Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #147: Time Passes Slowly

Of all the left-field choices that ended up on Biograph (still the gold standard of albums that make an attempt to do a career retrospective of the man; the fact that it hasn't been bettered 20 years later is kinda sad, if you ask me), "Time Passes Slowly" might take the crown. And that's nothing to say about the quality of the song; it's just that valuable real estate on this box set is being held by a two and a half minute pop (well, pop-ish) number on one of Dylan's lesser-known albums. Then again, one could easily argue that this is what makes Biograph so damn great - there's any number of more well-known nuggets that could've made it on the album, and yet we get a fine piece of work from, yes, one of Dylan's lesser-known albums, sitting proudly in between "I Believe in You" (one of Dylan's best Christian-era numbers) and "I Shall Be Released" (which needs no explanation). And where Biograph is arguably at its best is when it showcases stuff we might never have heard, like "I'll Keep it With Mine" or something from the New York sessions for Blood on the Tracks, as well as that lesser-known stuff. We can hear "Like A Rolling Stone" any old time - why not shine a spotlight on something different?

And "Time Passes Slowly" is certainly something different. A long while back, writing about "Queen Jane Approximately", I wrote a little bit about Bob Dylan's piano work on Highway 61 Revisited. Well, his piano playing on that album sounds primitive compared to the glorious work Bob unleashed on this album, and most particularly on this song. Dylanchords proprietor Eyolf Ostrem, in his tablature for this song, mentions a "short, glorious piano break" right after the second verse, and he's absolutely right on the money. Seemingly out of nowhere, acting as a counterpoint to the skronky 70s-style guitar solos that have been splashed all over this song, Dylan plays an understated, yet absolutely marvelous few bars that don't so much show off Dylan's talents as let us know that he does, indeed, HAVE talents. It's really something you should at least hear once - and hey, maybe that answered the question I posed above, as to how this made it onto that supposedly definitive retrospective. Bob isn't above showing off a little, is he?

While I'm thinking about showing off, it's pretty interesting to listen to the song and see what kind of subject matter was on Bob's mind at this time. I've written a lot about the 1960s in this blog series (perhaps far more than I should have), but one thing that might not have been mentioned here is just how much actually happened within those ten years. Now, obviously, a lot of stuff happens in EVERY decade, but it's astonishing to imagine that three game-changing Presidential elections, a gut-wrenching string of assassinations, the emergence of a potent counter-culture, a rift opening between Nixon's "silent majority" and, well, everybody else, and a general shift in the way that people viewed the world all happened in those years. If ever a band could encapsulate the era they came from, it was The Beatles, who essentially packed their entire recording career into seven years, changing not just the record industry, but the entire entertainment industry, in their wake. It seemed like you couldn't open the paper without reading about at least one thing that unalterably changed the world.

And what's Bob singing about in "Time Passes Slowly"? Lazy days in the mountains, searching for a honey to call his own, and how our lives, so finite in the big picture, tend to move so slowly along from day to day (have you ever had an hour, say, at the airport, with nothing to do? It can be goddamn interminable, can't it?). You could suggest that Bob was out of touch in those days, living up in Woodstock and baking bread with his kids or whatever; that couldn't possibly be true, but whatever. The point is that he seems to be reveling in that lifestyle he'd created for himself, separated from a world changing so fast few people could properly keep up, content to gaze at the stars, "lost in a dream", "no reason to go anywhere" (these are quotes from the song, of course), quietly sitting in a self-created bubble. There are probably a few of us for whom that sounds pretty nice. And it certainly seemed pretty nice for Bob in those days - which is why he chose to write about it, I assume.

I suppose you could also take the tack that Bob might be taking a more wry take on this sort of thing (as has been suggested about the album's title track). After all, some of the lyrics could be considered a droll parody ("we sat in the kitchen while her mama was cookin'"? Really?), and Bob's never been above a wink to his audience, or even just to himself. But I like to think that he was straight-faced here (as, also, in the title track), and that he was content with where he was in life. We know that the reverie wouldn't last and Bob would find himself stepping back in the real world, so it's pretty neat to hear him lost in that bubble, waiting for what the next day would bring in his cozy secluded home.

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Jo Morley said...

Hi Tony

It must be depressing, having just waded through "Self Portrait" to see the Christmas album land on your doorstep!

