Bob Dylan's ''Highlands" - lyric analysis- Part 2
Bob Dylan’s “Highlands” – Lyric analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 2.
3. The verses dealing with his pilgrimage to the Highlands – before the Boston Restaurant intermezzo.
‘Windows are shaking all night in my dreams
Everything is exactly the way that it seems
Woke up this morning and I looked at the same old page
Same old rat race, life in the same old cage’.
‘Windows are shaking all night in my dreams’. It is obvious that here on earth the poet is locked in tight, locked in this earthly domain full of disappointment and pain. Life is like a bad night’s sleep when some distant shaking windows nag you and irritate you all night long and prevent you from coming to rest. Like in a bad dream one would like to scream: ‘is there anybody around who can close that rotten window’? This feeling represents something which lingers deep down inside of almost every human being. A remote feeling that something is just not right. It may be the memory of decay. You can’t do anything about it, yet it keeps on haunting you. ‘Everything is exactly the way that it seems’; he is caught in the ever turning wheels of predictability and monotony of every day’s life. When everything becomes the same, life loses its challenge and surprise. Few unexpected things happen. A man needs new challenges, something new to look forward to.
‘Woke up this morning and I looked at the same old page’. The deception is big, when he wakes up in the morning and finds himself looking at the same old page. Nothing has changed: ‘You’re trained to take what looks like the easy way out’. But you can get no relief; you are forced to participate in a rat race; ’same old rat race, life in the same old cage’. A rat race is a race which is exhausting and unremitting, where the competition is keen, where the city is just a jungle; you either eat or are eaten. The rat race triggers off a warning: ‘All the sweethearts you can hold, that don’t come back with stories untold, are hanging on a tree’. He is caught in a cage which he cannot leave. We are all boxed in, nowhere to escape.
I don’t want nothing from any one, ain’t that much to take
Wouldn’t know the difference between a real blonde and a fake
Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery
I wish someone would come and push back the clock for me
‘I don’t want nothing from anyone’. It is true, the poet has been a highly gifted artist all of his life, so he doesn’t need anything from anyone; he is indeed completely self-sufficient and independent. However, it is sour and cynical to say: ‘Ain’t that much to take’. It insinuates that there is nothing you can learn from other people and implicitly puts you on a higher level than other people. On the other hand, in the song ‘Mississippi the poet confesses that he himself has not much to share with mankind.’: ‘Got nothing for you, I had nothing before; don’t even have anything for myself anymore’ The same idea of feigned modesty we find in ‘Born in time’: ‘In the hills of mystery, in the foggy web of destiny, you can have what’s left of me’.
’Wouldn’t know the difference between a real blonde and a fake’’ Not knowing the difference between a real blond and a fake is a typical example of self-mockery and humor. This statement is quite contrary to his feeling in the song ‘Most of the time’: ‘I can follow the path, I can read the signs, stay with it when the road unwinds’. But here he is so far off the road that he feigns to have forgotten the difference between his right and left hand. ’Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery’. As if he participates in some sort of mysterious Nintendo game. He is locked in so tight; he is so far out of range and completely isolated that he feels like a prisoner in a world that has gone wrong and does not seem to have a meaningful purpose at all. ’I wish someone would come and push back the clock for me’, is only wishful thinking, some sort of nostalgia as if things were any better in a long forgotten past. As if you would do things better and differently if only you could start all over again. But he knows like he said in ‘Sugar Baby’’: ‘you can’t turn back, sometimes you push too far’, you can’t unring the bell; such an attempt is as fruitless as what he wished in ‘Shelter from the storm when he said: ‘If only I could turn back the clock to when God and her were born’.
I’m listening to Neil Young; I gotta turn up the sound
Someone’s always yelling turn it down
Feel like I’m drifting from scene to scene
I’m wondering what in the devil could it all possibly mean
The Neil Young verse is a humorous excursion within the song. Excursions to all sorts of topics within songs are common practice in Dylan’s work; a lot is said in odd moments. The sad bluesy, melancholy timbre of most of Neil Young’s music boosts the sad mood of the poet himself. By turning up the sound he unconsciously attempts to hammer his own dark mood into the ears of anyone listening; to such an extent that people get irritated and frustrated and urge him to turn the music down and to stop moaning. ’Feel like I’m drifting from scene to scene’: The poet has no control over what happens in his life and all around him. He seems to float on an endless ocean ‘Time is like an ocean and it ends at the shore’. Seemingly there is no purpose in what happens in this world. Here it seems that Dylan has been inspired by the of the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, All is vanity (Ecc. 1:2) and in 8:17: ‘then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out; even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out’. A man, drifting from scene to scene wonders in great despair: ’what in the devil could it all possibly mean’. What evil force is behind this all? Is the devil obliterating my view so that I cannot see the purpose behind it all? Is there not some kind of perfect finished plan behind all that seems so purposeless at first glance? And if there is: why can’t I see it? But his mood is getting darker when in the next verse Dylan writes:
‘Insanity is smashing up against my soul
You can say I was on anything but a roll
If I had a conscience, well I just might blow my top
What would I do with it anyway
Maybe take it to the pawn shop’
‘Insanity is smashing up against my soul’. Solitary confinement may easily drive a man to insanity. Likewise, a man of genius has a tendency for insanity. One may even say that sometimes genius comes close to insanity. A man of genius may be on such high levels that it may be pretty lonely up there. The poet has to deal with that. This insanity smashes up against his soul. It tries to destroy his soul. It prevents him from functioning ‘normally’, on a social level. In some ways his genius stands in the way. Therefore he says: ‘I was on anything but a roll’. ‘To be on a roll’ may be defined as: ‘To be engaged in any activity with success and ease and in any activity which is taking up your attention at the time of the activity’.
‘If I had a conscience, well I just might blow my top’ His self-esteem is on such a low level that it even obliterates his conscience. In fact his soul is so vacant and numb that it feels as if he has no conscience left at all, let alone that he would be capable of ‘blowing his top’, to show any emotion at all. ‘To blow one’s top’ means ‘to lose one’s temper or composure’. The whole scene reminds you of the feeling he once had when he felt like he was stuck inside a painting that’s hanging in the Louvre, his throat starts to tickle and his nose itches but he knows that he can’t move.
’What would I do with it anyway. Maybe take it to the pawn shop’ He values his conscience so low that the only place to take it to, as a last resort, might be a pawn shop. A pawn shop is place where you take something valuable you own and trade it in for cash. You don't sell it there, the idea is they keep it for a certain amount of time, and if you acquire enough money to pay the sum you got from them (+ interest), you "buy" your property back. If not, they sell it. If somebody would say: ‘What pawn shop would take my conscience? , then the speaker means that his conscience has so little value that no pawn shop would give you any cash money for it. That is exactly how the poet values his own conscience, his whole existence as a human being, at least at this point and at this stage on his way to the Highlands.
Next time we will discuss the Boston Restaurant intermezzo in detail. For more analyses of Dylan songs, please press the Bob Dylan button on the left. Feedback to this article will be very much appreciated. Please respond by clicking on the link down below here and write your response.
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— Gert Jan van Groningen02-07-2011 10:10