I’m glad you’ve found the site and hope you find at least some things in it worthwhile. Please do comment. There’s a post on each song from New Morning, and I’ve begun to add posts on other albums.

I should say that the overall aim of the site is to present literary interpretations of Dylan’s lyrics. Close, literary analysis is something which doesn’t appear much on the internet or in books on Dylan, yet I can’t imagine I’m alone in regretting this. I can think of just a handful of sites and books I’ve found at all useful. This, then, is an attempt to at least begin to plug what I see as a gaping hole. The focus is on meaning rather than style but I’m not claiming special insight into ‘the meaning’ of the songs. I’m sure there will be other, often better, interpretations. And of course meaning will often be personal for each listener, or perhaps arise from a transcendent beauty, or subtlety, created by the writing, making hopeless any attempt to pin it down.

Nevertheless I think it’s important to get away from those interpretations which assume each song is only about some trivial aspect of Dylan’s life – drugs or meeting Elvis, say. The topics are of much greater import. I’ve tried to show that in many songs the speaker is not Dylan himself, and indeed may be somebody he wouldn’t want to be. These narrators are not to be taken at face value. Like the speakers in most so-called dramatic monologues, they are duplicitous but in a way that the careful listener can see straight through.

An example from outside Dylan’s work which may serve as a model is the narrator in Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Up At A Villa, Down In The City’. Here the narrator, in attempting to show his appreciation for the beauties of nature, unintentionally informs us that his primary concern is with monetary value:

‘The wild tulip, at the end of its tube, blows out its great red bell
Like a thin clear bubble of blood, for the children to pick and sell’

What a shame he included the final clause! In a similar way Dylan often gets his narrators to give things away about themselves. In ‘The Wicked Messenger’, for example, the narrator is clearly untrustworthy when he characterises the messenger as wicked. The narrator comes across as someone with a contemptuous attitude towards the messenger, and fearful of him. How do we know? Because Dylan tells us the messenger came from Eli (God). It’s very unlikely that God’s representative would make a meal out of insignificant things (‘the smallest matter’), or ‘flatter’ his hosts. Far more likely the narrator is trying to turn us against the messenger so that he can continue in his own disreputable ways.

I started with the songs from New Morning, an album of quite amazing lyrical complexity. Ever since I bought it forty-five years ago, I’ve suffered under the illusion that it’s thin both musically and lyrically. Going back to it, I’ve realised how wrong I’ve been. Some of the lyrics seem now to be masterpieces of precision, the thematic richness being disguised by a sometimes extreme simplicity of language. I hope I’ve managed to get across something of Dylan’s skill here.

It’s worth pointing out that the New Morning album – like a number of Dylan’s albums – works as a unified whole (thus exemplifying one of its themes). The same themes are treated in different songs, and very often the exact same words will be used again and again from song to song. Nevertheless the treatment, and the contexts, are so different that it’s quite possible to overlook the thematic connections. I think these connections would be worth a study in their own right. Unfortunately, constraints of time have necessitated my ignoring such inter-connectedness here and instead treating each song as an individual work.

I should say in passing that I hope I don’t come across as some sort of apologist for Christianity, let alone as a religious nutter!  I’m certainly not trying to impose religious interpretations on the songs, and it was surprising to me when some seemed open to such interpretation – especially where an album precedes Dylan’s ‘born again’ period. If anything I’ve said seems way off, please do say!

David Weir


You’re A Big Girl Now

The song comprises the narrator’s thoughts throughout. It’s one side of an imagined conversation in which he tries to get a former lover to return. It’s clear from the references to her that she is coping far better than he is. He reveals his surprise at her walking out, the suffering it’s causing him and his refusal to accept it’s over.

The Narrator’s Language

  1. Cliché

A curious thing about this song is its unashamed use of cliché in just about every line.  The usage can be seen as distancing the author, Dylan, from the narrator. Stock expressions are a sign of the shallowness of the narrator’s thinking. They also betray his penchant for self-pity, self-deceit, misplaced self-confidence, and either an inability or unwillingness to see why his relationship has failed. These faults are offset by just one clear point in his favour – he admits some of the blame lies with him:

‘I can change, I swear’

Even then we wonder if we can take this at face value. Why hasn’t he changed already if he knows he should? The ‘I swear’ just adds to the uncertainty. Being clichéd, it doesn’t seem heartfelt. In the light of the evidence we can sympathise with the woman for ditching him.

The song begins with stock expressions wholly inappropriate to the situation being described, the break up of the relationship:

‘Our conversation was short and sweet
It nearly swept me off-a my feet’

The conversation may have been short, but it clearly wasn’t sweet. The narrator is just employing any mindless cliché that suggests itself. The second line is not only inappropriate, but heavily ironic as well. The expression to be swept off one’s feet is usually used to describe being unexpectedly enthralled by someone before a relationship gets going. Here, absurdly, it’s being used about the end of the relationship and, just as absurdly, about a conversation rather than about the woman herself. Furthermore, even if one thought the phrase might still apply to the narrator in its usual sense, it’s significant that he says it nearly swept him of his feet. Such an exultant phrase just doesn’t work with ‘nearly’ qualifying it. The effect is both to make the narrator seem ridiculous, and to cast doubt on the level of his commitment to the woman.

At one point the narrator seems aware of his propensity to think in clichés:

‘Love is so simple, to quote a phrase’

However, the awareness suggested by ‘to quote a phrase’ does nothing to exonerate him. As far as I know there’s no such expression as ‘Love is so simple’ but even if there is, he’s hardly quoting. The expression is a further sign of his lack of original thought.

Yet another example of mindless thought involves the stock phrase ‘a change in the weather’:

‘A change in the weather is known to be extreme’

Is it? Any change? The weather presumably represents the change in their relationship. But is that necessarily to be condemned as extreme? The metaphor is an extension of the weather metaphor in the first verse in which the narrator sees himself as ‘back in the rain’, and the woman as ‘on dry land’. The change can’t have been that extreme if she’s emerged without harm.

The choice of expression in the immediately succeeding line is also a giveaway:

‘But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?’

Is that what’s happening – he’s being forced to change his horse? The expression is common enough, but few people would use it in the context of human relationships. Not only does it imply that he’s thinking of the woman in not fully human terms – or he’s accusing her of thinking of him like that – but the analogy itself is inaccurate. While it’s actually absurd to change horses at the most inconvenient point in a journey, it’s not absurd at all to end a relationship some time into it.

  1. Love as A Financial Transaction

While his choice of language betrays the narrator as a shallow thinker, less committed than he’s making out, it also shows him to be bitter. He resents the effort involved in trying to win back the woman. He compares himself to a songbird since, like the bird’s, his efforts are ‘at his own expense’:

‘He’s singing his song for me at his own expense
And I’m just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singin’ just for you’

He’s being disingenuous. His own ‘singing’ is not just for the woman. The woman has no need of him, and his efforts have the sole aim of alleviating his own misery. What gives him away is the word ‘expense’. With its financial connotations it not only implies he resents the effort required to win back the woman, but that he thinks he’s being required to pay more than she’s worth.

Near the end of the song he again uses language appropriate to a financial transaction. This time it’s in response to the idea that she’ll have found someone else:

‘Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh
In somebody’s room
It’s a price I have to pay’

It may not be just one lover he has in mind either, because the phrase ‘somebody’s room’ is ambiguous. In using it, the narrator seems to be implying that the woman has multiple sex partners.  Or he may be accusing her of being a prostitute, just as the narrator in ‘Tangled Up In blue’ seems to do when he wonders if the woman’s ‘hair was still red’. Since he provides no independent support for such aspersions, they can probably be dismissed as slanderous innuendo.

Ironically, if a slur is intended it rebounds. Since his mind has moved from the idea of a woman in somebody’s room, to him having to make a payment, it seems quite likely that in accusing her, he’s unintentionally betraying a tendency of his own to pay for sex.


In each verse apart from the middle one, the narrator dwells on his misery. He’s ‘back in the rain’, he’s singing through tears, he’s having to pay a price, and he’s beset by intolerable pain.

Most pathetic, perhaps, is the deep sigh represented by ‘oh, oh’ in each verse after he’s made some complaint.

It’s while harping on about his misery that he betrays another negative aspect of his character. The fact that he so easily makes us aware of his faults suggests he has little idea of them himself, which in turn suggests that his faults might have been the unwitting cause of the break up as well as preventing his being able to reverse it.

The narrator’s lot is not as bad as he makes out, however. It’s self-pity which causes him to bemoan being ‘in the rain’. It’s self-pity which causes him to imagine the woman is with another man. And in the final verse it’s self-pity which causes him to think that the pain of the break-up is driving him mad:

‘I’m going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts’

But once more he’s being disingenuous. If the pain stops and starts, it can’t be that distressing. It’s enough to make one wonder if it’s genuine at all.

Misjudgement and Self-Deceit

The narrator is guilty of mis-judging the woman:

‘Love is so simple, to quote a phrase
You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days’

It’s ironic that the one attempt he makes at honest praise, is undeserved. Love is not simple. If it were, he wouldn’t be in the mess he’s in. And if love is not simple, she can’t be truthfully said to have known that it is.

Neither could he be learning it, for the same reason. There’s a thin line to be drawn between the narrator’s misjudging his situation and deliberately deceiving himself about it, and there’s no way of telling which is the case here. But since he cannot be learning that love is simple (because it isn’t), he’s guilty either of misjudgement or self-deception when he proudly claims to be learning it, and humbly implies that he needs to. His pride and humility are misplaced.

One gets the impression he’s enjoying looking for sympathy, making his lot seem as bad as possible. Is he really so upset about the loss of the woman, or is he just deceiving himself about his desire for her? As we’ve seen, that his pain ‘stops and starts’ suggests it might be deception. The focus on pain suggests that he wants her as a way of easing his misery, but there’s little to suggest he wants her for herself. Similarly his use of ‘expense’, ‘price’ and ‘pay’ in connection with her suggests a lack of true feeling, as does his prefixing ‘swept me off-a my feet’ with ‘nearly’. But there’s more. The bird to which he compares himself is ‘sitting on a fence’ – and to sit on the fence is to be undecided about whether something’s good or bad. In comparing himself with the bird, he may be unconsciously admitting that he has doubts about the worth of the relationship, while continuing to deceive himself that that’s not the case.

Narrator’s Inadequacy

When the narrator bemoans:

‘Oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last’

he’s presumably voicing regret at their not being able to enjoy doing again the sorts of things they once did together. What’s telling is that the regret about the future is expressed by way of reference to the past. He offers no indication about how their future together might be an advance on the past. For someone who is supposed to be learning that love is simple, he seems to have made little progress. It seems ludicrous to appeal to their past together when it was in the light of their past together that the woman left him.

There’s another complaint that makes him look inadequate:

‘Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast’

For someone in control of their life, time doesn’t move too fast. In saying that it does, the narrator succeeds only in drawing attention to his inadequacy. A further reference to time contrasts him in this respect with the woman. Having declared, albeit wrongly, that love is simple, the narrator says:

‘You’ve known it all the time …’

thereby indicating that time has never got the better of her.


Another fault in the narrator’s character is a tendency to be patronising:

‘And you are on dry land
You made it there somehow‘

The ‘somehow’ implies that he wouldn’t have thought her capable of surviving the end of the relationship. It’s an odd thing to say, since the very fact that she has survived is enough to prove him wrong. Why admit he’s a bad judge of character?

And the line which immediately follows:

‘You’re a big girl now’

is likewise belittling. It’s the sort of expression a parent would use to a child – inappropriate between adults at any time, unless used ironically, but doubly so when of the two of them, the woman is clearly the more mature.

The patronising attitude continues in verse three:

‘I can change I swear
See what you can do’

The implication is two-fold. First, it’s that she’ll find it harder to change than he will, presumably because she’s got less willpower. Secondly, it’s that she needs to change. We’re given no evidence in support of either.


‘I can make it through
You can make it too’

It’s as if she needs encouraging due to a lack of self-belief. This is fantasy, as is the implication that the opposite is true of him. In patronising her, he’s demeaning her, for it seems very unlikely that she really is the less self-confident of the two. His earlier references to ‘rain’, ‘tears’, ‘pain’, and his thought about her having found someone else, all suggest the contrary – that he feels the need to boost his own self-belief. But to achieve this end, it seems, he’s prepared to demean her.


Totally oblivious to how his thoughts betray his character, the narrator comes off badly. The song is more than a condemnation of a weak character, though. It presents us with a picture of complexity, pointing out how human nature can comprise a wealth of even negative traits. In the song these range from shallow thinking, extreme self-pity, self-deceit, mis-judgement, complaining, bitterness, misplaced self-confidence, condescension, slander and a failure to recognise one’s own responsibility for how things turn out. In making it seem plausible that so many diverse traits can co-exist in a single individual, the song enables us to see the sort of complex richness of character which can lie hidden beneath the human exterior.

Simple Twist Of Fate


At first the song seems to be about just one, brief relationship. The narrator and a woman are romantically together sitting in the park or walking by the canal. They spend the night together in a hotel, but she leaves him before he wakes up. He looks for her, fails to find her and ends up accepting it.

A second, and more plausible, interpretation requires more detail.  It has the narrator’s mind moving haphazardly from his time with the woman in the park, to a time either with a prostitute in a brothel, or on a one night stand in particularly sleazy hotel. For simplicity I’ll assume the former. While he’s attending to his own desires there, the woman he’s romantically attached to is acting selflessly, giving money to a blind beggar. At some stage he loses the woman he feels a romantic attachment to, and proceeds to search for her. A major issue of the song is the extent of his commitment to finding her, and the significance of this for his wellbeing.


The narrator is a hopelessly inadequate character who deceives himself into thinking he’s the victim of fate. He seems to do little to help improve his lot, but simply hopes for something fortuitous to happen. He either waits:

‘… once more for a simple twist of fate’,

the ‘once more’ making it plain that inactive waiting is his approach to life, or he:

‘… watched out for a simple twist of fate’.

Fate is his excuse. He blames fate for his being overcome by lust – ‘the heat of the night’ – and when he suffers feelings of regret for this, his response is no more than to wish that things had gone differently. He relies on the woman he’s looking for in verse five to ‘pick him out again’, rather than making efforts to join up with her. And in the end he gives in to failure blaming it on something as irrelevant as the time of year he was born.

The contrasting behaviour of the woman of verse two provides a foil against which the narrator’s inadequacy is made clear. Unlike the narrator she’s selfless and active. She gives money to a blind beggar, and doesn’t let chance events destroy her life. She:

‘… forgot about a simple twist of fate’.

The twist of fate she forgot about is presumably the narrator’s entering her life. Having actively taken the decision to leave him, she puts him out of her mind. In so doing, she’s able to lead a more fulfilled life.


The narrator’s life is presented as seedy. He remembers going into ‘a strange hotel’ – presumably a brothel. That he ‘stopped’ into it reminds us that in Tangled Up In Blue the narrator ‘stopped’ in for a beer (or so he tries to convince us) at a ‘topless place’. To this extent it would seem it’s in the same narrator describing the same events.1

There’s no clear time when the brothel visit occurs. We just know that he’s remembering it. But it’s made to seem as if it takes place at the same time as the woman he was with in the park selflessly gives money to the beggar. Whether that’s before or after they’ve met doesn’t matter – it could be either. What’s more important is that the juxtaposing of their contrasting approaches to life helps bring out the worthlessness of the narrator’s. We’ve already been made to feel what he’s lost – a happy, romantic relationship, symbolised by the walk along ‘the old canal’. What could have been, is contrasted with what is. Had he adopted a more mature outlook, the spark of love which causes his bones to tingle could have been fanned into a deeply loving relationship.

Instead his life is characterised by a different sort of fire representing a different sort of love. The ‘hotel’ – he can’t bring himself to admit what it is – has a ‘neon burning bright’. Just as Blake’s tyger, also ‘burning bright’, is a product of hell, so is this place. Its seediness is enhanced by noise – the presumably sleazy sound of a saxophone – and intimations of violence when the light is described as having ‘bust’ through a ‘beat-up’ shade. The harsh alliteration emphasises the garishness of the light, creating a contrast with the romantic (though ominous) darkening of the evening sky as he sits with the woman in the park. The contrast helps emphasise the emotionally destructive nature of the narrator’s way of life.

Waking Up

There are a number of ambiguities over the narrator’s waking up.  There are two references to this, one in verse three:

‘… where he was waking up’

and the other in verse four:

‘He woke up …’

In neither verse are we told where he is, or who he’s been with. We don’t even know whether the verses are alluding to the same or different occasions. Nevertheless, in verse three he’s most likely to be in the brothel while the woman from the park is up and about, leading a more purposeful life. In verse four, the emptiness which the narrator feels could be because he realises, on finding the prostitute gone, that his debauched lifestyle is worthless. At the same time it could be because he misses the woman from the park who has just left him.2 Since either interpretation is plausible we can accept both.

