Together Through Life by Bob Dylan

2009

I used to teach with an excellent bloke called Melvin. He taught Science and was a good sportsman. He was also brilliant with students, especially difficult ones. He used to jointly teach a course for a dozen students who were particularly unsuited to full time education in their last two years and so they had one day’s work experience and one day’s College placement. For the other three days a week, they spent a lot of time with another good friend of mine, Pete, and Melvin. They were both excellent with these students – friendly, firm and a good laugh.

For a year, Melvin was temporarily promoted to be Head of Year and when it came time to make the job permanent, he had to be interviewed by members of the Senior Management Team. To the surprise of every member of staff, the job was advertised nationally. We were told that the school had to do this but everyone knew what a brilliant job Melvin had done and would do in the future. His track record was outstanding. During his interview, two things happened. Firstly, he didn’t interview very well. Being a modest bloke, he wasn’t able to sell his achievements very well. His friends found this surprising because Melvin was never short of a word or two in the pub in his utterly charming, gracious way. He said afterwards that being interviewed by two members of the Senior Management Team that he liked to share a beer with was disconcerting. The second thing that happened was that he was asked about his friendship with Pete who at the time was a bit of a thorn in the flesh of the Headteacher. In fact, one of the people interviewing Melvin, later told Pete that he, Pete, was the Headteacher’s nemesis. All I knew about a nemesis was that it was one of the less successful Star Trek films. In fact, it was the last Star Trek film to feature The Next Generation cast before the 2009 reboot. I might be drifting away from the main narrative here.

The upshot of it was that due to Melvin’s poor interview performance and his hanging around with undesirables friendship with the Head of Humanities, he didn’t get the job. A year or so later, he left the school and is now Head of Year at a school about a mile from here. Like me, he got out before the school went into special measures.

In his place, the job went to someone whom I shall call Chris Driver. She was a charming woman with a kind word for everyone. She really cared for the students and worked hard to support them. She was also a little bit bonkers. Here’s an example.

When she was Head of Year 11, she arranged for an assembly to be taken by a visiting speaker. I can’t remember why but this guy asked for a volunteer to tell an embarrassing story about themselves. As if that was ever likely to happen. Here are 180 15/16 year olds gathered together and he expected one of them to make a fool of themselves in front of their peers. I can’t imagine what the point of this was but Chris Driver, as Head of Year, thought she would break the ice (so to speak) by telling a story about herself to all of the students for whom she had pastoral responsibility. As it happened, I was walking round the school during that assembly, having just spoken to a Year 9 student about their GCSE options. I was about 50 yards from the Hall when I heard the second most explosive roar of laughter I ever heard in my life. Chris Driver had just told 180 students that one day she was on holiday and she checked into a hotel. On the way from the reception desk to her room, she felt a need to fart. Wait! That’s not the funny bit. Read on. She told the whole assembly that she had farted, but then, quite suddenly and surprisingly, she had followed through and pooed in her knickers. I know. It doesn’t sound conceivable that a teacher would tell that story about themselves to students but it’s true.

A week or so later, I was teaching maths to a lovely class of Year 11 students. I had just marked a test and the students were looking at their marks and my marking. Sometimes, in a maths question, there are two parts. The students have to work out an answer to part (a) and use their answer in part (b). If they get part (a) wrong, they can’t get the correct answer to part (b) but they can still get marks if they continue by using the correct method. One student asked me why I had written f.t. on their work. I explained to the whole class how it worked and said that I had given that student “follow through marks”. The whole class stopped, went ominously silent and held their breath and looked at me suspiciously. Follow through? I said, “It’s okay, I’m not Mrs. Driver”. at that point I heard the most explosive roar of laughter I ever heard in my life. A future career as a comedian was assured – but only if I could use Chris Driver as my straight woman. We could work together through life as long as we didn’t follow through together.

Director Olivier Dahan wrote and directed a film called “My Own Love Song” starring Rene Zellweger and Forest Whitaker and he asked Bob Dylan if he would write a song for the soundtrack. Bob Dylan got together with Robert Hunter, who was the lyricist with The Grateful Dead and they wrote nine of the ten songs on the album with “This Dream Of You” being the only song written by Bob Dylan alone. “My Wife’s Home Town” is credited to Bob Dylan, Robert Hunter and Willie Dixon because of the similarity to “I Just Wanna Make Love To You”.

Bob Dylan’s career resurged with the three albums “Time Out Of Mind” (1997), “‘Love And theft'” (2001) and “Modern Times” (2006). For some reason, those albums are often referred to as a trilogy and “Together Through Life” (2009) is overlooked. That’s a shame because it’s a musically interesting album with, as usual, some great singing. Lyrically, it’s as obtuse as any Dylan album but the overall theme is one of personal loss and impending doom.

The musicians on the album are Bob Dylan’s touring band along with David Hidalgo and Mike Campbell. David Hidalgo is a member of Los Lobos and his accordion playing permeates every song on the album giving it a contemporary Tex-Mex feel. Mike Campbell was guitarist with The Heartbreakers and he co-wrote a lot of the songs that made Tom Petty so popular (including one of my favourites, “Running Down A Dream”). The album sounds like it was recorded live which means that sometimes the sound is not crystal clear but it does sound like the musicians were having a good time playing. It was only a few months later that they would record “Christmas In The Heart” and that has a similar feel.

