Standing In The Doorway

Again the song starts with the narrator walking. And again it can only be metaphorical because in the second line we’re told the ‘jukebox is playing low’. One imagines he’d be unlikely to have a jukebox with him on his walk. In fact, since he’s ‘walking through the summer nights’, the suggestion might be not so much that’s he’s going anywhere, as that time is passing. He could easily be just stuck in a bar, say, doing nothing but drinking his sorrows away, aware of music in the background.

The song is a presentation of the narrator’s state of mind in his own words. From these words we gain a greater insight into his character than he would perhaps like us to have. He doesn’t come across favourably. While he seems wrapped up in the problems of his own love life, the song can also be seen to work as an allegory. It presents general human existential angst (or, less pompously, misery about the apparent pointlessness of it all), and suggests a response in terms of a more outward looking concern for others.


The Narrator’s State Of Mind

As in the preceding songs, the narrator is in a state of inner turmoil. One way this is represented is by his being unable to strike a balance between opposites. There’s the opposition between summer and night, perhaps representing what he believes life can offer and the despair into which he has sunk. The idea gets reinforced later by the reference to the ‘dark land of the sun’. His turmoil is again apparent when he tells us that:

‘All the laughter is just making me sad’

And there’s another opposition related to the speed of events:

‘Yesterday everything was going too fast
Today it’s moving too slow’

Here he’s trying to turn the blame away from himself. The ‘too fast’ and ‘too slow’ seem to represent respectively his perceived  inability to prevent  the events leading to his present state of mind, and the supposed reason for his failure to put matters right. The implication of ‘laughter’ and ‘summer’ in the earlier quotation, is that things are nowhere near as bad as they seem. In fact he seems to admit he’s in the wrong when he goes on to refer  to ‘riding a midnight train’ – ‘midnight’ representing the point of maximum darkness – and to suffering ‘like a fool’.

Whether or not things are as bad as he thinks, the narrator seems determined to wallow in misery. He tells us he’s ‘sick in the head’, that he’s ‘got nothing to go back to now’ and he’s ‘got no place left to turn’. This last claim seems a bit disingenuous since the word ‘left’ implies he’s been actively doing all he can to improve things and has exhausted all possibilities. In fact he seems to have simply  ignored the opportunities represented by summer and laughter.


Ambivalent Attitude

The weakness of the narrator’s character becomes even more apparent when we realise it’s not even clear he wants the relationship he’s lost to pick up again. Twice his uncertainty becomes clear:

‘I don’t know if I saw you if I’d kiss you or kill you’

and

‘I would be crazy if I took you back’

He seems unprepared to make any concessions. That he knows more is required of him becomes apparent from his admission that:

‘There’s things I could say, but don’t’

Why doesn’t he say them, one might wonder. Is it because he’s too bound up in his own concerns to be bothered with his lover’s? That he knows more is required of him again becomes apparent from his admission that:

‘I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
There are no words that need to be said’

The lines are ambiguous. We wonder if he’s kidding himself that he’s being magnanimous to the woman by not expecting an apology from her, or whether instead he’s reinforcing his earlier refusal to make concessions. If the latter, such a refusal puts his commitment to the relationship in doubt.

A couple of things might suggest that his behaviour is not totally negative, however. He tells us he danced with someone else which, though it did little good, nevertheless might be seen as the beginnings of an acceptance of reality. And although he pathetically keeps telling us he was left ‘standing in the doorway crying’, the fact that he is now ‘walking’ could imply that he has both literally and metaphorically moved on.


The Predicament As Spiritual

The words of the title, ‘Standing In The Doorway’  recur in the repeated line ‘You left me standing in the doorway crying’. ‘The doorway’ is open to a number of simultaneous interpretations. It could be the doorway to the narrator’s own house after his lover has gone off. It could be the doorway to her house after she refuses to let him in. And, looking ahead to the song Trying To Get To Heaven, it could be the threshold to spiritual salvation. In that song he wants to get to heaven before the door closes. Here he seems to believe it’s too late; he’s left outside once it’s been shut. While all three interpretations are plausible, there are quite a lot of reasons for accepting the third in particular.

