Bob Dylan keeps on going. Though there have been hints that he may announce a retirement, at least from touring, at the end of his 2021-2024 Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, when he will be eighty-three, there is no certainty beyond life’s inevitability. So it is that, after the artistic triumph of his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan has seen the public opening of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa; issued an acclaimed online concert film Shadow Kingdom (2021); gone on tour; announced the seventh in his series of official bootlegs for January 2023, Fragments – The Time Out Of Mind Sessions (1996-1997); and produced a book with the portentous title, The Philosophy of Modern Song.
It is clear that Dylan does not want to stop, or at least that he is not able to. He needs to create and he needs to communicate. There is a substantial business behind him that is marketing his past, but that would thrive just as well were to he decide to get out the carpet slippers, or just weld a few more gates. Dylan has many things still to say. The slight worry, for me, is just how well or not he is doing so.
I saw Dylan on the first night of the British section of his tour, at the London Palladium, on 19 October 2022. It was not a great show, from my point of view. Subsequent investigation of reviews and audience responses suggests that, for that night, there were sound balance problems which meant you experienced a better or worse show depending on where you sat. We were in the royal circle, to the left, and aurally it was often a trial: an abrasive sound, incoherent vocals, an out-of-sorts band (the excellent drummer Charley Drayton excepted) stuck with drab arrangements. Quite a few people near us walked out, no small matter given the astronomic prices we had all paid. Elsewhere in the venue others reported experiencing an outstanding show, which seems to have been the general reaction from audiences as the tour continued in the UK. But what I saw and struggled to hear was an old man, whose voice has not completely gone but is now best suited to the studio rather than the stage, whose arthritis means that he cannot play the guitar, instead tinkling rudimentarily on a piano, ending the show with a wheezy – but rapturously received – two-note harmonica solo.
I enjoyed the concert, for all that, yet was aware that when listening to the songs being played (mostly from Rough and Rowdy Ways), I had the originals in my head as a guide to what my ears were experiencing. It was the last time I shall see Dylan live, that seems certain – the seventh in total, since first seeing him in 1978. I wish I had not had to work quite so hard to hear that which I could imagine hearing.
Or maybe I’m the one who is getting old.
So much for being in the wrong seat on the wrong night. Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, is another matter. The book is a collection of sixty-six essays, each devoted to a song and the artist who performed it. Most of the selections date from the 50s and 60s, the listening matter of Dylan’s formative years rather than contemporary song. Most of them are American, and range widely from the iconic to the specialised to the bizarre: Carl Perkins, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’; Elvis Presley, ‘Viva Las Vegas’; Little Richard, ‘Tutti Frutti’; The Temptations, ‘Ball of Confusion’; Jimmy Reed, ‘Big Boss Man’, Bing Crosby, ‘Whiffenpoof Song’; Cher, ‘Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves’; Uncle Dave Macon, ‘Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy’. It’s a book that demands a Spotify list, and course the fans have gone ahead and produced exactly that. It is handsomely, sometimes eccentrically, illustrated with images not only of the artists but ideas triggered by the text. One of my favourite sections of the book is the ‘Archive research and clearances’ list at the end, which suggests huge effort on a very generous budget.
The Philosophy of Modern Song is a bit of a dog’s breakfast, in this humble writer’s opinion. Those parts of the essays that reflect on the song themselves are speculative ramblings that reflect Dylan’s impressions of the song’s import, as though he were living within them. Some are immensely powerful – notably that for Marty Robbins’s ‘El Paso – while some fizz with enthusiasm, such as Sonny Burgess’s ‘Feelin Good’, one of the great rock’n’roll recordings. But there is much that reads like this:
You’re fairly certain you have become some kind of biological mutation, you are no longer a mere mortal. You could tear your own body to pieces and throw the bits everywhere. Bending the throttle, climbing high and out of control where everything becomes a nebulous blur, nothing up here but your imagination. You’re fluttering and floating, nothing you can’t discover, even the hidden things, the deeper you go, the more you grasp. You try to talk to yourself, but after the first few words the conversation is over. You’re blazing like a comet, hightailing it to the stars. Maybe you’re crazy but you’re no imbecile.
