Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #44: My Back Pages


A few weeks ago I was in an aquarium, where I had the opportunity to watch some sharks. Sharks have fascinated me for years, and every so often, I've thought about how certain sharks (not all) have to constantly swim in order to survive. I mean, it's such a fascinating notion, isn't it? Even now, I can close my eyes and imagine one coursing through the waters, fated to spend its entire life swimming or face a painful death. Nature has a funny way of springing curveballs on its animals, not least of all on us humans, and that's one that seems hardest to fathom. One second to rest, one moment without motion, and your life is over.

And yet, that notion of constant motion to survive makes sense to me, but only when I apply it in a certain way: to ourselves. If you think about it, our lives are spent in constant motion, both in an experience sense, and in a mental sense. As we grow up, have more things happen to us (or, to paraphrase Lennon, stuff happens to us while we're making other plans), and expand our own personal biography, we find ourselves in constant flux. Even when we have a steady job, family, and other accoutrements of modern life, we are still moving, our lives changing incrementally and occasionally even drastically. And our minds are always moving as well, growing, learning (to a certain point), and continuing to understand this daunting world that we live in. At least, that's the plan, right?

Not always. Many of us, as we grow older (and, yes, I include myself), find ourselves becoming more intractable in our mental actions, both in the way that we view the world around us, the way that we act every day, and in the way that we interact with other people. This makes sense, of course - the years of experience we've accrued have helped us build a framework that we have fit the world into, and that helps us to deal with things. It's so much harder to deal with things when they're surprises and when we have to adapt; adapting's hard work, for Pete's sake. And as we grow older and more aware of our mortality, the desire to change ourselves and adapt to the world (which never grows old, never stops changing, and evolves practically by the second) grows smaller and smaller, which is why we get jokes about old people not being able to understand iPhones and complaining about how things were so much better when they were younger. The reason they say that is because, to them, there's no question that they were. After all, when they were younger, the world was shaped by people just like them. Now it's different people that shape the world, and that's really hard to swallow, isn't it?

Yes, there are plenty of old people that don't follow that stereotype, that are perfectly willing to adapt to the world as it changes around them, and can continue to keep their perspective fresh and with the times that they live in, instead of the times they lived in (see what I did there?). And you and I both know that those people are the exception to the rule, and that the generation gap exists and seems to grow wider and wider. It's amazing that every generation swears that it won't happen to them, that they won't become as intractable as their parents were, and then they go right ahead and have that exact thing happen to them. I'm quite sure I will have the same thing start to happen to me, and I will fight that as long as I have a breath in my body.

You would think, then, that the inverse ought to be true; while we're still in our youth and still formulating our view of the world, we should be able to change the way that we look at things and basically push the reset button on certain viewpoints we hold. After all, we can SEE old people get crustier and more set in their ways by the day, so we should know better, right? You know where I'm going with this - young people are just as intractable in their ways, and sometimes even more so. No asshole's gonna tell ME what to do! Nobody's gonna run my life! I'm gonna do whatever the fuck I want! And so on, and so on. And then old people look at US and go "these young punks don't understand jack", and the circle of life continues on, ad infinitum.

I think about these things, and then I think about the Bob Dylan of 1964, a man who'd become as disillusioned as you could possibly imagine, who'd grown tired of being the stern-faced idealist with a finger ever wagging and sharp words for those that'd do evil, whose desire to change the world had been eaten away in the cosmic equivalent of the blink of an eye. The Bob Dylan of 1964 had seen how hard changing the world really is, how hard it is to sway feelings and move hearts and change minds. The Bob Dylan of 1964 realized that the world is not just about Issues and Politics and Naysaying To Wrongdoers; he saw that there's as much of the world in love, and in music, and in everything that we take for granted but means so much more when you get right the hell down to it. And the Bob Dylan of 1964 thought on this, reflected on this, and he became a different person and a different musician. He changed his mind, and he gave us a song in "My Back Pages" that essentially outlines that change in mind, as poetically and stunningly as you could hope for. And we are all so much better off for it.

Don't worry, I'm not going to give you some "if Bob can change, then you can" bullshit, or suggest that Bob has always been flexible in his ways of thinking. All I'm saying is that, at a major crossroads of his life, he followed his inner Frost and took the road less travelled, pissing off a lot of people in the process. And he did it because he felt that his way of seeing the world was wrong, was harming him in both the present and future senses, and wanted to create a new and improved Bob Dylan. That takes a special human being indeed. I just hope that when I'm old and muttering about kids on my lawn, I can remember Bob and cut those damn kids a little slack.


It is one thing, when listening to and trying to interpret Dylan's songs, to attribute meaning to his lyrics, so that you end up listening to the song with your own interpretation in mind. It is something else entirely to have the meaning dropped into your lap, to the point where you can't hear the song without thinking about anything else. "My Back Pages" is one of those rare songs where you don't have to make much of a logical leap to figure out what he's talking about. It's rather clear, throughout the song, that Dylan's talking about his struggles with being part of the protest movement and his desire to break away, punctuated by that famous chorus (and another example of the stereotype of old people calcifying mentally as they age - there's a reason he switched the ages that way).

What gives the song an added edge is just how bitter Bob sounds in his lyrics - it's as though he took that entire year of idealism gone sour and converted his feelings into verbal form. I wonder how some of the people that stood with Dylan in the protest movement felt about being called "corpse evangelists" concerned with "abstract threats/too noble to neglect"? Dylan's free-flowing language, even dressing up his real feelings in seemingly incomprehensible wording, cannot hide his emotions - anger, sadness, disdain. Funny enough, though, none of the emotions shown are either regret or conflict. The Bob of "My Back Pages" is completely comfortable and at peace with the choice that he has made.