This ambiguity over which woman is being referred to is developed in verse five. The narrator seems to be confusing the two women in his mind. We’re told that:

‘He hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in’

But who is he hunting? It seems unlikely to be the prostitute, since his concern is for the woman he was with in the park.  But if it’s the woman from the park, it seems odd that he goes to the docks. That’s where prostitutes are likely to be found.

The ambiguity over which woman he’s searching for suggests that the narrator is unable to separate the two women in his mind. He wants to focus on one, but ends up focusing on the other. He wants the woman from the park and sets about searching for her, but ends up going where he’ll find the prostitute.

Time Passing

The fifth verse expresses the narrator’s subconscious realisation that his life is going nowhere. Time is passing and nothing is being achieved:

‘He hears the ticking of the clocks’

–  ‘clocks’, not just ‘clock’. While ‘clock’ would have implied his awareness of time passing, the plural ‘clocks’ confirms that it has passed. For him to have heard clocks, he must have  gone from place to place, so hearing different clocks.

That time is passing is further made apparent in the next two lines:

‘He walks along with a parrot that talks
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks …’

The ‘parrot’ is presumably another woman in whom he has no real interest. He hears her voice but has no more interest in what she’s saying than if he were hearing a parrot. On some occasions he walks aimlessly with this woman beside him. On others he attempts to find the woman from the park, but ends up among the prostitutes at the docks. Since it’s unlikely he’d be hunting for one woman with another at his side, we can assume these incidents take place over a period of time.

That time is passing is further implied in the line:

‘Maybe she’ll pick him out again, how long must he wait’

He’s hanging about, hoping to be recognised, depressed by the interminable waiting during which nothing happens.

Third Person v First Person

That the narrator is looking back on his past self as if he’s a different person is made apparent by the use of the third person almost throughout. Exceptions, which all involve a change to the present tense, include the second line of the second verse:

‘A little confused, I remember well’

This establishes that the preceding lines are memories.

The phrase ‘I remember well’ is ironic. He doesn’t remember well. Memories flow confusedly into each other so that it’s often not clear which of the song’s two women he’s referring to. He even confusedly seems to remember entering the ‘strange hotel’ with the woman he’d been sitting in the park with. If the hotel is a brothel, as suggested by the garish descriptions, it seems unlikely he’d be with her. In any case, from the woman’s perspective, the saxophone is ‘far off’.

And the phrase ‘A little confused’ is itself ironic in that it’s intended to refer to his past state of mind, but seems equally to apply to his present one.

A further exception to the use of the third person is the final verse in which the first person is used throughout. In using the first person, the narrator seems to want to give the impression he can look back critically on his past self. The use of the present tense tells us that it’s his current, not his past, outlook which we’re being informed about. So when he says:

‘People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within’,

we know that he’s now endorsing a certain attitude. He’d have us believe he’s now different, wiser, than his former self.

On one level this is wishful thinking. How can it be a sin to feel too much, especially when those feelings are tempered by knowledge? It might seem as if he’s trying merely to accept, rather than get rid of, the ‘emptiness inside’ he feels in verse four.

On another level, though, he is wiser now. If ‘knowing and feeling’ is a matter of purely sexual knowledge and feelings, then in accepting that to be sinful, he’s accepting that he needs to change.

The use of the first person in ‘I lost the ring’ at first does little to convince us that he’s any the wiser now. He didn’t lose it. If the ring represents his chance of marriage, he effectively threw it away. Nevertheless the phrase has a self-recriminatory air, in which there’s a hint of maturity.

Furthermore, it follows the phrase:

‘I still believe she was my twin’

which is itself upbeat, hopeful – suggesting a mature endorsement of an earlier, tentative belief.

There’s a similar ambivalence about:

 ‘She was born in spring, but I was born too late’

At first the narrator might seem just to be finding an excuse for his own failings. Since he’s is aware of ‘the ticking of the clocks’ – time passing – he knows his problem is not so much having been born late, but having squandered the time he’s had.

Nevertheless, the beginning of the line suggests a more mature outlook. Spring is the time of rebirth. If she was born in spring, and he is indeed (albeit metaphorically) her twin, then it follows that he too was born in spring. In recognising this, he’s acknowledging the present reality of his spiritual rebirth.


Spring, as a representation of spiritual rebirth, is not the only use of a religious idea in the song.

Religious imagery is used to reflect the pointlessness of the narrator’s earlier outlook. The woman, we’re told:

‘… dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate’

The line seems to conflate at least three gospel stories – Jesus healing a blind man, the poor widow contributing her mite, and Jesus’ reference to himself as the gate to redemption (Mark 8:14-21 and 12:41-44, and John 10:1-10 respectively). Accordingly, the woman provides a contrast with the narrator. By sacrificing her money, and in being kind to the blind man, she not only redeems herself but takes on a Christ-like role. Her act of kindness, like Christ’s, becomes an example to the blind man, so that he might redeem himself. And just as she represents Christ, so the blind man can be taken as representing the narrator whose eyes, metaphorically, need opening. The woman is the narrator’s redeemer.

The woman’s Christ-like role is in evidence again in verse five. Just as Jesus hand-picked his disciples at the edge of the sea of Galilee, so the narrator is hoping the woman will ‘pick him out again’ at the docks. The suggestion seems to be that there’s some spiritual hope for the narrator. Again, in saving him from his dissolute lifestyle, the woman will be his redeemer.


The narrator thinks he’s fated. There’s little sign of his taking control of his life, or of his even being able to. He regrets his current dissolute ways, but his attempt at reviving a loving relationship seems to lead him back to the same starting place. Time is moving on and he’s getting nowhere.

He’s only partially right, however, and he seems to be dimly aware of this. The woman he really wants can save him from himself. As such she plays a Christ-like role in his life. His mere desire for her is already his salvation. In wanting her, and what she stands for, he sees himself as just like her, his ‘twin’, so that the similarity he brings about between them makes him as much his own saviour as she is.

Time passing with nothing being achieved is, then, only half the story. The narrator’s life can be viewed as much from an eternal as from a temporal perspective, as indicated by events not being assigned a clear time or order. From this eternal perspective, what the narrator wants he has already succeeded in bringing about.


  1. Another reason for associating the narrator of this song with that of Tangled Up In Blue is his feeling a spark ‘tingle to his bones’. The association of tingle and tangle suggests that this song is providing a reason for the narrator’s state of mind in the earlier song.
  2. It’s pertinent that on finding himself alone the narrator ‘told himself he didn’t care’. This can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, if it’s the woman he was with in the park who’s gone, it seems consistent with his character – he’d rather deceive himself than admit that he’s suffered loss, even if it means refusing to accept that he feels empty as a result. On the other hand, if it’s the prostitute who’s gone, his not caring might be seen as genuine and thus represent a step towards salvation.



Tangled Up In Blue


This is an extraordinary song – a surface simplicity disguising a vast web of interconnections made possible by the extreme economy of language. The song seems to have been inspired by events in Dylan’s life – the circumstances of his first marriage and its break-up. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to say it’s about Dylan or those events. The narrator is a flawed character who might easily be anyone.

On first listening, the events of the song seem straightforward. The narrator is reminiscing about a woman he knew. His mind goes back over incidents connected with her, including their first meeting, and their subsequent splitting-up. He returns to describing his first encounter with her in a strip club, her giving him Dante to read, and his living with her and her husband in Montague Street until a disaster results in his departure. The final verse has him claiming that he’s going to get back with her.

This account is far too simplistic. A closer listening reveals all sorts of uncertainties about what happens, when it happens, and who is involved. In particular, we don’t know whether the narrator is reminiscing about one woman or many, while normal distinctions between one person and another, and those between different times, are elided. These uncertainties, together with the narrator’s disingenuousness, allow for an alternative interpretation to the one above according to which the narrator becomes a self-deceiving philanderer, hurtful to others and himself, and maybe destined never to achieve happiness. At the same time the uncertainties enable us to see what it would take for him to acquire happiness for himself and others.

The post is long and is divided into six parts:

  1. Religious Imagery
  2. The Woman
  3. Time
  4. Identities
  5. Disunity
  6. The narrator’s character

Part 1

Religious Imagery

That there’s an alternative to the narrator’s way of life, one which would enable him to acquire happiness for himself and others, is hinted at in the religious imagery that runs through the song.

The imagery begins with the mild imprecation ‘Lord knows’.

The narrator is then associated with those called by Christ to be disciples by becoming a fisherman. There’s no indication that he’s about to become a ‘fisher of men’ (Matt 4.19) in Christ’s sense, though. The reference to slaves and the narrator’s shadowy lifestyle suggest the opposite.

That he’s fishing ‘outside of Delacroix’ is significant for both the name of the town and the narrator’s choice of language.  The name means ‘of the cross’. But that he’s fishing ‘outside of’ Delacroix’ suggests he cannot be associated with the act of redemption which Christ’s cross represents. Furthermore, the slightly awkward expression ‘outside of’ is taken up later when we’re told that:

‘… something inside of him died’

It’s because he is blind to the spiritual significance of the cross, that he becomes spiritually dead.

By the fourth verse the narrator is being associated with Christ himself:

‘… I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe’

This is clearly a reference to John the Baptist’s remark concerning Christ: ‘One who is more powerful than I am is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals’ (Mark 1.7). The narrator has good reason for feeling uneasy; any implied compliment is undeserved. His outlook is the opposite of Christ’s. It may be significant that his laces get tied, rather than untied, though. It might suggest the woman sees him as the moral opposite of Christ, a further reason for uneasiness.

The final verse has the narrator deprecating ‘carpenters’ wives’:

‘I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives’

The comment represents an ironic judgment on the narrator given the achievement of the most renowned of all carpenter’s wives. The implication is that there are people he’d do better to emulate than to criticise.

Taking the images together, it’s clear what the narrator needs to do. In Christian terms, he needs to find spiritual happiness by giving up his present way of life and adopting a more purposeful existence in which he has more consideration for others.



The starkest religious imagery concerns hell – the narrator’s destiny, in a manner of speaking, if he doesn’t adopt a more honest outlook.

This imagery occurs in connection with the book offered to the narrator, apparently Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. On one level, what the narrator becomes aware of is the first part, the Inferno, which provides a description of hell. The words, we’re told:

‘… glowed like burnin’ coal’

They also ‘rang true’, although he doesn’t say in what way, merely that the words were:

‘Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you’

The full significance of the second line will be addressed later. For the present it’s sufficient to note that the narrator sees the text as applying to him personally. In verse two we find that the narrator embarks on a relationship with a married woman. It may be that this relationship results in the destruction of the woman’s marriage. If so, the hell imagery might be seen as suggesting the spiritual consequences of embarking on such a relationship. In handing him the book, the woman of verse five not only makes him aware of his likely spiritual destruction, but of the woman’s (hers, perhaps) too. She’s perhaps warning him that they’re both on a path to damnation.

While the text seems to condemn the narrator, his condemnation is not final. The words, in being described as ‘pouring’ off the page, are made to seem like water. Thus they are being associated with baptismal renewal. In opening the narrator’s eyes to the consequences of his immoral behaviour, they can be instrumental in bringing about that renewal.

Just as the Dante text has two roles, so does the woman. She is the source of temptation, symbolically represented at the beginning of verse five:

‘She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe’

But, in providing the Dante text, she’s also potentially a source of spiritual renewal. This is significant because it suggests the narrator’s search for her at other points in the song represents a search for such renewal. Just as Dante in the Divine Comedy began by being infatuated with a woman, Beatrice, who later came to represent spiritual fulfilment, so the woman here has a role to play in the spiritual life of the narrator. She is the narrator’s Beatrice.

Part II

The Woman

On the surface there appears to be just one woman alluded to throughout the song – and one can assume that that therefore is what the narrator wants us to believe. Nowhere does he commit himself to there being more than one, no name is used, and his use of language – ‘she’/ ‘her’ – implies just one. However, there’s no reason why the song can’t concern several – one with red hair, one who is married in verse two, the woman he always remembers in verse 3, the stripper, the woman who hands him the Dante, the one he lives with in verse six, and the ‘her’ he wants to ‘get to’ in verse seven.

That his relationships are with different women is further supported by the narrator’s comment:

‘I seen a lot of women’.

Furthermore, the apparent snobbish outlook of the woman’s parents in the opening verse doesn’t quite fit with their daughter’s being a stripper. Neither does being a stripper obviously fit with being a reader of Dante. Neither does that woman’s comment:

‘I thought you’d never say hello’

obviously match the fact that he mumbled a reply to the woman who approached him (in verse 4). Again, the woman of verse two refers to meeting again ‘on the avenue’. No such meeting on an avenue occurs. The narrator lives with a woman ‘on Montague Street’ – but since he didn’t meet her there, and since streets aren’t avenues, it seems unlikely it’s the same woman. (On the other hand, that it’s Montague Street may be significant.  Perhaps, like Juliet on discovering Romeo is a Montague, we can ask ‘What’s in a name?’ On the basis that one person’s ‘street’ is another person’s ‘avenue’, the uncertainty about whether the narrator meets different women is re-instated.) It’s noticeable, too, that the narrator wants merely to ‘get to’ the woman in verse seven, not get back to her. This too implies that more than one woman is involved.

Hiding the fact that there are several women enables the narrator to cover up his philandering. An additional benefit, from the listener’s perspective, comes from its becoming possible to take an apparent reference to a particular woman as a reference to two different women with whom the narrator is in different types of relationship. One relationship might justify moral censure, and the other be totally innocent. Such a case presents us simultaneously with two different paths the narrator’s life might have taken.

For example, when the narrator says in verse six:

‘I lived with them on Montague Street’

we’re likely to assume that the narrator lived with a married woman and her husband in Montague Street.  This would be the married woman referred to in verse two. But ‘them’ could equally refer to the narrator’s parents who’ve been alluded to in the first verse. It could even refer to the woman’s parents – her ‘folks’, also mentioned then.

The case presents us simultaneously with two different paths the narrator’s life might have taken – living blamelessly with his parents or her parents, or living with a couple and (on the evidence of the second verse’s reference to his relationship with a married woman) causing their marriage to fail.

Part III


If, as suggested, what seems to be a reference to a woman is a simultaneous reference to two women, it’s likely that different times will be being alluded to. If verse six concerns both the narrator’s mother during his childhood and a woman in whose house he was living as an adult, then the times involved will be many years a part. This requirement for a verse not to allude to one time rather than another is a general feature of the song.

Another example can be drawn from the final verse which might seem to imply that the narrator has decided on contradictory courses of action. Whether this is the case will depend on whether events alluded to in the present tense are to be taken as occurring in the present. If they are, then we’re forced to criticise the narrator for forming contradictory intentions, or for ignoring an intention which had only just been made.

The verse begins:

‘So now I’m goin’ back again’

The natural thing would be to assume that the word ‘now’ simply refers to the time at which the narrator is telling us he’s ‘going back again’. The trouble with this assumption is that what follows seems to contradict it:

‘… I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint’

The assumption requires that the narrator sees himself either as performing actions which are incompatible with one another or that, without seeming to notice, he’s vacillating between one course of action and another. At the very least the first alternative would make him irrational, and the second insufficiently in control of his behaviour.

But there’s another possibility. Even though the two quotations are expressed in the present tense, it’s not obvious that they both (or either of them, even) should be taken as referring to the present. The ‘now’ of the first quotation could easily refer to a past occasion of returning. ‘Now’ could simply be being used colloquially to refer to the time immediately following whichever events the narrator had just been thinking about. On that account there is no reason to accuse the narrator of either irrationality or a lack of control.

Since there is no way of deciding between the alternative possibilities, there is nothing determinate we can conclude about the narrator’s rationality or self control. The most we can say is that looked at one way what he says makes him irrational or lacking control of his mind, but looked at another way it doesn’t. This reflects other uncertainties in the song which in turn reflect the moral choices open to the narrator.


The Order of Events

It’s not just when things happen that’s uncertain. On certain interpretations the order of events is unclear. Almost any event can be viewed as occurring after any other with the result that the narrator is locked into any one of a series of cycles of events.

Accordingly, even after the final verse, his decision to get back with the married woman is going to precede the marriage and further divorce referred to in previous verses.

The reason being locked into an interminable cycle of similar events – marriage and divorce – becomes possible is that the narrator has relationships with ‘a lot of women’. Had he had been satisfied with one woman, as he pretends, the miserable cycle of marriage and divorce would have been avoided. The word ‘divorce’ in the second verse could not have applied to his relationship (in the way that I argue it might, below), as well as to the marriage of the woman and her first husband, but just to the latter.

Part IV

Other Identities

Identity is a theme of the song. Various characters are implicitly identified one with another. One effect is to show how one treats others is effectively how one treats oneself.

