On the Poetic Brilliance of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind
Rosie Schaap Remembers an Album, and a Friend
“Have you heard Bob Dylan’s new record?” my favorite-ever bar buddy asked me, in his deep, low Ozarks drawl, sometime late in 1997. He was talking about Time Out of Mind. I hadn’t heard it yet. I bought the CD the next day. I took all of this friend’s recommendations seriously.
My friend was a close contemporary of Dylan’s; he had been born in 1946, the newest Nobel laureate in literature had come into the world five years earlier. I was more than a generation younger, but was one of those 1990s twentysomethings who had appropriated the 1960s and 1970s as the era—politically, musically, and in even broader cultural ways—to which I had rightly belonged. A mistake had been made, and I’d gone through most of my life feeling as though I were a temporal changeling. Time Out of Mind would become an essential record for one who felt like a person out of her time.
The Dylan of his third record, The Times They Are A-Changin’ was the first Dylan that mattered to me. More than its iconic title track, I treasured its sad, strong, conscientious ballads defiantly about and against injustice: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “North Country Blues.” I would come to love much of Bob Dylan’s output, but it was that young, prophetic Dylan, speaker of truth to power, who had captivated me. When I dropped out of high school at age 16 to follow the Grateful Dead, I felt lucky to be just in time for Dylan’s tour with the band, even though he was arguably at a low point: not in great voice, often unenergetic, far from the heights of his creative power. Knocked Out Loaded, one of his weakest albums, had come out the year before to a largely poor reception. He looked debilitated and dissipated. And the pairing had brought an uncomfortable schism into the generally peaceable world of Grateful Dead tour: There were those who had come only for Dylan, and they made their allegiance known, as if the rest of us were an embarrassment to them. I vividly remember a couple I saw at Giants Stadium who’d had t-shirts made that said “We’re Here for Bob,” to make it perfectly clear.
That tour didn’t kill my love for Bob Dylan, his music, and his words, but it did put some distance between us. By 1997, when my friend asked had I heard Time Out of Mind, I hadn’t paid Dylan much attention for most of the previous decade. And then I listened. What I heard wasn’t a young singer/songwriter trying on the voice of an Old Testament prophet. What I heard was a man undergoing and sharing a reckoning, and confronting, more unflinchingly than ever, the inevitability of death. If the Bob Dylan of The Times They Are A-Changin’ managed, for all his defiance and hard truth-telling to sound more like a figure still coming at the world from the Blakean vantage point of Innocence, the Dylan of Time Out of Mind was coming at us squarely from the perspective of hard-earned Experience. If the earlier records could be likened to prophetic books of the Bible, this new record was his Wisdom Book, his voice now more Ecclesiastes than Isaiah.
In “Not Dark Yet,” one of his finest songs, Dylan wrote, “Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain,” and nothing seems further from the truth. It’s a beautifully humane record, in which humanity is both disclosed and honored by acknowledging our shared regrets, the loss that none of can escape, the suffering that binds us one to all. In the song’s next line, when he sings “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” we know this; we get it; we feel it. With wisdom comes sorrow.
Not long after he introduced me to Time Out of Mind, my best-ever bar buddy found out he had advanced cancer. Less than two years later he was dead, at 51. Just as texts by Shakespeare and by Keats have been the texts I connect with the lives and deaths of other loved ones, Time Out of Mind has become the text I associate with the life and death of that friend. Its elegiac qualities firmly in place, there are specifics in “Trying to Get to Heaven” (which some say Dylan wrote in honor of his friend, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, who died at age 53 in 1995) that always summon my friend, who had fled his native Missouri for New York as a young man, back to me. These lines especially:
When I was in Missouri
They would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see
You broke a heart that loved you
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
My friend has been dead now more than 15 years—but when I think of him, that song soon follows. Sometimes just the words. Sometimes the words with the music. But always the words first. Taken as a whole, I consider Time Out of Mind Bob Dylan’s finest lyrical achievement. My mother and I argued for decades about the difference between poetry and lyrics: she maintained that there was none and that Lorenz Hart was undeniably a poet; I disagree (as much as I admire the eloquent, inventive Hart). Lyrics must have a relationship with music; poetry doesn’t, even if it has its own musicality. But many of the lyrics from Time Out of Mind do the same things I want poetry to do: they reach deeply both inwards and outwards, they use language in a rich and precise and original way, they remind me of my humanity when it feels it has slipped down the drain. And, without ever meaning to confound or mislead, they sustain enough mystery to keep me awake at night. I may never be certain of what is meant by the penultimate line in “Trying to Get to Heaven”—“I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down”—but that doesn’t stop me from feeling it, hard.