That’s part of the reflection on the cheesy ‘Volare’, just in case you hadn’t spotted it. There is an awful lot of such prose, best read in small chunks, though there are some pleasing turns of phrase and sharp insights along the way. But to treat every song in this way is to invite absurdity. Worse still, Dylan’s descends at times into ugly rants (Johnnie Taylor’s ‘Cheaper to Keep Her’ triggers a singularly unpleasant, certainly inelegant, discussion about divorce – he is paying out two lots of alimony) or trite observations unworthy of his status (his thoughts on war inspired by Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ are sophomore stuff, while his thoughts on film, inspired by ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’, are dismal nostalgia). It is bracingly misogynistic in places, and even when his radical heart flares up, such as his impassioned discussion of Native American singer John Trudell, he crassly lays into the political passions of others (“civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights”). The book exposes Dylan as a man fallen behind the times, when he has paid such emphasis in his recent work on thinking outside the specifics of any one time (a theme that underpins Rough and Rowdy Ways). It feels like there was no one hovering over his shoulder to suggest that some of this might be reined back, or consigned to the litter bin. Such as a wife.
The book is at its strongest when it focusses on the craft of song. When you read stuff like “What makes [El Paso] unusual are the pickup phrases between the end of the bridge and the next verse, short preludes that propel you into the ongoing story” you sense the appreciation of someone who listens with an acute ear. But there is not enough of this, and what you do learn must sometimes be achieved obliquely. When he writes, “Sometimes people ask songwriters what a song means, not realizing if they had more words to explain it they would’ve used them in the song”, the whole book could be seen as a perverse argument in support of this. It is full of the words of which the songwriters had no need. As Dylan writes, discussing Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’, “[a] big part of songwriting, like all writing, is editing – distilling thought down to essentials”. Too much of Philosophy is inessential.
Were The Philosophy of Modern Song half the length that it is (i.e. half the number of essays), with no pictures, it would have been sharper and more useful. In a way it is more of a blog than a book – casual but engaging texts, with random asides (what fun to link ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ to a history of Esperanto), and an embedded audio file for the reader to refer to and wonder. Bob the blogger. Now there’s an idea.
I was disappointed by the concert, still more by the book, which had promised the same sort of excitement found in Dylan’s innovative memoirs Chronicles vol. 1. I wanted to say, enough now Bob. Listen to your young self. Listen to ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’.
For some while now I’ve had been putting together lists of favourite music on particular themes. I first came up with a list of favourite guitar solos – Mike Oldfield emerged on top. Then it was the turn of bass lines (reggae master George ‘Fully’ Fullwood was the winner), the drums (Jaki Liebezeit) and finally a singer (Sandy Denny). This unlikely group needed some songs to perform, so I surveyed genres, starting with blues, then country and reggae). Finally I went through songs that they might sing; so far, ‘In the Pines‘ and ‘Summertime‘. I’m bringing the exercise to a close with one last song that they might perform, looking at ten different versions, as with all the other roles, genres and songs. And the song is ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’.
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ is the final number on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. It is widely considered to be one of his finest songs, not coincidentally one of his songs that others have often wanted to sing. Dylan’s songwriting has always been torn between what he wanted to sing for himself and what he wanted to share. There was a commercial imperative to the latter – Dylan built his fortune on music rights – but he has always seen himself as the troubadour, who has picked up songs on all his travels, and has created songs that continue the process. He sings along a timeline – hearing, performing, passing things on.
That’s the theme, or one of them, behind ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. Someone has to get out of the way, because their time is past. It is expressed in vaguely apocalyptic terms, as the songwriter who one year beforehand had simply told the older generation that ‘The Iimes They Are A-Changing’ now delivered something psychic and all the more unsettling:
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
There have been various efforts to identify who ‘Baby Blue’ might be, a former friend or lover, or whoever. Such speculation is a nonsense, of course. Even if Dylan ever thought of someone specific, the result is properly ambiguous, because that’s what good songwriting does. It gives resonance to thought. In any case, the key to the success of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, not least its magnetic appeal for other performers, is quite possibly that its subject can be read as being the singer themselves. It is a song sung to the mirror. The more you stare, the more things seem no longer to be still with you:
The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor
The carpet, too, is moving under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ has long remained in Dylan’s concert repertoire, when so many other compositions have been discarded, indeed probably quite forgotten by him. It featured in the 2021 Shadow Kingdom concert film, pertinently the final song sung. It has not featured on the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour, as yet. There’s still time.
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ is a good song for anyone to sing. Its mysterious heart can never be entirely explained, demanding that someone, anyone, needs to sing the song again so that we can keep trying. There’s an entertaining game to be played imagining those who have never sung the song but who could have brought a fresh frisson to it. Imagine Karen Carpenter’s version. Or Mississippi John Hurt, or Elvis Presley, or Adele. Or Sandy Denny.
