Buckets Of Rain

Introduction

An amusing and touching little love song? No. It’s better seen as an unintentionally, and for the most part damning, indictment of the narrator out of his own mouth. Despite what he says, there’s not any real love in it. Instead the narrator merely attempts to convince the woman, and perhaps himself, that he’s acting to further their relationship, while coming across as deeply flawed and untrustworthy. In this way the song provides a realistic portrayal of human psychology. What saves him from total condemnation, perhaps, is our recognition that in condemning him, we’d be condemning ourselves.


Buckets

One positive characteristic is the narrator’s humour which he uses both to express and make light of the misery the relationship is causing him. The first verse begins with  hyperbolic, and therefore ludicrous, exaggeration:

‘Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears’.

The ‘rain’ of the first line will be a representation of the narrator’s feelings, given what he tells us in the rest of the song. What’s absurd is the turning of this to ‘buckets of tears’. Nobody weeps that much however sorry they’re feeling for themselves. Immediately even this absurdity is outdone by the even more ludicrous:

‘Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears’.

It should, of course, by eyes that they’re coming out of. The idea is presumably that he’s full to the brim with tears which keep overflowing. But do they overflow into buckets, or are the buckets themselves emerging from his ears?

Up till now at least the watery content of the buckets hasn’t stretched the imagination. No longer! The fourth line requires us to imagine not only buckets in an impossible place, but buckets with an impossible content:

‘Buckets of moonbeams in my hand’.

The moonbeams are presumably to be taken as an overly romantic reference to the narrator’s feelings. As he more prosaically puts it:

‘I got all the love…
you can stand’.1

The effect of reusing the buckets metaphor is to associate the depth of his feelings – ‘all the love’ – with his misery, represented by the tears.

So far we might sympathise with the narrator, at least to the extent that he’s putting a brave face on things. If the first verse seems to be setting the tone for the rest of the song, though, we’re quickly disillusioned. If we laugh at all in the later verses, we laugh at the narrator’s expense.


Character

Self-centred

The narrator is thoroughly self-centred. Even his love for the woman is declared in a way which egotistically focuses on himself:

I got all the love…’

And when he at last mentions her, it’s to compare her unfavourably with himself. He’s got so much love for her, she wouldn’t be able to ‘stand’ any more.

Love for him isn’t so much an attitude towards someone. It’s reified. It’s a thing, a thing you can have a lot of. It’s a thing which, represented by moonbeams, can be carried in a bucket. The same applies when he describes her negative effect on him. Rather than her making him miserable, he says:

‘Everything about you is bringing me
Misery’.

Misery is a thing which is brought. In the final verse, life too is reified. It’s dismissed as ‘a bust’.

The self-centredness is apparent again in the third and fourth verses. Three lines in the third begin with ‘I like’ (or its abbreviation ‘Like’), and in the fourth a further two lines contain ‘I like’.  There’s no hint of consideration for what the woman might like. And what does the narrator like? He likes:

‘… the cool way you look at me’.

He’s still the centre of his own attention.2

The verse ends with what might sound like an expression of commitment to the woman, but in context probably betrays a concealed desperation:

‘I’m taking you with me, honey baby
When I go’.

This is the hard side of his character, alluded to in the second verse. It’s probably not that he intends to forcefully take her with him, but that it comes naturally to him to assume he should be in control.


Pretence of Affection

The structure of the song serves to emphasise the self-centredness and bitterness of the narrator. The penultimate line of each of the first two and final two verses ends with ‘honey baby’, a term of apparent endearment for the woman. The middle verse does not.  Instead it ends:

‘Everything about you is bringing me
Misery’.

If the term representing endearment, ‘honey baby’, can be omitted, one wonders how seriously it is intended on the four occasions it is used. Furthermore, its absence in the middle verse draws attention to the coldness and bitterness of the words which replace it. Not only does the narrator criticise the woman, which is enough anyway to make us doubt that he has ‘all the love’ she can stand, but he’s criticising everything about her.

