When Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” first came out in 1964, I wasn’t paying much attention to contemporary popular music. But when I did hear it the first time, even benighted I recognized what a great song it was. I could feel my mind and spirit churning restlessly: the lyrics (which I never had trouble hearing) ostensibly addressed parents and other authority figures, but seemed meant to be heard by me and my peers. It described the dangers of the coming years: conflict and tumult, bubble and ruin, destruction and, finally, the joy of a fresh start. It didn’t say anything (nor did I think) about how, exactly, all this would come to pass. But ye gods, what a stirring (and literate) bugle call…!
I still marvel that the lyrics, and the very title, work at all. The times they are a-changin’ sounds like the malformed offspring of Appalachian corn and parody Italian (The meatballs, they-a so spicy!).
The way things played out over the next few years — around the world, not just in the US — seemed to bear out the song’s prophecies, such as they were. But then, more or less without warning, all the excitement dissipated. Having driven many of us insane, Nixon suddenly was gone. Having reached a plateau, the revolution ran out of gas. Music followed suit; with bubble-gum and disco, the medium’s core felt hollowed out. And since 9/11, oh gods…
On my (rare) pessimistic days anymore, I now imagine that the song sends the opposite message. It seems a lament sung to aging lefties who can find only traces of their own (half-forgotten) idealism in the faces of their kids and their neighbors. People we elected in hopes of turning things around simply haven’t turned out as promised — or, at any rate, as we imagined they promised. The country seems sliding into a slough of suspicion, paranoia, flimsy justifications for militarism, institutionalized intolerance, and careless consumerism.
Luckily, I don’t feel nearly so gloomy on most days: most people are better people than they think they are, or (at any rate) than they will consistently allow themselves to be.
When Dylan’s Love and Theft album came out in 2001 — hailed (like so many of his albums in terms like “He’s back!” — I found myself less than bowled over. But the album has grown on me with replaying. And just like the first time I listened to that album, when I get to the last track* and find an alternate out-of-nowhere take (from 1964, no less!) of “The Times, They Are a-Changin’,” why, my old spirit soars anew.
[Below, click Play button to begin The Times They Are A-Changin' (Alternate). While audio is playing, volume control appears at left -- a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:56 long.]
* Your own copy of the album/CD may not include it; it’s a bonus track on the digital edition.