After Paul Simon’s Graceland album came out, incorporating the emerging “world music” vibe into American rock in such a marvelously new way, I watched a video documentary about Simon returning to South Africa, performing and touring. In one segment he was teaching a group of young people how to write songs. What I recall specifically was a statement he made that went like this: “Begin with one true sentence and follow it with another.”
The memory came to mind this past week because of the opening line of a Bob Dylan’s “Sugar Baby”, which had recently been re-playing itself in my head. “I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense.” It is such a great line to open a song with. First off, it captures a truth on a physical level, but because it’s Dylan or because it’s poetry it whets the appetite for whatever will follow, and definitely because it’s Dylan you don’t know what to expect but know it will be satisfying on some level.
The combination of these two ideas (Paul Simon’s advice and the first line of “Sugar Baby”) led me to go back in time to find opening lines to various other songs from the Dylan catalog that I thought especially fascinating, powerful or enigmatic… opening lines that made you say to yourself, “Wow, where is this going? I’m on the train. Let’s find out.”
It’s generally agreed that Dylan is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, lyricists of all time. The Nobel Prize committee certainly endorsed the notion. I thought it might be fun to lay out a handful of opening lines to various songs from his catalog. Here are nine, an arbitrary number, because it could easily have been a dozen or nineteen, or more. Enjoy.
I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense
I can see what everybody in the world is up against
I started with this because it’s an opening line I’ve been mulling over for somewhere in the neighborhood of two weeks or more. “I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense.” For some reason it just floors me. The song is from Love and Theft, which was released on 9–11… the day of the disaster that altered contemporary American history. Dylan is spot on with the follow up line, giving ambiguous definition to the first line. This is a great album and a rich opening line.
Visions of Johanna
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
It’s generally agreed that Blonde on Blonde is one of Dylan’s great albums, some say his best. The artist reached for great heights and, according to the historians, became uncompromising in his effort to produce that sound that he aspired to. But for those who find lyrics stimulating and significant, this album is filled with dazzling original work. “Visions of Johanna” is one such achievement. Like many of the rest of these opening lines I’m in awe at how he lays down a story, line after line, with such originality. He is the consummate storyteller producing layered enticement. Ask yourself, “If I were hearing this for the first time, where is this going?” And where it goes flows so naturally, and unnaturally, out of these splendid opening lines.
Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?
As nearly all Dylan fans and followers know his career has unfolded in a series of phases with transitions. Street Legal is the Seventies album that preceded his Gospel period which kicked off with Slow Train Coming. Several songs hint toward the change which was to come, most overtly this one.
Although “Señor” is literally the Spanish word for “Mister” it is also the word used for “Lord” in Latin American churches. It implies “Master” as well. The opening line references the classic emblem for the end times, Armageddon. It also makes the listener wonder the very thing that singer is talking about… where is this song going? Seems like we’ve been down this road before, but is it only an echo? Once you’re hooked in you go with it, confident of a payoff.
Like a Rolling Stone
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
It’s not possible to talk about great opening lines without going here to one of the great songs in rock history, so ahead of its time, so pointed and refined. Once you know the song you can see how the whole is contained in the kernel of this introduction. And when you think about it, this song ties to the first in this list: the light is so intense. It’s not pretty. Look at where you were, and where are you now?
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Any number of songs from this period do it to me, but this one, when I am on the road, is the song of choice to make me feel at home. If you don’t know the song, how can you possibly comprehend where it’s going by this opening. The only thing you know is that it’s totally original and you really must go with it to find a key to this parade of images. Some believe there is no key, but I take another stance, that the last stanza opens a door so we catch a glimpse.
Ballad of a Thin Man
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home
Right off, those ominous introductory piano chords let you know this no ordinary song. Holy buckets, where’s this one going? Some day I will write all my thoughts on this song, but here I will only suggest that it is one of the boldest songs of its era, almost disorienting by the imagery it hits you with. John Lennon references it in Yer Blues, side three of the White Album.
All Along The Watchtower
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief…
This pair of lines so resonates with the human spirit, expresses so much. There’s a discussion taking place, a joker and a thief. You want to know what it’s about, where it will go next. How can you not? But anyone who has taken a nominal interest in poetry or in Dylan will grasp that the lines evoke so much more. It is not only about their situation, temporal and local, but easily conveys human universals.
Not Dark Yet
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
Like so many of Dylan’s songs it’s not just what he sings but how he sings it that moves you. Time Out Of Mind has a number of songs that appear written and sung by a heavy-hearted, world-weary sojourner. Not Dark Yet shows that he understands what it’s like to stand at the edge of the abyss, what it’s like to have been shattered. Will the songwriter find a basis for hope?
Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
Three songs here from Blonde on Blonde, the third in Dylan’s trilogy that cemented his stature as an artist. “Sad-Eyed Lady” was the last cut on the double album and one of the longest of his many long songs.
It’s a song that has been both praised and vilified as noted in this entry from the Understanding Bob Dylan blog. Once again, just the manner in which he sings it conveys something.
There’s something dreamlike about the imagery, and like dreams you don’t always know where those images come from, or even what they mean, yet they are interesting. There’s something happening here, but do we really have to know what it is? Like a Dali painting it’s engaging even when we’re not sure how to define it.
As any Dylan fan can attest, this could easily be a much longer blog post. There are so many great opening lines one could talk about. What are some of your favorites?
Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com
Paintings and illustration by the author. Top of page: “Blowing in the Wind.”