The Narrator and the Husband

The language of verse six is mysterious. We’ve been told:

‘I lived with them on Montague Street

Then he started into dealing with slaves’

We need to know who ‘them’ and ‘he’ refer to. There are a number of possibilities. It could be that the narrator is living with a woman and her husband on Montague Street. ‘Them’, then, would refer to the couple, and ‘he’ to the husband. Or it could be that the narrator is remembering his childhood on Montague Street, so that ‘them’ is his parents, and ‘he’ his father. Or, again, the narrator could be living with his in-laws, or in-laws-to-be.1

There’s another possibility. In a number of places, the narrator tries to distract attention from his own wrongdoing, and it’s quite possible he’s doing that here by referring to himself in the third person. He, then, is the one who dealt ‘with slaves’. (It’s unclear what ‘dealing in slaves’ means – perhaps a deliberate cover-up by the narrator. Since on his own admission he’s ‘seen a lot of women’ a possibility would be sexual slavery.) So, by using ‘he’ instead of ‘I’, he’s able to cope with the enormity of his crime by seeing it as someone else’s doing.

There’s a further effect, however. On the assumption that the narrator is living with a married couple, it might seem that the narrator is in part responsible for the break-up of their marriage. Assuming it’s the same woman who:

‘was married when we first met, soon to be divorced’,

 it might well be that by living with them, the narrator has come between them.

But if the narrator later marries the woman, and so becomes her husband, then, in destroying the husband’s marriage, there’s a sense in which he’s destroying his own marriage. The later husband and the earlier husband are one and the same.

By allowing the narrator and the husband to be seen as identical, the song elides the distinction between one person and another. Individuals, it seems to be suggesting, are not so separate from other individuals that one can harm them without harming oneself.

That the narrator’s selfish behaviour rebounds on him in this way is borne out in verse two, when we’re told:

‘She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced’

We know from the reference to ‘our lives together’ in verse one that the narrator and the woman may well have got married. Accordingly, ‘soon to be divorced’ can just as much apply to the woman and the narrator as to the woman and her first husband. The identity of the narrator and the husband means that the divorce of the one is the divorce of the other.

The Narrator and the Women

Just as the narrator and the husband are treated as identical, so certain of the women mentioned – perhaps all – are identical with the narrator.

An identity becomes apparent between the narrator and the woman of verse six when the narrator follows up his remark that:

‘she froze up inside’

by saying that he, the narrator,

‘became withdrawn’.

Freezing up and becoming withdrawn more or less amount to the same thing.

What this identity between the narrator and woman shows, and what the narrator needs to recognise, is that by leaving, and so not accepting his responsibilities to the woman at the end of verse six, he is effectively failing in his responsibilities to himself.

Despite these indications of unity between the narrator and the woman, the narrator only dimly recognises it. At the end of the song he remarks:

 ‘We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view’

Here he recognises only that there’s an identity of feeling between him and a woman, so that it seems to him they can remain disunited with respect to their points of view. Were he to fully recognise their unity, there’d be no difference in perspective to undermine it. And hence their unity in marriage would be a success.


In the fourth verse, identity between the narrator and the stripper becomes apparent as a result of their similar behaviour. The narrator tells us he:

‘… just kept lookin’ at the side of her face’,

whereas she

‘… studied the lines on my face’

We might take this studying the lines on his face as a reversal of verse five. There the narrator studies the text provided by the woman. In verse four it’s the stripper who studies a text provided by the narrator.

On this basis, the relationship between the narrator and this woman is reciprocal. They each provide instruction for the other, and in so doing they both benefit from the other’s instruction. In this sense they are not to be distinguished from each other.

The Woman and her Husband

Just as the identity of the narrator and the stripper is made apparent by them both looking at the other’s face, so the identity of the woman and her husband in verse six is made clear by their similar responses to the latter’s slave dealings:

‘Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside

Each suffers on the ‘inside’ – spiritually, or morally – due to the behaviour of just one of them. The moral death of one, it seems, is the moral death of both.

Part V


Disunity too is a theme of the song. Just as a woman can be two or more different women, and one time can be both an earlier and later time, so the narrator can be seen as having divided himself into two.

In using the third person ‘he’ to refer to himself in verse six, the narrator seems to be artificially dividing himself into two so that he doesn’t have to admit responsibility for his actions. But this is not the only occasion he might be resorting to such division. He does it again immediately after describing the effect on him of the Dante text. For the only time in the song he uses the second person ‘you’:

‘And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you

There are three obvious possibilities about who he’s using this ‘you’ to address. It could be the person being addressed by the song as a whole. Apart from the listener, there’s no indication about who this might be, though.

A second possibility is that reading the words has had a profound effect on his attitude to women. Instead of objectifying the woman as ‘she’, he now engages with her, using ‘you’.

A third, and perhaps more likely possibility is that he’s addressing himself. There’s an obvious absurdity about speaking to oneself. In doing so, the narrator would be artificially dividing himself in two.  By treating himself as another person in this way he can distance himself from the warning represented by Dante’s words, as if they are applicable to someone else rather than himself.

A comparable division of himself into two would explain what might otherwise appear to be an inconsistency in the final verse. On the one hand the narrator seems determined to find the woman again:

‘So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow’

But on the other he tells us:

‘… I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint’

Part of him seems committed to finding the woman, and another part to continuing to wander aimlessly.2

Part VI 

The Narrator’s Character

So far the narrator has seemed untrustworthy. He is happy to give the impression he’s faithful to one woman when more likely he’s been in pursuit of several, and it’s far from clear that he’ll adjust his behaviour in the light of the shock he receives on reading Dante.

At face value, and assuming the most straightforward interpretation of events, the narrator comes across as heavily flawed in other ways too. He’s too ready to blame others, and criticise them, yet makes light of his own failings. He wants our sympathy and respect, but says little to show he deserves either. He acts irresponsibly and perhaps criminally, while carefully choosing his words so as to appear innocent. It’s difficult not to be suspicious about several things he says. And, on one interpretation, having taken a decision he fails to act on it. I’ll take each of these characteristics in turn.


Blames Others

Like many of Dylan’s narrators, this one is not to be trusted. It’s clear he tries to divert away from himself blame for the failure of his relationship. He wonders if the woman has ‘changed at all’ – implying, perhaps, that she needed to change. And in wondering if her hair is ‘still red’, he may also be implying that the relationship failed due to her promiscuousness – that she’s a scarlet woman. The doubt about whether her hair is still red reflects our doubt about whether the narrator can bring himself to give up a rakish existence.

In a similar way, he has no compunction about attributing the failure of the relationship to the woman’s parents. He casts them as snobbish:

‘They never did like Mama’s homemade dress’

His criticism of others is in evidence again at the end of the song. Here he ends up disparaging people who’ve made a success of their lives, at least compared with him:

‘Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives

I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives’

Such criticism seems not only harsh, but hypocritical when he can say no more for himself than that he’s:

‘… on the road
Headin’ for another joint’!


Makes Light of his Failings

While he’s ready to criticise others, he doesn’t judge himself by the same high standards. Rather, he makes light of his own failings. This is not to say he doesn’t see the need for self-criticism. He’s prepared to admit he used:

‘a little too much force’

– presumably in getting the married woman of verse two to leave her husband. But the phrase seems designed to distract attention from what was inappropriate in his behaviour – that he was using force at all. In addition, the use of ‘a little’ suggests he’s trying to minimise the amount of blame due to him for what followed – his short-lived marriage.

Another attempt to make light of what he’s doing occurs in the fourth verse:

‘She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer’

For a beer! Not to look at the topless women, then? And was it really just the ‘side of her face’ that he kept looking at?


Wants Sympathy

Not content with making light of his failings, the narrator makes a number of attempts to get our sympathy. One attempt is his allusion to the woman’s parents. Immediately that attempt is followed up by another. Despite its being irrelevant to anything he’s said so far, he refers to:

‘Rain fallin’ on my shoes’

and tries to elicit further sympathy with the exclamation:

‘Lord knows I’ve paid some dues …’.

The complaints seem trivial. He gives us no good reason for either. Rain is easily avoidable, and ‘dues’ are simply what one has a duty to pay.

Perhaps so that he doesn’t seem to be complaining too much, he attempts to present himself in a favourable light. He takes a job, he says, in the ‘great north woods’. That sounds fine, but why’s it necessary to describe the woods as great? He seems to be hoping that in the listener’s mind the epithet ‘great’ will get transferred to him. And when he gets sacked, he’s back to eliciting sympathy. We’re to see the sacking not as something he brings on himself, but something which just happens:

‘… one day the axe just fell


Guarded Choice of Expression

At certain points in the song, the narrator seems suspiciously guarded in his language. Like his sacking, he presents his employment in New Orleans as something which just ‘happened’. But why? Why doesn’t he want credit for getting the job?

One suspects that he has an ulterior motive for his choice of expression. He could be trying not to appear culpable. What he might be guilty of is unclear, but his later cryptic reference to ‘dealing with slaves’ might be connected. Here too, he can be interpreted as trying to avoid an appearance of culpability, by putting the guilt on someone else:

‘… he started into dealing with slaves’

His apparently innocent comment:

 ‘… she never escaped my mind’

actually supports the view that he was enslaving women. It suggests the woman did escape, but in some other way – physically. And that in turn suggests she’d been his captive. In what sense he makes women captive doesn’t become clear, but it might be reflected in his more general attitude towards women discussed below.


Inconsistency in Language Choice

Further cause for suspicion is created when he refers to:

‘Workin for a while on a fishin’ boat’

The problem lies in the phrase ‘for a while’. One wonders why he needs to add it. There’s no need to mention the time he was on the boat, and by making out it was short – just a while – he again seems to be trying to make light of what he was up to.

That he’s being disingenuous is supported two lines later:

‘… all the while I was alone
The past was close behind’

The phrase ‘the past was close behind’, seems to imply a dishonest past is catching up with him.

Furthermore, this second use of the word ‘while’ in ‘all the while’ seems inconsistent with his earlier use in ‘workin’ for a while’ by making out it was a long time he was alone on the boat. He seems to be attempting to manipulate the reader by making the time seem short when it might appear he was up to no good, and long when there’s a possibility of gaining sympathy.

The episode in the ‘topless place’ provides another indication that he’s been up to no good. When the woman says she might know his name, he’s apparently disturbed to the point of swearing:

‘I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath’

It seems that the last thing he wants is to have been recognised. Why? (Another possibility is that he’s angry that a woman he knows doesn’t recognise him, or is pretending not to.)

In the sixth verse, he again seems to use language manipulatively in order to avoid accepting responsibility for leaving the woman to deal with the disaster herself by saying, not ‘I withdrew’, but:

‘… I became withdrawn’

In so doing, he seems to be trying to get us to believe that his leaving her in the lurch was something which just happened.


Further Inconsistency

Forming inconsistent intentions seems to be another of the narrator’s faults. He claims to have remained constant – to ‘keep on keeping on’ – but in fact does the opposite. ‘Like a bird’ he ‘flew’ (as if behaving like a bird somehow justifies his leaving when he’s needed).

There’s more inconsistency:

‘So now I’m goin’ back again’

he says at the start of the final verse. Why say ‘So …’? It’s a non-sequitur. It implies his going back is a result of a need the woman has which he’s hitherto been unable to do anything about. But that’s blatantly untrue given his flight. He seems to be being disingenuous. The actual reason for his deciding to return is more likely to be that whatever danger he sensed is past, and he can return in safety.

Yet more inconsistency may be in evidence in the final lines. Having apparently just declared his intention to return to the woman, we find him just ‘headin’ for another joint’.


Despite all these flaws in his character, the narrator is not condemned. Given his faults, it might seem in keeping that he should act irresponsibly towards women. While the song seems to imply that his general character represents a drag on his adopting a more responsible approach, and so escaping from a cycle of emotional destruction, it also implies that he could achieve this by being faithful to one woman.


The narrator is a heavily flawed human being and the song leaves us in doubt about his spiritual survival. The temporal uncertainties make it equally possible that he’s faithful to the one woman, or that he’s a philanderer locked into a cycle of misery.

One mistake the narrator makes is to assume too much of a distinction between himself and others. As a result, he fails to realise that in making others victims, he makes himself a victim. In causing a husband to suffer by taking his wife, he brings down similar suffering on himself. The husband and the narrator are effectively one person undergoing marriage and divorce.

Not only does the narrator draw too much distinction between himself and others, but he compounds the error by failing to recognise himself as a unity. Instead of wholeheartedly committing himself to the wellbeing of others, he is able to dissociate himself from his actions, as if they were the doings of someone else. So long as he suffers from this literal lack of integrity, his spiritual doom is sealed.

The song is not just about an imperfect narrator, though. In encouraging the listener to identify one person with another, it becomes clear that the spiritual wellbeing of others is just as much in the balance as the wellbeing of the narrator. Accordingly, just as the narrator can be seen as a present or former philanderer, so can the woman with red hair. And just as he might be set on the road to salvation by reading Dante, so might be the woman by reading the ‘lines’ on his face.

The similarities go further. The similarities between the narrator and others in the song can be taken to represent the similarities between people generally. Thus the narrator is an Everyman character. Uncertainty about his spiritual wellbeing is uncertainty about ours.



1. On this interpretation, ‘them’ in the first quote no longer refers to a couple. It might instead refer back to ‘them words’ – the Dante text – in the line:

  ‘And every one of them words rang true

The narrator would have ‘lived with them’ in the sense of not being able to shut them out of his mind.

2. His aimlessness is apparent early on when he seems to end up at all for points of the compass – the east coast, out west, the great north woods and down to New Orleans.



Identity in Language

The language the narrator uses in referring to the couple he’s living with is that appropriate to a true unity – ‘them’:

‘I lived with them on Montague Street’

 This choice of language contrasts with the language he uses with respect to his own impending marriage to the woman. In the opening verse the couple’s life together is referred to in the plural – ‘lives’:

‘Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough’

In the context of marriage, one would expect him to say ‘our life together’, not ‘our lives’. It is as if he is focusing on himself at the expense of the two of them as a joint entity. The inappropriate wording is made all the more apparent by its being followed by the singular ‘was gonna’ which, when referring to ‘lives’ in the plural, is ungrammatical.

The wording here contrasts with the more natural and grammatically correct use of ‘lives’ in the final verse:

‘I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives’

It’s natural, because the reference is to single people, or those in different marital relationships – ‘mathematicians’ and ‘carpenters’ wives’.

The upshot is that the narrator treats a unity as if it’s not a unity, reflecting the way he treats himself, and things which are not unities as if they are.












Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)

The song concerns a journey. It’s both a physical journey by train and a spiritual one. It begins with the journey underway, goes back to its start in verse six, and ends with the narrator’s arrival at his destination (though not necessarily the right spiritual one). The rest of the song is made up of flash-backs to a previous relationship with a woman which the narrator is attempting to restart. In the process, we glimpse aspects of the narrator’s character which explain why, though the physical journey is completed, the success of the spiritual one is still in the balance.

There is some ambiguity about the woman’s identity:

‘There’s a babe in the arms of a woman in a rage
And a longtime golden-haired stripper onstage’

It’s possible, but not certain, that one or both of these descriptions are of the ‘woman I long to touch’ of the first verse. If so, the woman and the stripper would be the same woman at different stages of her life. We can form a picture of a man, infatuated with a stripper, who goes on to marry her and have a child with her. The rage she’s in follows his infidelity. After their break-up, he tries either to get back with her again, while remembering her as she used to be.

The alternative is that there are two women. Whether there’s in fact one or two may not matter. This interpretation is unavoidably vague – the song omits unnecessary detail.1 What does matter is what we discover about the narrator from his interaction with her or them. For simplicity, I’ll not distinguish between them unless specifically necessary.

Spiritual Journey/Marcel and St John

Despite the narrator’s concern about his relationship, it’s clear he’s also concerned for his spiritual wellbeing. He’s on a spiritual journey, one through ‘dark heat’ – which suggests that until the journey is successfully completed life can be compared with hell. He begins his journey:

‘… with Marcel and St John’

– presumably the French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel and the author of the fourth gospel respectively. (These are described as ‘Strong men belittled by doubt’ – other people’s doubt, one imagines, rather than their own.)

: The explicit reference to Gabriel Marcel acts as a pointer to a major theme of the song. Marcel claims we have come to treat others as subjects rather than objects. We have ceased to see others as ‘thou’ (French ‘tu’), instead objectifying them as he or she. ‘Thou’ is a person I identify with, in a way that ‘he’ or ‘she’ is not.

The idea permeates the song. In the first two thirds or so of the song the woman is referred to distantly in the third person. To the narrator she’s an object – ‘the woman I long to touch’. Apart from a single use of ‘we’ (‘we entirely agreed’) only the refrains which close the fourth and eighth verses represent a departure from the third person:

‘Oh, where are you tonight?


