In part the song presents the narrator’s own account of his mental and physical state in the wake of his loss. His inner turmoil is apparent from his sometimes addressing his lover, and then sometimes himself. He describes his feelings, makes judgments about what has happened to him and its causes, makes observations about his environment and his supposed expectations for the future. Much of what he says cannot be trusted, however. He’s contradictory, he exaggerates the effect of his troubles, he’s inconsistent and he indulges in self-deception. He’s disingenuous too, and throughout he seems to be blaming his lover for the state he’s in. Nowhere is he self-critical about his treatment of her or about his chronic lack of action.
We see an instance of his unreliability as a judge of his own state in the second line of the refrain:
‘I was all right ’til I fell in love with you’
The problem is that this directly conflicts with what he says in Trying To Get To Heaven:
‘They tell me everything is gonna be all right
But I don’t know what ‘all right’ even means’
One of these claims has to be untrue. Only if he knows what ‘all right’ means is he in a position to say he was all right until he fell in love. The claims present his tendency to believe what it suits him to believe rather than what is actually the case.
Even though he feels frustrated, it’s clear that the narrator enjoys exaggerating the effects of his situation. He refers to his nerves ‘exploding’, and to feeling as if the whole world is against him, and claims to feel that his eyes are ‘falling off’ his face – none of which seems remotely plausible in a literal sense. Furthermore he follows up this last remark about his eyes by ‘I’m staring at the floor’ perhaps in order to give colour to the hopelessness of his situation while not realising how pathetic such pointless behaviour makes him seem. Presumably it’s this unnecessary ‘staring at the floor’ which is actually responsible for the pathological eye condition.
His parenthetical ‘If I’m still among the living’ also seems unduly melodramatic, as if he’s determined to indulge in self-pity.
That same self-pity is present in the line:
‘I’ve been hit too hard, I’ve seen too much’
Why ‘too hard’ and not just ‘hard’? And in what sense has he seen ‘too much’? We’re not told, and the claims are exaggerated perhaps so as to provide an excuse for saying:
‘Nothing can heal me now, but your touch’.
The vaguely religious language here (cf Matt 1.40-45) puts the narrator in the position of a leper hoping to be healed by Jesus. The leprosy idea recurs when he mentions feeling his eyes are falling from his face (itself reminiscent of the line in Standing In The Doorway where he anticipates ‘the flesh falling off of my face’). Since he’s not actually a leper, the reason only her touch will heal him (as he sees it) is perhaps that he recognises his position is that of a penitent in need of forgiveness. What’s noticeable is that he doesn’t admit he’s in need of forgiveness. And this is perhaps why he presents himself as a leper, who suffers through no fault of his own, instead of as a penitent.
Inconsistency and Self-Deception
‘Well, my house is on fire, burning to the sky
I thought it would rain but the clouds passed by’
Even though we can assume he doesn’t intend the fire reference to be taken literally, but perhaps as a metaphor for the ending of his relationship, there’s something ludicrous about the narrator’s dead-pan expression here. The same applies if we interpret it sexually – with the addition that it’s even less easy to feel sympathy for his loss if the main thing he misses is sex. Despite this a literal interpretation provides an accurate portrayal of his character in that, in the face of calamity, his reaction is to do nothing.
It also demonstrates a willingness to take up inconsistent positions. In Love Sick he moans that ‘the clouds are weeping’. But he would now welcome rain if it means he can avoid having to act to put out the fire. Just as he believes what it suits him to believe at a particular moment, so his attitude to rain is the one it suits him to take at a particular moment.
His claim that ‘sweat(‘s) falling down’ seems to be an attempt to deceive himself he’s exerting himself when he isn’t. On the contrary, he’s allowing junk to pile up – the junk ‘taking up space’ in a way which perhaps mirrors the way his inactivity has wasted time.* While his declared intention is to be elsewhere by:
‘Tomorrow night before the sun goes down’
one wonders why it has to be ‘tomorrow night. Why not tonight? Again he’s deceiving himself he’s being purposeful when in fact he’s just procrastinating.
Inconsistency and self-deception seem to be combined when he implies that he’s made an effort to get across his point of view:
‘I’m tired of talking, I’m tired of trying to explain’
In Standing in The Doorway he’d said to the contrary ‘There’re things I could say but I don’t’. And even if he has been ‘talking’ the expression sounds suspiciously vague as if he was talking without any clear purpose in mind. And ‘trying to explain’ would be all very well if an explanation was what was required – rather than, say, an apology. He mentions ‘my attempts to please you’, but this too is vague. Given his normal inactivity one might wonder if the vagueness is designed to cover up their non-existence.
In lines adapted from Dylan’s Marching To The City the narrator wistfully observes:
‘Boys in the street beginning to play
Girls like birds flying away’
He doesn’t comment directly on this, but there are two things we can note. The first is that what he notices is perhaps a reflection of his own behaviour to his lover which may have been responsible for her ‘flying away’ from him. When birds fly away they tend to be doing so from what they perceive as danger.
The second thing to note is that he also seems to associate flying away with his own behaviour because he immediately follows up with:
‘When I’m gone you will remember my name’
Accordingly, to his discredit, his own character seems to encapsulate both the irresponsibility of the boys and the timidity of the girls.
Further disingenuousness is apparent when he appeals to God:
‘But I know God is my shield and he won’t lead me astray’
The relevance of God is not at all obvious – until one realises that the comfort the narrator takes in God not leading him astray is no more than an excuse for continuing on his present path (doing nothing) on the unlikely ground that it’s sanctioned by God. The fact that in the previous line he says ‘I’m coming to the end of my way’ – implicitly contrasting himself with Christ (‘I am the way’, John 14.6) also shows how unlikely his approach would be to meet with God’s approval.
This inclination to do nothing doesn’t just seem to be a result of his grief. It seems to characterise his life as a whole. This becomes apparent in the admonition:
‘When I’m gone, you will remember my name’
Why, one might ask, is it his name he singles out as what the lover will remember? Presumably because he has nothing else – no achievements – which he could be remembered by.
And when he tries to make himself seem an attractive proposition, he still manages to avoid any reference to genuine achievement:
‘I’m gonna win my way to wealth and fame’
Not only does this imply he’s got no intention of exerting himself, but he’s hardly likely to entice his lover back by dangling in front of her the prospect of mere uncertain future winnings. His judgment is poor – particularly since in Trying To Get To Heaven he was aware that being a gambler is unlikely to be fruitful (‘Some trains don’t pull no gamblers’).
The refrain too bears witness to the narrator’s chronic inactivity:
‘Still I don’t know what I’m gonna do’
He’s clearly got no intention of doing anything.
The narrator doesn’t seem to have moved forward either literally or psychologically since the previous song Trying To Get To Heaven. Instead there’s been a decline. There at least he repeatedly claimed to be ‘trying’. But that sense of purpose has now given way to utter listlessness, as borne out by the repeated ‘I just don’t know what I’m gonna do’. He’d claimed in the previous song that his lover’s memory was getting dimmer and was ceasing to haunt him. If so he’s clearly suffered a regression.
The fault clearly lies at his own door. In displaying a passivity to rival Hamlet’s, replacing action with a self-pitying exaggeration of his misery, he gives himself no chance. In fact he compounds his problems by failing to be self-critical and to accept any responsibility. For all that, our initial and perhaps abiding emotional response is one of pity. And this desire to temper criticism with compassion must be in part because in his failings we recognise our own.
*It’s noticeable that he blames the junk -‘Junk’s piling up’ – as if he is not responsible for it.