albums:  Highways 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, the latter a double album.   Four LP vinyl disks containing songs like “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Johanna” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.”   It was an outpouring worthy of comparison to the spring of 1819 when Keats wrote all those incredible odes.  It was a pace that couldn’t last. 

After recording these three albums, touring England, the United States, and then the world, at the same time working on a book he had signed a contract to write, getting married (secretly), and being pushed to do even more by his aptly named agent Al Grossman, he was on the point of exhaustion. How would it end, this frantic pace? With a motorcycle accident.  Dylan was taking a break, holed up in Woodstock.  It was the summer of 1966.  Out for a spin on his bike, Dylan went over the handle bars when the rear axle locked. Unlike James Dean in his Porsche and Buddy Holly in an airplane, Dylan didn’t die.

How badly was he hurt?  That and just about everything else was kept quiet somehow.  It provided a way out.  A breathing space.  Some time off.  Dylan was out of sight for about eighteen months.  Rumors flew: he was paralyzed, he was dead, he was in rehab.
What we know now is that he was taking it easy and writing lots of great songs which he and the group soon to be known simply as “The Band” were recording in the basement of the house where the Band was staying, a house affectionately know as “Big Pink.”   These home-made tapes began to circulate in bootlegged versions and were simply called The Basement Tapes.  They became so widely bootlegged that finally they were released by Columbia.  Perhaps the most famous song in the huge group expresses Dylan’s desire for release from all the pressures which had built up during the hectic touring.  And you can hear a new voice, a quieter voice, less frantic voice
First verse (or more) of  “I Shall Be Released.”  From The Basement Tapes:


They say ev'rything can be replaced,
Yet ev'ry distance is not near.
So I remember ev'ry face
Of ev'ry man who put me here.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.


When Dylan did return to the studio, he went to Nashville and recorded a quiet country album using Nashville sidemen, not the Band.  It was a huge change, standing in contrast not only to his previous three albums but to what was going on in popular music.

While the Beatles and the Stones competed to see who could produce the strangest album with the weirdest cover, Dylan released John Wesley Harding with a simple gray and black photo on the cover and an unplugged sound.   It’s almost the opposite of the album before it.  Blonde on Blonde is an album of excess, a two record set with raucous songs like “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” with its chorus of “Everybody must get stoned.”  It has long songs filed with enigmatic images like “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”  There’s even a parody of the  Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”  In stark contrast, the John Wesley Harding  songs are quiet and tightly written.  All but one is only three verses long, where “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” had nine verses and “Desolation Row” ten.  One, the haunting “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowland,” takes one entire side of an LP with its piles of bizarre imagery of the church, much of it from religion.

To all this excessiveness John Wesley Harding stands in extreme contrast:  short, tightly written ballads with simple acoustic accompaniment.   It’s in one of those tightly written three-verse songs that we find most clearly expressed the pattern which runs throughout all four decades of Dylan songs.   In “All Along the Watchtower” we get a concise portrayal of the two masks which Dylan wears, alternately, throughout his career.  This song dramatizes the two poles he alternates between.  The two perspectives from which he views the world are given voice in the joker and the thief.  The joker speaks in verse one, the thief in verse two. The third verse portrays the bleak situation and pictures two riders approaching, creating a circular effect which leads us back to the joker and the thief.  It suggests an eternal cycle.  You probably know the Hendrix version, but listen to Dylan’s on the John Wesley Harding album:


              ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER (from JWH album)

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."


Yes, these two voices, the joker’s voice of discontent and excess, the thief’s voice of consolation and moderation, alternate in this song and indeed throughout Dylan’s career.  As we move through his four decades of what seems to be constant change, what we really see is the joker and the thief, both always present, but usually with one dominating.  And each looks out at the world asking what is real and what is not.


All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.


These two voices run through all Dylan’s songs.  This dichotomous view, this alternation, this undulation back and forth between the joker’s confusion and the thief’s consolation, between the joker’s desperate cry for relief and the thief’s calming but serious call for facing reality—this is what unifies the collected songs of Bob Dylan.  One voice dominates for a period of time, then the other, but always both are there.  Thus we go from the joker who is “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” on Blonde on Blonde in 1966 to the reassurance that “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” which closes the 1968 album  John Wesley Harding.