‘Oh, if I could just find you tonight’

This then changes. The final four verses all directly address the woman as ‘you’, our nearest modern equivalent of ‘thou’ or ‘tu’. The narrator is no longer addressing the woman from an emotional distance, or seeing her merely as an object. He now treats her as a person, a subject, the words ‘you’ or ‘your’ occurring eight times while ‘she’ and ‘her’ don’t occur at all.  Further, in the final verse, for the first time, she’s apostrophised as ‘baby’ – a term which, like ‘thou’, implies a closeness.

The narrator’s proclivity not to see people as subjects for the majority of the song reaches its height in verse seven. Here he seems to distance even himself from his own subjectivity in the way he distanced himself from the woman’s. But this time it’s by using the third person ‘he’ even though he’s referring to himself:

He took dead-centre aim …’

What we can gather from this is that by the end of the song the narrator has made spiritual progress. ‘Spiritual’ is not to be taken in a vague, esoteric sense, but as concerning everyday matters. The success of his relationship is likely to depend on whether he’s prepared to treat the woman (and perhaps, as a result, himself) as a subject with emotions.

That she is a subject as much as he is, is hinted at by similarities between them. His train is long-distance and rolling. She is a longtime stripper, and drifting. She is also privy to his private thoughts, which amounts to their being identical subjects.

And the reason for the narrator’s despair when he:

‘… discovered her invisible self’

may be that what he discovered was her her true identity – with him.

St John
: The success or otherwise of the narrator’s spiritual journey is to be judged against two claims made by Christ according to the fourth gospel. These are:

‘I am the light of the world. Those who follow me will never walk in darkness. They will have the light that leads to life.’ (John 8.12)


‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6).

With respect to the first quotation, it’s because he’s in darkness – ‘dark heat’ and ‘the dark side’ of the room – that by the end of the song it remains unclear the extent to which the narrator has achieved spiritual fulfilment. It’s merely unclear because in the second verse his otherwise dark environment is lit up:

‘There’s a neon light ablaze in this green smoky haze’

And the ‘white diamond gloom’ which accompanies the darkness near the end suggests that he’s still alive, or has enough of the ‘light that leads to life’.

With respect to the second quotation, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, the narrator seems to ignore its implied advice for achieving spiritual fulfilment.

Consider ‘the way’. While he recognises ‘a pathway that leads up to the stars’, he says no more about it, suggesting that he at least fails to fully grasp its significance as a route to salvation. On two other occasions he has an opportunity to follow ‘the way’, but doesn’t take them. As a result of fighting his twin, he falls ‘by the way’. And he also ignores ‘the way’ when he indulges in adulterous sexual behaviour despite realising that ‘the law (of God) looks the other way’. Despite having ‘finally arrived’ in the final verse, it’s unclear whether his destination is the right one:

If I’m there in the morning …’

His way – or pathway – might not have been Christ’s way.

In addition to not following ‘the way’, the narrator makes excuses for ignoring ‘the truth’:

‘The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure’

Why he finds the truth (or the law of God, roughly ‘Love God and love your neighbour’) obscure, too profound, and too pure, he doesn’t say. More likely, he just doesn’t find it convenient to go along with. Nevertheless he does go some way towards seeing that truth when he discovers the true nature of the woman’s ‘invisible self’.

It’s significant that the woman of the second verse didn’t experience his qualms about purity since she:

‘… bathed in a stream of pure heat’

The Woman’s Role

The woman is presented as Christ-like. As such she has a role in enabling the narrator to achieve spiritual fulfilment.Since she is a representation of Christ, in trying to ‘find’ her, the narrator is attempting to achieve spiritual salvation.

That she’s to be seen as Christ is apparent from the narrator’s longing to ‘touch’ her, which is reminiscent of the woman cured of menstrual problems by touching Christ’s clothing (Mark 5.25). And if she is Christ, she will be prepared to sacrifice herself for the narrator. That she’s prepared to make such a sacrifice is apparent from her agreement with him that:

‘Sacrifice was the code of the road’

An additional reason for seeing her as Christ is that her father has God-like qualities. He advocates being ‘more than streetwise’ – in other words, being considerate to others rather than merely learning how to deal with them. He is for being, as it were, ‘street legal’. He practises what he preaches, and he’s loving in that he preaches ‘from the heart’. And in that he can predict the future, he – like God – would seem to be omniscient.

The woman is presented as God-like too, in that her hair implicitly associates her with Apollo. Just as her divine counterpart in Changing Of The Guards had ‘long, golden locks’, so the woman here is ‘golden-haired’. And she too seems to be omniscient, for with respect to the narrator’s private thoughts:

‘… she had some way of finding them out’

Not only is she associated with purity, rather than darkness, but at the same time with water – ‘a stream of pure heat’ – with its baptismal significance.

What, then, is her role in the narrator’s spiritual survival? This will depend on the extent to which he can adopt her Christ-like qualities. He, too, needs to be identified with Christ. That he too sees ‘sacrifice as the code of the road’ makes a promising start.

The narrator’s ironic description of his dissolute way of life as ‘sweet paradise’, in the penultimate verse:

‘If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise
Remind me to show you the scars’

also suggest that the narrator could eventually come to be identified with Christ. The lines put his hearer is in the position of the apostle Thomas who likewise wouldn’t believe unless he had first-hand experience of Christ’s wounds. However, that she needs to be reminded about the scars suggests that the narrator’s Christ-likeness can’t speak for itself. He has not yet achieved identity with Christ. He is un-Chris-like in that his acceptance of the scars is an unwilling one, unlike Christ’s acceptance of his wounds.

Aiming and Missing

Unfortunately, the narrator tends to see his life’s purpose merely in terms of winning back the woman. This is made apparent by way of a play on the word ‘miss’. In the first verse we’re told:

‘There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much’

In the sixth, we’re told:

‘He took dead centre aim, but he missed just the same’

On one level the narrator is aiming not literally at the woman, but in the sense of making her the object of his interest. The suggestion is that in trying to recover her for himself, he’s taking the wrong approach. He wants to possess her, rather than engage with her as a fellow subject. The result is that he misses her in the sense of regretting her absence.

On another level, the aiming is more sinister. He could be aiming a gun. And just as in Baby, Stop Crying, where it’s unclear whether the intended victim is the woman, the narrator’s rival, or the narrator himself, so it’s unclear here too. We’re told ‘He took dead-centre aim’, but not who or what at. Since he’s despairing and fights himself (‘the enemy within’), the target could be himself – a failed suicide. Alternatively, it could be his rival – suggested by his going on to kick his rival in the face.

And it could be the woman, out of revenge. The reference to ‘horseplay’ suggests this. While on the surface the term ‘horseplay’ suggest general philandering, in seeming to hark back to New Pony, it also reminds us that in that song the narrator shot the pony.

Since people share subjectivity, and are thus in a sense identical, it makes no difference who the intended victim is.

Sex and Violence

However we’re to interpret his aiming, having failed to win the woman, the worst of the narrator comes out:

‘There’s a lion in the road, there’s a demon escaped’

He seems to struggle to control himself:

‘I won’t but then again, maybe I might’

Might what? In the same verse he mentions ‘a landscape being raped’. The word ‘raped’, together with its reappearance in the phrase ‘I watched her undrape, perhaps provides the answer. Just as the rain in the first verse reflects his tears and the misery they’re caused by, so the rape of the landscape might seem to reflect more sinister intentions towards women.

Sexual licentiousness might also be behind the references to both ‘horseplay and disease’ and ‘forbidden fruit’.

At any rate, the narrator now turns his attention to the rival he presumably sees as responsible for his brush off:

‘It felt out of place, my foot in his face’

and, for no clear reason, to the woman’s boss whom he, euphemistically, ‘deals with’.

At this point in the song his moral progress has been largely, but not entirely, negative.

The Narrator as Humanity

If the woman is to be seen as Christ, then her boss (like her father) might be taken to represent God. His having ‘never known about loss’ seems to describe God’s position up to the Fall, and therefore makes apparent a further identity, one between the narrator and Adam, the cause of God’s loss. To that extent, the narrator’s journey towards spiritual fulfilment is that of humanity in general.

Further reasons for seeing the narrator as Adam include his describing an earlier wrongdoing as eating the ‘root of forbidden fruit’, and his earlier situation as ‘paradise’.


The narrator’s selfish approach is not only misguided but self-defeating. That his actions just re-bound on himself is clear from the way he seems to be identified with – is one and the same with – the rival he beats up. In the very next verse he tells us:

‘I fought with my twin, that enemy within
Till both of us fell by the way’

suggesting that to fight the rival is indistinguishable from fighting himself.

To fight an aspect of oneself – the ‘enemy within’ – is literally self-defeating if one or other succumbs. As it is, both succumbed in that they both ‘fell by the way’. The implication is that in assaulting the rival, the narrator is effectively assaulting himself.

That he and the rival can be taken as identical is further reinforced by the expression ‘the guy you were loving’. That in fighting the rival, the narrator can be taken to be fighting himself is made clear by the vagueness of the expression. It would seem to apply as much to the narrator before the breakdown of the relationship as to a rival.

That the narrator and his rival are identical is further made apparent by the narrator’s excuse for his violence, that the rival ‘should have stayed where his money was green’. The only place where his money is likely to have been green is the ‘green smoky haze’ referred to in the second verse. Since the narrator is clearly there, but the rival is not explicitly mentioned, the rival’s presence depends on, and amounts to, the presence of the narrator.

It’s worth noting that the narrator’s fighting ‘the enemy within’ cannot be justified on the ground of moral superiority. The twin has as much of a claim to the moral high ground. He, too, has an ‘enemy within’ – the narrator.

Turning Back the Page

Despite the apparent negative direction of the narrator’s spiritual journey, he has made some progress towards his true destination – and more than he thinks. The evidence for this is his writing a letter. Thoughts of the woman bring back memories. She:

‘… winds back the clock and she turns back the page
Of a book that no one can write’

The book presumably stands for the events in the couple’s lives to date. The claim that no one can write it seems to imply that those events are beyond anyone’s control. They’re pre-determined. The narrator seems to be blaming chance for things having gone wrong in the relationship.

He’s wrong. Although he doesn’t realise it, it’s clear that things are not beyond his control since he’s already putting them right. In the first verse, he refers to:

‘Tears on the letter I write’

He might not be able to write the book, if that means assuming responsibility for everything that’s happened, but he can and does write a letter. The letter, presumably an attempt to undo the wrongs of the past, can thus be seen as a first step in the narrator’s spiritual rejuvenation.


Just as there are grammatical changes of person – first to third, and third to second – so there are changes of tense. While many events are recounted in the past tense, the present tense ‘there’s’ is used no fewer than ten times in places where the past might have seemed more natural.

The removal of temporal distinctions from certain situations, so that they each seem to occur in an eternal present, establishes their importance. There’s a ‘nowness’ about the woman’s raging while looking after the baby, the narrator’s being dazzled by the stripper, and his contemplation of violence.

There’s a similar ‘nowness’ arising from the two dawn references. The first occurs in the middle of the song at the outset of the narrator’s journey:

‘I left town at dawn with Marcel and St John’,

and the second in the final verse at the journey’s end:

‘There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived’

Both the employment of different tenses and the lines’ respective positions in the song suggest that on a literal level there are two separate dawns rather than, say, two references to the same dawn. However, if dawn is taken as symbolising a new beginning, there’s a sense in which they can be treated as one and the same.  The narrator is hoping, at the end of the song, that the new dawn will bring the meeting with the woman he craves. He’s assuming that the previous dawn did not bring this about, but there’s a sense in which he’s mistaken. To the extent that the woman is Christ, his re-discovering her began when he set out accompanying Marcel and St John. If his arrival, and presence in the morning at the end of the song, are interpreted in moral terms, then – although he doesn’t realise it – he has already gone some way towards finding her. The dawn or moral awakening he’s hoping for at the end has already occurred.


Among the numerous identities which become apparent are those of the woman the narrator ‘longs to touch’ and the stripper, the woman and Christ, the woman and the narrator, the narrator and his rival, the narrator and Christ, and ultimately the narrator and humanity in general. Each can be taken to illustrate the view, derived from Marcel, that people are united in their subjectivity and that this is insufficiently recognised. The lack of a real distinction between individuals is reinforced by the listener’s inability to tell whether in certain cases there is one person or more.

The lack of distinction which perhaps matters most is that between the narrator and Christ. The woman and the narrator are each implicitly identified with Christ, but the identities need to be recognised by the narrator. In order to make his quest for the woman successful, the narrator needs to be Christ-like in his relationship with her. And this means acknowledging, by way of his behaviour, his identity with her.

This role in turn requires the narrator not to objectify himself as ‘he’, but to accept his own subjectivity. He needs to accept that this subjectivity is at bottom the same as that of the woman and Christ. To fully realise his identity with Christ he needs to behave in accordance with the dictum ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. The narrator’s awareness of the woman’s absence at the end of the song makes it uncertain whether or not the narrator has sufficiently done this.



  1. The reference to a woman with a baby is reminiscent of the similar situation in No Time To Think.
  2. A comparable identity might exist between the narrator and the boss. There’s a similarity if the boss’ having never ‘known about loss’ applies to the narrator too. We’re not told explicitly that this is the case, however. Also, the boss, we’re told, ‘was always too proud to beg’. This might seem to identify him with the narrator by way of the narrator’s counterpart in We Better Talk This Over, although there the narrator is fully prepared to ‘beg, steal or borrow’.

Minor revision 12.10.2017




We Better Talk This Over


The narrator here is both a husband and Christ. As a husband, he’s advocating divorce. And as Christ, he’s trying to offload his God-imposed responsibilities to humanity. In whichever role one sees him, he is looking after his own interests while aware that he should be pursuing the greater good. The effect of presenting the narrator as Christ seems to be to make the husband’s position clearer. He can either accept that he should selflessly sacrifice his own interests to those of his wife, or reject that option on the ground that he is ‘only a man’. However, the song implies that the husband has no more reason for abjuring responsibility than does Christ.

Despite the dual identity of the narrator, it’s that of husband which is primary in the song. As an ordinary person, his concerns are universal. The references to Christ are essentially to help us to form a judgment about his behaviour, and hence about the behaviour of humanity generally.

1. The Husband’s Character

The husband is out to get his way, and employs a range of techniques to convince his wife – and probably himself – that he should get it. He imposes his view, he distorts the facts, he presents himself as done down, and he’s aggressive. In addition, we can’t trust him because, on his own admission, he’s drunk, and because he fails to give reasons for the claims he makes.

: Having suggested, quite reasonably, that he and the woman talk matters over when they’re in a more fit state, he proceeds straightaway to impose his own view on her. The song represents his own words from beginning to end so that, despite his suggestion, it’s clear he intends to do all the talking himself.

In order to impose his view, he patronises her:

‘You’ll understand I’m only a man
Doing the best that I can’

The phrase ‘You’ll understand’ implies that she wouldn’t have been able to arrive at the conclusion which follows without his help. By talking down to her he makes it difficult for her to present an opposite view.

A further technique he uses in order to impose his view is the use of rhetorical questions. Since rhetorical questions, by their very nature, imply that responses are not needed because the answers are obvious, he can use them to support his view in favour of the need to separate without fear of being opposed. Accordingly he asks:

‘Why should we needlessly suffer?’

‘… why you wanna hurt me?’


‘Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?’

In each case the content of the rhetorical question is disingenuous. The narrator is attempting to get the woman to believe something which we have no reason for supposing is the case. He seems to be distorting the truth to suit his own ends. In the first quotation he attempts to smuggle past the view that their suffering is ‘needless’. No argument for this is provided; the view is simply imposed. The second implies that his wife is trying to save the marriage in order to hurt him, which seems extraordinarily unlikely. And the third seems to imply that splitting up is the only alternative to spying on each other from a distance. It’s not. An obvious alternative would be for each to do away with the telescope and come closer together.

Further Disingenuousness:
The husband continues to distort facts, and so gives us more reason to distrust him, when he says:

‘This situation can only get rougher’

Not only does he provide no reason for believing him, but what he says is thrown in doubt by his later reference to his wife’s ‘delicate ways’. If her approach is indeed delicate, any roughness would seem to be down to him.

Another distortion of the truth occurs when he says:

‘The vows that we kept are now broken and swept
‘neath the bed where we slept’

The fact that he says ‘the vows that we kept’, rather than simply ‘our vows’, shows he’s aware that things are not as bad as he’s implying. If in the past they kept their wedding vow, then there’s still a solid foundation on which to renew the relationship. By ignoring their previous mutual loyalty, he’s being disingenuous.

In a similar way, the injustice of his desire to break up with his wife is apparent in his claim that:

‘We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase’

If what he says is true, it would seem to provide a further reason for not breaking up. Since providing such a reason cannot be his intention, it would seem likely that he’s in fact trying to make light of his own wrongdoings.

Sympathy: A further underhand technique the narrator uses is to try to get his wife’s sympathy despite his working against her interests.

