Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life: Track by Track Review

Old-World Maps, John Donne & Love:  Beyond Here Lies Nothin

 The opening line to Bob Dylan 33rd studio album Together Through Life is aptly a simple declaration of love. Beyond Here Lies Nothin conjures up a balmy rumba-laced Howlin’ Wolf indebted atmosphere of wine-red sensuality and darkness. Within this perfumed room of sound, love is invoked. A powerful, mysterious love– that is, in its intensity– ‘the only love I’ve ever known’. This is where we begin:

well I love you pretty baby 
you’re the only love I’ve never known, 
just as long as you stay with me 
the whole world is my throne. 
beyond here lies nothin
nothin I could call my own. 
 

The central idea being that, when united with this potent love, things change– reality becomes reconfigured somehow– a single moment becomes infinity and ‘the whole world is my throne.’ Everything is orientated around this flame of love. This feeling recalls John Donne’s The Sun Rising wherein the persona declares:

She’s all states, and princes I;
Nothing else is;

Beyond Here Lies Nothin seems to conjure up the Blakean idea of ‘eternity in a grain of sand’– an allusion Dylan has tempted us with before– except, everything here resides and is encapsulated through love– love shared between two. ‘Two shall become one flesh’. This physical connection being a symbol for the multifaceted life that is created infinitely through relationships– love is creative, edifying and crucially, love is shared. It cannot exist alone: it must be shared, experienced together. Outside of this love there is nothing. And yet everything is within it, encompassed, like an entire universe within a tiny space, love contains and transfigures everything within its very nature.

Outside of love, there are ‘boulevards of broken cars’. What was once dynamic is now lifeless, broken shells. Glass ‘windows’ are everywhere– fragile and inflexible and transient. Outside of love, there is ‘nothing done and nothing said’. Everything has stopped; there is no movement or communication– just static objects ‘of the past’. And against this imagery– the music rumbles, Tex-Mex accordian descending in caresses– vibrantly crafted, pulsating, disclosing, free and even loving.

I have read reviews of this song that accuse it of nihilism. But if anything this song critiques such sterile perspectives– love is the fruitful keyhole through which to view the world– outside of this, there is nothing, nihilo. Love turns nothing into something.

One of the other motifs this song pulls into its syrupy intertextual glue is the concept of navigation maps. In the sea-navigation maps of the middle ages, the ‘known realms’  were charted and named whilst the ‘unknown realms’– areas unexplored, mysterious and yet to be discovered–  were thought of as being the ‘ends of earth’ and therefore branded ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’. In the final verse Dylan sings:

well my ship is in the harbour 
and the sails are spread 
listen to me, pretty baby 
lay your hand upon my head 
beyond here lies nothing 
nothing done and nothing said.

Images of a seafaring hope that seem to find connection with this navigational enterprise. The beginnings of a new journey– new expression, new flourishes of life, creating new landscapes.  This love is always shifting– sailing onwards– exploring new horizons, together.  

In a strange creative turn we have this picture of ‘lay your hand upon my head’. Is this sexual euphemism (‘whorish as ever’), a spiritual allusion (‘offer their heads for a prayer’) or just loving affection. It resonates with all three­–opaque and  multifaceted. Nevertheless, what fascinates me is that it is ‘here’– ‘the head’– that is essential. Beyond here lies nothin. Outside of this mysterious fragile human consciousness being literally touched by love, there is nothing. 

 

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The Delta Blues, Zizek & Christianity

The Delta Blues (and its more fleshed-out offshoots) often compressed raw traumatic energy within a tight 12-bar musical framework and the aab rhyme scheme, with slight variations. Here’s Robert Johnson;

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind

Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind.

                                                                                                                              (Love in Vain)

What I have always found intriguing is how within this tight dogmatic structure, this triadic form is able to be a platform for creativity; how does this simple, predictable form maintain mystery? It is honest, you accept it and everything becomes illuminated above it; breath, tone, guitar, vocals, pauses, subversions, resistance. The gravity of the form itself becomes a force of nature. Consequently any delay in the delivery becomes a great omission, a temporary abandonment. In its explicitness, the form disappears; it becomes part of the mystery.

Compare this with formless music, or to make a slight departure, formless Christianity. As opposed to the dogmatic rituals of High Anglicanism and Catholicism, formless ‘spirit-led’ Christian movements have an emphasis on the free expression of worship, rather than ritual. The idea of this formless Church is appealing, however it becomes apparent that there are, despite its lack of liturgy, written instructions, and less stand, sit, kneel injuncions, a plethora of unwritten rules and behavioural norms and expectations; even the spontaneity of something as bizarre as speaking in tongues can be perceived as a strict, predictable pattern of rhythmically repeated vowel sounds. This is certainly not formless and free. I think Zizek’s analysis of the postmodern vs authoritarian father is helpful here;