Verse seven of “Stuck Inside” from Blonde on Blonde

Now the trainman gave me two cures,
Then he said, "Jump right in."
The one was Texas medicine,
The other was just railroad gin.
An' like a fool I mixed them
An' it strangled up my mind,
An' now people just get uglier
An' I have no sense of time.
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again.

Close your eyes, close the door,
You don’t have to worry any more.
I’ll be your baby tonight.


The contrast is stark.  The joker’s confusion, the thief’s consolation.  On the John Wesley Harding album the joker is portrayed as the “wicked messenger”  who fades into the background as the thief emerges into the spotlight.  Dylan says goodbye to “The Wicked Messenger” and promises us that “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” 


First verse of “Wicked Messenger”
There was a wicked messenger
From Eli he did come,
With a mind that multiplied
The smallest matter.
When questioned who had sent for him,
He answered with his thumb,
For his tongue it could not speak, but only flatter.


And if we haven’t gotten the point that he will no longer play the role of the wicked messenger, he makes is clear by closing thealbum with a song that announces the change from joker to thief.  Or as he puts it in that song, the mocking bird’s gonna fly away” --


Shut the light, shut the shade,
You don't have to be afraid.
I'll be your baby tonight.

               Well, that mockingbird's gonna sail away,
We're gonna forget it.
That big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon,
But we're gonna let it,                                                         
You won't regret it.

               Kick your shoes off, do not fear,
Bring that bottle over here.
I'll be your baby tonight.


Yes, as we look back we can see that the thief is dominant in that first period of simple folks songs, although the joker can be occasionally heard.  “Blowin’ in the Wind” is in the thief’s voice, not the jokers.  “One Too Many Mornings” and even “Times They Are A-changin’” –all in the thief’s voice.  The voice of consolation, not confused desperation and compulsive excess. 

Then comes the first big shift and the joker’s voice dominates those mid-sixties songs like “Desolation Row.”  The joker was stuck on highway 61 until he got lucky and had a motorcycle accident.

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."


So John Wesley Harding, like Another Side of Bob Dylan, is a transaction album.  It announces the turning away from the joker, back to the thief’s quieting (and quietistic some would say) voice.  This 1968  album introduces a series of quiet, meditative albums, including two outstanding original albums:   New Morning released in 1970 and Planet Waves in 1974.  This new Dylan is a moderate man, writing what appear to be simple love songs.  The question by Vera on the John Wesley Harding liner notes contrasts the frantic mid-sixties Dylan with the new quiet one.  After Frank
has almost killed himself  performing for the three kings, she asks, “Why didn’t you just tell them you were a moderate man instead of goosing yourself all over the room?”

Yes, the new Dylan is a moderate man, a family man, sitting on the bank watchin’ the river flow.  You can hear it in this song from the 1970 album New Morning.


               Time passes slowly up here in the mountains,
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains,
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream,
Time passes slowly when you're lost in a dream.

               Once I had a sweetheart, she was fine and good-lookin',
We sat in her kitchen while her mama was cookin',
Stared out the window to the stars high above,
Time passes slowly when you're searchin' for love.

               Ain't no reason to go in a wagon to town,
Ain't no reason to go to the fair.
Ain't no reason to go up, ain't no reason to go down,
Ain't no reason to go anywhere.

               Time passes slowly up here in the daylight,
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right,
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day,
Time passes slowly and fades away.


Let me use this song to make clear that this alternation between joker and thief is only apparent.  While one is dominant, the other is always present.  In “All Along the Watchtower”  the voices are balanced, each getting exactly one verse.  One is usually more dominant throughout a period, but the other is always there, as in “Time Passes Slowly.”  It seems like such a simple little love song, with the thief’s moderation dominating, but just beneath the surface we can hear the implied carpe diem  theme which belongs to the joker: “Time passes slowly and fades away.”  This moderate persona is a mask which will soon be replaced with the mocking grin of the joker.  No, the mocking bird hadn’t disappeared but is merely in hibernation, ready to re-emerge.  And he does in 1975 with Blood on the Tracks

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.
Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,
Blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves,
We're idiots, babe.
It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves.


Two more albums, Desire (1976) and Street Legal (1978) continue the flight of the mocking bird.  The discontented tone of the joker is especially noticeable on “Senor” on Street Legal.

First verse from “Senor”  on Street Legal
Senor, senor, can you tell me where we're headin'?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before.
Is there any truth in that, senor?