Occurring in the central verse, the omission of ‘honey baby’ is pivotal. It indicates just how central the narrator’s self-interest is to him. And conversely, the presence of the phrase in just the outer verses indicates how peripheral to him the woman is.


Meek and Hard

 The narrator has a confused idea about what’s going to make him seem attractive. He claims to have been:

‘… meek
And hard like an oak’,

as if the two might be compatible. But the whole point about being meek is that you recognise that it’s better than being hard. Being meek is inconsistent with being hard, not its complement. In mentioning them in the same breath, the narrator seems to be treating both as positive attributes.

There’s little evidence of meekness in the song. But if ‘hard’ means domineering, he’s certainly that now, not just in the past as he implies. He lets it be known what he expects of the woman, and when she’s met his expectations:

‘You do what you must do and ya do it well

That this hardness is likely to be part of his problem is apparent when in verse two he says :

‘I seen pretty people disappear like smoke
Friends will arrive, friends will disappear’.3

The repetition of ‘disappear’ in connection with friends suggests that the first reference likewise is about friends, former friends, perhaps former girlfriends. If the latter, the future tense – ‘will arrive’/‘will disappear’ – betrays his expectation that the present woman is going to leave him. In other words, he has no expectation that this present relationship will last. One suspects that he’s right.

The admission about having been both meek and hard has an air of desperation about it. He’s really telling us that having tried both to no avail, he doesn’t know what else he can do.


Inactivity

If it is desperation which caused him to try being both ‘meek’ and ‘hard’, he tries to hide it. The second verse ends with the narrator attempting to build himself up in the woman’s eyes by contrasting himself favourably with those who’ve disappeared. He assures her that he’s not about to disappear from her:

‘If you want me, honey baby
I’ll be here’

The attempt to contrast himself with those who’ve left doesn’t work. By saying ‘I’ll be here’, he puts the onus on the woman to do something to further the relationship while he remains static. He’s leaving all the work to her, while not being prepared to lift a finger himself.

This is not the only example of the narrator’s inactivity. He never tells us what he does, presumably because there is nothing to tell.  Instead, in order to impress he has to rely on dubious claims about what he’s already done – ‘been meek’ and ‘hard like an oak’ (if those count as doing) – and on vague promises about what he’s going to do in the future – ‘I’ll be here’, ‘I’ll do it for you’.

By contrast, the woman comes across as continuously active – she moves, looks, loves, does what she must. Even the references to her smile and fingertips in the middle verse suggest she’s ongoingly active in pleasing him.


Pessimism

Another negative character trait becomes apparent in the final verse – pessimism:

‘Life is sad
Life is a bust’4

It’s a generalisation for which the narrator provides no justification. What he has in mind by ‘life’, presumably, is not life generally, but his own life. Nevertheless, by generalising he convinces himself that all life is bad. His motive, one imagines, is to prevent his own deficiencies making him seem more of a failure than the rest of us.

This pessimistic attitude he has to his life, is further reflected in a refusal to actively try to make it better:

 ‘All you can do …’

 he assumes,

‘… is do what you must’.

But why is it? His wording here is tellingly reminiscent of that of the narrator in Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Lily, we’re told, ‘did whatever she had to do’. But there’s a difference. The emphasis there is on Lily’s sense of responsibility. Here, this narrator emphasises what he takes to be the impossibility of going beyond his responsibilities:

All you can do …’.

– ‘you’ seeming to be a reference to himself. In the next line, where the reference of ‘you’ subtly changes to the woman, it’s noticeable that the ‘all’ is missing:

‘You do what you must do and ya do it well’.

Not only does the woman do what’s required, but there’s no implication that she limits her activity to this. As with Lily, the emphasis here is on the woman’s going beyond her responsibilities.

The song ends with the narrator again covering up his deficiencies. He makes a promise:

‘I’ll do it for you …’,

doubtless hoping this will make him look active. But the giveaway is the pronoun ‘it’. ‘It’ can only refer back to what he must do anyway. If so, he’s pessimistically assuming that anything more than what he must do can’t be done.