Alex said...

One man's throw-away line is another man's favorite line of the song.

"We sat in her kitchen while her mama was cookin"

Reminds me of a great warm moment in my life and I think it fits in with the rest of the song - conveying the beauty of living life simply.

jeroen said...

maybe bob is just lookin' back in this song. looking back to the days live was less complicated. just als in 'bob dylan's dream'...
for me there is the same melancholy, & warm feeling about something from the past. so the line 'We sat in her kitchen while her mama was cookin' isn't parody at all. it's symbolizes a feeling.
i like the '66 bob dylan most, but this song is one of my favourites...

Anonymous said...

The thing to understand about the songs on New Morning and most of the songs on Blood on the Tracks is that they are written for his mistress, not for his wife. Yes he was up in Woodstock with his family, but he's bored and consumed with thoughts of someone else. (Wish I was back in the city with the one I love so close at hand). He's trying to be a mensch and do the right thing by staying away (Stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right), but the time is passing so slowly and having a bunch of kids who call him pa isn't cutting it. (See also, "Three's a crowd).

If you really listen to Blood on the Tracks the story jumps out at you. In fact, Simple Twist of Fate tells the story of an affair as if it took place on a single day. It's obviously not written about his wife, because when he felt a spark tingle to his bones, he wished that he'd never looked into her eyes in the first place (because everything about you is bringing me misery). And if that weren't clear enough, consider "There's no way I can compare, all them scenes to this affair" and "People tell me it's a sin."

It's also interesting to look at the songs he recorded during this era but didn't use, especially Nobody 'Cept You, Abandoned Love, and Up to Me. The lyrics to these songs are too obvious (one more time at midnight near the wall; wear your heavy make-up and your shawl) and his kids would know, so he didn't release them until years later when the idea of being a faithful, monogamous, dad was too silly to maintain.

Finally, he told everybody this in an interview printed in the Biograph booklet, when he derided critics who assumed "You're a big girl now" was written for his wife. He says straight out it was written for someone else. My guess is that someone got tired of playing the role of big Jim's wife, dropped a coin into the cup, and forgot all about a Simple Twist of Fate.

Anonymous said...

I'll second that "We sat in her kitchen...", the most evocative line in the song for me.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I know I'm a few years late to the party (of the article and brief 2009 discussion), but I'd like to propose a different take on this song. I hope you get a chance to read this and let me know what you think! Up until very recently I did not have this perspective I'd like to share. (It also helps immensely to have the additional versions to take into consideration that arrived with "Another Self Portrait".)

I believe that this song is a spiritual song rather than a dull song about complacency or the affair situation (as a previous commenter brought up). The large message I get from this is that Earth itself will be ultimately become Heaven. Time slowing down is the sensation as he becomes closer and closer to that moment. The first verse to me explains the sensation of being somewhere where he can catch more glimpses of the Holy Spirit. He is up in the mountains, around water, catching fish. Being "lost in a dream" to me indicates that he is living in the present, which brings him closer to God. "We sit beside bridges..." is a key line for me as well. I find the "bridges" represent the bridge from Heaven to Earth. In this verse, being in the present, he is beside the bridges. This foreshadows the key moment in the song. Later, when the musical bridge arrives, the true meaning reveals itself. That bridge takes us into the second half of the song which is the buildup to time fading away, which means Heaven arrives, the world where time no longer exists.

The second verse contains a new set of images which bring him closer to God in another way. In the first we saw him finding God in dreamlike nature and possibly solitude (being in the country rather than city). Now, instead, we see how he can grow closer by enjoying the beauty of others and searching for love. The search for love is sure to slow time further (bring Heaven closer).

The bridge reveals a misconception that Heaven will exist elsewhere. We find out instead that there is no reason to go anywhere, he's just where he truly needs to be, Heaven will soon find him.

We're over the bridge now. There is an important lyrical difference and I'm interpreting the alternate version. Time is about to stop. Time passes slowly up here in the daylight. The light represents God. Staring straight ahead and trying so hard to stay right is the last bit of Earth as we know it. Next: "Like a cloud drifting over that covers the day, time passes slowly then fades away." The cloud that covered the light drifts out of the way, God arrives, Heaven is here and time ceases to exist.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, yes another interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.