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Bob Dylan 1965 Back
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Symbolism
A few examples derived from Essays On Dylan

A certain group of songs from Another Side Of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home from 1964 and 1965 are inspired by the French symbolist poet Rimbaud and his fellow poet Verlaine. The symbolists worked with material derived from the subconscious, thus including mythical symbols and archetypical images in their art.

The symbolist inspiration is appreciable to a greater or lesser extent from the very start of Dylan's career. But there is of course a reason for his fascination: He was thinking much the same way himself. Just think of an early song like Blowin’ In The Wind  from 1962. It is loaded with symbols that go more to your gut than to your brain. Likewise Dylan lets nature play along in the dramatic events in The Ballad Of Hollis Brown (The Times They Are A-Changin', 1963), even though the song was dealing with pure social criticism. Subsequently he has often incorporated symbols and elements of mystical perception in his songs.

Chimes Of Freedom
One set of lyrics from Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964) was genuine symbolism, enigmatic and difficult to understand, filled up as it was with inscrutable mystical symbols. Chimes Of Freedom is overloaded with symbols, but if you try to interpret the symbols image by image you'll be in trouble and you'll lose track of what this set of lyrics are really all about.

Non the less we'll have to deal with one of the symbols separately, namely the bells. The bells represent the overall theme, which is the liberation of everybody being surpressed in one way or another.

Verse 1
Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway as thunder went crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Nature is a co-player in this verse and all the way through. A thunderstorm contributes with the dramatic background and at the same time acts out the earthly events in a somewhat animistic context. Here the 'majestic bells of bolts' are not just church bells; it’s the thunder that talks with the voice of doom.

In the first three verses the scheme is that the first four lines refer to the thunderstorm, simultaneously being accompanied with church bells and some other bells with a kind of doom-quality. They are the defenders of the outsiders, their knights so to say. The raging of the wheather is described in different ways verse by verse. The narrator endeavours to find alternative ways to express himself and he is successful. The last four lines list the kind of people worthy to be defended. They are – not surprisingly – outcasts, the bottom of the bottom, and those who cannot defend themselves. Let’s read verse two and three:

Verse 2
Through the city's melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden as the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin' rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Verse 3
Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An' the poet and the painter far behind his rightful time
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

In verses four and five the scheme is softened a bit. The worthy receivers of grace are sneaking their way into line three and four in each verse:

Verse 4
Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales
For the disrobed faceless forms of no position
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts
All down in taken-for-granted situations
Tolling for the deaf an' blind, tolling for the mute
For the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chained an' cheated by pursuit
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Verse 5
Even though a cloud's white curtain in a far-off corner flared
An' the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An' for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Verse 6
Starry-eyed an' laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for the hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an' we watched with one last look
Spellbound an' swallowed 'til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse
An' for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

The last verse starts triumphantly. The thunderstorm has cleaned the air and put things in their right place. Also a high degree of compassion is expressed and no serious protest-head had reason to complain. And no one did. The right ideals were intact and few sensed that they witnessed the beginning of a development away from hard-core protest and towards quite new horizons. Not many – if any - really understood it at the time, though highly seducing were the words.

If you still can see a bit of protest in a song like Chimes Of Freedom, it has indeed vanished in the next ones, all from the album Bringing It All Back Home (1965).

 

Mr Tambourine Man
Mr Tambourine Man is one of the acoustic (almost acoustic) songs from Bringing It All Back Home (1965). It's a thrilling tour de force through a mystical landscape escaping the realm of factuality. It’s a song of escapism.

The formal structure of the lyrics is a bit unusual, starting with the chorus:

Chorus
Hey! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

Who is Mr Tambourine Man? An often asked question. And one must confess that the imagery is rather confusing. But let us at least bury one often made mistake: It should be obvious that the tambourine man is not the poet himself. But the poet himself is very much present and he wants something from the tambourine man. Initially the poet explains his state of mind:

Verse 1
Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And my ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming

Chorus
...

The narrator's world has crumbled and he is surrounded by darkness. He declares that he is not sleepy, but on the other hand he feels weary. It’s a weariness, though, that has nothing to do with sleepiness. It’s the weariness of his ‘ancient empty street’, of having nowhere to go. It’s the weariness of a world full of repititions but void of content, and he wants to escape to some mysterious universe where colours have kept their brilliance:

Verse 2
Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship,
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'.
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it

Chorus
...

In the last verse oblivion is the word. ‘Let me forget about today until tomorrow’, is one of Bob Dylan's more famous punchlines. Nothing in this corroded world of sorrow and despair is worth taking with you. No, ‘to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free’ is fulfillment of the senses and the mind. That’s what you need. It’s all you need.

Verse 4
Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Chorus
...

I’ve always visualized the tambourine man as a shakespearean jester dancing on a beach some distance away. The sun sets, it’s almost dark, and the colours are red and gloomy.

I never saw Dylan around.

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