The opening track is “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” and in this song Bob Dylan sings that love is everything and without love, he is spiritually dead. The video of the song shows a disagreement between two lovers involving a stabbing, a car accident and a manic reconciliation. The love that Bob Dylan has in mind isn’t the romantic love of “Bridget Jones Diary”. It’s more like the obsessive co-dependency of “Single White Female”.

The title of this song comes from a work by Ovid and Bob Dylan was reading a lot of Ovid at the time. “Here is the ultimate torture for me, exposed amid foes. What banished person lives more remote from home? Beyond here lies nothing but chillness, hostility, frozen waves of an ice-hard sea.” This was written by Ovid after he was banished to Pontus after he discovered that Emperor Augustus’ daughter, Julia, was having an affair. Maybe Bob Dylan felt that losing love is similar to being deprived of everything he needed.

“Life Is Hard” is the song that Bob Dylan wrote for Olivier Dahan. It’s very bleak and starts with a confession that the singer is lost, alone and desolate without his love. It couldn’t get any slower or more languid. He regrets losing all his friends and his obsession with mortality is at the forefront as he bids farewell in the last verse. Farewell to his lost love or his friends or life itself isn’t crystal clear.

“My Wife’s Home Town” discusses a town that has fallen on hard times. The town in question is named as “Hell”. The opening line refers to the financial crisis and when he sings of a woman who is having a terrible effect on others, it may well be he is referring to the economic situation of the country rather than his wife.

“If You Ever Go To Houston” has an accordion based riff. Bob Dylan namechecks Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, San Antonio and Austin and warns the listener to take a gun wherever they go. One of the lines, “If you ever go to Houston, oh you better walk right“, is taken from “Midnight Special” written by Lead Belly.

“Forgetful Heart” is another song about lost love and is a little more up tempo. In this song his voice sounds really good – heartbroken, desperate and, dare I say it, old, thus fitting the mood and content of the song brilliantly.

“Jolene” is not a Dolly Parton cover. A few years before this album was recorded, she had asked Bob Dylan to duet with her on “Blowin’ In the Wind” for an album of covers called “Those Were The Days” but he had refused. Possibly, using “Jolene” as a title for a song may be connected. On the other hand, Tony Attwood, on the website bob-dylan.org.uk makes a comparison between this song and songs by Mink DeVille, a New York group who recorded a song called “Rolene”. For example, in “Steady Drivin’ Man” by Mink DeVille, some of the lyrics are “You know that long old highway” and “She’s got a Saturday night special“. In Bob Dylan’s “Jolene”, the second verse starts “Well it’s a long old highway, don’t ever end. I’ve got a Saturday night special, I’m back again“. In Mink DeVille’s “Desperate Days” and “Cadillac Walk”, two lines are “Put your hands in your pockets, you keep moving around.” and “Ain’t she something nice. Bones rattle my dice.” In “Jolene”, Bob Dylan sings “I keep my hands in my pocket, I’m movin’ along. People think they know, but they’re all wrong. You’re something nice, I’m gonna grab my dice. I can’t say I haven’t paid the price“. Fascinating research. Fascinating to me, anyway. This song is up-tempo and lighter in mood than many other songs on the album and it includes a great guitar solo by Tom Campbell.

“This Dream Of You” features David Hidalgo’s accordion and Donnie Herron’s pedal steel guitar. There is more desolation, death and also a dying breath on this track although the last verse refers to “this dream of you” which is the only thing that is keeping him happy.

“Shake Shake Mama” is a bit of a throwaway lyrically but musically it’s up tempo and catchy.

“I Feel A Change Comin’ On” is more positive. Although the world is in a mess, there are more positive signs – the album was recorded in December 2008, a month after Obama was elected. In the song he is looking forward to making friends – overtly with a woman but this could well be a song about bringing a divided country together.

In other albums, “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” would have been the last song on the album – think of “Restless Farewell” or even “Highlands” which ended “The Times They Are A’Changing” and “Time Out Of Mind” with optimism. Finishing on a positive high note would have been expected but, being Bob Dylan, he decides to finish with “It’s All Good” which has a breezy melody, cheerful music and a catchy chorus. Unfortunately, for anyone expecting this to be an even more positive note with which to end the album, the title is very sarcastic. The world’s a mess, things are getting worse, we are all doomed but, don’t worry, we are being told that it’s all good. “Cold-blooded killer, stalking the town. Cop cars blinking, something bad going down. Buildings are crumbling in the neighborhood. But there’s nothing to worry about, because it’s all good.”

Although there are no standout tracks on this album, it’s up there with the best of late period Bob Dylan albums. It took him four years to follow through with his next album of original material, “Tempest”.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

2 thoughts on “Together Through Life by Bob Dylan

  1. Ah yes! The old ‘follow through’. That reminds me of an embarrassing story about me. Well, it was like this…….NOT BLOODY LIKELY, MATE!

    Like

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