Indeed we have been down this road before.  With the previous incarnation of the joker.   Just as with those earlier songs, we can hear the joker’s voice again:

Senor, senor, let's overturn these tables,
Disconnect these cables.
This place don't make sense to me no more.
Can you tell me what we're waiting for, senor?


The mocking bird, the joker, the outlaw, the drifter—they are all masks for the same discontented side of the Dylan persona. “There’s too much confusion,” the joker says.   And this side alternates with the moderate man, the thief who tells the joker, “No reason to get excited.” 

This alternation continues in the next transition,  the one from outlaw to born-again Christian who speaks in a voice which recalls the thief’s tone during the folk period:


Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted
Can't help but wonder what's happenin' to my companions,
Are they lost or are they found,
Have they counted the cost it'll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they're gonna have to abandon?
There's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend.


That’s from his 1979 album, Slow Train.  The most well-known song from that album is more overtly prophetic in tone.


You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

               But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.


Yes, here again was a transition that shook up his old fans.  He went on tour in 1979 with a huge show of gospel singers and musicians.  But the booing only lasted through the first few concerts on the west coast.  By the time he got to Memphis where I saw him at the converted old Malco Theater seating about 2000, the audiences knew what to expect.  We just enjoyed a gospel show by the new incarnation.  He followed up Slow Train Coming with two more overtly Christian albums, Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981).  Gradually the albums grew less overt in their Christian references.  The ‘80s saw a decline in creative output.  There were some good songs but no albums that really rank with his best work except for the retrospective collection Biograph in 1985 which contains many wonderful songs never before released.

As the ‘90s began, he released a couple of albums of traditional folk and blues music done in the old style, just voice, guitar, and harmonica. Many thought he had lost all inspiration.  Then in 1997 Time Out of Mind came out and it was clear that the joker had returned, that the outlaw was once again on the scene.  It was a voice and mood we knew from decades before, but now without the need to try to sound old and raspy.  He turned 56 as the album was being recorded.  The voice of the joker dominates the album, perhaps most clearly in the finest song on the album, “Not Dark Yet”:


Not Dark Yet

Shadows are falling and I been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun/son? didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

               Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

               Well I been to London and I been to gay Paris
I followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain't lookin for nothin' in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there



Yes, this is the joker we are hearing:  “My sense of humanity is goin’ down the drain”—

“My burden is more than I can bear.”   This song comes from down on Highway 61.

Yes, clearly the joker has returned.  He’s traveled from Highway 61 to London and gay Paris, but still there’s too much confusion, there’s not room to be anywhere, his sense of humanity has gone down the drain.  His burden is too much to bear.  His soul has turned into steel.  The joker’s dark view has returned.


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


So here is the man, after multiple changes in style and attitude, telling us to be wary about seeing change.   “It may look like I’m moving,” he sings, “but I’m standin’ still.”   And indeed, one point which underlies all that I say about Dylan’s poetics in this series of radio shows is that throughout these four decades Dylan has alternated between these seemingly opposite poles which are in reality two sides of the same coin.  He looks like he’s moving, but he’s standing still.  Even as he changes from the joker who says, “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief,” into the thief who says, “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late,” he’s really standing still, looking at life from two different points of view.  We see this undulation back and forth throughout the four decades of songs.

Sometimes Dylan speaks with the voice of the mocking bird lashing us with a putdown:
PLAY:  second verse of   ABSOLUTELY SWEET MARIE” (Blonde on Blonde)
Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously
But then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately.
At other times he is the bluebird singing so contentedly of time passing slowly up here in the mountains.
Sometimes he’s the outlaw on highway 61 or the drifter lost in the rain in Juarez when it's Eastertime too, and at other times he’s the preacher speaking of three angels blowing their horns on Christmas morn while we all pass by without hearing.

Sometimes the thief invites us in, saying,

PLAY FROM “On a Night Like This” on Planet Waves:

“We got much to talk about And much to reminisce, It sure is right On a night like this.”

At other times, he doesn’t even want to hear from us if we too are not jokers:


Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the door knob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they're quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row


Sometimes he says, “I’m trying to get closer but I'm still a million miles from you” and at other times he’s forgetting  all the confusion and inviting us to do the same: “Close your eyes, close the door, You don't have to worry any more.”
Sometimes he is tangled up in blue and at others he says, “Well my heart's in The Highlands I'm gonna go there when I feel good enough to go.”
Sometimes he’s tired of being the questioner, saying, “Tears of rage, tears of grief,  Why must I always be the thief? Come to me now, you know  We're so alone And life is brief.”  At other times the joker confronts us with the harsh reality.