First, he says:

‘I feel displaced, I got a low-down feeling’

And then:

‘I guess I’ll be leaving tomorrow
If I have to beg, steal or borrow’

In the latter case, he’s implying that for both their sakes he’s prepared to put up with an impoverished lifestyle if that’s what it takes to bring about a better life for them both. What he’s really doing, however, is manipulating his wife’s emotions so that she feels sorry for him.

: We get a further indication of the manipulative nature of the husband’s character when he reassuringly says:

‘You don’t have to be afraid of looking into my face’

Reassurance is fine, but one wonders why it’s necessary. He seems to be betraying a dark side to his character – that it’s normal for him to rule by fear. It transpires that this is borne out by the sudden change of technique which follows.

Despite trying to seem reassuring, he almost immediately becomes accusatory:

‘You been two-faced, you been double-dealing’

Quite what he’s accusing her of is unclear, although it may be of carrying on a relationship behind his back. If she’d really been guilty of carrying on another relationship – ‘double-dealing’ – it’s unlikely he’d need to be so vague about where she’d find a new home:

‘Somewhere in this universe there’s a place that you can call home’

So, what put the idea of an illicit relationship in his mind? Again, he seems to be attributing to her faults which may in fact be his own.

2. Unity

Throughout the song there are allusions to a unity between the narrator and the woman which conflicts with the narrator’s desire for separation.

Unity is evident in the continual use of the words ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘both’. The words occur a total of seventeen times, sixteen of these in the first three and the last three verses. In the middle four verses, ‘I’ and ‘you’ dominate. While the pattern perhaps suggests that the husband regains a measure of composure which he had at the beginning of the song, it also suggests a movement from unity, to separation, and back to unity again. This in turn suggests that he will ultimately accept his responsibility to his wife.

Although the simile:

‘Like the sound of one hand clapping’

is intended by the husband to bring out the unlikelihood of their remaining on good terms after separating, it is much more apposite to demonstrating the value of unity over disunity. The point about ‘one hand clapping’ is that it can’t occur. The sound of clapping can only result from the movement of two hands.  Clapping is by its nature a unified result of separate movements. Thus, contrary to the narrator’s intention, the simile serves to bring out the ineffectiveness of separation, rather than the improbability of mending the relationship.

The matter of the couple’s unity is again raised by the line:

‘With both eyes glazed’ 1

The phrase ‘both eyes’ primarily refers to just the narrator’s eyes, ‘glazed’ presumably because he’s drunk. But it could equally refer to the woman’s since she too, we’re told, has yet to sober up. By using the phrase ‘with both eyes glazed’ to refer to his eyes alone, the narrator is artificially separating himself from his wife and in so doing ignoring a unifying similarity between them.

Also relevant to the unity of the couple is the question:

‘Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?’

This question already suggests an underlying unity in that both husband and wife are involved in the same activity. However, when the question is taken together with the line ‘With both eyes glazed’, it’s not just unity which becomes apparent, but a movement from disunity towards unity. If two people are each looking through a telescope, each will have an eye ‘glazed’ – literally – by the glass of the telescope. Whereas the narrator originally used ‘both eyes glazed’ to refer to just his own eyes, the telescope metaphor widens its reference to include the woman’s eyes. In effect ‘both eyes’ becomes ‘the eyes of both’.

All these cases of unity succeeding separation, or of separate things being subsumed under a unity, suggest the misguidedness of the narrator’s attempts to show that the couple are destined to be apart.

3. As Christ

The theme of unity extends beyond the couple. At various points in the song the narrator seems unintentionally to present himself as Christ in conversation with God. This is suggested by references, explicit or implicit, to the crucifixion, exile, eternity and the new covenant. The main effect of these is to draw a comparison between the husband’s relationship with his wife, and Christ’s with God. The existence, despite appearances, of an indissoluble unity between Christ and God will serve to reinforce the existence of a similar unity underlying the relationship of the married couple.

Death and Resurrection
: This theme becomes apparent when the narrator attempts to soften the blow of separation:

‘It’d be great to cross paths in a day and a half’

The word ‘cross’ is suggestive of the crucifixion. If the narrator-as-Christ is addressing God, then such a crossing of paths can be seen as Christ’s acceptance of his divine role. This is because the time lapse – ‘a day and a half’- amounts to a total of three days when applied to each of them. This is the time between Christ’s death and resurrection. The ‘day and a half’ reference thus seems to make the narrator-as-Christ dimly aware of the need for accepting his divine status. It’s in this context that his earlier demand to ‘call it a day’ – as opposed to the present ‘day and a half’ – can be seen as attempting to avoid the sacrificial role marked out for him.

The husband’s proposed separation from his wife is thus being presented in Christian terms so that it can be compared with Christ’s wanting to abjure his divine status. If the narrator-as-Christ would be wrong not to acknowledge his responsibilities to God, then the narrator-as-husband would similarly be wrong not to acknowledge his responsibilities to his wife.

As God
: A further indication of the narrator-as-Christ’s divinity is his speaking as if he is also God:

‘You don’t have to be afraid of lookin’ into my face’

The language is, presumably unconsciously, biblical (for example, Exodus 33:20 “… you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live”). In the light of this, the accusation of being ‘two-faced’, taken literally, can also be taken to imply that the narrator is a unity comprising both Christ and God.

Exile: Not only does the narrator as Christ want to deny his divinity but he alludes to exile as a way of underlining his earthly nature:

‘I’m exiled, you can’t convert me’

There are two plausible ways in which the narrator-as-Christ might be exiled. One is in his enforced move to earth from heaven. The other is in his having inherited Adam’s exile from the garden of Eden. He sees himself as ‘displaced’, as having a ‘low-down feeling’, and as being involved in a ‘downhill dance’. All these suggest that he’s ‘down’ on earth rather than in heaven, or has shared in the fall of man. As Christ, the ‘conversion’ he’s refusing to accept in the light of his exile, is to the divine, redemptive role required of him by God.

Nevertheless, he’s incapable of permanently relinquishing his divine status. Such separation from God would be as impossible as the sound of one hand clapping. If the underlying unity between Christ and God must endure despite Christ’s feelings of displacement and exile, then so a comparable underlying unity between husband and wife might be expected to endure despite the husband’s feelings of displacement and exile.

We can conclude from this that the husband is no more actually ‘displaced’ when with his wife, than Christ is displaced when carrying out God’s intentions on earth.

Eternity: In the light of the unity between the narrator-as-Christ and God, the narrator’s claim that:

‘We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase’

is clearly untrue. It’s made from a purely human perspective. One might assume that what God has instigated is not subject to erosion by time, but is of eternal significance. In a similar way, the value of having kept vows (‘the vows that we kept’) doesn’t cease simply because they eventually get broken.

The Bond: There’s a further allusion to the narrator’s status as Christ in the final verse:

‘I wish I was a magician
I would wave a wand and tie back the bond
That we’ve both gone beyond’

Just as in ‘No Time To Think’, where ‘magician’ represents the selfish side of a mercurial character, so here it represents the selfishness of the husband in wanting to separate from his wife. The ‘bond’ can be seen not just as marriage between the husband and wife which the husband wants to end, but as the new covenant between man and God which is to be brought about by Christ’s death. It is this which the narrator as Christ seems to be trying to put aside.

Also, the expression ‘tie back the bond’ treats the bond as a curtain. As such, it reminds us of the curtain in the temple being ripped at the time of the crucifixion and so revealing the presence of God. In trying to get out of his saving role, the narrator-as-Christ is unconsciously drawing attention to his divine status. In the end – by way of miraculous rather than magical power – he does ‘tie back the bond’, or re-create the old covenant with God. This suggests that for the husband, tying back the bond can be just as much a matter of renewing his responsibility to his wife as a matter of dissolving their union.


The song suggests that the husband would be wrong to leave his wife. It does so by making clear the shallow nature of his excuses for so doing, and the underhand nature of his attempts to justify it. It also does so by drawing a comparison between the husband’s relationship with his wife and Christ’s relationship with God. The Christ/God unity thus serves to reflect the marital one. Just as Christ’s suffering was intrinsic to his redemptive role, so the husband’s suffering is necessary for his wife’s happiness.

The song goes further than just reflecting the one relationship in the other, though. In presenting the husband and Christ as two ways of seeing the same narrator, it suggests that Christ’s suffering for the sake of others is not something distinct from the husband’s suffering for his wife. Christ’s suffering is the husband’s suffering (and the suffering of people generally which it represents). The first cannot exist, and so be beneficial, without the second.


  1. As in the previous song, Dylan is making use of an idea from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

‘A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye’


I Want You


A guilty undertaker, saxophones that speak, weeping mothers, a broken cup, and – above all – the mysterious Queen of Spades! A surreal nightmare? No, but neither is it just the love song implied by the title. The narrator’s apparent yearning for romance is in fact a yearning for something more spiritual.

The omens for success are not good. Spiritual death abounds, first in the guise of the guilty undertaker, and then as a lonesome organ grinder – the latter suggestive of a dreary and otherwise empty church.1 The narrator finds himself under pressure to ‘refuse you’ – God – the object of his spiritual quest:

‘The cracked bells and washed out horns
Blow into my face with scorn’

He largely succumbs to this pressure. In deliberately ignoring the plight of those around him, he’s unconsciously destroying any chance of spiritual fulfilment.

Although the song ends with his behaviour increasingly at odds with his spiritual longing, there have nevertheless been signs of hope. From the start he at least shows some willingness to resist the pressure:

‘It’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you’

And in the fifth verse, he comes closest to experiencing the spiritual union he craves, albeit at second-hand.


Although the song ends with the narrator still yearning, that’s because he associates the spiritual solely with an external God, the ‘you’ of the title, rather than with selfless action. This leads him to ignore the suffering of others.

Those in need of help are represented by the weeping mothers of the second verse. Yet he does nothing, despite recognising from the drunkenness and perverse leaping of the politician that there can be no political solution to their plight:

‘The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep’

Instead he looks to an equally impotent source of help:

‘… the saviours who are fast asleep’

Not only are these ‘saviours’ asleep, but since the expression ‘fast asleep’ normally applies only to young children, he must realise that looking to them would be futile.

Since they’re powerless, they can only:

‘… wait for you’

But who is ‘you’? The narrator seems to be putting the ball back in God’s court. If neither the political authorities, nor the next generation are in a position to help, then God must intervene.

At this point the narrator seems to realise that ‘you’ could equally refer to himself. Unfortunately, he seems not to notice that this puts him on a par with God, pointing the way to the spiritual union he wants.

Instead, he responds by making an excuse for his own lack of action:

‘And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinking from my broken cup
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you’

He must wait, or so he claims. Yes, he can do what is required. He and the saviours can work together – but not yet. He must wait for them to be old enough to shoulder their share of the burden. Having been forced to accept his own responsibility for alleviating suffering, he welcomes procrastination as a means of escape.


The imagery in the second verse serves a number of purposes.

First, to establish the narrator’s lack of spiritual commitment, it presents him as a parody of Christ. Like Christ, he refers to the personal suffering involved in his role of saviour as a ‘cup’. But whereas Christ had, albeit reluctantly, accepted his suffering –

 ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done’ (Luke 22.42)

 – the narrator attempts to negotiate with God. He’ll do God’s work, provided the suffering – an inextricable part of that work – is taken away. Or to put it another way, he insists on having his cake and eating it.

Secondly the reference to ‘drinking from my broken cup’ reminds us of the drunken politician. But now we see that the politician is drunk not because he’s irresponsible (although on one level, like the narrator, he may be), but because he’s had to drink from more than one cup, as it were. Having been been forced to take on others’ responsibilities – including the narrator’s – it’s become too much.

There’s also further evidence of the narrator’s disingenuousness. Presumably the gate is both heaven’s gate and a barrier to God’s direct intervention. How, one might wonder, do you ‘open up’ a gate? The superfluous ‘up’ seems like an attempt to make what he’s agreed to do sound as onerous as possible.2

And in addition to exaggerating what he’s agreed to do, he takes steps to make himself sound more reasonable than he is. He requires only that his drinking from the cup be ‘interrupted’, not ended altogether. Likewise, the saviours have only to ‘ask’ him to ‘open up the gate for you’, and he’ll do it. (By adding ‘for you’ on the end of a sentence spoken to God, the narrator becomes downright patronising – it’s as if he is saying that God can’t open the gate on his own.)

The narrator, then, is both selfish and disingenuous. He has no intention of acting in the present, but would rather pass the responsibility for acting on to the next generation. Rather than refuse outright, he becomes devious, first by attempting to strike a ludicrous bargain, and then by putting on a show of being conciliatory.

The Dancing Child

The dancing child of the final verse, one assumes, is one of the saviours mentioned earlier, but no longer asleep. That is, he’s aware of what needs doing and by whom. Despite the narrator, the impression we get of him is favourable. Being a child he represents innocence, while his clothing suggests unostentatious simplicity.3 And his ‘dancing’ contrasts favourably with the gross leaping of the politician who, apparently having had to drink more than his share from the narrator’s cup, has become drunkenly ineffective. The child is clearly a source of hope for the future.

The narrator is less appreciative:

‘Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit
He spoke to me, I took his flute’

The narrator’s declining to tell us precisely what the child said suggests it didn’t reflect well on him. Instead he tells us how he reacted – ‘… I took his flute’, and only in vague terms why:

‘… I did it, though, because he lied
Because he took you for a ride’

The flute is the child’s voice, just as the ‘silver saxophones’ of the first verse are the narrator’s voice telling him to refuse his God-given role. From the narrator’s harsh response one imagines the child had criticised him for his indolence, and for passing the buck onto the next generation.

Was there a ‘lie’? Unlikely. From the picture we’ve been given of him, we can assume that the child told the narrator the truth – that the narrator is neglecting his responsibilities.

The false accusation of having lied is not the only fictitious reason the narrator deploys to excuse his behaviour. His disingenuousness comes out in three other ways.

First, he claims he acted as he did:

‘Because he took you for a ride’

Not only is this too a lie, but one would expect him to have said ‘Because he took me for a ride’. The use of ‘you’ instead of ‘me’ ironically serves to unite the narrator with the addressee in making them both a victim of the child’s purported deception. It’s ironic because it points to the very unity with the addressee which the narrator is hoping for. In the end, since it’s the narrator, and not the child, who’s being deceptive, the accusation serves to emphasise the distance the narrator is putting between himself and God.

The narrator also claims that the reason he silenced the child was:

‘… because time was on his side’,

thus implying that the child has time to recover from any harm arising from his lie. This is also ironic in that the narrator seems unaware of the implication – that he himself does not have time on his side. Already time has moved on since the saviours were ‘asleep’ in verse two. By misrepresenting the time left for action, he’s playing with fire.

And finally, he tries to make light of his treatment of the child, referring to it merely as a matter of not being ‘cute’.4


The third verse is different from the preceding verses in that is not addressed to God. Since there is no addressee other than the narrator himself, there’s more reason for taking it at face value. Its purpose seems to be to make clear what the narrator represents in the scheme of things.

That eternity is the concern of the song becomes apparent in the first line of this short verse:

‘How all my fathers, they’ve gone down’

The biblical-sounding expression ‘all my fathers’ seems to refer to the narrator’s ancestors throughout history. What is true of him is therefore timelessly true. And the same can be said of the third line:

‘But all my daughters put me down’,

except that instead of looking backwards to the beginning of time, the line looks forward to its end.

These lines make the narrator both a son, and then a father, from the beginning of the human race to its end, respectively. As such his redemption or salvation will be the eternal redemption or salvation of humanity.

The fathers have ‘gone down’ – died – without accepting their role in the world. This is a spiritual death, not just a literal death, because they’ve ignored the suffering of those like the weeping mothers. As the second line puts it, using ‘love’ in the agape sense:

‘True love they’ve been without it’,

The daughters haven’t ‘gone down’, either physically or spiritually. Instead they’ve put the narrator down, or criticised him. Physically, they’re either alive, since they’re around now, or have yet to be born. And spiritually they’re alive because they criticise the narrator’s lack of concern with true love:

‘… all my daughters put me down
cause I don’t think about it’

The implication is that the only love he thinks about is sexual, a view which is corroborated in the fourth verse. In criticising him, they can be seen dismissing him, and those throughout time whom he represents, as spiritually worthless.

The Chambermaid

Having been rejected by the daughters, the narrator makes do with sex from another source – a chambermaid at The Queen of Spades, which is presumably a pub or small hotel.5 Her provision of sexual favours is one sense in which she is ‘good’ to him.

Like the previous verse, this verse is in the third person and seems to represent the narrator’s private musings which, therefore, we can trust. He extols the chambermaid’s virtues and in so doing seems to at least glimpse God-like qualities in her. In her God-like role she acts as a foil for the narrator against which we see his selfishness. At the same time, she’s a model of what he could be like. She selflessly acts as his saviour, by being (sexually) ‘good’ to him, despite knowing she’s not his first choice:

‘She knows where I’d like to be
But it doesn’t matter’

We’re left to decide whether he’d ‘like to be’ with God, the ‘you’ of most of the verses, or another woman.