Wagon/Bike

The most enigmatic lines of the song are in the fourth verse:

‘Little red wagon
Little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like
I like the way you love me strong and slow’

All four lines are closely interrelated. The third line looks forwards to the fourth which, as we’ll see, is an attempt to meet criticism. It also looks backwards to the previous two lines, which establish what the narrator means by ‘monkey’. It could well be that it’s because the narrator expects to be criticised for being a ‘monkey’, that in the third line he explicitly denies it.

The ‘little red wagon’ and ‘little red bike’ of the first two lines explain the monkey reference of the third line in that these are toys that a literal monkey would play with. In the present context of a relationship they stand for women – sexual playthings the narrator feels he can play with despite his denial that he’s a monkey. That these toys are ‘red’ suggests either that the women are prostitutes, or that he sees himself as having no more commitment to them than to a prostitute. Since both toys are described as little and red, the reason he chooses the one he does must be down to the only significant difference between them –  and that’s the difference between a vehicle to passively ride in, and one to actively ride on. From what he says about ‘the way you love me’, we can assume that he sees the present woman as represented by the former.

The fourth line:

‘I like the way you love me strong and slow’

confirms that by ‘monkey’ he means someone taking a frivolous or purely sexual approach to a relationship. In denying he’s a monkey, he denies that he’s motivated just by sex. But why does he need to deny it? Obviously the woman’s either accused him of it, or he’s expecting such an accusation. She might be getting the impression he’s just motivated by sex , he says, but really she’s being misled by his liking for the ‘strong and slow’ way she loves him.

This is unconvincing, and for two reasons. First, the context (‘strong and slow’) makes it clear he’s using ‘the way you love me’ as no more than a euphemism for ‘the way you accede to my sexual desires’. In so doing he’s actually admitting the truth of her criticism while disingenuously making it seem as if his interest is ‘love’. Secondly, this euphemistic use just helps confirm what we’ve already divined from the wagon and bike metaphors.


Conclusion

While the narrator is somebody with whom we could warm to on account of his bizarre sense of humour, and perhaps even have some sympathy with on account of his failings, it’s those failings which dominate the song. Among these are his egotism, pessimism, inaction, and failure to understand what a relationship requires of him. Throughout, there’s a pretence of affection but, in the middle verse, the mask briefly slips and a cruel, underlying bitterness emerges. The penultimate verse contains a hopeless attempt to disguise his true motivation, and by the end of the song he’s resorting to vague, unconvincing promises of commitment and generosity.

 

1.     Sometimes these lines appear as:

‘You got all the love, honey baby
I can stand’.

The other version seems better, though, being more consistent with the narrator’s character in the rest of the song. It has him bragging, whereas this version has him presenting himself as weak.

2.    He also likes the way she moves her lips, suggesting perhaps that he’s more
interested in superficial appearances than listening to what she’s saying. In another
version of the song ‘lips’ is replaced with ‘hips’, but ‘lips’ seems preferable. While the
line with ‘hips’ equally suggests a superficial interest, it doesn’t get across the
narrator’s lack of interest in what she’s got to say to him.

3.   That they ‘disappear like smoke’ perhaps implies he’d made enemies of them, the
phrase seeming to be an unconscious reference to Psalm 37.20 ‘… and the enemies of
the Lord …  into smoke shall they vanish away’.

4.   The phrase ironically suggests part of the narrator’s true interest in the relationship.

 

11 thoughts on “Buckets Of Rain

  1. Synaesthesia is the figurative device of expressing one sense in terms of another – the ears of the speaker cry from what they’ve been hearing – he’s been turned into quite the cad for his own ego-protection after being hurt by love …the imposition of the analyst’s own morality defies the work of art ….Dylan is Louise offering you buckets of rain instead of just a handful of the stuff.

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    • ‘… the ears of the speaker cry from what they’ve been hearing’. Yes, that could well be right. If so it would provide a contrast with ‘I like the cool way you look at me’. Can’t see where you think I’ve imposed my own morality though. Can you elaborate?

