I worked a shift at Samaritans yesterday afternoon and had two phone calls with two very pleasant people, both of whom are considering suicide. Although their circumstances were different, both are finding it hard to connect with friends and family at the moment. It was desperately sad to listen to these people talk about their past lives, their current lives and how they feel they had nothing left to live for because of loneliness and a disconnection from people and society. The Samaritans’ philosophy of not giving advice, not judging and respecting somebody else’s rights of self determination is particularly hard to follow during such calls. Disconnection and a foreboding of death are the themes running through “Time Out Of Mind”.
“Rough And Rowdy Ways”, Bob Dylan’s 2020 album, has been voted album of the year by both UNCUT and MOJO. “Time Out Of Mind”, released in 1997, was UNCUT’s very first album of the year. There are many similarities in the build up to the release of these two albums even though they were released nearly a quarter of a century apart.
For seven years in the Nineties, Bob Dylan released only two albums (“World Gone Wrong” and “Good As I Been To You”). The songs were traditional folk-blues songs and there were no original songs. Whilst generally well received, the assumption was that he had writer’s block and may never write another new song again. The running time for “Time Out Of Mind” is over seventy two minutes. Although it just fitted onto a single CD, it was released as a double vinyl album.
In the seven years since 2012’s “Tempest”, he has released three albums (“Shadows In The Night”, “Fallen Angels” and “Triplicate”) which, again, had no new material, consisting of songs from the so called Great American Songbook. When “Murder Most Foul”, the single from “Rough And Rowdy Ways” was released, it was a complete surprise because the assumption was that he had writers’ block and may never write a new song again. The running time for “Rough And Rowdy Ways” is just over seventy minutes and it was released as a double CD and a double vinyl album.
“Time Out Of Mind” was written after the death of Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan had released a vastly underrated album in 1989 called “Dylan And The Dead” and the live performances with The Grateful Dead are considered to have given Bob Dylan the inspiration to resume live performances in the style that has become familiar over the last thirty years; constantly re-inventing songs and seeking out hidden melodies and different interpretations. Bob Dylan was hit hard by Jerry Garcia’s death: they were of a similar age and he said that Garcia “taught and showed me more than he would ever know”.
We all know that Bob Dylan has a direct line to a higher being so this probably explains how he was able to predict his life threatening illness that occurred in 1997. The timelines are slightly complicated. August 1995: Jerry Garcia died. December 1995 – January 1997 Bob Dylan wrote the songs. January 1997: The album was recorded. May 1997: Bob Dylan was hospitalised with acute pulmonary histoplasmosis, remaining physically incapacitated for six weeks. September 1997: The album was released. Although the themes of disconnection and death were first heard by the public after his brush with death, the songs were written and recorded beforehand.
Acute pulmonary histoplasmosis can be caught through bat droppings near the Mississippi River. When Bob Dylan was hospitalised, he was complaining of breathing difficulties. For most people, this illness is not fatal but for a small percentage of people it can be. The recovery time can be a couple of months in the most severe cases. The parallels with COVID-19 are obvious. It’s not clear when “Rough And Rowdy Ways” was recorded but, bearing in mind that “Murder Most Foul” was released on March 27th, it’s certain that the album was recorded before the pandemic struck even though the album was released afterwards. Another confirmation that Bob Dylan is an alien who has come back to us from the future knowing what events are about to unfold.
There are eleven songs on “Time Out Of Mind” and most of them are great. Two other brilliant songs, “Mississippi” and “Red River Shore” were recorded at the same time but not released until a few years later.
The opening lines on Bob Dylan’s first new album for seven years are “I’m walking through streets that are dead. Walking, walking with you in my head.” This doesn’t foretell seventy minutes of fun and jollity does it? The song is “Love Sick” and it’s worth noting that the title is not “Lovesick”. He is physically sick with love and can’t seem to escape his affliction. At one point he sings “I wish I’d never met you” but later “I’d give anything to be with you”. This is painful to listen to. In addition, the music is cleverly strung together to represent the pacing of a man walking the streets and the (lack of) melody sounds like breathing. It’s incredibly powerful.
In “Cold Irons Bound”, Bob Dylan is at the end of his tether. His disconnection from the rest of society has led him to feel that there is nothing left for him. “I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist. It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist.” He has lost faith in his friends and he sees no future. He is bound in cold irons until all that’s left is loneliness and despair. “There’s too many people, too many to recall. I thought some of them were friends of mine, I was wrong about them all.”
The key line in Track Seven is “it’s Not Dark Yet but I’m getting there”. The pace of the song is languid, summoning up a dreamlike feeling of drifting in and out of sleep. The lyrics draw a comparison between the end of a day and the end of a life. The reference to shadows falling has a duopoly of interpretation. Bob Dylan said “A lot of the songs on “Time Out of Mind” were written after the sun went down. This one phrase was going through my head: ‘Work while the day lasts, because the night of death cometh when no man can work’ (loosely taken from John 9:4) . It wouldn’t let me go. I was, like, what does that phrase mean? It was at the forefront of my mind for a long period of time, and I think a lot of that is instilled into this record.” Other arguments include the one by Professor John Ricks that there are direct comparisons between these lyrics and “Ode To A Nightingale” by John Keats which is not a poem I have studied but a brief glance at lines like “I might drink, and leave the world unseen/And with thee fade away into the forest dim” confirms that further study would reveal greater insight.
In “Trying To Get To Heaven”, Bob Dylan describes someone who is coming to the end of a spiritual journey and trying to make his peace with God. The lyrics also “borrow” extensively from traditional songs. “Make You Feel My Love” has been recorded by many other artists including Billy Joel and Adele. “Can’t Wait” contains a reference to waiting at the gate, as if he is still trying to get to heaven. This song also contains some lines which perfectly sum up the whole mood of the album: “I’d like to think I could control myself, but it isn’t true. That’s how it is when things disintegrate and I don’t know how much longer I can wait.”
The final song on the album is “Highlands”. It is sixteen minutes long. It is partly beautiful, partly very funny but ultimately is a perfect reflection of someone who is completely disconnected from society and is waiting for the end. The title and some of the lyrics are borrowed from “My Heart’s In The Highlands” by Robert Burns. There are twenty verses in the song and verses 1 – 7 and 15 – 20 are sung by someone whose heart is in the highlands, “where the Aberdeen waters flow”. The singer looks out of his window and sees young people having a great time and he would “trade places with any of them if he could”. The middle verses, 8 – 14, describe a ludicrous exchange between Bob Dylan and a waitress where they completely fail to connect. She asks him to draw a picture of her but he gives lots of reasons why he can’t until, at her insistence, he draws a few lines, gives it to her and flees. For me, these few lines are “Self Portrait” or maybe “Under The Red Sky”. His fans insisted that he give them something that he was unable or unwilling to give so he put out some inferior recordings just to shut them up. That’s my interpretation anyway. Whether that’s true or not, the encounter is a brilliant description of someone not connecting and ultimately feeling lonely, unloved, unfulfilled and prepared for death. Which were exactly the same feelings as the people I spoke to yesterday.