Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #21: Bob Dylan's Dream

"Bob Dylan's Dream", I would guess, is meant to act as the companion piece to "Bob Dylan's Blues", both in the titles and in the sense of intimacy that comes (in theory) with a song named after yourself. Well, all right, "Bob Dylan's Blues" is far more goofy than intimate, but "Bob Dylan's Dream" fits that description to a T; in its own way, it feels as personal to Bob as "Don't Think Twice" or "Girl of the North Country"; it's certainly more personal than the omniscience of "Hard Rain" or the philosophy of "Blowin' In the Wind". The funny thing is that the titles actually seem misplaced on the "Bob Dylan" songs - "Blues" has the funnier, more abstract stream-of-consciousness lyrics one might associate with dreaming, while "Dream" is darker and earthier, more like a blues song. I know that Dylan framed the song's story in terms of a dream he had, but the dream seems more grounded in reality than the off-the-wall free association of "Blues".

"Bob Dylan's Dream", actually, has closer ties to a song off the debut, "Talkin' New York", than anything on Freewheelin'. Like "Talkin'", "Dream" relates a tale of Dylan's early days in New York, and manages to couch things in a gauzier, less specific tale of hardship and determination to succeed. However, unlike "Talkin'", "Dream" has the distinction of a) actually being a good song, and b) having lyrics that use that vagueness to sound timeless, rather than simply cliched. "Dream" achieves a level of wistfulness and gentle nostalgia that few songs on the debut, let alone "Talkin' New York", can begin to touch - yet another example of the quantum leap in songwriting quality that Bob achieved in such a short amount of time.

What's more extraordinary about "Dream" isn't that it tells a Dylan origin story better than "Talkin' New York" does, but that it actually makes you feel like the nostalgia is warranted, as though he's reminiscing about decades long gone instead of the 2-odd years since Dylan first arrived in the Village. In fact, if you didn't already know the song was about Bob in New York, you could easily believe it was about his early days in Hibbing - or, I guess, whatever city Dylan told people he was from in those days. Starting with a typical hard-road cliche ("while riding on a train goin' west"), Dylan spins a yarn about having few friends, living a simple life of poverty, and yet overcoming hardship with the help of his companions. Even if it was all made up, it sounds all too real, and very easy to relate to. How many of us haven't had to lean on our friends in hard times to bring us happiness?

And, lest we forget who Dylan's great mentor was, the final verse brings home the real message of the song. Dylan says he'd "give (ten thousand dollars) gladly if our lives could be like that"; i.e., riches, fame, and success means nothing compared to simply being with good friends and laughing the night away. Lest we forget how powerful the pull of nostalgia is, there's Bob's reminder - and, by extension, an affirmation that the simple life is what really means the most, when you get down to it. You'll have to excuse the fact that I'm using cliches here; Dylan's a bit more poetic in his nostalgia, as you would expect.

But it's that declaration that no amount of money is worth those good times, the ones that have burrowed deepest into his heart and brain, that keeps Dylan tied in to the old folk music movement, where most musicians didn't have much more than a few dollars in their pocket, but still had their friends and their music. That idea, sadly, isn't always true - the good times were never as good as we think they were, and there's a certain point where money and success can buy away a lot of nostalgia and memories. We like to pretend that's not true, and yet we know deep down that it is. It's damn hard to be successful and not turn into an asshole, or turn your back on your less successful past, and the few celebrities that manage to hold on to their past deserve a mountain of praise for doing so. They say you never leave behind where you came from, and more often than not it's not for lack of trying. Maybe that's what Dylan meant when he named the song the way he did: the real dream is that our past was nothing but good times, where the future only exists in an abstract sense, where the nights of song and laughs never end, and where the world we live in is confined to a single room, free of responsibility, debt, and sorrow.

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8 comments:

Anton said...

Hearing this song now, it reminds me of the friends that I grew up, before we all went our seperate ways.

brakeman said...

With respect you cannot plumb the depths of BD's folk awareness without having first heard the 19th century English ballad, 'Lord Franklin', which concerns his disappearance and that of his crew during an attempt to discover the North West Passage. Some of his sailors' bodies were dug up in the past decade in northern Canada, perfectly preserved by the Arctic chill.

