Song: “Not Dark Yet”
Album: Time Out of Mind
Release Date: September 1997
Let’s see now, how can I follow up on last week’s rosy, domestic-bliss-centric entry. Ah, I know. I’ll discuss death.
All in all, this is my 277th blog write up (each and every one of them available here on Music and Memory) and to date I’ve not shied away from a topic when it’s subconsciously speaking persistently to me. So why start now? After all, “Not Dark Yet”- a song that addresses the subject of death - has been whispering in my ear since I started this Master Blueprints series ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZgBhyU4IvQ ). It’s a difficult song to take in for anyone who turns to music as a pick-me-up or for solace, because this is a heavy, forlorn tune, which at its core is a check on one’s own mortality. Yet despite the fading of the light expressed in the refrain and elsewhere in the lyrics, “Not Dark Yet” does include, if not upbeat, then certainly rallying lyrics of being willing to tough things out (for example, see the title of this blog entry above). All in all, it’s a beauty of a song: Honesty and talent blended together tend to generate an aura of grace regardless of subject matter.
Bob Dylan was 55, going on 56 when he produced and released Time Out of Mind, on which “Not Dark Yet” is track # 7. Coincidentally, that is the age I find myself at as I write this Dylan-centric blog series. The entire Time Out of Mind album is brutally honest (see Master Blueprint # 11 for more commentary), - arguably the most painfully revealing album In Bob Dylan’s vast catalog - and among other deep subject matter, it tackles dying, death and the afterlife, particularly in a handful of songs (aside from “Not Dark Yet” the others that come to mind include “Highlands” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”). Dylan once commented that pulling this album together was akin to fighting in a boxing match, pinned in the corner and ‘reeling from the blows’ (that quoted piece, stealing from a line in Time Out of Mind’s “Can’t Wait”). Basically, he was describing how difficult it was to get his creative juices flowing again.
Oh, how tough it can be at midlife and beyond to create something of quality that is brand new. I can absolutely relate to it. Case in point: I started this on-line series with 50 entries on The Rolling Stones music back when I turned fifty years old (my “Stepping Stone” series). At the time, I could crank through any given blog entry in one sitting. Now, it’s often quite a bit longer to pull it all together. I thought I had anticipated this when I decided on the order of musicians I would focus on from year to year, believing (correctly) that the Stones needed to be tackled first, because they were the band who primarily identified to my youthful abandon, and in turn, the band I needed to absorb as soon as possible…. before those adolescent sensibilities faded from memory. Built on top of that premise was my deducing that the other musicians who I wanted to write about (Neil Young, The Who, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles) would fall into place easy enough as I passed that 50-year-old threshold and connected with more ‘sophisticated’ memories and topics.
But now I realize its more complicated than that. Insight and creative thinking can come at you from many directions for sure, but these gifts can also come at you in varying rates of frequency. They can flow, they can dribble, they can seep, they can drip, or, they can abandon you altogether. I now recognize that a significant aspect of the creative process has something to do with age. This part I did not anticipate when I was writing during my Stepping Stones series six years ago. And so, now I am even more impressed than in yesteryear with musicians the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, who have done some of their best works in midlife and beyond. You need to rally yourself in your later years to do what comes naturally in your younger years. Be there no doubt, you can do it, maybe even better than ever. However, it is going to take …. some…. additional…. effort.
One thing I am pretty darn sure of is that Bob Dylan is going to continue to try to make the most of his God-given abilities all the way to the bitter, glorious end. He sees this as a responsibility of sorts; a deal with The Big Man himself. It’s what we should all aspire to. But perseverance and commitment over the long haul is bound to uncover new ways of looking at life, and sometimes these new views are not all that savory. In other words, if you commit yourself to creativity in your later years you are likely going find yourself having to take on subject matter that is not nearly as in-your-face at a younger age. Like dying and death.
I recently started reading Behind the Shades Revisited by Clinton Heylin, about the life of Bob Dylan. Early in the book, Heylin alludes to the fact that, already at a young age, Dylan had “a fascination with those who died young, preferably at the height of their powers” (pg. 10). Those of great interest to him at the time included Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and James Dean. I can understand this. It’s a ‘geez, what could have been if only he/she lived longer’ kinda wonderment. For me the list is long, and includes John Lennon, Brian Jones, Curtis Mayfield, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, Warren Zevon, Marvin Gaye and Townes Van Zandt. Heck when I was younger I even had a fascination with comic book characters who were knocked off at the height of their powers (i.e Jean Grey of the X-Men). There’s another angle to this fascination. It’s got something to do with a ‘why am I alive and they are dead’ sort of thing. If you are a person of faith, it goes more like ‘why was I chosen to live this life through maturity while others were chosen to get snuffed out prematurely?’ This is where I find the man in me intersecting most intensely with what motivates Bob Dylan.