Think of the situation known to most of us from our youth: the unfortunate child who, on Sunday afternoon, has to visit his grandmother instead of being allowed to play with friends. The old-fashioned authoritarian father’s message to the reluctant boy would have been: “I don’t care how you feel. Just do your duty, go to grandmother and behave there properly!” In this case, the child’s predicament is not bad at all: although forced to do something he clearly doesn’t want to, he will retain his inner freedom and the ability to (later) rebel against the paternal authority. Much more tricky would have been the message of a “postmodern” non-authoritarian father: “You know how much your grandmother loves you! But, nonetheless, I do not want to force you to visit her – go there only if you really want to!” Every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid) will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child’s own free will. Such a false free choice is an obscene injunction: it deprives the child even of his inner freedom, ordering him not only what to do, but what to want to do. (Slavoj Zizek, How To Read Lacan)

I am beginning to see the liturgy in the light of the Delta Blues and Zizek. A candid dynamic structure in which mystery and inner freedom is retained, and where resistance or subversion retains a creative potency.

 

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‘Somebody’s got to show their hand, Time is an enemy’; apocalypse in Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts

There is something foreboding, eschatologically near about Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Time is running backwards, counting down the clock. Everyone is wearing a mask. To ‘show your hand’ becomes transfigured into an act of metanoia, a self-reorientation, standing naked. Many of the characters are working around this pivotal idea of ‘ showing their hands’. Take a look at Lily and Rosemary.

‘Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child’. Princess here being a member of royal ‘card’ family. She plays cards, ‘had two Queens, was hoping for a third to match her pair’ and yet she accidentally ‘drew up the Jack of Hearts’. She gambled and pulled out a mystery, unwanted, unexpected and yet revealing. It becomes a glimpse into a deeper reality: ‘She’d never met anyone quite like the Jack of hearts’. And yet her fascination is filled with jealousy, fear and religious devotion, he becomes ‘like a saint’ to her. He reveals her heart, full of desire, yearning for this mystery.

Rosemary is unconnected and unhappy ‘she flutters her false eyelashes’ and in response to her efforts gets silence, nothing. She is wearing a cosmetic mask; covering the unappreciated, lonely and passionate yearning for more; ‘looking to do just one good deed before she dies.’

‘Rosemary started drinking hard and seeing her reflection in the knife’; is this a glimpse into the future, a dark vision of her ‘real identity’ as desperate emancipatory slayer, or is this another false self, simply bought on by the drink and the disguise? She doesn’t meet the Jack of Hearts in the narrative, his mystery and ‘revealing of the cards’ happens in the background of her story, and yet she undergoes her own violent transformation, she is ‘leaning towards the Jack of hearts’, that is, being revealed herself. She ‘slips in though side doors’, the periphery, a dull world between worlds: yet we as listeners perceive from our god-like perspective she is ‘like a Queen without a crown’. Another card has been revealed. Her true identity is not in the knife, but in the cards.

And so on the gallows, her passions have died with her false eyelashes; her eyes are now wide open. What does she see? The past and present violently clear, all the repressed now violently revealed, her cards now showing the ‘hanged woman‘ a symbol of sacrifice, letting go, surrendering and perhaps new perspective. Her full Queen-like nature has not been revealed. And yet the only person on the scene missing is the Jack of Hearts. The future of Rosemary is somehow ‘riding on the Jack of Hearts’; bound to this ‘revealed card’ that only a few people can behold, mysterious, transformative and arbitrary. 

At the end Lily is left alone, having taken ‘all the dye out of her hair’, with just a whirlwind of thoughts; about Rosemary, her father, the law, ‘but most of all she is thinking about the Jack of Hearts’. Seeing everything cast in a new light, slightly melancholy and yet devoutly immersed in the character who’s very intrusion instigated this transition.

Why is the Jack of Hearts so mysterious? Because certain people can for a second, see his ‘card’ and then he disappears into shadows. But only certain people may see: to others he is nothing, absent, unnoticed, ‘face down’; to others still, he is a slightly familiar stranger, recalling memories, pictures yet these recollections are overcome by sound and darkness. He was not symbolic of revelation to everyone who saw him; only to those who, like Lily, were dealt the card beforehand. The listener sees everything, sees the mystery unfold, the hidden narrative revealed. And yet revealing is not the abandonment of mystery: what is revealed is mystery. 

There is a sea change, a transformative metanoia that has gripped both characters. This then is true sense of apocalypse ‘lifting the veil’; this intrusive  Jack of Hearts, this revealing card that exposes the hearts of the characters around, moves them all to reveal there own mysterious cards as time draws near. 

There is an outtake version of the song, still unreleased, thats not too hard to find. The slower, hypnotic reading adds another layer of incense-smoke.

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‘Somebody’s got to Tell the Tale’

This blog is not the overspill of creativity or a child of love; this is borne out of desperation. Nevertheless, despite the darkened roots, there is some inspiration in the falling leaves. Children are often known to present a loving handful of excrement to their parents, a peace-offering of pure inwardness and mystery. This is the one thing to which I will aspire: to be truly childlike.

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