A Need For God:

As the song progresses, the narrator seems to become more conscious of a need for God. Halfway through he says:

 ‘I know the mercy of God must be near’.

That the narrator now has a concern about redemption is then reinforced by his awareness of a church:

‘I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard
I wonder who they’re ringing for’

The implication of the line ‘I wonder who they’re ringing for’ is – as in Donne’s famous sermon – that they’re ringing for him, though the significance of this seems lost on him. The ringing should serve not just as a reminder about eventual death, but – because they’re church bells – as a warning of impending spiritual death.

Fire:

That the door can be seen as the door to heaven, or salvation, is further supported by  a reference to fire in a response of the narrator to his predicament:

‘I got nothing left to burn’

There’s no indication that the narrator is aware of any spiritual significance. Presumably he just means that there’s nothing for him any more in life, and that there’s nothing else he can do to improve it. Thus on one level the line emphasises the earlier complaint that he’s ‘no place left to turn’. However, on another,  religious concerns are being re-introduced with an image of hell. The concision of the writing is deceptive, disguising  two possible consequences of imbuing the line with a religious significance.

First, the line suggests the narrator is in danger. There is in fact one thing ‘left to burn’ – himself. The narrator simply doesn’t realise that his spiritual existence is in jeopardy and that he needs to take decisive action.

Secondly, the line suggests hope. He thinks he’s got nothing left, but as yet he has – himself.

These consequences are linked, since if he takes decisive action, he restores the hope he’s lost. While on one level this might be simply  a hope of reviving the relationship, on another it might be a hope of dispelling a more general feeling that life is pointless – that once it’s over, it’s over:

‘When the last days of daylight go down,
Buddy you’ll roll no more’

Christ:

Religious imagery occurs throughout the song. For example:

‘Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you.
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow’

The narrator is now Judas addressing Christ. His kiss brings about Christ’s death – and as such there’s no distinction between kissing and killing. Of course, the narrator is just reflecting on the ambivalent nature of the relationship, and the woman’s indifference to him. It’s only the listener who sees him as Judas, and who is therefore aware of an implicit criticism of the narrator’s approach to the relationship.

Another possible reference to Christ comes with the mention of light:

‘The light in this place is so bad
Making me sick in the head’

In a sense it’s the absence of Christ which is represented by the poor light, since Christ famously said ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12). Again, there’s no reason to suppose the connection is made by the narrator. The complaint even seems unrelated to his main concern since it’s only if we remember similar wording in Love Sick – where he was ‘walking with you in my head‘ – that we’re likely to relate it to the erstwhile relationship.

A further unconscious reference to Christ might lie in his lament that he’s ‘in the dark land of the sun’ which can be interpreted as an expression of hope – ‘sun’ being read as ‘Son’. If only he realised it, there’s hope where he sees only blackness.

The narrator also likens himself to a leper:

‘And even if the flesh falls off of my face
I know someone will be there to care’

Presumably the leprosy here (as distinct from in ‘Til I Fell In Love With You’) represents the narrator’s misery or his more general spiritual malaise. But who will be there to care? At this point the only obvious candidate is the narrator himself. It’s up to him to cure himself. Nevertheless the leprosy image seems to invoke Christ who  went out of his way to care for those with leprosy (e.g. Matt 8.2-4). The significance is two-fold. First, straightforwardly, there’s the suggestion that the narrator could benefit from whatever it is Christ represents. Secondly, if Christ and the narrator are equally the person there to care for him, an identification between the two seems to be implied. In other words, by taking on the role of Christ, the narrator will at the same time be bringing about his own cure.

This idea is made more explicit in the final line of the song:

‘Blues wrapped around my head’

On one level this tells us he’s still wallowing in misery. But the expression ‘wrapped around my head’ also puts us in mind of the crown of thorns. No longer Judas, he has now become Christ. And as a result he can resolve his problem – in the terms of the song, the misery caused by the loss of his lover. But being Christ means accepting the need to sacrifice one’s own well-being for the sake of the needs and well-being of others. He can no longer stick his head in the sand.