Of her God-like qualities there can be no doubt. Like God, as traditionally conceived, she seems to have total knowledge:

‘She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her’


‘She knows where I’d like to be’

And like God, she is all seeing:

‘And there’s nothing she doesn’t see’

Her omniscience is a reason for the narrator to put aside dissimulation as pointless. She – and therefore God – can see through him.

She also serves as a foil for his arrogance. The language employed in:

‘She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her’

is reminiscent of Exodus 3.6 which says that ‘Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God’. The narrator’s arrogant refusal to take on a saving role, represented by his inappropriate fearlessness before God, is thus emphasised by the contrast between it, and Moses’ humble respect before God.


So, it’s not an ordinary love song, and the surreal imagery serves a purpose. It enables us to grasp the sad plight of someone with a spiritual ideal which he cannot live up to in practice. The events of the song span a short period of time in which on the one hand the narrator becomes more entrenched in his selfishness, while on the other he acquires an unconscious glimmering of understanding about how his ideal might be realised. Whether he’ll emulate the kindness and understanding of the chambermaid, and so achieve his spiritual goal, is left undecided.

The narrator is an everyman character. His spiritual aspirations and failings represent those not just of his contemporaries, but of people throughout eternity. He is the son of all fathers – and thus all weeping mothers – from the beginning of time. And he is the father of all daughters to the end of time. Thus he represents both the product of spiritual death throughout the ages up to the present, and the progenitor of spiritual hope from now onwards. Just as it is incumbent on him to advance from spiritual death to spiritual life by taking responsibility on himself, so it is incumbent on humanity generally to do the same – not leaving it to would-be ‘saviours’.

  1. The expression ‘lonesome organ grinder’ also has auto-erotic overtones and may express the narrator’s fear for his sexual future. The result would be his apparent promiscuousness.
  2. ‘Open up’ also has connotations of liberal generosity. Taken in this way it suggests what the narrator could be like, but sadly isn’t.
  3. I’m assuming the Chinese suit is the sort of simple clothing ubiquitous in China under Mao Tse-tung. It might be being used here to represent a Christ-like simplicity.
  4. It might be possible to take all but the first line of the verse, and the chorus which follows it, as being spoken by the child. On this interpretation, the child would be warning his mother about the narrator’s promiscuousness about which the narrator has lied. It’s not an interpretation which fits easily with the song as a whole, though.
  5. This sounds a bit prosaic, but it appears to do justice to the surface meaning. Why ‘Queen’? Why ‘Spades’? The expression ‘Queen of…’ might be to make us think of the queen of Heaven. And ‘Spades’, with its connotations of digging, might remind us of the undertaker, and the dangers of spiritual death.

True Love Tends To Forget


Is it a jealous narrator who’s distraught at his lover’s increasing lack of interest in him? Or is the song about guilt, and the narrator’s refusal to reform?

Both interpretations are plausible. Undoubtedly the narrator is so overcome by jealousy that he can no longer trust his lover. We even wonder whether his suspicions might be well-founded. But our initial impression is soon complemented by one which sees him as a callous and impenitent  self-seeker trying his lover’s patience by persisting in outrageous expectations of her.

Since the first interpretation is relatively straightforward, it will be better to come back to it later and concentrate for now on the song as a presentation of guilt and possible redemption.

First Verse

The first verse presents the narrator’s thoughts, and then the remaining five verses – including a surreal chorus – are as if addressed to the woman.

That the song is about guilt is apparent from the first line:

‘I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes’

Just as Is Your Love In Vain? uses an idea from The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, so this song makes use of some of that poem’s wording:

There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye

The crew’s weariness is a result of their guilt in approving the death of the albatross. Dylan’s use of the somewhat archaic term ‘weary’ in a context involving eyes therefore seems to imply that the narrator here is guilty of something. That this is so is confirmed at several points in the song.

In claiming to be ‘weary’ the narrator may be genuinely fed up with his lover for not meeting his expectations. She’s not privy to his thoughts in this verse, so he may be more resigned to losing her than he’s prepared to let her know. If it’s true that he hardly recognises her when she’s nearby, this suggests that what he really appreciates is the more idealised picture of her stored in his memory. In telling us ‘there’s no room for regret’, he seems on the one hand determined to win her back, but on the other  to be admitting to feeling smothered by her presence1. Nevertheless, his mere mention of regret implies he may be feeling more responsible for how things have turned out than he’s letting on.

It’s significant that he’s looking in her eyes when he starts to tire of her. In the lines which follow, the word ‘eyes’ gets echoed in the words ‘recognise‘ and ‘realise‘:

‘I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes
When she’s near me she’s so hard to recognise
I finally realise …’

The repetition of ‘eyes’ in these words makes her seem ubiquitous, as if – God-like – she’s aware of everything he’s doing. This possible implication of a divine nature is followed by others later.

Another effect of the repeated ‘I’ sounds is to make the narrator seem egoistical. He doesn’t recognise the woman because he’s so concerned about himself – as if, when looking in her eyes, he sees only reflections of himself.


In the third verse the narrator describes himself as:

‘ … lyin’ down in the reeds without any oxygen’

The main significance of this becomes apparent in the line which follows:

‘I saw you in the wilderness among the men’

Here the woman is being overtly identified with Christ (Matt 4.1-11). Although the narrator is implying she gives in to temptation – he sees her ‘among the men’ – his untrustworthiness allows us to assume that, like Christ, she successfully resists it.

The first line quoted is significant in that it suggests the narrator should also be seen as in the wilderness. Not only does ‘reeds’ suggest a wilderness, but the slightly awkward sounding ‘in the’, which introduces the word, makes us associate it with ‘in the wilderness’. In his case, though, the fact that ‘lying’ can have a sexual sense suggests he is not resisting temptation.

The Woman As Redeemer

Implicitly by being ‘in the reeds’ the narrator is being compared with Moses who as a baby was hidden in bulrushes. In one way this is ironic, given his behaviour. But in another it presents him as a heathen in need of redemption.

That the woman is to be seen as his potential redeemer is apparent from the line:

‘Saw you drift into infinity and come back again’

Her divine nature is further being indicated both by the association with infinity, and her coming back again – which can be taken as a reference both to Christ’s resurrection and his second coming. The narrator will have an opportunity to be redeemed, and whether or not he takes it will determine how he’s ultimately judged.


The fourth verse sees both the narrator, again as Moses, and the woman, as Christ, in hell:

‘But this weekend in hell is making me sweat’

While on one level the weekend in hell is a short, unpleasant period spent by the narrator in the woman’s company, on another it’s Christ’s harrowing of hell between his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s on this level that the woman is in hell – not as punishment, but as the narrator’s redeemer. Just as Christ redeemed Moses, and  those like Moses in hell through no fault of their own, so the woman can be seen as the narrator’s potential redeemer.

But the narrator is also experiencing hell in that he’s the subject of fear. He fears the woman’s leaving him, and this is a fear brought on by his infidelities. Whether or not he’s redeemed will depend on whether or not he continues to be unfaithful.

There’s irony in that the fires of hell are making the narrator sweat, since it’s the woman who is the ‘hard worker’ while the narrator’s seems to do little more than lie down and complain of weariness. The point seems to be that those who make an appropriate effort will suffer less than those who don’t.

Need For Redemption

Just as it’s imprudent for anyone to wait until Christ’s return at the last judgment before reforming, for by then it will be too late, so it’s imprudent for the narrator to wait for the woman to ‘come back again’ before reforming. It will be too late, and his condemnation to hell will then be irrevocable.

His fear that she’ll abandon him is echoed in the final verse by the appearance of the archaic word ‘forsake’ in:

‘Don’t forsake me, baby …’

which is reminiscent of the biblical; ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Matt 27.46, Psalm 22.1). At the same time the narrator treats her as untrustworthy, likely  to sell him out. Without supplying any evidence, he sees her as doing the opposite of what she’s actually doing. He sees her about to sell him rather than buy him back – redeem him.

From Mexico To Tibet

Instead of relinquishing his life of infidelity and committing himself to her, the narrator at best procrastinates with the absurd declaration:

‘All you got to do is wait and I’ll tell you when’

The absurdity is in his expecting her to meekly wait, so that he can continue to pursue the life of a philanderer. This becomes even more apparent in the final verse. There, while blaming the woman for his lack of direction, he unconsciously gives away the extent of his infidelity:

‘Don’t keep me knockin’ about from Mexico to Tibet

Not only is he being unfaithful – ‘knockin’ about’ – anywhere and everywhere, but he has the gall to suggest that it’s her fault that he’s constantly unfaithful to her:

‘Don’t keep me knockin’ about …’

And it’s not just the geographical extent of his philandering which he’s unconsciously admitting to. Earlier he had complained:

‘Every day of the year’s like playing Russian roulette’

Every day!

Again the admission is unconscious. He’d intended to imply it was her infidelity and subsequent rejection of him which kept him in a continual state of suspense. But, if she were the guilty one, there’d be no sense in which his experience would be like that of playing Russian roulette. As it happens, the image is well chosen. The ‘Russian’ of ‘Russian roulette’ makes us want to associate it with the other distant places mentioned – Mexico and Tibet. The resulting implication is that it’s his daily ‘knockin’ about’ which he sees as risking his relationship.

There’s a further implication of the ‘Mexico to Tibet’ image. While the countries are far apart, the distance he travels is nothing compared to her:

‘Saw you drifting to infinity and come back again’

Furthermore, not only does she reach infinity but she returns from it – presumably, like Christ, out of selflessness. He, on the other hand, has yet to return from his knocking about.

In the light of all this his claim:

‘You belong to me, baby, without any doubt’

seems at best wishful thinking, and at worst presumptive.


The phrase ‘I’ll tell you‘ in:

‘All you got to do is wait and I’ll tell you when’

is significant for bringing out a contrast in attitude between the woman and the narrator. The reference to telling reminds us of what he said in verse two:

‘You told me that you’d be sincere’

While he tells her he’s not going to commit himself till he’s ready to give up his philandering, she had previously told him she’d be loyal.

Not only does a juxtaposition of the expressions draw attention to the narrator’s lack of sincerity,  but the phrase ‘You told me’ implies further insincerity. It has an air of being hard-done-by about it, as if she’s let him down.  What he’s doing is once again blaming her for a fault which he knows is in fact his own.


The refrain:

‘True love, true love, true love tends to forget’

echoes the title and occurs at the end of all but the two chorus verses. The meaning, however, varies from verse to verse. At the end of the first verse it seems the narrator wants an excuse for no longer recognising his ‘baby’ as the woman she was. He puts it down to his ‘true love’ for her. This true love for her makes him forget what she’s really like. He remembered her as having been faithful, but  his love for her has caused him to get it wrong – or so he tries to convince himself.

While at the end of the second verse the same words are again used to express criticism, this time the focus is a lack of sincerity on her part. And this he attributes to her love causing her to forget him. In neither verse does he cast any doubt on the extent of their love – it’s ‘true love’. Or, again, so he tries to convince himself.

By the fourth verse, when the line next appears,  the criticism is reiterated. The fault is on her side. Additionally, though, the idea that the woman’s true love is forgetful is made to seem absurd since it follows on from the implicit identification of the woman with Christ in the chorus. In her role as Christ she is extremely unlikely to forget him. On the contrary, if he loses her the fault will be his own.

While her ‘true love’ is genuinely true, and it certainly won’t forget him, the opposite is the case for his. Declaring that true love tends to forget has become a threat about what he’ll do – forget his commitment to her – if she doesn’t accede to his wishes not to ‘forsake him’ and keep him ‘knockin’ about’.

Second Interpretation: The Woman As Unfaithful

There are reasons for sympathising with the narrator. As noted above, it’s possible he has good reason for his suffering since, whether it’s true or not, he may genuinely think the woman is being unfaithful.  We’re nowhere given a strong reason to think that the woman isn’t playing the same game of Russian roulette that he is. It’s just that it seems unlikely given that he seems to declare the opposite in admitting she’s a  ‘hard worker’. It also seems particularly unlikely given that she’s compared with Christ.

Nevertheless, every verse contains something which could be interpreted as going against the woman. She might be ‘so hard to recognise’ because she’s no longer the faithful woman she was. And the fact that the narrator accuses her of not being sincere does allow the possibility that she’s not kept her word. We’ve got no clear reason to suppose that when she was ‘among the men’ she wasn’t in fact giving in to temptation rather than resisting it, and it may be that we should trust the narrator when he says he knows her well and thinks she isn’t encouraging him enough. Maybe he’s right too when he accuses her of being a tearjerker.

Even if the narrator is just jealous, and there’s no justification for his suspicions, these would at least provide a genuine reason for sympathy. But there isn’t if his unhappiness simply results from his thinking he’s going to lose her because he’s not prepared to commit himself .


One can understand that the narrator might genuinely think the woman is being unfaithful. It seems no more likely he’s right, though, than that we should think the opposite about him. Nevertheless the song is probably best seen as supporting both this interpretation and that it’s about guilt, represented by the narrator’s philandering, and the possibility of redemption.

On the latter view the woman plays a Christ-like role as potential redeemer, but it is only as a potential redeemer. There’s no reason to expect her patience to be inexhaustible – and the narrator seems presumptuous in expecting her to wait till he’s ready to reform.


1 That there’s ‘no room for regret’ may also refer to the narrator’s infidelity. He recognises what it’s doing to his relationship, but refuses to reform on the dubious ground that there’s ‘no room’.

Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)


Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, on which Dylan was involved, is of particular interest for the comparison it draws between the eponymous characters. While history presents them as representing good and evil respectively, the film suggests that morally there’s little to distinguish them. Both, for example, are gunslingers out to get revenge, both use prostitutes, and both die in a gunfight, the victims of revenge. Señor takes a not wholly dissimilar approach, blurring distinctions between good and evil by uniting them in the narrator.

The Narrator

The narrator combines the characters of Billy the Kid and Christ. As the former, he’s the chief protagonist in the Lincoln County War between opposed financial interests in late nineteenth century New Mexico. The conflict is notable in that both factions enlisted the support of lawmen  and criminal gangs, so that again there is no sharp division between good and evil. The narrator seems to be an outlaw looking for revenge on the person who betrayed him. When he can’t find her, he settles for pointlessly wrecking the place he thinks is harbouring her.

At the same time, but independently, the narrator is Christ – or at least Christ-like. The first verse hints at this when it has the narrator say:

‘Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, Señor?’

The words ‘way’ and ‘truth’ in close proximity reminds us of Christ’s saying ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6).

And in the final verse he wants to:

‘Overturn these tables’

a clear reference to the incident in the Jerusalem temple which is held to have precipitated Christ’s arrest and subsequent crucifixion.

Other indications that the narrator is Christ include a reference to the cross, his being called ‘Son’, and an implication that he’s scourged – ‘stripped and kneeled’ (Matt 27: 27-30). There’s also perhaps a hint of the resurrection in the phrase ‘pick myself up’.

Despite these characteristics the narrator-as-Christ comes across as thoroughly human and far from confident. He’s constantly asking for information and advice. His humanity is also emphasised in the phrase ‘I stripped and kneeled’. The gospel account of Christ’s passion has the mob kneeling before him in mockery, so in kneeling he seems to be being treated as one of the mob. And as such he comes across not so much as a redeemer but as in need of redemption.

The Se

We’re told nothing about the person addressed as ‘Señor’ in the majority of the verses. Nevertheless from the mode of address it’s clear that this person is respected and looked to for direction. The Spanish title perhaps links him to New Mexico and the Lincoln County War so on one level – where the narrator is a gangster – he may be a gang boss.

It’s noticeable however that not one of the narrator’s nine questions gets answered. Thus the Señor seem to be no ordinary human. It may be that where the narrator is to be seen as Christ, the Señor is God. The narrator is thus putting his faith in God since he lacks the confidence to answer his questions himself. The Senor’s lack of response leaves us with the impression that either there is no God, or else that God is relying on the narrator to achieve his purpose without direct, divine intervention. That the narrator might at this point have a skewed idea about the nature of God is suggested not only by his excessive reliance on him, but by his seeming to think that even God might not have the answers – ‘Do you know…’ he asks, and ‘Can you tell me …?’.

The question the song ends with:

‘Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, Señor?’

not only goes unanswered but, with its echo of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, implies that to rely on God for answers is to take the wrong approach. Yet by the end of the song the narrator is already thinking about actions of the sort the historical Christ took. He’s begun to achieve his, possibly divine, purpose unaided without the need of answers from God.

Third Verse: The Ancient Mariner

Two verses, the third and the fifth, stand out from the rest in that neither of them is addressed to the Señor. Instead they seem to represent the narrator’s thoughts prior to his gradual adoption of a more self-dependant attitude. Ironically what brings about this self-dependence seems to be thoughts of revenge. We learn in the second verse that he’s searching out an unnamed ‘her’ – perhaps someone whose betrayed him – while at the same time remaining wary of a counter-attack.

