‘The Same Distant Places: Bob Dylan’s Poetics of Place and Displacement’
Popular Music and Society, Vol. 32, No. 2 (2009)
This article explores the emphasis in Bob Dylan’s work on memory, place, and displacement. It rehearses some key issues raised by recent theorists who have been interested in the connections between these themes before proceeding to discuss tropes of displacement in Dylan’s work. Topics covered include the importance of the city and its projection of the rural, the theme of moving on and its association with accumulated experience, and the ability of Dylan continually to reinvent himself. The article closes with a reflection on the album Time Out of Mind as a distillation of themes of place and displacement that can be found throughout Dylan’s work and argues that the work presents a poetics of displacement that cannot shed the pull of place and the desire for homely permanence.
Online access to journal article here.
Pre-publication draft available here.
Blood on the Tracks: Place and Displacement
Of the many wonderful moments to be found in No Direction Home,
Martin Scorsese’s film about Bob Dylan, one seems to come closest to
revealing what has made Dylan such an enduringly fascinating artist to
follow over the many decades of his career. Following footage of Dylan
performing “Mr Tambourine Man”—one of his most wandering songs, with its
instruction to “take me disappearing” and its desire to “forget about
today until tomorrow”—we cut to Dylan making the following claim:
An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place
where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that
you’re constantly in a state of becoming.
This fine bit of editing by Scorsese highlights a constant aspect of
Dylan’s varied career and repertoire, namely a tug-of-war, or dialectic,
between place and displacement, also played out as a negotiation
between movement and stasis, travel and home, present and past.
Dylan presents himself—convincingly, for the most part—as an artist
more interested in becoming than being and he continually stresses, in
his life and art, a desire to move on to another place, to be somewhere
where all those people looking for him (the “real” him) will not think
to look. But this doesn’t ever do away with the constant haunting
presence of home, stasis, and the past in his work. He is an artist who,
no matter what he may say, really does look back.
Dylan’s work has always been characterized by a poetics of place and
displacement. The poetics of place establishes itself through recourse
to repeated mentions of real and imagined places, which seem to fix many
of Dylan’s texts in recognizable locations and which are therefore
crucial to the ability of his audience to identify with the texts. These
locations—whether actual or metaphorical—are fixed moments that the
memory can focus on even as it struggles to recall other features.
The poetics of displacement, meanwhile, seeks to challenge and
destabilize any sense of permanence even as it simultaneously relies on a
set of temporary memory sites. Dylan’s displacement techniques and
refusal of a fixed identity constantly unpick the knowable, but cannot
escape the desire for stabilizing moments.
The importance of home and displacement in Dylan’s work is clearly
understood by the makers of the three best films about Dylan: D.A.
Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, Scorsese’s No Direction Home, and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There.
All three films take their titles from lines in Dylan’s songs and
acknowledge the impossibility of capturing their subject even as they
attempt to do so. No Direction Home opens with Dylan speaking the
following words: “I had ambitions to set out and find like an odyssey,
going home somewhere. I set out to find this home that I’d left a while
back and I couldn’t remember exactly where it was but I was on my way
there, and encountering what I encountered on the way was how I
envisioned it all. I didn’t really have any ambition at all … I was
born very far from where I’m supposed to be and so I’m on my way home.”
This typically Dylan-esque logic exposes the bewilderment at the
heart of the dialectic of place and displacement. Home, it seems, is as
much where you’re going as where you’ve been; you’ll know it when you
see it, but your recognition, by definition, will consist of something
you already knew. These qualities of remembered bewilderment and
bewildered memory run like threads through Dylan’s career, arguably
finding their most telling manifestation on Blood on the Tracks,
an album full of longings, imaginings, and memories, peopled by an
ever-shifting but ever-interlocking (“tangled”) cast of characters.
In Blood on the Tracks we meet our unreliable narrator
“heading out for the East Coast” in the opening song; over the course of
seven verses, we drift through New Orleans and Delacroix, settling
briefly in a basement on Montague Street, only to end up where we
started, “Still on the road / Headin’ for another joint.”