We can see the two sides of the coin clearly in the two albums released at the turn of the millennium. On the 1997 album with the ironic title Time Out of Mind he claims to be walking through streets that are dead;  on Love and Theft released in 2001 he’s got eight carburetors and usin’ ‘em all.  The coin turns and we see one side but the other is always there.  And each time one comes up, it echoes the version we heard before.  To illustrate what I mean let’s compare the moderate man of 2001 with that of 1969, beginning with the voice of the thief  on the Love and Theft the 2001 album:


(~shorten if necessary, picking up where we left off above)
The seasons they are turning and my sad heart is yearning
To hear again the songbird's sweet melodious tone
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone

The dusky light the day is losing
Orchids, poppies, black eyed susan

Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone

The air is thick and heavy all along the levee
Where the geese into the countryside have flown
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone

Well, I'm preaching peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike
I take you 'cross the river, dear
You've no need to linger here
I know the kinds of things you like

The clouds are turning crimson, the leaves fall from the limbs 'n
The branches cast their shadows over stone
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone

The boulevards of cypress trees, the masquerade of birds and bees
The petals pink and white, the wind has blown
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone

The trailing moss in mystic glow, the purple blossom soft as snow
My tears keep flowing to the sea
Doctor, lawyer, indian chief, it takes a thief to catch a thief
For whom does the bell toll for, love?
It tolls for you and me

Old pulse's running through my palm, the sharp hills are rising from
Yellow fields with twisted oaks that grow
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone


To be alone with you
Just you and me
Now won't you tell me true
Ain't that the way it oughta be?
To hold each other tight
The whole night through
Ev'rything is always right
When I'm alone with you.

               To be alone with you
At the close of the day
With only you in view
While evening slips away
It only goes to show
That while life's pleasures be few
The only one I know
Is when I'm alone with you.

               They say that nighttime is the right time
To be with the one you love
Too many thoughts get in the way in the day
But you're always what I'm thinkin' of
I wish the night were here
Bringin' me all of your charms
When only you are near
To hold me in your arms.

               I'll always thank the Lord
When my working day's through
I get my sweet reward
To be alone with you.


There it is, the thief in both songs.  In the “Moonlight” Dylan sounds quite mellow and urges someone to meet him in the moonlight all alone.  Three decades earlier in “To Be Alone with You” he says that “the night time is the right time to be with the one you love” (a lyric borrowed from more than one old song).   Both could be simple love songs—or more.  Both suggest the passing of time with images of yellow fields and evening slipping away, subtly conveying the timeless theme of carpe diem: seize the day, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, make hay while the sun shines, not with Dionysian frenzy, however, but with an Apollonian coolness.  And both can be understood as about the artist’s relationship with his audience.

But exploring that idea will have to wait for another show.  For now, I must close out this show which has taken you through four decades of Dylan’s songs as he undulates back and forth between the joker and the thief.  Like two sides of the same coin, these two perspectives, these two voices, these two personas seem to be opposites, but are really one.  He really is standing still while seeming to move.  From the perspective of both the joker and the thief, he is asking those basic questions about existence.  Like the Jewish prophets of old, he is trying to get us to turn away from a superficial and false view of life to one which is permanent and real.  Whether we use the Christian vocabulary or some other, the underlying spiritual (not merely religious) significance has been there in Dylan’s work from the beginning. That too will be the focus of a later show, or maybe two.
It is this consistent attempt to convey what is impossible to say but is most important to understand which makes Dylan a Shakespeare and his use of the medium of popular music which places him in the alley.   It can all be found condensed in the words of “All Along the Watchtower,” for the watchtower is borrowed from the book of Isaiah, and the women coming and going are from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.  Let’s close out this show by listening to “Watchtower” again, but this time the live version from his tour with the Band in 1974, his first tour after the 1966 motorcycle accident.


Add reference to Williams or whoever first noted this.


For more on this pattern running through four decades of Dylan songs, see also the "Dylan" link on the menu for much of this.

© Shakespeare in the Alley, 2004. All Rights Reserved.
Website Design by Juliana Harrisking