In 1940, the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin wrote a piece called “On the Concept of History” as he was trying to escape from Vichy France. Within the essay, Benjamin shares a rhyme that was written in the midst of France’s July Revolution of 1830, when it was reported that people had shot at several clock towers across Paris:
Who would have believed it!
We are told that new Joshuas at the foot of every tower,
As though irritated with
Time itself, fired at the dials
In order to stop the day.
This idea of revolutionaries fighting against the day provided the novelist Thomas Pynchon with the title for his 2006 novel, but also provides an opening with which to discuss Bob Dylan’s 1970 song “Time Passes Slowly”:
Cameron Crowe asked Dylan about the song for the liner notes of 1985’s box set Biograph and Dylan provided the following answer:
“There was a play on Broadway, and a producer got hold of me. He wanted me to write the songs for an Archibald MacLeish play, and it was called The Devil and Daniel Webster. Seemed like an interesting idea, so I recorded some stuff based on what he was doing. I recorded ‘New Morning,’ ‘Time Passes Slowly’ and ‘Father of Night.’ So I went up to see Archibald MacLeish with the songs, and with the producer. He lived in Connecticut. Played him the songs, and he liked them all. He thought they would fit perfectly until we got to ‘Father of Night.’ We didn’t see eye to eye on that so I backed out of the production…It was nothing really, kind of like a misunderstanding I suppose.”
Dylan’s short anecdote in 1985 tells of the immediate backstory behind the writing of “Time Passes Slowly” and the eventual recording of New Morning in 1970. But the meeting with MacLeish at that specific time represented a significant moment in Dylan’s life as can be seen by Dylan devoting an entire chapter to the writing and recording of New Morning in his 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One. In the book, Dylan writes that MacLeish wanted him to write a certain type of song for the play. Dylan knew the kind of song that MacLeish wanted; songs akin to what he had composed before his 1967 motorcycle accident. These were songs that had inspired critics and fans to dub him the “spokesman of a generation.” In Chronicles, Dylan describes how that pressure manifested itself as disgust in his own songwriting:
“I’d gone to the piano, composed a few things for the play bearing in mind the titles that were given to me. The play itself was conveying some devastating truth, but I was going to stay far away from that. Truth was the last thing on my mind, and even if there was such a thing, I didn’t want it in my house.”
He describes his pre-motorcycle accident songs as if they are a carcass brought into his home unbidden by the family cat. In Chronicles, Dylan details the lifestyle that he envisions for him and his family at that time:
“I was fantasizing about a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard. That would have been nice. That was my deepest dream…I went into the bucolic and mundane as far as possible. In my real life, I got to do the things that I loved the best and that was all that mattered—the Little League games, birthday parties, taking my kids to school, camping trips, boating, rafting, canoeing, fishing.”
This ideal existence imagined by Dylan represented an escape, away from the deranged fans who were turning up at his house in the middle of the night and breaking in when the family was away as well as from the pressure from the media and music industry. While yearning for this life and feeling a voice-of-age-generation sized burden of expectations, Dylan illustrates the experience of recording the songs written for MacLeish and others:
“I recorded some of the earlier stuff from the MacLeish play that did have melodies and that seemed to go well. Whatever else fit—fragments, tunes, offbeat phrases. It didn’t matter. My reputation was firm in hand—at least these songs wouldn’t make any gory headlines. Message songs? There weren’t any. Anybody listening for them would have to be disappointed. As if I was going to make a career out of that anyway. Regardless, you could still feel the anticipation in the air. When will the old him be back? When will the door burst open and the goose appear? Not today. I felt like these songs could blow away in cigar smoke, which suited me fine. That my records were still selling surprised even me. Maybe there were good songs in the grooves and maybe there weren’t—who knows? But they weren’t the kind where you hear an awful roaring in your head. I know what those kind of songs were like and these weren’t them. It’s not like I hadn’t any talent, I just wasn’t feeling the full force of the wind. No stellar explosions…To be sure, the album itself had no specific resonance to the shackles and bolts that were strapping the country down, nothing to threaten the status quo.”
