In 2001, Bob Dylan won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for his prophetic and pessimistic song “Things Have Changed” which was released the previous year as part of the movie Wonder Boys:
The film was an adaptation of a 1995 novel of the same name by Michael Chabon. A “wonder boy” is a “a male child prodigy,” but also the phrase “boy wonder” can be used in a derogatory and insulting manner. Chabon’s novel is the story of two wonder boys. The first is the main character novelist named Grady Tripp, who is a former wonder boy struggling with writing an already 2,611-page manuscript the completion of which is not within sight. The other is his student named James Leer, who Grady has pegged as a wonder boy himself. The novel is a madcap, hilarious romp that tells how Grady finds his way to fulfillment and finding his writing voice.
Chabon’s inspiration for the novel came from his own experience as a former wonder boy. His first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was published in 1988 along with a hearty advance when Chabon was only 25 years old. It took years for Chabon to write his second novel about an architect’s attempts to build the perfect baseball field. Chabon described it as a “big mess of a book” and that he’d written “several thousand pages” before putting it aside without telling his editor and completing Wonder Boys in only a few months. Since baseball figured prominently in Chabon’s unfinished novel, it’s fair to speculate if the concept of writing a book about current and former wonder boys was influenced by the novel and film The Natural. Both tell the story of wonder boy Roy Hobbs, who fought back from tragedy to finally find success in the major leagues while using his self-made baseball bat emblazoned with the word WONDERBOY.
“I learned that Dylan might be interested in contributing an original song… So when I came back from filming in Pittsburgh, Bob came by the editing room to see some rough cut footage. I told him the story and introduced him to the characters. We talked about Grady Tripp and where he was in life, emotionally and creatively. Weeks later a CD arrived in the mail.”
The allure of the project must have been great for Dylan as a former wonder boy himself — first record released at age 21 and bestowed the title of “Voice of a Generation” by age 25 — and, as he got older, a writer who grappled with a sense of purpose and clarity of voice. The song “Things Have Changed” was Dylan’s contribution to the film. The song resonants in many ways as a reflection of Dylan as an artist, especially when compared to a previous song in his catalog, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”:
The song was composed in 1963 when Dylan was a true wonder-boy-age of 22 years old. Its outlook is one of an angry young man who is demanding justice as well as power for himself and his generational cadre. Dylan told Cameron Crowe the following about “The Times They Are A-Changin’” for the Biograph liner notes:
“This was definitely a song with a purpose…I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.”
It is certainly a big song with a big call for change. The perspective of the song is ultimately hopeful, yearning for a utopian ideal that is centered on change for change’s sake. This can be seen as Dylan sings:
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.
Dylan was asked about “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Spin in 1985:
“The times still are a-changing, every day. I’m trying to slow down every day, because the times may be a-changing, but they’re going by awfully fast. ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.’”
This certainly sounds like the response of a middle-aged, recovering born-again Christian! There’s a sense of exasperation from Dylan as he reflects on his younger self. The call for change heard in “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is much more of a rash move for middle-aged Dylan. When considering the song at this point in his life, he quotes 1 Corinthians 13:11 as a rebuke and an urge to put his faith in God during changing times. Dylan might as well be saying to that 22-year old writer calling for change, “Slow down, wonder boy, and take a look at the world around you.”
With the composition of “Things Have Changed” in 2000, Dylan completely left the wonder boy point of view from “The Times They Are A-Changin’” behind. The first line of the song — “A worried man with a worried mind” — is a direct reference to The Carter Family’s “Worried Man Blues,” which chronicles the story of a narrator who has a worried mind, but he says that he “won’t be worried long” since he knows his situation will end with his own death and absolution in the afterlife. Heaven doesn’t seem to be a concern of the narrator in “Things Have Changed”; he’s simply worried because “No one in front of me and nothing behind.” There’s no past and the future for the narrator is awfully bleak. As Dylan sings, he’s “waiting on the laaaaaaaaast train.” Whereas the narrator in “Worried Man Blues” accepts his future and believes in God’s redemption, in “Things Have Changed,” Dylan sings, “Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose.” This narrator too has a belief in the afterlife, a grim one that will merge with present life at any moment.
The pessimism of the person speaking to us in “Things Have Changed” is overwhelming, and that’s only in the first verse. The viewpoint becomes more pronounced In the the chorus as Dylan sings:
People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed.
In these lines, we see a complete reversal and disavowal of Dylan’s younger, wonder boy self in “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. The wonder boy called for times to change as an ideal, but here the narrator rejects that call. Why would you put your faith in others when you know that “People are crazy”? The change that the wonder boy called for came from a set of beliefs or values, a righteousness. By saying, “I used to care” Dylan is uttering the ultimate statement of pessimism in old age, recognizing that he believed in something greater at a younger age. Now, in advanced years staring down a desolate future, “the times they are a-changin’” is transformed to “things have changed.”
Despite the gloomy outlook, there’s plenty of wit throughout the song. Dylan winks at the delivery mechanism for the song when he sings:
This place ain’t doing me any good
I’m in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood.
The characters that inspired the composition of “Things Have Changed” are writers and some have aspirations to work in the film industry and are themselves movie characters. Dylan is himself a writer and a performer who is now writing a song for a movie, planting himself firmly in Hollywood, at least for this moment. Dylan has a wonderful couplet later in the same verse:
Lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too
Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through.