Dylan is not the only popular musician to take on the topic of death in his music. Another well-known songwriter who was engrossed by the subject was George Harrison (this is a bond between them that I overlooked when discussing their friendship in Master Blueprint # 24). The title track of Harrison’s album, All Things Must Pass is enough to testify to this. Probably as much as anyone, George Harrison was mentally ready for the Great Beyond when his time came at the too-young age of 58 (in fact, I’m thinking that more than anything, Harrison’s strength in the face of death was likely the primary suspect in what moved Paul McCartney to a torrent of tears when he visited Beatle George not long before his passing).
One thing I found interesting about Bob Dylan’s “Death and Taxes” episode on Theme Time Radio Hour (see Master Blueprint entries # 22 and 23 for more on this topic) was that, although a George Harrison song was appropriately played by DJ Bob, it was in the ‘taxes’ category (any casual Beatle fan should be able to figure out what that song was) and not in the ‘death’ category, for which he is better remembered by anyone who really knew him (including Dylan). That Theme Time episode was one of my favorites (again, as mentioned in that earlier blog entry # 22). A big reason was the closing stretch of the show which pulled together three mesmerizingly amazing songs about death. The first was “Freddy’s Dead”, which is Curtis Mayfield’s ode to a street corner junkie (or more to the point it’s a warning as well as a declaration that no one should be forgotten) off the album/soundtrack street-hood story “Super Fly”. The second was David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” off The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album (here is another man by the way who was ready for his own demise. Just watch the video “Blackstar” on YouTube, which Bowie released not long before he died of cancer. It is incredible). The third was even more heartfelt, “Withered and Died” by Richard Thompson (sung by his then wife Linda Thompson). It is haunting and staggering in its beauty. There were also two intense poems (that I actually understood thru and thru) in the “Death and Taxes” episode, both read in their entirety by Bob Dylan; E.E. Cummings “Dying is Fine” and Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”. Look them up. These poems, as well as the three songs mentioned, are worthy of your effort.
(Side note: Other than “All Things Must Pass” the only other song I believe that Bob Dylan seriously overlooked/omitted in that episode was the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died”. Oh, and of course his own song “Not Dark Yet”, but I’ve already gone over why that was not happening – again see entry # 22).
Back to that proverbial boxed-in corner. Bob Dylan fought his way out of it by facing his pain head on, the source of which was primarily hinged on lost love. You can hear it over again on Time Out of Mind, including in “Not Dark Yet” (“she wrote a letter and she wrote it so fine….”) There’s a Catch 22 here that needs to be explored. Facing your struggles and woes can age you, which is precisely the point of “Not Dark Yet” (the title is a refrain line in the song which is consistently followed up by “but it’s getting there”). The weakness in our humanity can have us resisting this. But here are the other options: Either we succumb to mediocrity or we shut down our emotions entirely. These are the BIG reasons why we inevitably lose our creativity when we get older. We know how it feels to be burned and we don’t want to risk feeling that way again. He/She is the rare bird who hurdles this.
“Not Dark Yet” begins with the line “Shadows are falling, and I’ve been here all day” …. the word ‘day’ dragged out in hopeless weariness, in a way that only someone in the moment could pull off (Dylan does the same thing in “Highlands” with “The parties over and there’s less and less to say. I got new eyes, everything looks far away”). The best lines in “Not Dark Yet” are near the end. Bob Dylan almost always saves his most amazing lyrics for last in any given song. In this case we are served “sometimes my burden is more than I can bear” (an especially profound statement from the man who has been at the center of it all) and “Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer”, which in a nutshell captures Dylan’s Herculean effort to get out of that proverbial boxing corner and fight for salvation.
As with anyone who has lived a blessed long life, Bob Dylan has seen his share of death regarding his collegial friendships. Off the top of my head, that obituary list includes 3 members of The Band (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm) and 3 members of the Travelling Wilburys (Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Tom Petty), along with Johnny Cash, Brian Jones, Mick Ronson, David Bowie, Howard Wyeth, and I am sure countless others. Hey, some of us are simply in it for the long haul, and those who are must find a way to deal with the trials and tribulations of death in a way that connects us. I believe that somewhere around the making of Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan found a way to turn that corner.
We should all hope we have the strength to do the same.