To me, the most important and telling part of the song is in the fifth verse:

In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach

That, to me, speaks volumes about how Dylan felt as a protest singer - a foot soldier in a cultural war, battling mongrel dogs, not realizing that he's no different from those that he would rail against. Even granting Dylan still relatively in the heat of the moment (I assume he's grown more accepting of his protest days in his later years), that's a hell of a verse to set down in describing the Times days, isn't it? Again, imagine a Pete Seeger hearing that and going "did Bob really say that?" To look at yourself in the mirror and not like what you see, and to that regard? You'd really have to hate what you were to talk about your former self in those terms. Bob looked in the mirror and saw the very people he was singing about. That had to sting.

And so Bob did something about it, maybe the only thing he could do - he wrote a song about it, about how he felt, and how he was ready to move on. "My Back Pages", if nothing else, is a song about a man moving on, eager to leave his old self behind and to find something new. And, by virtue of its recording, it captures a point in Bob's career so specific that you'd be hard pressed to imagine Bob at any other point in his life writing the same song. The wounds were too fresh, the emotions still simmering, and Bob got every single last bit of that into this song. He wouldn't have the time to write a song like this in the coming years - once he found that something new, there was no turning back.

BONUS: "My Back Pages" from the 30th Anniversary show at Madison Square Garden. I'm never the biggest fan of all-star performances, since they inevitably lose something in trying to satiate every ego, but this one didn't come out so bad. Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Bob himself, and George Harrison all sing verses, Clapton contributes his usual clean, blues-informed solo, and Young contributes his usual noise-pollution, beautifully ugly solo. Enjoy!

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Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to make the first comment on this post not about the song, but about the blog.

What an awesome idea! I read through a couple of the posts and some of the comments and I am excited as hell that I've found this blog.

Hopefully, I'll be contributing, but just wanted to say, keep up the good work.

danhofstra said...

This is such an amazing blog. I've been reading it and following it just about everyday.
This has to be one of the best you've written so far...I'd love to be able to write as well as you on my blog. "My Back Pages" is such a great song. The one thing that sticks in my mind is "And though I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." You just wonder how on earth he thought up that line...
I'll keep reading and keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

it's abstract threats, though "threads" is not favorite line here is "rip down all hate i screamed"....because obviously, to speak (scream) such a line is clearly to be filled with hate...sounds like the singer is suggesting "don't hate nothin at all except hatred"....zimfreud

Tony said...

dustmyblues2009, thank you for the kind words. I look forward to seeing you around more often!

dsl89, I truly appreciate that. Not to toot my own horn, but this is one of my favorite posts as well; lots of food for thought there. It's really cool that you follow my blog, and I truly appreciate it.

zimfreud, I actually managed to change "thread" to "threat" before I read your comment, but I'm glad you caught that. The sad thing is that I had the lyrics to pull quotes from, and yet I still made a mistake. Not my finest hour. :P

Nathanael Booth said...

Great post. I know some listeners find "My Back Pages" a little too-on-the-nose, but as a senior in college, I often encounter (an am tempted to become one myself,) "self-ordained professors." This song always comes to mind then, and deflates whatever self-serious pomposity and replaces it with laughter. In that way, I suppose, it's a sanity-saver.

Anonymous said...

Your intro reminds me of Douglas Adams explaining our reactions to new technology:

"There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things."

Tony said...

I know exactly what you mean, Nathaniel. I've met a few of those self-ordained professors myself.

Anonymous, that's a brilliant quote from Adams. Thanks for sharing it with me. I miss Adams; he would've had some stinging words for these crazy times.

Marina, Marina said...

great post and great blog!
I've just "stumbled" into your blog today when google-ing for My Back Pages lyric / meaning. So far, your blog is the most comprehensive source I've found, and each post is very insightful.
At first I thought this song has a bit of 'ageism' in's like Bob Dylan hated old people and felt sorry for them. (And the image of Pete Seeger also popped into mind - I imagined what he felt when he listened to this song). But the more I think of the words (and having read your post), I get it what Bob was attacking is not the old people, per se. Instead, it is the idea of being old and..'inert'.
Anyway, being 24 years old (and I'd like to think: 'young'), I found these particular verse has most resonance:

Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.

how true!

Leopard said...

Excuse me, I want to ask you if it is exactly, in final chorus of this lyric, "define" or "defined"? I think that it is "I defined these term", but I'm not sure because I'm not good at English. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I think you rather overstate the intractability in the thinking of older folks. There's a tone of self-adulation and certainty in your comments I don't particularly care for. I feel adaptability and enlightenment are well-practiced virtues by many more than you credit. Though he certainly didn't coin the notion, Dylan expressed it with poignant lucidity as usual.

Leopard said...

I’m not sure if Anonymous’s comment was for me. If so, I think that Anoymous overstated what I meant in my first comment. It was purely a question, and now its answer revealed to me partly with some other help.

Anyway, it’s interesting for me to read what Anonymous wrote, as well as what Tony, owner of this amazing blog, wrote. I really like the phrase “poignant lucidity” that Anonymous used to say about Bob Dylan. Thanks, again!

Unknown said...

Saving this in my favorite pages !!!

Anonymous said...

I've recently come to rediscover this song, and listening to it now makes me wonder if some of you mean to say that this was Bob Dylan's way of totally throwing his convictions overboard, or rather an attempt to take a step back from who he had become, while not necessarily changing his general opinion on the state of the world? Some (quite a few) comments I read (not necessarily here) in essence seem to say that by this song Bob Dylan turned his back on his critical idealism with a laugh saying "fools, we were all wrong, there's no use, let's just accept things for way they 'are'".

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello there Tony, thank you for posting this interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box Lift the lid and join us inside to listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.

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