In 2011, I had had enough at Oakmeeds. I had a good job but the Head was going to remove all my responsibilities by the end of the year. Whether it was a cost saving exercise or that he simply didn’t like me (or most likely, a combination of the two) didn’t really matter. When the opportunity to teach at a Sixth Form College came up, I applied and got a job without any responsibilities and teaching A level Maths for the first time in over twenty years. I was 57 years old and thought that this would be a great way to ease myself into retirement. Within a few months, everything was up in the air as the Head of Department announced that she was stepping down and the College failed to appoint a Head of Department. Just before the Easter Holidays, I was approached to ask if I would apply which I did. At the interview, they sent everybody home at lunchtime apart from me so I would have to do pretty badly not to get the job. I enjoyed the job but it was quite time consuming and after four years I stepped down and taught part time for three further years until I retired in the Summer of 2019.
Between 2016 and 2018, the Head of Department was a great guy who was less than half my age but a much better teacher than I could ever be. I got on very well with him and still see him socially (via Zoom now). Towards the end of his first year as Head of Department, I made a poor decision. The department had adopted “flip learning” whereby students watched videos and made notes before a lesson. It was working well. They made notes in a booklet which was called a “Survival Guide”. I had adapted a previous version of this and made it more suited to my needs – it had been a labour of love ensuring that the font sizes were consistent, the text justification was correct and the syllabus was easily accessible to students. I circulated it to the rest of the department in case anyone wanted to use it. A few weeks later, I was horrified to see that it had been changed by someone and all my work on making it presentable had been over written. I still had a version of it on my home computer but, on the College intranet it had been butchered and looked messy. The name of the document was the same – it had my name attached to it. I didn’t know who had done this but I was rather put out. I wrote an email, explaining my disappointment and saying that I would be embarrassed to give this out to students. My language wasn’t angry but it was fairly clear that I thought somebody else had made a mistake. I remember looking at the email with my hand hovering over the mouse and then I thought “fuck it” and pressed “Send”. I wish now that I had waited and thought about it a bit more because it caused offence to a lot of people and the young Head of Department sent me an email instructing me to apologise for sending the email which I did. Not very graciously but I did. If anyone had asked me for advice about whether or not to send that email I would have told them to write it but not send it until the next day. It was a hasty decision and a poor one. A quick decision is invariably a poor decision, in my opinion. “Sleep on it” is a bit of a cliché but it’s often good advice.
It’s at this point that I’m going to compare myself to Bob Dylan. I think it’s generally agreed that some of the decisions that Bob Dylan has made over his career about which songs to include on his albums have been puzzling, to say the least. Luckily, in conjunction with the ongoing release of new albums, there have been fifteen volumes of “The Bootleg Series” containing many unreleased songs, studio outtakes and live performances. Some of these have been amongst the very best things he has ever released. “Volume 3” isn’t actually a single release and is only available to buy along with Volumes 1 and 2 but for £8 at Resident Records for fifty eight brilliant unreleased songs, it’s an unmissable bargain. I’m not going to attempt to write about all three volumes – there’s far too much incredible stuff on Volumes 1 and 2 – and I’m not even going to try to write about all sixteen songs on Volume 3. I’m going to focus on four of the very best songs that Bob Dylan ever recorded: “Series Of Dreams”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Foot Of Pride”, and “Angelina” all of which are on Volume 3.
“Series Of Dreams” was recorded in 1989 and was intended to be included on “Oh Mercy”, a return to form that Bob Dylan recorded with Daniel Lanois as producer. However, a disagreement between the two of them led to Bob Dylan omitting the song completely whereas Daniel Lanois wanted it to be the opening song. The sound of the song is quite dramatic with five guitars, two bass guitars and two drummers. It sounds nothing like the “swampy” sound of the rest of the album so maybe Bob Dylan felt that the sonic concept of the rest of the songs would be weakened by its inclusion. Lyrically, the song seems to be about how lyrics come to Bob Dylan without any hard work, just as a series of dreams. I’ve just watched this video for the first time and it’s remarkable.
