My Back Pages

Commentary

My Back Pages is perhaps the central song on Another Side. Dylan’s thought processes seemed to have been going through a major transformation during this time, and My Back Pages documents those changes.

Pre-Another Side finds Dylan a very self-assured young man, very opinionated about what is right and what is wrong (as demonstrated, for example, by The Times They Are A’Changin’ and Hattie Carroll). But by Another Side things are not so simple anymore. The world’s problems are no longer so black and white, the answers are not so easy to formulate. There are suddenly many shades of gray.

Dylan tells us in Pages that he finds this new found maturity of thought makes him “younger”, not older. He finds freedom in this new world. The world is too complicated he tells us, there are no answers and there’s not a lot we can do. Maybe we should all have a little fun. I remember reading something, I forget where, about a doctor who said that he found great relief once he realized that he would never be more than a second-rate physician, and there wasn’t anything he was going to be able to do about it. Like Dylan, he too felt a profound sense of relief from this realization.

My Back Pages is a shockingly honest song. Dylan takes a clear-eyed look at his former self, and skewers him with unmercifully. He calls his former-self prejudice, sentimentally romantic, full of himself, simple-minded, dogmatic. We’ve seen Dylan take his shots at others, but never had he taken such ruthless aim at himself.

One theme in Pages that Dylan returns to again and again is his rejection of the idea that he is responsible for any political movement, or that people should look to him for leadership. This idea was hinted at in the earlier songs such as Restless Farewell, and returned forcefully to in Planet WavesWedding Song (“it’s never been my duty to remake the world at large”), and again many years later in Things Have Changed.

Dylan performs Pages often. Fans of the song should track down a readily available compilation bootleg Bathed in a Stream of Pure Heat, which includes a terrific 1997 version of the song. It’s also on the 30th Anniversary Concert.

It should be noted that Dylan frequently changes the order of the verses when he performs the song. He has done the same thing with many of his songs, including Blowing in the Wind and Tangled Up in Blue.

Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett did a pretty cool version.

The Byrds did a jangley cover version.

America, surprisingly, does a nice version.

 

 


Lyrics

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ‘neath heated brow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

1 thought on “My Back Pages”

  1. Avatar

    This is vs 1 before his reflective refrain.

    “Crimson flames tied through my ears”

    I’m thinking this has to do with how certain Dylan was that the ideas he had were true, big T true. His certainty motivated him to set up the following line as a battle strategy against those who thought differently.

    “Rollin’ high and mighty traps”

    Here’s the confidence of youth from that certainty setting up traps for those who didn’t know what he did.

    “Pounced with fire on flaming roads”

    Raw and fiery determination set his course. The strength of his youth dedicated to the journey.

    “Using ideas as my maps”

    He simply let his imagination and belief guide him.

    “‘We’ll meet on edges, soon,’ said I”

    Whether he’s speaking to the enemies of his truth or his fellow travelers doesn’t seem to matter here.

    “Proud ’neath heated brow”

    The heat in his head produced by the crimson flames, fire, and flaming roads.

    The refrain to the verses is the reflection after some time on that road, recognizing that he really didn’t get it after all, or if he did get it, he is less certain that his truth was big T truth, or that he should have brandished his weapons against those who disagreed with him.

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