Trying To Get To Heaven

In this fifth song on ‘Time Out Of Mind’ the narrator again unintentionally provides us with an insight into the intricacies of his character as he continues to moan about his lot. He seems to be aware of some change for the better in his situation:

‘Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before’

Nevertheless the majority of the song presents the same pessimistic outlook as the earlier three. In the very opening lines he refers to ‘the heat rising in my eyes’ as if his problems are getting worse. The phrase ‘in my eyes’ is telling, perhaps suggesting that we’re being presented with a highly inaccurate, subjective view . That his account is biased becomes apparent later in his use of negative language, particularly the oft repeated word ‘down’. He’s going ‘down the road feeling bad’, ‘down the river’, and ‘down to New Orleans’. He’s intending to sleep ‘down in the parlour’, and he ‘shook the sugar down‘. It’s notable that the only use of ‘up’ in the song applies to the lover who he expects to ‘close up the book’. He persists in seeing himself as downtrodden by his lover.

The up/down imagery continues in the second and third verses where there’s a contrast between his outlook:

‘You broke a heart that loved you’

 and that of the people at the train station, whose hearts are like:

‘… pendulums swinging on chains’

The movement of a pendulum is from up to down to back up again. In other words the narrator seems to recognise that the normal state of affairs is for the heart to move from happiness to misery, and then back to happiness. The narrator can’t accept that he’ll ever be happy again, though. He sees his heart, far from swinging like a pendulum, as broken. To him his misery is permanent.

The pessimism continues:

‘When I was in Missouri, they would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see’

‘They’ are presumably those he’s close to who offer advice, advice which he spurns because they refuse to go along with his negative outlook.  But why did he only see what he was allowed to? Again, he seems determined to wallow in misery instead of taking control. It’s because he’s being so unduly pessimistic that it’s impossible for others to see things as he sees them, but rather than accept that they might be right he leaves. ‘I’ll close my eyes’, he says in the final verse, meaning it literally. The trouble is, though, that he’s already closed them metaphorically – refusing to allow himself to see things as they really are.

Another attempt to cheer him up meets with the same negative response:

‘They tell me everything is gonna be all right
But I don’t know what ‘all right’ even means’

While it’s probably true that:

‘When you think you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more’,

that just means things weren’t as bad as you thought they were. Rather than taking heart from this, the narrator instead seems to imply that he keeps going from bad to worse, continually losing more and more. But he’s given us no reason to suppose that that’s the case. From what he’s told us he’s had one loss and one loss only – his lover.

Part of the narrator’s problem, as in the earlier songs, is his inertness. Whereas he needs to take control of the situation, he gives up:

‘Gonna sleep down in the parlour, and relive my dreams
I close my eyes and I wonder, if everything is as hollow as it seems’

Sleeping is about the most inactive thing he could do. And ‘relive’ is the wrong word. It would be normal to relive a real-life experience when dreaming, but he has no worthwhile real-life experience to re-live. All he’s going to do is continue his wishful thinking. He’s left with reliving dreams because there’s nothing successful he’s done which he could re-live.

This inertness comes across again in his references to travel. Whereas other people are preparing to go somewhere – ‘waiting for the trains’, the narrator just complains:

‘Some trains don’t pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers like they did before’

If he were really the ‘gambler’ and ‘midnight rambler’ he seems to characterise himself as, one would think he’d get on and take whatever opportunity presented itself. Proudly he announces:

‘I’ve been all around the world, boys’

but there’s no evidence of this. Again he seems to be indulging in wishful thinking. The ‘boys’ he’s addressing seem just to be in his mind. He wishes he could brag about something, further impress an admiring audience – ‘boys’ – but makes do with imagining doing it. In fact what he’s actually done seems to have been no more than ‘riding in a buggy with Miss Mary Jane’. He seems proud of it, yet it hardly seems an achievement to brag about. Since he refers to it as ‘a’ buggy, we can assume it wasn’t even his. The unnecessarily deferential use of ‘Miss’ suggests he’s unduly overawed by Miss Mary Jane, presumably due to what he sees as unusual success – having a buggy and a house in Baltimore. Since the reference to her house is soon followed by:

‘Gonna sleep down in the parlour…’

one assumes it’s her he’s expecting to put him up. That he hasn’t got a buggy or house of his own (and especially one with a parlour) seems to fit with his refusal to take control of his life. So does his being prepared to make a burden of himself.

The need to feel he’s achieved something occurs again at the end of the song where the tone becomes positive:

‘I’ve been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down’

While this might not be the exaggeration that having been all around the world was, it again doesn’t really seem to justify the bragging tone. If the reference is to LSD, the brag is of having succumbed to finding solace in drugs.*

This desire to be seen to be active shows the narrator is aware that he needs to take control of his life. He claims to be:

‘Trying to get to heaven before they close the door’

thus showing he knows time is short and if he doesn’t act he soon won’t be able to achieve his aim. That time running out is an issue for him is perhaps apparent too in the reference to clocks in the pendulum image.

‘Heaven’ is just one of a number of religious ideas used to map out the narrator’s life. Presumably he uses it to mean success in his love life. Nevertheless, his assumption that an unspecified ‘they’ are going to close the door on him is another instance of his refusal to take control. He should be making sure he gets into heaven. There should be no question of anyone shutting him out.  And, of course, one feels that the idea of being shut out of heaven is just an excuse for his expected failure to get there. He’s in the same pathetic mindset as when the woman (supposedly) shut the door on him to ‘leave him in the doorway crying’.