“Blind Willie McTell” was recorded in 1983 and was originally intended to be on “Infidels” along with “Foot Of Pride”. Bob Dylan claims that it wasn’t finished “It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans.’” The instrumentation is minimal with Bob Dylan playing piano and Mark Knopfler playing acoustic guitar. Michael Gray has written a definitive account of Bob Dylan’s songs called “Song And Dance Man”. It’s nearly 900 pages long in 10 point font and thirty one pages of the book are taken up with a description of this song. Paddy and I went to see Michael Gray give a talk in Colchester about Bob Dylan and he was very entertaining. He had just written a book called “Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell” which Paddy bought (and got an autograph). It’s not really possible for me to summarise this chapter by Michael Gray so all I will say is that the song reflects on “falsity, vanity and corruption compounding cruelty and pain” in the context of America’s past. As with all the best Bob Dylan songs, listening to the song is such an intense and enjoyable experience because of a) the lyrics, b) the instrumentation, c) his voice, but most importantly d) his singing.
“Foot Of Pride” was also intended to be released on “Infidels”. There are some good songs on “Infidels”, notably “Jokerman”, but if the album had been released with “Blind Willie Mctell”, “Foot Of Pride” and “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart” (also on “Volume 3”), it would have been rightfully hailed as a masterpiece. “Foot Of Pride” has a vocal delivery that reminds me of “Positively Fourth Street” or “Like A Rolling Stone”. Michael Gray describes the lyrics as an “unfailingly entertaining farrago of vituperation.” After he quotes the whole song, Michael Gray finishes with “What an explosion of words! What an unblocking of Swiftian vitriol!” The song explores success and failure and the dangers of assuming you’ve made it big when a fall is just around the corner. “You know what they say about being nice to the right people on the way up. Sooner or later you gonna meet them coming down.” As with the best Dylan songs, hypocrisy is exposed and self aggrandisement is ridiculed. It’s another protest song – as telling as “Blowing In The Wind” or “Desolation Row”. There are many Biblical references in the lyrics, for example Matthew 11:20,23 includes the words “And thou which are exalted unto heaven shall be brought down to hell” which Bob Dylan sings as “They can exalt you up or bring you down bankrupt“. Another example is Matthew 8:21,22 “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, ‘Follow me and let the dead bury their dead‘” which Bob Dylan sings as “From now on this’ll be where you’re from. Let the dead bury the dead, your time will come.” As with each of these four songs, Bob Dylan’s singing is unsurpassed.
Better than all of these is Bob Dylan’s best song. In my opinion. “Angelina”. Confusingly, in the Sixties, he recorded a song called “Farewell Angelina” but this is very different. It was originally intended to be released on “Shot Of Love” but was omitted at the last minute because the playing time of the album would have been too long. That’s the reason given and the obvious reply is to get rid of terrible songs like “Property Of Jesus” and “Lenny Bruce”. Another poor decision. In my opinion. The structure of the song is such that every verse finishes with “Angelina” rhyming with the last word of the second line – “concertina”, “hyena”, “subpoena”, “Argentina”, “arena”. There are more biblical references in the song, particularly to The Book Of Revelation. For example, “And I saw, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him; and he went forth conquering, and to conquer” becomes, in this song, “I can see the unknown rider, I can see the pale white horse.” It’s not necessary to understand the biblical references in order to appreciate the song. As with all the best Bob Dylan songs, the meaning is not made abundantly clear; rather the song is a litany of problems faced, a series of opposites to choose from (left hand/right hand? Jerusalem/Argentina? best friend/worst enemy? etc) and a conclusion that in order to succeed we must invest our whole selves into finding fulfilment and happiness. And indeed, salvation. There’s a great part in the fifth verse where he sings “In God’s truth tell me what you want and you’ll have it of course. Just step into the arena.” The intensity with which he sings the last word is such that he has to step back from the microphone in order not to distort the sound. Possibly, the exhortation to “step into the arena” is one of the more significant phrases of Bob Dylan’s work. As with the other songs here, his vocal performance is mesmerising. The understated instrumentation is augmented by some beautiful backing singing from Carolyn Dennis, Regina Havis and Clydie King. There’s so much to say about this song but the big question is what on earth made him decide to leave this off “Shot Of Love”? He should have slept on it.