The ten versions I have selected below each demonstrate its particular public-private quality. There are no radical changes to the song’s structure – much of the song’s power lies in its modest manner. All one gets, each time, is that warning to the person unknown who may just be yourself. They are in order of current personal preference, for fun’s sake.
The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
10. Link Wray, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’
Link Wray recorded this wild version in 1979, when the 1950s guitar rebel was being rediscovered as a prophet of the new wave. The studio version isn’t on Spotify (at the time of writing), but the live recording from the same year adds extra thrash and passion. The best cover versions are often those that the original artist could not have imagined or could never reproduce themselves. Yet it is always the profoundest compliment, saying this is what your song told me, this is you after all.
9. Gal Costa, ‘Negro Amor’
Gal Costa was a Brazilian pop singer, whose output – to these ears, unused to much tropicália music – sounds competent but seldom remarkable. But step away from the familiar, give a Bob Dylan song a sensitive Brazilian makeover, and something magical emerges. One realises just how much the potency of the song’s message lines in the melody. In each verse the urgency of the penultimate line hits you before the resignation of the last. Dylan, on this evidence, translates very well. It also has a fine harmonica solo.
8. Them, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’
This is one of those Dylan cover versions that reinvents the song to the extent that others want to cover the cover. It’s the hypnotic guitar figure that you can’t forget, copied religiously by the Chocolate Watchband and much later by Echo and the Bunnymen, and cleverly sampled by Beck for ‘Jackass’. The distinguishing feature, however, is Van Morrison’s mournful vocal, the voice of a prophet whose audience has not listened, but who must repeat his message nonetheless – because it is the truth.
7. The Country Gentlemen, ‘Baby Blue’
A model example of how a good song moulds itself into another genre. One might quake at the idea of a heavy metal version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, but bluegrass is a different proposition (Dylan boldly detects affinities between bluegrass and heavy metal in The Philosophy of Modern Song). This is a wistful interpretation, recorded in 1968 by American group The Country Gentlemen, who had a particular penchant for adapting pop/rock songs to a bluegrass style that made them sound like they had found their natural sound.
6. Marianne Faithfull, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’
Marianne Faithfull is possibly the finest Dylan interpreter of them all. There’s a depth of understanding and experience in that voice that it is hard for other to match. Every words counts so well. (She recorded a second, slower version for her 2018 album Negative Capability)
5. The Animals, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’
This comes from The Animals’ 1977 reunion album, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted. Its measured tone but heavy beat, distinguished by crashing piano chords, immediately mark it out as something special. Eric Burdon’s voice may no longer have the richness it had in the 1960s, but the feeling he finds is as powerful as ever. It has the sound of something they had wanted to record for years but only now felt able to do so. It’s a version that says, now we understand.
4. Jewels and Binoculars, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’
Jewels & Binoculars are a jazz trio (Michael Moore reeds, Lindsey Horner bass, Michael Vatcher percussion) dedicated to producing instrumental version of Dylan’s songs. They are astute at making explorations of the tune as eloquent and appropriate as the missing words. Their version of ‘Baby Blue’ is brief and singularly beautiful. It finds the pity in the diatribe.
3. Dion, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’
As is evident from The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan is a great admirer of Dion. It’s not just that Dion’s late 50s music (with Dion & The Belmonts) so thrilled the young Robert Allen Zimmerman, but that with some of his solo work he seems to have the voice that Dylan would like to have. It’s the ‘wild, mercury sound’ that Dylan famously said that he was searching for and found on his Blonde on Blonde album. Whatever that might mean, Dion has it here.
2. 13th Floor Elevators, ‘(It’s All Over Now) Baby Blue’
Dylan has said this is one of his favourite interpretations of his songs. Had he ever been so rash to embrace psychedelia (of course he never considered it for a second) this is what the results might have sounded like. What makes it work so well is how the tremulousness of the accompaniment matches Roky Erickson’s yearning vocals. It has that questioning tone that suggests the target is as much the singer as anyone else.
1. Hugh Masekela, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’
South African trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela’s version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ is unlike any previous interpretation (it dates from 2012), not just in its jazzy, upbeat arrangement, but in its all-embracing tone. It is sad and knowing and uplifting all at the same time. It’s not so much Dylan’s gift to the music world as that world returning the gift to him.
There have been many fine versions of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. Indeed, it may be quite a challenge to produce a bad one. The Spotify list below includes all of the above and a good many more. It’s a song for all of us – because, of course, Baby Blue is not necessarily someone Dylan knew, or Dylan himself, or someone any other singer might know. It could be the listener. It could be you.