To wit:
We were homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew.'

And it ends:

'And now my burden, it brings me pain;

For my long, lost Franklin I would cross the main;

Ten thousand guineas I would freely give

To say on Earth that my Franklin does live.'

Prosecution rests!

Tony said...

Anton, I have the same feeling when I hear the song. It isn't always a good one.

brakeman, when reading up on this song (read: visiting the Wikipedia page), I did see that Dylan took the melody and some lyrics from "Lord Franklin", although I didn't know just how strongly the first and last verses resembled that song. One of the major talking points of this blog over the first two albums has been Dylan "borrowing" older traditional songs and reshaping them to fit his needs. I chose not to touch on that in this blog post, mainly because there's only so many ways to approach that thorny issue and I didn't want to come off as a broken record. There are plenty of things to discuss in most any Dylan song; at a certain point, some things are going to be discarded. I'm glad you pointed it out, though - I don't want anybody to think I'd avoided the issue.

andrew! said...

I don't know what it is that causes our brains to mostly look upon the past with good memories while never appreciating the present with the good things it brings. I hate to say it, but the older I get, the less I appreciate this song. I usually look back at college when I hear this song, drinking honey brown beer, listening to the velvet underground & playing euchre on our tiny porch. As much as I loved it, I'd never want to go back to that time & I realize it probably wasn't all I remember it to be. I hate to say it but the song drips a bit with sentimentality, a sin Dylan is rarely guilty of.

I haven't heard enough from 1991 to claim that Bob Dylan's Dream is the only redeeming quality of that year of touring for Dylan, but it's one of the few decent performances I've heard from him in that year.

Justin Shapiro said...

I thought Golden Vanity was the only redeeming quality from 1991, but I'm in the same boat (and the name of the ship was ... I forget) in that it's one of the few things I've listened to from 1991 altogether.


Complete Annotated List of Bob Dylan's Dreams

Bob Dylan's 1st Dream - concerns self and first few friends he had

Bob Dylan's 2nd Dream - walking in World War III

Bob Dylan's 3rd Dream - romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep

Bob Dylan's 4th Dream - saw St. Augustine and was amongst the ones that put him out to death

Bob Dylan's 5th Dream - bells in the village steeple/bloody face of Ramon

Bob Dylan's 6th Dream - about you, baby

Bob Dylan's 7th Dream - surface was frozen

Bob Dylan's 8th Dream - witnessed a crime

Bob Dylan's 9th Dream - running

Bob Dylan's 10th Dream - climbed

Bob Dylan's 11th Dream - windows were shaking

Bob Dylan's 12th Dream - sleeping in Rosey's bed

Bob Dylan's 13-112th Dreams - of you (it's all he do)

Bob Dylan's 113th Dream - something came up out of the sea and swept through the land of the rich and the free

Bob Dylan's 114th Dream - re: his future wife

Bob Dylan's 115th Dream - while riding on Mayflower, thought he spied some land

Tony said...

andrew, I think it's just a human trait to be able to see the past with 20/20 vision and the present somewhat myopically. It's similar to why we all assume that Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley would've done great things - we've seen their great past works, and they're not around to prove us wrong. The past never changes; the present changes as every second passes.

Justin, you magnificent bastard, your post made me LOL.

As far as the '91 tour, it's probably the tour I've listened the least to (either that or '89); all I know is that the Madison show is worthy of praise. Anything else, I'm admittedly lost.

shastadaisy said...

Not a one in my age group (Dylan's age group) is not touched by these lyrics. Not sentimentality imo, but realism--in its awareness of youth, time and simplicity passing. It's healthy that the organism sees the past through rose-colored glasses anyhow. And who cares about knit-picking. Dylan wouldn't like it! :) Gut-tapping by Dylan is what I'm sure of.

Tony said...

shastadaisy, that was very well said, and I appreciate you commenting here. I'm glad to have older people reading my blog - the last show I was at, I had a very pleasant conversation with a lady who'd seen Dylan play in Boston in 1964 while she was in college and had seen him many times since. It's very cool to converse with somebody who has a much different experience with Bob than me.

As far as nitpicking goes...if I cut that out of my blog, there goes about 85% of my content!