This mindset that Dylan describes in Chronicles directly is reflected in “Time Passes Slowly.” The song starts with Dylan playing single chords on the piano, before the drums come in as Dylan sings the title of the song in the opening line: “Time passes slowly up here in the mountains.” The rest of the band — such as it is — join in, including bass and electric guitar. There is a laziness to the music in both instrumentation and Dylan’s vocal delivery that match the pastoral feel of Dylan’s words. In the opening verse, Dylan sings:
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream.
Fishing is one of the ”bucolic and mundane” activities that Dylan cites as the important things he should be doing with his family at this time; sitting beside bridges and walking beside foundations could be added to that list as well. Dylan finishes the verse by singing, “Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream,” and he follows that line with an intricate piano fill. The musicians are patient as Dylan completes the fill as if they have all the time in the world. They are taking direction from Dylan as both he and they are “lost in a dream.”
Both the mood of the song and the lyrics show that Dylan himself is attempting to shoot out the clock towers like the agitators during the July Revolution of 1830 in order to stop time. For Dylan, it’s not a revolutionary act, but rather an effort to freeze time, anything that will allow him to retreat from the ordeal of being a public figure as he makes clear in the passages from Chronicles quoted above. The bridge of the song offers further support to Dylan’s desire for withdrawal. He sings:
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere.
Dylan sings of taking the wagon to town and going to the fair, both of which are the types of “bucolic and mundane” activities that would seem to be important to him at this time, but he rejects them outright. Why? He tells us directly: “Ain’t no reason to go anywhere.” Dylan is speaking of an existential rejection of everything. As time freezes so too does the motivation to engage with life in any way. Dylan will take up the removal of time a few years later for the songs on Blood on the Tracks, but that was a narrative device within the songwriting, a way to present a story. Here, Dylan rejects time, relationships, public life, and even art itself. New Morning would be the last full album of original songs by Dylan for several years, barring a few stray recordings, contributions to sessions by friends, and soundtrack work. Dylan has shot out the clock in the tower and stopped the day.
This rejection is mirrored in the music of “Time Passes Slowly.” After the bridge, the instrumental break features a twin guitar solo, both guitars screaming away over the sound of Dylan’s piano. Strangely, there is no fire in this sound, no real soul, merely playing. Dylan takes up the last verse, singing the last last lines at the top of his vocal range, straining hard to hit the notes:
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away.
There is passion and soul in his delivery of these lines, but the song ends with a quick and quiet duet between a single electric guitar player and Dylan on the piano. Dylan repeatedly hits one note on the piano as the guitar bows out. Dylan stops playing and the drummer is left alone, tapping out the rhythm. Slowly, the beat fades away, matching the last two words sung by Dylan. Dylan’s singing and piano playing are engaging throughout the entire song, but as soon as the song is over, we can feel the fade that Dylan sings of in the music. The song feels slight, fulfilling Dylan’s goal for the songs on New Morning to be weightless, light enough that they could be blown “away in cigar smoke.”
Two other versions of “Time Passes Slowly” were released on 2013’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969–1971). The first alternate performance features Dylan playing the song on guitar rather than piano, and he is joined by George Harrison on lead guitar. Dylan and the accompanying musicians provide a series of “la la la”s on the song, echoing the “la la la”s sung by Dylan on “The Man in Me,” another cut on New Morning. These vocal stylings show that Dylan must have been thinking of Van Morrison during the New Morning sessions as Dylan is emulating Morrison’s signature vocal maneuvers. The second alternative version of “Time Passes Slowly” has a full rock sound at times, reminiscent of Joe Cocker’s rendition of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which was released the year before Dylan’s recording. Both of these alternative versions of “Time Passes Slowly” feel like sketches as does the final released version. “Time passes slowly and fades away” sings Dylan, and he ensures that the music matches the words.