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  2. I think you’ve ruined the song for me. Not really, but I’m going to have to disregard. If humans were truly moral beings, your monkish approach would be correct. Here on earth we are male and female. A man’s considerations are different than a woman’s. Life is a carnival, we play our part, and hopefully we have an awareness of that and of the higher things. We don’t listen to Dylan to glean a glimpse of God, but rather to see the human dilemma artfully expressed. Your analysis is perhaps correct, but unnecessary, from my point of view..

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    • Thanks for your comment, Ed. I do hope I haven’t ruined the song for you! I totally agee when you say ‘We … listen to Dylan … to see the human dilemma artfully expressed’. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to show is there in this song. It’s the familiar dilemma of being at a loss to know how to behave – in this case how to get on in a relationship. But, in addition, Dylan’s helping us out of the predicament famously expressed by Burns – ‘O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us’. We’re seeing the narrator from both his standpoint, because it’s his words, and our own when we look critically at him. Insofar as the narrator represents us all, to hear the song is like viewing oneself from the inside, but at the same time acquiring the objective view yearned for by Burns.

      You say ‘We don’t listen to Dylan to glean a glimpse of God’. Whether that’s true or not (and I suspect for many people it’s not), I don’t see why you raise the point in connection with this song. As far as I can see, God doesn’t come into it. I can only speak for myself, but I listen to Dylan primarily to delight in the extraordinarily skilful way he manipulates language, and as a result gain new insights into human nature. A true appreciation of these skills and that insight can only be achieved through close analysis. That’s not to say I’m necessarily right. I’m happy if the analysis serves as a starting point for those who, like me when I start listening, have no idea what the song even might be about.

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  3. Thanks from correcting my typo omission.

    Ed unintendedly elaborates for me…ie, despite what the analyst claims it’s even an over-reaching stretch to bring a Biblical quote into this song – from Psalms – when there are a number of songs in which Dylan ever-so-clearly refers to the Bible.

    The song is what it is, the narrator is what he is… tearful – she calm and ‘cool’ at low temperature – as the analyst above mentions , synesthesia again.

    ‘Buckets” , metonymy – the whole suggesting a part or vice versa, here including the water …or maybe just the measure of the water….or just an empty bucket …. for the hyperbolic humour of it all.!

    The writer, the persona, the listener/reader are all participants in the song, but to give the latter’s perspective- the analyst’s – too much weight spoils the broth for those interested in the work of art in and of itself rather than with impositing an over- riding conventional ‘”shouldn’t do that” morality.

    Fine to do it some of the time – the work may even be inviting it – but not all of the time.

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    • Well, you won’t be surprised to find I both agree and disagree with what you’ve said, Larry – you must be getting used to it by now!

      First, where I agree. You say ‘The song is what it is, the narrator is what he is …’ Well how could I disagree! Everything is what it is. But your real point is that he’s tearful and she’s cool. Again, yes, I think that’s the case – and it’s worth your pointing out this contrast in their characters.

      I also agree about the metonymy of ‘buckets’, but I don’t think that this much alters what I’ve said. That’s because a more literal interpretation of ‘buckets’ is possible at the same time, as well as being encouraged by the presence of the other absurdities. Furthermore, the line could have read ‘I got all that water coming out of my ears’ or ‘I got all them tears coming out of my ears (there’d be an internal rhyme there!). That it keeps to ‘buckets’, I suggest, has the effect of getting us to imagine the absurdity of actual buckets emerging.

      Now disagreement! You say:

      ‘… too much weight spoils the broth for those interested in the work of art in and of itself rather than with imposition an over- riding conventional ‘”shouldn’t do that” morality.’

      First, you haven’t yet established that I am imposing an over- riding conventional ‘shouldn’t do that’ morality. Secondly, you haven’t established that what I offer is ‘too much weight’. In each case you’re just expressing an opinion, but not backing it up. It seems to me I’m on stronger ground because I’m not just expressing an opinion, but have given reasons for my suggestions. Similarly when you say ‘fine to do it some of the time but not all the time’ that too is just an unsubstantiated opinion. What’s more, one surely can’t be at fault for interpreting a song in a certain way, so long as one can present reasons for so doing? And that should apply even if it turns out there’s a contrary way of interpreting it – both should apply.