The more immediate onset of the narrator’s self-reliant attitude is presented through his realisation that he can play a part in defeating evil. That there’s evil in the world, and that its perpetrators can be redeemed, is presented by way of allusions to Coleridge’s poem The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. In that poem the eponymous mariner tells of how he was punished for needlessly killing an albatross by being made to wear the dead bird round his neck ‘instead of a cross’. While the burden fell away once his crime had been expiated, the ship’s crew suffered death for approving it.

In ‘Señor’ the action equivalent to the falling away of the albatross has yet to occur:

‘There’s an iron cross still hangin’ down from around her neck’

Instead of an albatross, or Christ’s cross which the albatross replaced round the ancient mariner’s neck, his adversary ‘s guilt is represented by an iron cross, thus emphasising the association of evil with war and militaristic conquest.

By using the word ‘still’ in ‘still hangin”, The narrator seems to see evil as on the one hand continuing, but on the other as capable of being overcome. The word achieves the same effect in the preceding line:

 ‘There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck’

and its use again in the immediately succeeding line is also suggestive of hope.

‘There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot’

The ‘marchin’ band’ would seem to represent the unrewarded activity (since there’s no one around to hear them) of people with the potential to redeem others. That they’re still playing shows they haven’t given up. The verse ends with the narrator’s realising that he has a role to play in responding to his adversary’s plea for redemption – ‘Forget me not’.

The Woman

The woman is made to wear the iron cross as a punishment. She has betrayed the narrator (one assumes) but may also represent Eve, or – since ‘upper deck’ puts us in mind of the ‘upper room’ in which Christ predicted his betrayal – even Judas. As Eve, she represents mankind in need of redemption and her ‘hiding’ thus represents Eve’s attempt to hide from God. In trying to find her, the narrator is both a Billy character bent on revenge for personal betrayal, and a redeemer responding to her plea not to be forgotten despite having betrayed God.

Fifth Verse: The Fools And The Gypsy

The fifth verse again represents the private thoughts of the narrator – and it again represents progress in the narrator’s outlook. It takes up where the third  verse left off, beginning by referring back to the woman’s plea for redemption, ‘Forget me not’:

‘The last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was a trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field’ 1

At this point his pessimism causes him only to remember humanity in its fallen state, those lost forever like the crew on the ship. They’re fools in that ‘the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God (Psalm 14.1) – something which the narrator avoids doing despite receiving no response to his questions.

The fools too, it’s implied, are wearing iron crosses whose weight, or magnetic attraction to the bog, represents their spiritual demise.

Just as Coleridge’s mariner is redeemed, and the crew lost, so we can assume the woman will be redeemed but not the fools – at least while they remain fools. Before becoming instrumental in bringing about redemption, however, the narrator once more puts his trust in an external source.

‘A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said ‘Son this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing’

In apostrophising him as ‘Son’, a term appropriate to Christ as son of God, the gypsy is confirming the narrator’s status as redeemer. If ‘a broken flag and a flashing ring’ refer to the flag pole and a band used to repair it (a flashing ring being a ferule used to hold a pipe in place), the flag and ring are likely to represent either Christ’s death and resurrection, or (which may amount to the same thing) the fallen state of the world and its subsequent redemption. The gypsy, in effectively calling his Son to action, represents God. But he’s not the Señor  – the God of simple answers.

That the narrator recalls the gypsy’s words, suggests that he is now prepared to take on his allotted role as redeemer. That he does in fact take on the role is indicated by his use in the final verse of the gypsy’s language. Where the gypsy had said ‘Son, this ain’t a dream no more‘, the narrator declares:

‘This place don’t make sense no more

The repetition of ‘no more’ identifies him with the gypsy, and so with God. Accordingly he’s ready to begin his mission of redemption represented by overturning the tables in the Temple.

Time And Eternity

As the Christ-like narrator comes to realise he needs to act, a sense is created of time speeding up. Early in the song ‘How long…?’  occurs twice, giving the impression that time is barely moving, and a similar impression is created by the occurrence of ‘still’ three times in the third verse. By contrast the sixth verse finds the narrator hurried – ‘Well, give me a minute’. Time stretching out is associated with the world of betrayal and revenge, and an absence of time with the world’s redemption.

There is no one era in which the song seems to be set. The Lincoln County reference suggests late nineteenth century, whereas the colloquial language is late twentieth century. The effect is to make time seem unreal, and this is reinforced in a number of ways. First, we realise that what has still to happen – what the narrator’s ‘waiting for’ in the last line – has happened already:

‘Seems like I been down this way before’

Secondly, an allusion to the resurrection in the sixth verse make it seem to take place between the third and fourth lines, so that it is happening as the narrator speaks:

‘I just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, Señor’,

This is anachronistic even within the confines of the song since the events which historically led up to the resurrection (‘let’s … overturn these tables’) have still to happen.

The question:

‘How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?’

is similarly anachronistic in that the precaution to which it alludes is presented as continuing to be taken after it can no longer be of use. From a temporal perspective it’s too late because the narrator has already been caught – as is implied by his having stripped and kneeled.

The overall effect is to place these events outside of time, enhancing their significance by giving them a non-temporal permanence.

The answer to the narrator’s question about his destination:

‘Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?’

is therefore both. The fact that Billy the Kid’s famous battle is in the past and Armageddon is in the future makes no difference – the Lincoln County war and Armageddon are two aspects of the same battle between good and evil. Armageddon is no more just a one-off future event than the Lincoln County battle was just a one-off past event. Both are eternal, and one’s murderous intent in one will be one’s fate in the other.

Similarly the woman’s plea to ‘forget me not’ followed her act of kindness in holding the narrator in her arms. But the expression ‘she held me in her arms one time‘ suggests not just a passing event, but  an eternal event – a kind act of permanent significance.

Tales Of Yankee Power

That the events of the song are not applicable to any particular time or place is also suggested by the sub-title ‘Tales Of Yankee Power’.  They highlight a need for redemption that’s ongoing and everywhere. For that reason the setting is as much nineteenth century America as first century Jerusalem. Initially the sight of ‘that painted wagon’  causes the narrator to think of a ‘trainload of fools’ – presumably a wagon-train load – and only after that is he reminded, by way of its being a gypsy’s caravan, of the gypsy.2

In that it’s a wagon train, the fools are pioneers  setting about conquering the west. They’re American invaders travelling in convoy for safety. This explains why the narrator can ‘smell the tail of the dragon’; he’s aware of the beginning – just the tail – of American domination, the dragon representing a power-mad, twentieth-century  America.

It is, then, this awareness of a nascent dragon which further impels the narrator to take action. Initially he tries conciliation:

‘Can you tell me who to contact here, …’

but when this doesn’t work:

‘… their hearts is as hard as leather’

he advocates a more radical approach:

‘… let’s disconnect these cables,
Overturn these tables’

It’s this approach which leads to his death, the act of redemption.

However, the placing of Christ’s first century action in a nineteenth century context seems to imply that redemption is ongoing, not limited to a particular time or place. Thus when the narrator despairingly cries:

‘This place don’t make sense to me no more’

it’s not just first century Jerusalem but the world throughout its history which is in need of reform.


Although redemption is a major focus of the song, its main concern is with who can achieve it. Contrary to traditional Christianity, the view seems to be that it’s up to individual humans to redeem themselves and help redeem others. The narrator represents such a person. While on one level he can be interpreted as wholly unrepentant outlaw, on another he is no more than a flawed human being capable of redeeming himself and others.

On the first level he can be seen as a Billy the Kid killed in the process of attempting to exact revenge. He’s a gangster whose overturning of tables, far from to bring about a new order, is an act of wanton destruction. And his picking himself up off the floor is literal – what he does having lost a fight – and is not to be interpreted metaphorically as resurrection.

On the other level, though, he is a different character, only superficially similar to the gangster.  His overturning of tables is far from wantonly destructive.  It’s this version of the character alone to whom the  two verses of private thoughts belong. And it’s these thoughts that mark him out as a potential redeemer. Nevertheless, the Christ-figure here is far removed from the Christ of the gospels. He’s human, through and through. He lacks confidence, needs to be cajoled, initially wants revenge and takes time to see that purely human actions might fulfil a divine purpose.

1 That the ‘stripped and kneeled’ refers to Christ’s scourging is perhaps reinforced by a compression of ‘fools’ and ‘bogged‘ to make us think of ‘flogged’.


2 The expression ‘painted wagon’ is perhaps inspired by Coleridge’s description of the motionless ship:

‘As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean’

In each case the effect is to give an impression of stagnation associated with guilt.

Minor revisions 23/23.4.17

Is Your Love In Vain?


Any inclination to see this as an emotional love song is soon dispelled. It’s immediately apparent that  the narrator’s approach to wooing the woman is, absurdly, to impose numerous conditions on her. In fact the song is better seen as a dramatic monologue in which the narrator unintentionally betrays numerous untoward aspects of his character as he ineptly tries to get the woman to accede to his will. As the song progresses, he comes across as a devious, selfish, misogynistic, naive, self-deceiving egotist.  Yet he may not be as malicious as this implies. We find he’s pathetically incapable of forging a successful relationship and that he may well realise this. His negative behaviour may not be malicious so much as resulting from a hopeless attempt to resolve his problem. Not only does the song present  a complex personal psychology, but in combining so many negative traits in one individual, that individual is perhaps best seen as a reflection of humanity at large.

The song is structured so as to reflect the development of the narrator’s thoughts. While the first two verses  contain what he actually says to the woman, the third temporarily abandons the dramatic monologue approach to give us his private thoughts. These lead to a change of tack in the final verse in which he is again speaking to the woman.

First Verse

Right from the start we learn that the narrator is devious. He puts on a show of being selfless, apparently re-assuring the woman that he won’t be put out if she chooses not to have him:

‘… you won’t hear me complain’,

 That this is just a show of selflessness is apparent from the speed at which he turns the conversation to himself:

‘Will I be able to count on you …?’

Selfishness is also suggested by the refrain:

‘Or is your love in vain?’

It seems to be implying that if he can’t count on her  he’ll reject her. Her love for him will be wasted if she doesn’t meet his expectations.

Not only is this cruelly insensitive, but he also manages to combine presenting his conditions with making any adverse outcome seem her fault. It’s her love that’s in vain. There’s no hint that he might be failing to come up to her requirements.

Second Verse

The second verse continues to present the narrator’s character. He’s still laying down the law regarding his expectations of the woman. Bizarrely, he insists on being left alone:

‘I must have solitude’

and he implicitly tells her off for wanting to be with him:

‘… why do you intrude?’

Some lover!  In addition to imposing conditions, he demeans her by patronizingly treating her as if she’s stupid:

‘Or must I explain?’

And finally she’s again virtually blackmailed into submission in the refrain. If she doesn’t yield to his demands, he’ll call the whole thing off. One wonders if, subconsciously at least, he might not be looking for an excuse to do just that.

Egotism In The Third Verse

Musically the third verse is a bridge which facilitates the transition from the second to the fourth and final verse. But it also works as a way of facilitating the narrator’s transition from his attitude in the earlier verses to the somewhat different attitude expressed in the final verse.

A major difference compared with the earlier verses is the language used.  Whereas in each of the other verses the personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ are used  fewer times than ‘you’ and ‘your’ (sixteen compared with twenty), the word ‘I’ alone occurs six times in this verse and ‘you’ and ‘your’ not at all. There are several possible reasons for this.

First,  if we take into account that it’s not just ‘I’, but ‘I’ve’  (or ‘I have’) which is repeated, the verse can be seen as an attempt by the narrator to give himself confidence. On only one other occasion in the song is ‘I’ used with a verb in the past tense. Here he comes across as assertive, detailing not what he wants, but what he’s already achieved.  It’s noticeable that this is the only verse in which there are no questions. One suspects, however, that there’s so much assertion going on in the verse, that it’s really a cover for his insecurity.

On the other hand, the egotism may reflect the fact that that since the narrator’s no longer speaking aloud, there’s  no need to put on an appearance of unselfish concern.

Finally, and most importantly for what follows, the constant use of first person pronouns would seem to reflect a change of tactic. It’s as if the narrator is taking a break from addressing the woman in order to scheme his next move in private. We, but not the woman, are privy to thoughts which represent his real reasons for wanting to start a relationship. In going over them, he’s wondering whether they’d justify his making a concession. At any rate, such a concession – to accede to her supposed desire for a relationship – is made at the beginning of the final verse.

Self-deceit In The Third Verse

While his thoughts remain private and unshared with the woman, that’s no reason for us to take them at face value. Even while taking stock, the narrator it seems cannot do so without indulging in self-deceit. He creates a fantasy world in which he paints his past life as untypically full and rich. It’s difficult to believe that this reflects the truth:

‘I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve been in the wind’


‘I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings
And I’ve never been too impressed’

Not impressed? Then why mention it? And in any case, why not be impressed? It sounds impressive. In any case, if what he’s saying were true, one would expect it to be still going on. Why is he not still dining with kings? Why didn’t he accept the offer of wings? Far more likely the narrator is exaggerating his successes in order to impress. Since the woman isn’t privy to his thoughts, it must be to impress himself. In so doing, he comes across as someone who has failed, but can’t bear to admit it.

The self-deception goes further than wildly exaggerating in order to impress, however. He pretends to be disdainful of what he’s supposedly achieved. Having presented himself as superior, he then pretends to be above it all. Rather than admit to the consequences of failure, he convinces himself that he has no desire for the trappings of success. His standards are higher – or so he’d have himself believe.

There’s yet further self-deceit hidden in the apparently innocent comment:

‘I’ve been in and out of happiness’

The phrase is awkward. One doesn’t speak of being ‘in happiness’ or ‘out of happiness’. The narrator seems to have substituted ‘happiness’ for ‘love’, for one can fall in love, and fall out of love. It seems he’s avoiding saying he’s been in and out of love. But why? Is this also something he doesn’t want to admit even to himself? If he hasn’t, that might explain the crassness of his attempts to negotiate a relationship. Again he’s coming across as someone trying to cover up for inadequacy. One can well understand why he’s , as he puts it, ‘been burnt before’.


Self deception is a trait not just confined to the third verse. Throughout the song he acts as if he can be so sure of the woman’s love that he can call all the shots. That this is mere wishful thinking is indicated by the uncertainty inherent in the opening words:

‘Do you love me … ?’

and in his suspicion that her protestation of love is no more than a symptom of guilt.

Above everything else the narrator’s attitude to love is a sign that behaviour initially seeming malicious is essentially the result of inadequacy. He claims to have experienced love:

‘I’ve been burned before and I know the score’,

but, even if it’s true,  the expression ‘the score’ hints at the reason it came to nothing. It suggests a tendency to quantify relationships. The idea is reinforced when he asks:

‘Will I be able to count on you?’

– the word ‘count’ having a similar meaning  to ‘score’.

Ignorance about love would explain the absurdity of the final verse’s opening line in which he’s back to addressing the woman:

‘All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you’

Is he really unaware that falling in love with someone is not something one chooses to do, let alone chooses to do after careful consideration? He’s seeming getting more and more out of his depth.

Fourth Verse

Nevertheless, to  fall in love with the woman is the concession he condescends to make in the final verse, having convinced himself in the previous verse that he’d have nothing to lose.

In making the concession, he puts on a show of reluctance:

‘All right, I’ll take a chance …’

While on the surface he appears to be trying  to make himself sound magnanimous, his beginning with ‘All right’ suggests he wants to look as if he’s been forced to give in. Maybe this is to bolster his self-esteem. Nevertheless it implies that the woman’s been badgering him, in the light of which he’ll selflessly do what she wants. The reference to taking a chance also seems to be to give the impression he’s doing it for her against his better judgment.

But not for long. Four lines later he asks:

‘Are you willing to risk it all …?’

Suddenly she is the one who’s expected to take a chance.

Further disingenuousness is apparent in his announcing:

‘If I’m a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too’

The context requires us to see this as generosity since previously (and absurdly given he’s thinking of starting a relationship) he’d resented being interrupted at night, seeing it as an intrusion. But now, he’d have her believe, he is prepared to sacrifice his nocturnal solitude to her. And not just the night; the morning too – such generosity!

But no, we’d be wrong to take the declaration this way. What he’s actually doing is denying he’ll give up these things. They’ll be done only:

‘If I’m a fool …’

While superficially this is doubtless an attempt to feign jocularity about having been ensnared by overwhelming  emotions, the phrase betrays a lack of concern for the woman.  It seems to imply that making such concessions as these would be the action of an idiot. One is left wondering whether to condemn his selfishness, or to take pity for his inability to cope.