.
Conclusion

The song, then works on two levels. On the surface level it’s a portrayal of the desolation experienced by someone when a relationship fails. We cannot help empathising with the character, despite recognising his all-too-human failings. On the deeper level it suggests how feelings of desolation are best dealt with. The central idea is that the narrator needs to stop focusing just on himself. In terms of the religious concepts employed, he needs to change from being Judas to being Christ. It’s noticeable in the song that he hardly ever considers the concerns of his lover. As he says:

‘It always means so much
Even the softest touch’

What he means is that even the softest touch means a lot to him. It’s sadly ironic that he fails to realise that others too would appreciate similar consideration. Nevertheless, by the end of the song he does seem to be some way towards achieving the Christian outlook which will both benefit his lover and be the means of dispelling his own misery.

Dirt Road Blues

This second song on ‘Time Out Of Mind’ takes up and advances the ideas of the first – as do most songs on the album. Walking, hoping to continue a relationship, shadows and clouds are again all present. So is the narrator’s lethargy. If walking represents trying to find a way back to the woman, he seems to opt for the easy way out – walking, he says:

‘… ’til someone lets me ride’

And if he’s unsuccessful, he’s:

‘… gonna run away and hide’

– again, pretty pathetic.

The impression that the narrator is pathetic continues into the second verse. ‘Pacing around the room’ is hardly going to achieve much; neither is merely ‘hoping she’ll come back’.

At this point the song takes up a theme barely hinted at in Love Sick.:

‘Well I been praying for salvation
Laying around in a one-room country shack’

The laying around is true to form, but why is it salvation he’s praying for rather than the solution to his problem? Presumably ‘praying’ and ‘salvation’ are both being used metaphorically by the narrator.  He means no more than that his hoping a resolution to his situation will come along. Nevertheless, salvation – being healed spiritually – is a religious notion, and the writer at least seems to be suggesting that the narrator is in need of such healing.

The narrator’s lack of commitment to finding a solution to his problem is again emphasised in the third verse:

‘Gon’ walk down that dirt road, until my eyes begin to bleed
Til there’s nothing left to see’

His behaviour seems ostrich-like – pretending there’s nothing to be aware of if he manages to make himself not see it. In Love Sick we learnt he had apparently blinded himself to his lover’s distress, though this was now starting to affect his conscience. Here he is continuing to delude himself.

He goes on to compare himself to a prisoner in chains, waiting helplessly:

‘Til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed’

It’s difficult to see how the prisoner metaphor might be appropriate, since (on the evidence of Love Sick) no one’s preventing him from taking positive action. In fact he just seems to be putting the blame elsewhere for his continuing misery. There’s no hint that he’s trying to escape from the chains.

As in ‘Love Sick’ his listlessness is represented in the fourth verse by shadow-watching. Again, it doesn’t immediately seem to be the positive action required. Here it’s his own shadow, though, so the suggestion might be that he’s at least beginning to achieve self-knowledge. Also the clouds which are weeping in the earlier song have become ‘colours up above’. This too suggests a more positive outlook,  suggesting the narrator is prepared to accept that there’s hope. The nature of the hope is unclear, but there’s a further hint at incipient salvation in the final verse which begins:

Lord, gonna walk down that dirt road…’

This seems more like a genuine apostrophising of God, as if the narrator is at last looking beyond just himself. No substantial progress is made until the third song, Standing In The Doorway however. Here the song ends with his putting  the onus for action on the woman as he waits for her  to ‘holler out my name’.

 

Minor adjustments 2.3.17

Love Sick

Time Out Of Mind comprises eleven closely interrelated songs, all effectively the thoughts of the same narrator following the ending of a particular relationship. The same ideas are found recurring again and again throughout the songs which represent the struggles someone might go through in dealing with loss. The overall effect is to present us with a highly detailed picture of human weakness and contradiction in the face of adversity. Although the tone is despondent throughout the album, there are nevertheless  hints that the flaws in the narrator’s character, which are in part responsible for his misery, might be overcome.

The first song, Love Sick, presents the effect of a former relationship on the speaker’s mind. On the one hand he claims to be love sick in the sense of being infatuated with someone who wants nothing to do with him, and on the other he is love sick in the sense that his desire for the person is making him feel ill. The narrator’s thoughts which are presented throughout the song are also a guide to his character. He comes across not just as unsuccessful in love, but weak. He’s weak in that he allows his emotions to take him over. And he’s weak in that he makes no effort to make things better for himself. In addition, reading between the lines, he comes across as duplicitous.