“The only thing I knew how to do,” sings Dylan through his alias, “Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew.”
Speaking in 1978, Dylan proffered the opinion that Blood on the Tracks
differed from his earlier work in that “there’s a code in the lyrics
and also there’s no sense of time. There’s no respect for it: you’ve got
yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very
little that you can’t imagine not happening.” To shift the temporal and
spatial axes of this observation, we could also say that here, there,
and everywhere are taking place at the same time.
“Tangled up in Blue” sets the tone by roaming across time and place,
suggesting that any attempt to sort the tangle of memories the singer
finds himself afflicted by can only ever be provisional and temporary.
The lack of fixity is emphasized by the changing personal pronouns of
the verses and the tendency for Dylan to rewrite the lyrics in
The personal pronouns shift again in the second track of the album,
“Simple Twist of Fate”, as the protagonist changes from “he” to “I”. The
anguished cry of “I’ve never gotten used to it” in “If You See Her, Say Hello” stresses involuntary memory (the name he can’t get used to hearing acts like Proust’s petite madeleine), while I replay the past
focuses on the voluntary memory work that inevitably follows. The
unexpected flash of the past summons a desire to take control of one’s
history in the hope of taming the power and danger of such flashbacks.
“Shelter from the Storm” imagines “a place where it’s always safe and
warm”, an appeal to the homely that contrasts with the displacement
enacted elsewhere. “Buckets of Rain”, the cozy blues that closes the
album, suggests the singer may have found his shelter.
The dialectic of place and displacement is also to be found in
Dylan’s famous “wild mercury sound”, that magic sonority he sensed while
at his 1960s peak and which he rediscovered magnificently on Blood on the Tracks.
It’s entirely possible for both performer and audience to lose their
place in this music. From the performer’s side, this can be witnessed by
the number of live recordings in which Dylan loses his way in the
lyrics; he also, it should be pointed out, battles his way out of
lyrical dilemmas triumphantly and creatively, as can be heard on the
alternate recordings of those Blood on the Tracks songs that were released on the first official Bootleg Series.
This disorientation should be seen as part of the “code” Dylan speaks
of, an invitation to engage in a ritualistic setting-aside of everyday
time, space, and logic.
This is something Paul Williams drew attention to in his discussion of the album in the second volume of Bob Dylan: Performing Artist. Williams also highlighted the way that the rhythmic thrust of the songs on Blood on the Tracks
drives the listener on. Something compels us to follow Dylan into his
labyrinth of words and sounds, even at the risk of losing our way.
Theme and form support each other as Dylan delivers his sweeping
narratives over washes of organ, driving guitar, and insistent drumming.
There is pleasure in the way Dylan displaces us, handing us the magical
constructs of his peculiarly stressed verses to ponder over as he moves
on and away from us, leaving blood on the tracks. Nowhere is this more
extravagantly achieved than on Idiot Wind, with its spellbinding
structure. As Williams wrote of the song, “Dylan more than ever shows
himself master of juxtapositions, connections, quick dissolves and
timeless freeze frames”.
These juxtapositions provide a sense of place as much as
displacement. These are popular songs, after all, and popular songs love
to come home. Dylan’s refrains bring it all back home and provide a
“round trip” that is part of the geographical quality to his songs.
Blues structures suggest their resolutions right from the start, while
folk ballads circle infinitely around refrains. Dylan’s phrasing also
brings a sense of stability even as he is displacing linguistic
commonplaces; witness the role of “idiot” in “Idiot Wind”, or the
refrains of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter from the Storm”. Home is
the pull here and, for all the moving on that needs to be done, there is
always a temptation to turn around and look behind. Displacement
derives its power from the pull of place, after all.
How much of Bob Dylan should we read into these songs? Dylan’s
response to his fame and to the expectations that come with it is as
prone to displacement as his songwriting. Again, refusal seems to be the
defining strategy: distancing himself from the folk music scene he
helped to define, distancing himself from the role of “visionary” and
from any particular political stance, distancing himself from his own
work and legacy through a constant reinterpretation of his songs.