His standing in the listener’s eyes is not enhanced by what on the surface appears to be rampant sexism:

‘Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow’

Even in the late twentieth century such a demeaning stance would have been met with derision. It goes along with the condescending ‘Or must I explain?’ of the second verse. Nevertheless, his general ineptness makes us suspect that this outdated view of a woman’s role may be as much attributable to ignorance of the opposite sex as to genuine chauvinism .

Nevertheless, what seems inescapable is that he’s yet again thinking about what she can do for him rather than what he can do for her.

‘So Fast’

In the second verse the woman is implicitly associated with the magician in No Time To Think:

‘Are you so fast that you cannot see that I must have solitude’

The phrase ‘so fast’ reminds us of the lines:

‘The magician is quicker, and his game
Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink’

There the magician seemed to be represent the mercurial side of the narrator’s character, and to represent his desire for revenge. Here, it would mean the narrator is implicitly, although perhaps unconsciously, associating her with a side of his character which he wants to keep in control. He’d rather be in ‘darkness’ than give in to the base desires which he allowed to overwhelm him in the earlier song.

That the narrator and the person he’s addressing are to be seen as two halves of a single individual is perhaps hinted at in the first verse where the narrator asks:

‘Do you need me half as bad as you say?’

To the admittedly limited extent that this interpretation holds, we’re at least able to sympathise with his desire to dominate.


A masterpiece of economical writing, the song depends entirely on the narrator’s own words to convey the intricacies of his psychology. While the lyrics are paramount,  words and music form a united whole.  In that the musical style is that of a love song, it serves to ironically underscore the narrator’s inability to form a romantic relationship. And the very different melody of the third verse reflects lyrical differences consistent with its representing a contemplative hiatus.

Superficially the narrator comes across as an unpleasant character attempting to benefit himself at the expense of someone else. On closer inspection, however, his manifold faults can be attributed at least in part to deeper flaws in his character which he vigorously, albeit ineptly, tries to overcome. These are his insecurity and difficulty in forming relationships. The attempt to be dominant even  becomes laudable if the person he’s addressing is interpreted as a negative side of his own character. On the main interpretation, what the narrator represents is human nature, the average person desperately trying to make something of him-or-herself, but failing hideously.

Baby, Stop Crying


For the most part the song presents the character of the narrator. A number of techniques are used along the way, including ambiguity – and in particular ambiguity about identity. The narrator is apparently the same as that of No Time To Think, a song which ended with him contemplating murder or suicide.

Baby, Stop Crying starts with the narrator on the brink of carrying out his intention:

‘Go get me my pistol, babe’

It’s still unclear who the intended victim is. If the wife has a lover it seems likely to be him. But either way, given the narrator’s deranged state of mind, he could be considering killing either himself, or his wife, or them both. As it is, the song ends without the intention having been fulfilled.

The Baby

The phrases ‘stop crying’ and ‘baby, please stop crying’, occur repeatedly in the chorus. It’s probable that Dylan is here re-using a device he used in ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ – playing on an ambiguity in the sense of ‘baby’. In the four main verses the woman is addressed as ‘babe’, not ‘baby’, indicating that – although she can still be seen as the one addressed in the chorus – the addressee is someone else, probably the narrator’s infant child. Since a child is referred to in No Time To Think, then it’s plausible that ‘baby’ would refer to an actual baby. That the identity of the addressee doesn’t have to be limited to one or other is significant in that the destructive effect of the crying on the narrator’s state of mind will be double. This at least mitigates what might otherwise come over as sheer heartlessness – a plea to stop crying repeated no less than thirty-two times.

On Street Legal the phrase ‘stop crying’ is also sung by the female backing singers, possibly without the word ‘baby’. Accordingly the addressee could also be the narrator. His wife would be complaining equally about his effect on her mental state. And, of course, she too could also be addressing a baby. The overall effect would be to show both the narrator and his wife driven to distraction in each others’ company.

Life And Death

The second verse is replete with ambiguity. The reference to fare in:

‘I will pay your fare’

suggests a journey, but we’re told nothing explicitly about the nature of the journey. The instruction:

‘Go down to the river, babe
Honey, I will meet you there’

is consistent with the fare being for a journey along the river, across the river, or even to the river. And even if we assume it’s along or across, we still don’t know if the narrator is going to accompany the woman, or if he’s expecting her to go alone.

Much will depend on what the journeys along and across the river each represent. It’s most likely that they are journeys to life and death respectively. Rivers traditionally represent life, and if the river is the Styx it would represent death. For the woman, a journey along the river might represent life without the narrator. One across it would represent life with him – if that for her is a sort of death.

The first verse too can be taken as involving the river, though here the direction of travel is vertically downwards – ‘down to the bottom’:

‘You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe’

As noted above, the phrase ‘down to’ in ‘You’ve been down to the bottom’ is echoed in the second verse’s Go down to the river, babe’. The ‘bottom’ and the river are thus associated; the bottom is the bottom of the river. The narrator would seem to be contrasting life with him, represented by a joint journey along the river, with life with the ‘bad man’, which he associates presumably with drowning.

Given that the woman survives, ‘down to the bottom’ might also be taken as a sort of baptismal immersion. In this case, for the narrator the wife has survived metaphorical drowning in the ‘bad man’s’ company, but has emerged spiritually better off in that she’s returned to him. And from the wife’s point of view the ‘bad man’ has been the source of spiritual, or emotional, renewal, and her return to the narrator is to be associated with drowning.


The language of the third verse suggests an alternative interpretation of the second. This is that while the river does indeed represent death, it’s representing literal death. Accordingly, when the narrator says ‘I will pay your fare’, he’s offering to facilitate his wife’s journey into the next world – in other words, to kill her. Support for this in the third verse comes in the opening line:

‘If you’re looking for assistance babe’

To the early twenty-first century ear ‘assistance’ has overtones of ‘assisted suicide’. At any rate the word ‘assistance’ is distancing in a way that its synonym ‘help’ isn’t. The second line:

‘Or if you just want some company’

could then be referring to company in death – in other words a suicide pact. It would be for the purpose of such joint suicide that the narrator offers in the second verse to meet his wife at ‘the river’ (now more obviously the Styx).

The ‘Bad Man’

Just as the ‘baby’ need not be the wife, it’s clear that the ‘bad man’ is not to be uniquely identified with the wife’s lover. The description ‘bad man’ equally applies to the narrator himself, particularly if he’s also the narrator of No Time To Think.

At the surface level, the ‘bad man’ clearly is a different person to the narrator. This is implied by some subtle differences in the language and tone of the second verse compared with the language and tone of the first. In the first verse the narrator declares:

‘You’ve been down to the bottom with a bad man, babe’

and in the second,

‘Go down to the river, babe
Honey I will meet you there’

The difference in language concerns the words ‘with’ and ‘meet’. While we’re told the wife has been ‘with‘ a bad man, we learn that the husband intends merely to ‘meet’ her. The difference is crucial because it points to a harmony between the wife and the ‘bad man’, but to a distance between her and the narrator. Doing something with someone creates a kind of unity between them, whereas simply meeting them draws attention to their prior separation. Being with someone implies a mutual closeness, whereas ‘I will meet‘ implies at best closeness on one side.

Secondly, the tone of the first quotation suggests the wife’s behaviour was voluntary; there’s nothing to indicate compulsion. By contrast the second quotation has him ordering her, and tells her he’s going to meet her whether she likes it or not.

The ‘Bad Man’ As The Narrator

Despite these differences, there is also a marked similarity in the language which hints at an identity between the bad man and the narrator. In each verse the direction of travel is described using the same phrase – ‘down to the‘. She has been ‘down to the bottom’ with a man and she’s told to go ‘down to the river to be met by a man’. If, as this seems to imply, the bad man is the narrator, the narrator is unconsciously informing us that he himself is at least in part responsible for the woman’s demise in going ‘down to the bottom’.

The narrator and the’ bad man’ can, then, be seen as two men or one. If there are two men, the happiness and misery represented by different interpretations of the river can easily be accommodated. It’s possible for the wife to be happy with one man and miserable with the other. However if the narrator and the ‘bad man’ are one and the same it cannot be that the wife is happy with one man and miserable with the other. Instead her happiness and misery must apply to her relationship with the same man, the narrator, but at different times.

Breaking The Cycle

The wife, and perhaps the narrator, seem to be locked in a cycle of misery. Her attempt to find happiness with the ‘bad man’seems futile. The use of the word ‘back’ in the second line of the song emphasises this:

‘But you’re back where you belong’

She has arrived at where she is in the present only by having come back to it from the past. Not only does an earlier present give rise to an exactly similar present now but, if things don’t change, that present too will give rise to an exactly similar present in the future – and so on, ad infinitum. 1 On the narrator’s view his wife is locked in an eternal cycle of repeatedly finding the present. A way out of the cycle would be if a decisive step is taken.

Right And Wrong

There is reason to suppose that the narrator might be on the way to breaking the cycle. In the fourth line of the song,

‘Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong’,

which is apparently intended to refer to the use of the pistol, the narrator has, he claims, lost the ability to distinguish good from bad. There are a number of things to say about this. 3

First, if the line is taken at face value, it might indicate the narrator’s having concluded that traditional moral values don’t always apply. While it’s far from clear that the song is espousing this, there’s some suggestion in No Time To Think that remaining unfaithful to his wife might have been the better course of action. This might seem to him to justify decisive action.

It may be that the narrator has not really lost the ability to tell right from wrong, though. If he had, he surely wouldn’t think it necessary to point it out. It might be natural to do so after killing someone, to the police perhaps, but it’s unlikely to be the sort of thing on his mind beforehand. Furthermore, if he really knew what he was contemplating might be right or wrong, that would be a reason for not going ahead just in case. It would hardly excuse going ahead as he seems to expect it to. More likely the narrator is just trying to bolster himself in the woman’s eyes, hoping perhaps that she’ll prevent him from doing what he’s threatening, while at the same time trying to get her to feel guilty for the murderous or suicidal state she’s put him in. If so, the cycle of misery seems set to continue.2

Identity And Division In The Chorus

In the chorus there’s again an implication of identity between different people – this time the narrator and the woman. And it’s because they share the same knowledge:

‘You know, I know, the sun will always shine’

At this point  they’re unified by their optimistic outlook – or so the narrator is convincing himself. Yet while the narrator and the woman can be seen as a unity, the narrator sees himself as mentally disintegrating. The crying is:

‘…  tearing up my mind’

Unity with her, it seems, goes hand in hand his own mental disintegration.

The precise nature of the division in the narrator’s character comes out in the same line that informs us of his disintegration. In saying:

‘So baby, please stop crying, ’cause it’s tearing up my mind’

he’s unintentionally making himself out to be both considerate and selfish. He does so in giving two different reasons why she should stop crying. The word ‘so’ – used to imply a reason’s been given – refers back to the previous line which ends:

‘… the sun will always shine’

Accordingly the reason he’s giving that there’s no need to continue crying is that there are always grounds for optimism. But immediately, this considerateness for her state of mind vanishes as he follows up with a very different reason – her crying is destructive of his mental state. One part of him focuses on her need for comfort, while the other part is selfish.

Just as we’re told the narrator and his wife are united by the same optimistic outlook, so it seems they’re united in distress. In her case it’s shown by her crying, and in his it’s shown by his claim about the effect of the crying on his mind. Despite their being so similar, neither seems to recognise that each has as much need of sympathy as the other.

The Narrator’s Character – Positive

The presence of ‘please’ four times in the chorus shows the narrator to be respectful, and the offer of assistance and referring to himself as a friend suggest at least some consideration for others. He seems sympathetic too, recognising that she’s been often hurt before, and the recognition that she must be ‘madly in love’ combines sympathy with generosity.

If he’s actually unable to tell right from wrong, this too would work in his favour. Someone who murders, but can’t tell right from wrong, can hardly be judged guilty.

The Narrator’s Character – Negative

The narrator has a number of negative characteristics which not only seem to outweigh any good points, but enable us to see why the relationship might have foundered. He imposes on his wife, he’s selfish, and he seems to lack commitment to her.

: He’s both imposing and sexist when he tells the woman she’s back where she belongs.

And his expectations of her are equally imposing. From the outset he seems bossy, taking it for granted she’ll do what he says. The order:

‘Go get me my pistol, babe’

is followed by,

‘Go down to the river, babe’,

And even though the tone of the final verse is sympathetic, he still ends up being bossy:

‘Honey, come and see about me’

:  Despite the sympathetic tone, it’s clear that the narrator is self-centred and selfish. In the line just quoted, instead of saying he’ll go to her, he requires her to come to him.

Additionally, he doesn’t just say ‘come and see me’ which the context requires, but ‘come and see about me’. Why ‘about‘? It changes the meaning. The focus is suddenly himself. He’s telling her that his state is as bad as hers, and that he’s just as in need of sympathy.

One might also wonder how he knows, in verse four, that she’s:

‘… been hurt so many times’

– unless, that is, he is the one who has hurt her.  If the narrator is the same as the narrator of No Time To Think, we know that he has been unfaithful. In this case the aura of sympathy looks disingenuous. Apology would seem more appropriate than sympathy.

: The narrator’s commitment to his wife gets thrown into doubt in the third verse which begins:

‘If you’re looking for assistance, babe
Or if you just want some company’

‘Assistance’ seems remarkably stiff and formal in the context. So does ‘company’. And despite the offer in the next line:

 ‘Or if you just want a friend you can talk to’

it’s apparent that it’s not friendship pure and simple he’s offering. The qualifying ‘you can talk to’ sounds distancing . Once again he’s eschewing an opportunity for closeness, just as he did earlier in wanting to ‘meet’ her at the river instead of going with her. The expression ‘talk to’ provides no indication that he’s offering anything other than a one-sided conversation in which his own contribution will be minimal.

This lack of commitment continues in the fourth verse in which the tone suggests he’s resigned to losing her. When he says:

‘ I know what you’re thinking of’

he may mean he thinks she’s considering leaving him for good. That this has been in the back of his mind is suggested by his having said ‘Come and see about me’. The word ‘come’ implies he expects her to be somewhere else, and not likely to return unless pressed. If this is what she’s thinking, it suggests too that he’s relinquishing his other explicit claim to knowledge in the chorus, that the sun will always shine. He doesn’t actually think it will.

His recognition that her commitment is to her lover is implied when he says:

‘Well, I don’t have to be no doctor, babe
To see that you’re madly in love’

The ‘doctor’ reference has him presenting her love for someone else as an illness. At the same time the word ‘well’ – read as the opposite of ‘ill’ – either ironically suggests that her love is anything but an illness, or that he (not being ill, in the sense of ‘in love’) is in a position to judge. On each interpretation his claim that she’s ‘madly’ in love has him trivialising her suffering, rather than recognising that she too is mentally deranged – something borne out by her constant crying.

The lack of commitment shown goes hand in hand with a gradual diminution in his affection which becomes apparent as the song progresses. By the end he’s no longer so inclined to use expressions of endearment. While in three of the four  verses ‘babe’ and ‘honey’ occur, after the second verse their appearance gradually lessens so that by the fourth ‘babe’ appears just once. And by this time ‘honey’ doesn’t appear at all.


The song uses a dramatic monologue style to present in his own words the narrator’s character and view of his situation. The presentation is helped along by way of a number of ambiguities, particularly ones involving identity. He doesn’t specify the identity of the ‘baby’, and this enables us to see it as both the wife and a child. The effect is to show us the extent of the pressure he’s under. On the other hand the ‘bad man’ can be seen both as his wife’s lover and as the narrator himself. Where the ‘bad man’ is seen as the lover, the narrator’s failure to recognise the ‘bad man’s’ characteristics in himself is complemented by his failure to recognise his wife in himself. He fails to see that her mental distress and  need for sympathy is as great as his. At the same time, his actual identity with the ‘bad man’ would mean there is no lover. In that case the wife’s happiness and sadness would accompany her relationship with the narrator at different times, rather than the narrator and a lover at the same time. It’s not that he’s been replaced in her affections, but that in her eyes he’s no longer the man he was.

Although he seems to be a man at end of his tether, the narrator’s words are not entirely trustworthy. On the surface he comes across as polite, kind and sympathetic, an impression which belies his deviousness in pretending to be in a worse state than he really is. And towards his wife, he’s both imposing and sexist. In addition he’s selfish, his apparent concern for her wellbeing being insincere, or at least immediately being replaced by concern for himself. His attitude to his wife has been ambivalent from the outset. He’s never seemed committed , and by the end what feeling he may have had for her seems all but gone.

By the end of the song the narrator has made no progress towards carrying out any violent intention. The pistol of line three doesn’t get mentioned again. We’re left with the impression that he’s been bluffing in order to elicit sympathy.

Revised 20.2.17

  1. See footnote 3.
  2. Both the ideas of eternal recurrence, which a strong man can escape, and of a need to break down traditional distinctions between right and wrong, have their origin in Nietzsche. Eternal recurrence is also a theme of Mr Tambourine Man.
  3. See footnote 1.