The narrator’s negative outlook is seen from the start:

‘I’m walking
Through streets that are dead’

It’s not of course the streets which are dead, but the narrator in a spiritual sense, in that he’s allowing himself to wallow in misery. He imposes his own feelings on things around him again when he comments:

‘And the clouds are weeping’

While the feeling of total desolation may be one not outside the listener’s experience, and therefore understandable, the listener is not likely to have much sympathy for him. From a neutral position the narrator looks as if he’s taking advantage of his state of mind, using it as an excuse for not having to acknowledge his own responsibility for his predicament. But despite his attempts to cover up his own part in his demise, he can’t help unintentionally alluding to it:

‘I spoke like a child;
You destroyed me with a smile
While I was sleeping’

He tries to appear innocent by comparing himself with a child, but fails. Instead he comes across as childish rather than childlike. He accuses the person he’s addressing of destroying him with a smile, but since he was sleeping this could not literally have been the case. He’s not so much reporting the reaction of his lover as imagining what an appropriate reaction might be. In other words he knows he fully deserves whatever criticisms are being made against him because it’s his own sub-conscious which is making them. The lines form a beautiful vignette in which the reader is invited to fill in the rest of the scene. He speaks, but the only response is a smile. He’s destroyed. There ought to be nothing destructive about a smile – it seems a kindly response. But he interprets it as destructive because he knows full well that it signifies the uncovering of his deceit.

The lines immediately preceding this suggest the nature of the deceit:

‘Did I
Hear someone tell a lie?’

The lie would seem to have been his own – there’s no one around when he thinks he hears it. And it may be in that he lied that he ‘spoke like a child’. It was pathetic, too easily seen through. Rather than admit he’s lied, he merely suggests that someone lied. His immaturity comes through in his unwillingness to face up to the fact that the lie was his. Given his implicitly longing to be like the lovers in the meadow, it seems likely it concerned an illicit – perhaps adulterous -liaison.

It’s particularly ironic, then, that he asks ‘Could you ever be true?’ In the light of the lie, this question would be more appropriately addressed to himself. That way the question would not be an irrelevant enquiry about the long term prospects of his lover’s fidelity, but a totally appropriate expression of exasperated regret at his own habitual unfaithfulness. Later he says ‘I wish I’d never met you’, reinforcing the idea that, whatever his virtues, constancy is not one of them.

Immediately following the lines about the lie are the following:

‘Did 1
Did I hear someone’s distant cry?’

The cry would be a cry of anguish from the lover on discovering her betrayal. It’s a distant cry in that the narrator didn’t let it bother him; it was easy to ignore. But now that the relationship is over, it starts to impinge on his conscience. It’s this effect on his conscience which might contain the seeds of an eventual moral recovery.

One trait which characterises the narrator is inactivity. He doesn’t do anything to improve his life. He merely notices ‘lovers in the meadow’ but to no good purpose. He focuses on ‘silhouettes in the window’. These silhouettes, being  at one remove from reality – mere shadows – perhaps represent his failure to focus on reality. When they’ve disappeared, he clings on to what’s left of his relationship, refusing to accept its shadowy nature. This is not to suggest he approves of his inertia. The forlorn tone suggests he realises its pointlessness, that time’s passing without his achieving anything (‘I hear the clock tick’) – but still he does nothing. He ‘wants to take to the road and plunder’, but he doesn’t get around to doing it. And he says ‘I’m trying to forget you’, but one could be forgiven for thinking he’s not trying very hard.

There’s ambiguity throughout about what the narrator’s attitude to love is. He claims to be love sick, but of course there’s really no such thing as love sickness outside medieval romance. He seems to be just fed up that things are not going the way he’d like. He comes across as wanting life to be run on his own unrealistic terms:

‘This kind of love,
I’m so sick of it’

By the end of the song, it’s not just ‘this kind of love’ which he eschews, but love generally. He tells us he’s ‘sick of love’.