He utilizes the cliché of “water under the bridge” to signify events in the past that are no longer a concern for the narrator, but immediately subverts the cliché by muttering, almost under his breath, “lots of other stuff too.” That offhand, vague hint demonstrates there are plenty of concerns, but he seems too exhausted to reflect on them. He hasn’t moved on from the past so much as not having the energy to even think about the past. He follows that line with “Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through.” A previous Recliner Notes post looked at Dylan’s usage of directing songs to “boys” as a way to draw the audience into a song. Here, he uses the line as if he’s in a club, a “gentlemen’s” club, exclusive only to a group of men. Could it be a reference to Hollywood? The movie industry is certainly a boys club, and Dylan knows that he won’t be working in the milieu for long; he’s “only passing through.”
Dylan’s clever writing continues when he sings:
Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet
Putting her in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street.
These lines continue a history of Dylan using everyday items that one would use to clean up in extended puns and metaphors in his songwriting. See this example from 1965’s “From a Buick 6”:
Well, you know I need a steam shovel mama to keep away the dead
I need a dump truck mama to unload my head.
Or these lines from 1997’s “Million Miles”:
The last thing you said before you hit the street
“Gonna find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet.”
Elvis Costello has been celebrated for his extensive use of puns as part of the verbal dexterity of his songwriting, but he can’t touch Dylan, especially when it comes to cleaning equipment.
The last two verses provide even more nuance to the pessimism displayed by the narrator in “Things Have Changed.” Dylan sings:
I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road
If the Bible is right, the world will explode
I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can.
There’s nothing more bleak than citing a Biblical prophecy for the end of the world. But, how does the narrator greet that apocalyptic vision? “I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can.” His cynical outlook is less concerned with the fate of the rest of the world than with his own inability to be comfortable in his own skin. The water under the bridge and the “other stuff too” makes him unable to keep his own company. These lines reflect the self-disgust of a former wonder boy. Furthermore, in the final verse, the narrator says, “I hurt easy, I just don’t show it.” His shame creates a protective shell which doesn’t allow anyone else into own self. Despite feeling pain, he won’t allow himself to open up to others. Further, he says, “I’m not that eager to make a mistake.” The narrator is unable to share his true feelings, to open up and take a risk because he hurts so easily. This extreme form of self-protection is what’s creating the narrator’s pessimistic outlook. It’s easier for the narrator to push back and expect the worst in others than to open himself up and risk feeling vulnerable and, thus, pain. The narrator has his own set of words to describe this self-protective shield: “I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range.” This barrier allows him to hide in a cynical shell and to distance himself from others. “I used to care, but things have changed.”
“I took him to my warehouse to see all the country music treasures I have…Bob said, ‘Hey, I like that ‘Crow’ song. I might borrow something out of that.’ I said, ‘Well, I probably borrowed it from you in the first place. Go ahead.”
Though “Things Have Changed” has a minor key which aligns well with the narrator’s viewpoint, the song’s rhythm is slightly more up-tempo than the Stuart song as Dylan and the band give it an engaging, barroom shuffle. Dylan himself produced the track after his unsatisfactory experience working with outside producers as previously explored on Recliner Notes. Dylan had a specific sound that he wanted for the song as Chris Shaw, the recording engineer for “Things Have Changed” and later for “Love and Theft”, told Uncut in 2008:
“We did ‘Things Have Changed’ in one afternoon, and when we were done we did a very quick mix of it, and I thought it was just going to be a rough mix to give to Bob who’d maybe give it to someone else… But it turned out that that rough mix ended up being the final mix. And that was pretty funny, because the very last thing Bob did was raise the shaker up like 10db, making it ridiculously loud, and that was the mix he wanted to go with.”
The year after the song’s release when the 2001 Academy Awards aired live on March 25, Dylan was on tour in Australia. He performed “Things Have Changed” from a studio in Sydney. Dylan accepted the Oscar for Best Original Song by saying, “Oh good God, this is amazing.” After thanking Wonder Boys director Curtis Hanson and others, he went on to say,
“I want to thank the members of the Academy who, who were bold enough to, to give me this award for this song, which obviously, a song that doesn’t pussyfoot around nor turn a blind eye to human nature.”
Dylan enjoyed the honor of winning an Academy award. Friend of Recliner Notes Robin Dreyer can attest to witnessing Dylan’s Oscar affixed to the top of an amplifier or displayed on a piano while he performed in Asheville, NC on May 1, 2001. After the release of “Love and Theft” later in 2001, Edna Gundersen of USA Today asked Dylan if he was happy about winning an Oscar, perhaps thinking Dylan would say something about the meaninglessness of award recognition, instead Dylan said:
“In all honesty, if I hadn’t won, it probably would have devastated me a little bit. That’s like the Pulitzer Prize of the entertainment world.”
This a bit of a surprising response coming from a guy who would later skip his own Nobel Prize acceptance ceremony.
“Things Have Changed” was released in 2000 at the dawn of the 21st century. Kid A, an album by Radiohead that was released in October 2000, has often been commended for its prescient look at the reality of 21st century life, one of miscommunication and alienation. While Radiohead deserves that recognition, nobody can top Dylan when it comes to pessimism about the future. As Dylan said in the quote above, “Things Have Changed” does not “turn a blind eye to human nature.” It is reflective of the changes in many personalities as people age, the turn to cynicism for self-preservation and the inability to take risks for ourselves for fear of the potential hurt. With “Things Have Changed” Dylan once again reveals truths about humanity’s character, all wrapped within an alluring barroom shuffle featuring a ridiculously loud shaker. Oscar bait, for sure.
Photo by Scott Bunn