Another religious reference occurs in the line:

‘Now you can seal up the book and not write any more’

The words ‘seal up the book’ seem to be adapted from Daniel 12.4. There the prophet is told to keep his knowledge about the ‘end times’ secret – ‘shut up the words, and seal the book’. Here the wording seems to used by the narrator to give his pronouncement the appearance of authority, and perhaps to suggest that having broken his heart there’s nothing more his lover can do to harm him. At the same time it might also indicate a hope on the narrator’s part that his lover will forgo giving her side of the story, perhaps because it wouldn’t put him in a good light.

Another line:

‘I’ve been walking that lonesome valley’

ultimately derives from Psalm 23 – ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me’ – though Dylan’s line is more directly an adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s ‘I’m gonna walk that lonesome valley’. The effect of changing the psalm’s ‘darkest’ to ‘lonesome’ is to imply that the narrator (in each song) is in a state of absolute desolation. However, Guthrie’s use of the future tense suggests a determination which Dylan’s character doesn’t have. The latter’s use of the past tense just makes him seem excessively sorry for himself.

His refusal to acknowledge with the psalmist that he is not alone – people are willing to help him, but he ignores their advice – makes it all the more unlikely he will achieve his aim (‘get to heaven’ or achieve happiness) before it’s too late.

The song provides us with a fine picture of the subtleties and contradictions of human psychology. Although we have only the subject’s own words to go on, we’re able to piece together a much fuller and more accurate picture of his character than he himself is aware he’s providing, or is even aware of at all. The picture we’ve been given is of a complex, but pusillanimous character reacting to a painful loss. While his pain is understandable, it’s clear that he exaggerates his plight and blinds himself to possible solutions. In so doing he deceives himself that he’s doing more than he is. He clearly realises he needs to change his approach while refusing  to accept the help that’s available. Yet at the same time he seems unaware of the deficiencies in his character which underlie his apparent lethargy.


* Lee Hazlewood is quoted as giving the following account of the origin of his song  ‘Sugar Town’: “I was in a folk club in LA which had two levels. I could see these kids lining up sugar cubes and they had an eye-dropper and were putting something on them. I wasn’t a doper so I didn’t know what it was but I asked them. It was LSD and one of the kids said, ‘You know, it’s kinda Sugar Town.’ (Singsnap, accessed 1.8.16).

6 thoughts on “Trying To Get To Heaven

  1. Having been raised in Independence, Missouri, it has occurred to me that the song’s Missouri allusion could relate to Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion. I think he was forced to leave about every place he ever went. Just a thought . . .


    • Thanks Ed. I was wondering about the significance of place names and I’ll think about your suggestion. In a later song the narrator says he’s ‘Dixie bound’, so one effect of the New Orleans reference here is to link it with that song. As for Baltimore, judging by a quick glance at Wikipedia it seems to be a well-to-do place and so perhaps contributes to the contrasdt between the narrator and the relatively successful Miss Mary Jane.


  2. I’m a big fan of Bob as I am a lot of other bands and musicians, but I’ve never understood why he is frequently singled out for analysis and interpretation in this way.
    He has big ears for music and appears to read a lot. It is likely to give him both a large conscious and subconscious vocabulary. This is why many of his songs appear to be ‘dense’ and ‘full of symbolic meaning’. I think separating lyrics in this way greatly diminishes the impact of his musical creations. The best of his songs, and this is one of them, appear to channel a mood or a thought.
    The idea that Bob might be inserting symbolic images or mysteries, is fanciful;
    This song appears to be narrated by a man beaten by life, with gentle humour added. The musical accompaniment is as important to its success as the words he is singing. No doubt we all have an opinion. I think,and always have done, that Bobs work includes some of the very best entertainment, that is successful because of its mystery, even if it is an enigma without a riddle.


    • Thanks for commenting Stephen. I agree with you that the song is narrated by a man beaten by life and even that there’s a touch of humour in the writing. And I’m sure that to present the songs just as poems would undoubtably diminish their impact. I’m not suggesting, though, that that should be done. I don’t for a moment deny that a full appreciation would need to take into account a huge amount more, not least things like musical style and influences, poetic style, the way Dylan uses his voice, and changes made from one performance to another. Such a full appreciation would be beyond the scope of these posts, though. But just because one can’t do everything, that shouldn’t be an excuse for doing nothing. Since, unlike many songs, they work as poems, they need to be treated as such. And since many people (including me) find interpreting the songs difficult, I’ve taken that as a starting point. My hope is that at least some of what I’ve said might be helpful. My own pleasure, and I suspect a lot of other people’s, would be much reduced if we never moved beyond our initial vague, woolly and often incoherent interpretations.


  3. The song, to me, is written in memory of Jerry Garcia. If you pay attention to the many times he makes subtle references to songs that either The Dead did, or some that Garcia covered on his own, it’ll make sense to you. Bob and Jerry were dear friends and Dylan was deeply hurt when Garcia died. “you broke a heart that loved you”….
    I’ve been wading through the high muddy water—Black Muddy River
    Hearts a beating—Shakedown Street
    Goin down the road feeling bad—same name
    I’ve been all around the world, boys—same name
    If everything’s as hollow as it seems—Dark Hollow
    I’ve been to sugar town, shook the sugar down—Sugaree

    Probably more if anyone cares to add to the list


  4. Thanks for commenting Johnny. Dylan clearly has been influenced by expressions he’s heard in all sorts of songs. Even so, although he did play with the Dead briefly, I’m not sure that the phrases you cite are sufficiently related to their songs to make your suggestion plausible. I may be wrong, but It seems to me more likely that the origin of the ‘sugar town’ reference, for instance, is Lee Hazlewood (see footnote). In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Even if Dylan was thinking of Garcia when using certain phrases, this would be peripheral to their main importance which is to the song’s meaning, and perhaps its mood or ‘feel’. Still, it would be interesting to know if other people agree with you and can add to your examples.


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