In 2001, the director Richard Linklater released a film called Waking Life, which centers on one man’s experiences as he interacts with a variety of different characters who share observations, memories, and theories with him. These scenes are interrupted by the protagonist waking up and realizing that some of the exchanges he is having with other characters are actually dreams. Throughout the movie, there’s a dawning realization that he is stuck in an inter-zone between dreaming and his waking life. Linklater accentuates the dream and no-time reality of what is being depicted in the film by employing a technique called rotoscoping. This meant that, according to Wikipedia, the movie “was shot using digital video of live actors with a team of artists drawing stylized lines and colors over each frame with computers.” In Waking Life, Linklater shifted between different artists’ styles from scene to scene and, sometimes, within a single scene, creating a floating, swirling, and unsettling viewing experience. Linklater said in an interview that this rotoscoping approach was necessary because:
“I think to make a realistic film about an unreality the film had to be a realistic unreality.”
This quote is as good of an explanation as any about the surreal and psychedelic aspects of Waking Life. Here is a clip from the end of the film which doesn’t necessarily spoil the plot since this movie doesn’t really have a plot, but encapsulates the grand conceit of Waking Life:
That is Linklater himself playing the character talking to the protagonist about the Philip K. Dick story and sharing his dream about Lady Gregory and his childhood dog. Knowing that it is Linklater, we can assume that the speculations of his character are reflective of what Linklater wants us to remember most from the film. Linklater’s exploration of the nature of reality and time through dreaming in Waking Life is a good starting point to consider Bob Dylan’s song “Series of Dreams”:
The song was recorded during the 1989 sessions for Oh Mercy, but not released with that album. More than any other song recorded for Oh Mercy, the sound of “Series of Dreams” is indebted to the recording principles of producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois’s sound can be heard immediately as the song fades in with multiple guitars chiming and swirling over the low rumble of the drums. Lanois first gained prominence a few years before the recording of Oh Mercy as co-producer of U2’s 1987 album The Joshua Tree. “Series of Dreams” is the most reminiscent of U2 out of any songs recorded for Oh Mercy to the extent that it wouldn’t be surprising if The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. had secretly overdubbed guitar and percussion parts respectively. It’s not Bono on vocals though as Dylan begins singing the song in a lower register, slowly adjusting his vocals to a higher octave to match the build of the song. It’s a subtle, yet masterful vocal delivery on Dylan’s part.
Dylan opens the song with the line: “I was thinking of a series of dreams.” Throughout the lyrics, he presents images and situations from these different dreams, but it’s always at a remove in the song. The audience never inhabits a specific dream through the lyrical content of “Series of Dreams,” rather we are hearing Dylan’s consideration on the act of dreaming. This examination is mentioned directly by Dylan when he sings, “Nothing too very scientific.” It’s a deceptively funny line, tweaking the scientific aspect of dream analysis.
This song’s perspective serves as counterpoint to two of Dylan’s past songs that are direct portrayals of dreams, including “Bob Dylan’s Dream” off of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as well as “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home. The first uses the dream as a tool to present a sort of utopian vision or ideal, whereas the second song utilizes the dream concept as a cover for surrealistic wordplay and humor from Dylan. In “Series of Dreams,” Dylan sings the key line repeatedly, “Just thinking of a series of dreams.” Even though Dylan uses the word “just” as a stand-in for “simply” in that line, there’s nothing basic about this contemplation or the song. It’s the act of consideration of these dreams that is important to Dylan.
“Series of Dreams” as a reflection on how we respond to dreams connects to the movie Waking Life when Dylan sings in the second verse:
Thinking of a series of dreams
Where the time and the tempo drag.
Dylan’s life, career, and entire state of being is defined by music and therefore governed by time and tempo. This can be seen through the act of writing lyrics in which there is a required meter that Dylan is attempting to fulfill, or achieving a certain beat and rhythm when playing with other musicians in the recording studio or on stage. Dylan’s calling as a musician makes him reliant on time and tempo as a determining factor of his art. Stating in the song that the “time and the tempo drag” is a nightmare for a musician. Similarly, Linklater’s theory about dreams in the clip from Waking Life included above is about the nature of time. What we recognize as our reality and our life is only a single moment of the larger expanse known as eternity. Linklater says that God is always inviting us to become part of the larger universe, but our constant refusal of this invitation is what we experience as time itself and what we understand as the narrative of our lives. For Linklater, time is a negation of God’s invitation to eternity. In Waking Life, Linklater is able to understand the nature of time through dreams. Similarly, Dylan’s consideration of his dreams allow him to understand how time governs his own life and art. In the first verse, Dylan sings:
Where nothing comes up to the top
Everything stays down where it’s wounded
And comes to a permanent stop.
This “permanent stop” that Dylan sings of could be the same as Linklater’s own ultimate acceptance of God’s invitation. As he says in the movie, we’re always saying “no” to God, thus creating time before finally giving in and saying “yes.” In Dylan’s dream, the “permanent stop” is that act of saying “yes.”