Like his character Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,
Bob Dylan is always somewhere and someone else. What is said of the
relationship explored in “Tangled Up in Blue” might also be said of the
relationship between the various Dylans we have been offered down the
years: “We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different
point of view.”
“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”
(Part of the ‘Between the Grooves‘ feature published by PopMatters for the 35th anniversary of Blood on the Tracks)
It comes on too bright and breezy after the devastation of “Idiot
Wind”, a bit of light relief, perhaps, to close Side One of the record. A
jaunty harmonica melody, uptempo guitar strumming, and then that high,
pinched Dylan vocal that harks back to the “domestic retreat” albums
from a few years before. Dylan is singing of love coming easy, of it
being “more correct / Right on target, so direct.” So direct that the
song is treated to one of the neatest, most economical structures to be
found on Blood on the Tracks. After three verses of domestic
bliss, we get a change in scenery. The meter and the music changes and
the lyrics move into even softer focus: “Flowers on the hillside,
bloomin’ crazy / Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme.” No buzzing
flies or raging glory, here; it’s all a bit more Disney than Dylan.
It hasn’t always been slow, lazy rivers and chirping insects, though.
Returning to the main verse structure, we hear that the singer’s past
relationships have all been bad, “like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud[‘s].”
From Bambi to Rimbaud: this is the Dylan we were expecting to hear from,
the Dylan who’d recently taken us for a tour through his (or someone’s)
tortured psyche. The next time the tune slows, there’s less emphasis on
romantic idyll and more recognition that change is coming. The singer’s
staying behind and he’s not sure why.
It’s a song about love, then, about the decisions, doubts, and the
heartbreak that love brings. It’s an appealing track, not only due to
its undoubted hummability, but also to its wise acceptance and modesty.
It’s a song that charms. Paul Williams neatly sums up the appeal: “Sure
as we’ve all been in love, been loved, we’ve all had the experience of
being in someone’s eyes this charming, this much fun.” Part of the fun
is to be found in Dylan’s enjoyment of the words, which, typically for
him, are treated in a way that serves song and singer rather than sense.
“Rimbaud’s” is actually sung as “Rimbaud”, to rhyme with “go”, and
“Honolulu” becomes “Honolula”, to find correspondence with “Ashtabula”.
“There’s no way I can compare / All those scenes to this affair,”
sings Dylan in what might as well be a reference to other songs on the
album (“I know every scene by heart,” he sings in “If You See Her, Say
Hello”, and “Tangled up in Blue” is nothing if not a set of scenes). But
we, as listeners, can’t help but compare. There are too many ghosts
haunting Blood on the Tracks. And even here, that word “lonesome”
sticks out from every verse, echoing down through the years and the
songs that Dylan has shared with us.
If it wasn’t clear from the refrain, it’s there in the final verse:
“I’ll look for you in old Honolula / San Francisco, or Ashtabula /
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know.”
Now we know the reason for the nature imagery; it’s a form of
mnemonic: “I’ll see you in the sky above / In the tall grass, in the
ones I love.” Like the narratives of Townes Van Zandt, a songwriter
whose work Dylan has covered, nature is a privileged site for the
placing of mental impressions that can be stored for future access.
“Will it be the willow / that hears your lonesome song?” asks Van Zandt
in his own “None but the Rain”.
Others have covered “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” as
primarily a song of departure. Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl
provided a reading imbued with mellow regret on his 1982 album North Marine Drive. Over two decades later, Madeleine Peyroux cast the song as a weary late night jazz lament on her album Careless Love
(its title taken from the lyrics to Dylan’s song). Neither artist got
it wrong; the song is both weary and mellow, a recognition of inevitable
decay postponed rather than dealt with. It’s just that Dylan, recording
the original in 1974 amidst the hard memories, accusations and
self-recrimination of the Blood on the Tracks material, found a
moment to dwell without regret on the bittersweet nature of passing
time. The end result is a gilded thorn, its barb hidden within that
breezy delivery. As it fades out—inviting, in the era of vinyl, a brief
reflection before the rigors of Side Two—you can be forgiven for feeling
happy about the way things have turned out for this singer.