A few years later, Neil Young would take up the concept that Dylan offered in the last line of “Time Passes Slowly” with the title of his 1973 release, Time Fades Away. The album featured new original songs recorded live during Young’s disastrous 1973 tour of the United States. Supporting 1972’s album Harvest and its megahit “Heart of Gold,” the tour was doomed from the start. Danny Whitten, Young’s friend and fellow Crazy Horse band member, was so strung out that Young dismissed him from the touring band during rehearsals for the tour. Whitten took Young’s severance money and promptly overdosed and died just before the tour started. As the tour progressed/devolved, Young feuded with the rest of the band over money as well as their inability to achieve the sound that was in Young’s head. The tensions of the tour can be seen in the story that keyboardist Jack Nitzsche would often yell obscenities into his switched-off microphone instead of singing his assigned parts. Drugs and alcohol didn’t help with relations between Young and the band.
With this backdrop, the recording of the title track captures the doom and gloom of the tour’s environment:
A few “whoops” from the audience start off the recording as the band begins to play a ragged, yet still driving rhythm, as if they are running to catch up to each other. The piano captures a pure old West saloon sound. Young sings the first verse:
Too weak to work
One sells diamonds
For what they’re worth
Down on pain street,
“Time Fades Away” was first rehearsed with the band in the week’s after Whitten’s death, so the frustration that Young has with heroin’s hold on his friend must have contributed to the writing of the song, especially “too weak to work.” The first verse also shows the disillusionment of Young’s lifestyle at the time. Here he is coming off a multi-million dollar selling record and the key line in the first verse for the first song on the follow-up album is “disappointment lurks.”
As Young and company come to the chorus, he and the harmony singer never quite match up and sing the lines at the same tempo, creating an off-balance feel for the vocals which mimics the frazzled nature of the instrumentation. The lines of the chorus are as follows:
Son, don’t be home too late
Try to get back by eight
Son, don’t wait
Till the break of day
‘Cause you know
How time fades away.
Time fades away
You know how time fades away.
Young is imagining himself as a teenager, once again living under the roof of a parent who warns him of staying out late. There’s an ominous tone to this message, not so much of a threat of violence from the parent, but rather a cautionary bit of guidance about what might the son encounter in the night. “You know how time fades away,” reminds the parent. This expression hints at the parent’s own aging as if they are saying, “You won’t get this time again.” As Young sings the words, he is considering this exchange as an older person, no longer living at home. He is thinking about the past, knowing that his own time is fading away. Young is not seeking to freeze time as Dylan is in “Time Passes Slowly” but rather he is contending with the loss of time in which “disappointment lurks.”
Throughout the performance, we hear various instruments — steel guitar, harmonica, lead electric guitar — move to the front of the sound as if to take a solo or a fill before wheezing away as if no one has the wherewithal or energy to complete an entire passage. The piano continues the old West saloon riff throughout, pushing the song along. Young and the backup singer return again and again to the chorus as if in desperation. It’s the only thing that they can all hold on to. The vocals become more and more forlorn, “Son, don’t be home too late.” The band and the vocalists are reaching out for anything they can grab ahold of to gain balance. They repeat the phrase “you know how time fades away” over and over again as if they want the concept itself to create equilibrium, but with each line, they lose grasp once again. Young and the band don’t want time to fade away, but with each repetition, they feel the inevitable downward push of time. The song ends and, as the crowd cheers, a voice on the stage can be heard asking, “Is that it?” It’s unclear who speaks those words and what it is in reference to, but it is a fittingly existential question that reflects the meaninglessness of pushing against time.
Desperation can be heard within both “Time Passes Slowly” and “Time Fades Away.” Young is in the midst of a storm, plagued by dissatisfaction and dismay, and yet also reveling in the disillusionment as a fuel in the creation of his music. Dylan doesn’t want fuel and, in fact, wants the opposite. “Time Passes Slowly” is an engaging song with plenty of charm, but, within the song, we can hear his desire for escape. The song illustrates how he is pushing against the pressures he is receiving from all sides and fending off the doom. Dylan is truly against the day, fighting against time in both his life and music.
Photo by Scott Bunn