      I wouldn’t make heavy weather of the possible psalms reference. I put it in because I noticed it, and it’s something people might be able to build on. But I couldn’t build on it, which is why I banished it to a footnote. But I can’t agree with the reason you give for dismissing it. The fact that Dylan often makes much more explicit biblical references is no reason to suppose he isn’t making a less explicit one here. This might simply be an exception to the rule.

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  4. Bob Dylan is more of a bluesman than most people realize. This is a wonderful song rising out of the folk and blues tradition and, what-is-more, was widely admired by guitarists when it came out. To me, the meaning of the words is of secondary importance to the feel and flow of the song, as is often true with the blues, though Dylan, as always, takes the lyrics up several notches. The story I hear is “love hurts.” By some unusual circumstances, I heard the song before the album was released during a visit to Gold Hill, Colorado. My friend’s friend played the song to us as he had learned it from Seven Stills, who had picked it up from Bob himself.
    In regard to a previous comment of mine, I must admit to writing Dylan after hearing “Every Grain of Sand” and saying: “There’s a new David playing a new kind of harp”.

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  5. Saying things like the narrator is self-centred and too confused to make him attractive is what I mean by imposing the analyst’s values onto the character as if one were to criticize an artist for painting a rose too red and therefore makes it unattractive to a lot of viewers…that’s the colour the artist intends rose to be and the way Dylan intends the narrator to be in the song is what you get .

    The problem arises when it is said that the artist ‘unintentionally’ damns the narrator ….no, this demonstrates that it is the the analyst who condemns the character of the narrator while all the artist does is ‘paint’ a psychological profile of him….perhaps another viewer might pity the narrator or say he understands why the artist is like he is because he’s been hurt in love.

    That is, Dylan’s songs are usually double-edged in meaning … and , as I’ve said before, if it were initially stated by the analyst that “here’s my take on the song”, rather than “it’s better seen as” I would have little , if any, problem with the analysis.

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    • I see what’s happened. I think you may be confusing the narrator and the author – at least in the way I’m using the terms. (Some people would use ‘speaker’ where I use ‘narrator’, because strictly speaking this song isn’t a narration. Anyway, by ‘the narrator ‘ I mean what they mean by ‘the speaker’.)

      I’m not, then, criticising Dylan (who would presumably be the analogue of the artist in your example). I’m criticising the man – the lover – in the song. It’s this man who comes across as unattractive. So , just to clarify, I can criticise as smug, say, the younger waiter in William Strang’s painting ‘Bank Holiday’, but without in any way criticising Strang for painting him like that. On the contrary, I admire Strang for painting him like that. It’s the waiter who’s smug, not Strang. And I admire Dylan for his presentation of a realistically flawed narrator. But it’s the narrator – the man in the song – who’s flawed, not Dylan.

      So, I’m not saying the artist unintentionally condemns the narrator. I’m saying the narrator – the unhappy lover in the song – unintentionally condemns himself. Certainly ‘another viewer might pity the narrator’ – it would be extraordinary if anyone hearing the song didn’t. It’s part of the subtlety of Dylan’s portayal of this man that we both criticise him and sympathise with him. But it’s not ‘the artist’ who ‘is like he is because he’s been hurt in love’. The artist is Dylan. It’s the narrator who is like he is because he’s been hurt in love.

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  6. I too am focusing on the narrator or speaker-, indeed, the persona and author are not the same person; however, where one begins and the other leaves off is not that easy to discern in that the song is written by Dylan- that leads to different levels of interpretation – who’s confused and who’s flawed is up for debate , as far as I am concerned (lol).

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  7. Thank you, Bob Dylan, that your work can yield such a discussion. I don’t believe anyone can project their art without revealing something of themselves. It is hard to know where the separation lies. Do we factor in the life experience of the author or do we act as if it’s irrelevant. If the work survives the next thousand years, will anyone care about the writer’s motivations? If we love the soul we know as Bob Dylan, I think we do care.

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