Both “Series of Dreams” and Waking Life are surrealistic works of art in the original sense of that concept as defined by André Breton in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto. Breton wrote that surrealism attempts to resolve “these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” Both Dylan and Linklater use dream imagery, but also the act of dreaming itself, in the creation of these specific works of art. “Series of Dreams” and Waking Life manifest Breton’s ideal to allow dreams to understand the nature of time and our reality.
Building on this connection of “Series of Dreams,” there’s a reading of the song in which Dylan is specifically examining his own art and body of work. We mentioned above that Dylan wrote at least two songs specifically about dreams. When Dylan sings, “Thinking of a series of dreams,” he may be associating dreams with the hundreds of songs that he has written throughout his entire life, each dream as a different song. There’s a haunting moment towards the end of “Series of Dreams” just before the conclusion of the song in which Dylan sings: “I’d already gone the distance.” It’s an arresting line because Dylan may be indicating that all of these dreams/songs might be the measure of what he is capable of producing. This could be the last song he writes since he’s “already gone the distance.”
This idea of “Series of Dreams” as a look back on Dylan’s career and almost as a capstone or an end to his creative output is reflected in the video for the song when it was finally released in 1991:
The video compiles still photographs and other music videos as well as clips of Dylan from movies such as Dont Look Back, Eat the Document, Renaldo and Clara, Hard Rain, and more. Viewing this video of “Series of Dreams” randomly on television in 1991 might make the viewer wonder if Bob Dylan had died. Is this an obituary? For many critics and fans, Dylan’s best work was behind him; he’d already gone the distance. So both the song and the video represent a looking back; a contemplation and consideration of Dylan’s body of work over his 30 year career. Fortunately, Bob Dylan didn’t die in 1991, and, as of this writing, he has accumulated another 30 years of songs and dreams.
An alternative recording of “Series of Dreams” was released on 2008’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006:
This take sounds like a stripped down version of the original, as if it’s Dylan performing with the core band before Lanois added his U2-esque sonics to the track. The focus of this rendition is entirely on the driving, thrusting percussion along with Dylan’s vocals. It’s his singing which produces a natural build to the song, demonstrating that it needn’t rely on the guitars, strings, and keyboard overdubs that Lanois would add later.
Neither this take or the previous, more well-known take would be included on Oh Mercy, the resulting album of the recording sessions that brought Dylan and Lanois together. “Series of Dreams” would be released a few years after the recording on 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. Lanois was captivated by the full orchestral version of “Series of Dreams.” He spoke about it for the 1991 liner notes of the first Bootleg Series set:
“We did try a few things [on Oh Mercy] that didn’t make the finish line. That’s the least you can do for an artist, show respect for their own ideas. We had four or six songs that we recorded and didn’t use. One track, ‘Series of Dreams,’ was a fantastic, turbulent track that I felt should have been on the record but…he had the last word.”
Dylan devotes an entire chapter of his 2001 memoir Chronicles: Volume One about recording Oh Mercy in New Orleans. A great deal of the chapter is Dylan reflecting on his relationship with Lanois, the way they worked together as well as their disagreements and successes. This can be seen in the way Dylan writes about “Series of Dreams” in the memoir:
“We cut ‘Series of Dreams,’ and although Lanois liked the song, he liked the bridge better, wanted the whole song to be like that. I knew what he meant, but it just couldn’t be done. Though I thought about it for a second, thinking that I could probably start with the bridge as the main part and use the main part as the bridge. Hank Williams had done that once with the song ‘Lovesick Blues,’ but as much as I thought about it, the idea didn’t amount to much and thinking about the song this way wasn’t healthy. I felt like it was fine the way it was—didn’t want to lose myself in thinking too much about changing it. Danny was struggling to help me make this song work and he had the confidence to try anything. He cared a lot. Sometimes I thought he cared too much. he would have done anything to make a song happen—empty the pans, wash dishes, sweep the floors. It didn’t matter. All that mattered to him was getting that certain something and I understood that.”
Dylan may have won the battle in having the last word by not including “Series of Dreams” on Oh Mercy, but Lanois won the war with the song’s inclusion on The Bootleg Series and the subsequent music video. The song has been recognized as a highlight of their collaboration. An indication of the song’s impact can be seen in its use as a needle drop in the 2007 HBO series John from Cincinnati:
The show, co-created by David Milch and Kem Nunn, was an esoteric, enigmatic, sometimes inscrutable, and not always successful Christ allegory told through a surfing family and community in Southern California. The use of “Series of Dreams” at the climax of the last episode helps sell the emotional release of the return of two characters who seem to be surfing out of the sky and back to the beach. Would the scene work as well without “Series of Dreams”? Maybe, but it is the exact right song to use at that moment, helping the scene and the television series through Lanois musical sculpture as well as Dylan’s affecting vocals and the enduring mystery of the lyrics.