Meet Me In The Morning

Introduction

A curious characteristic of some Dylan songs is that they can initially seem unimpressively simple while turning out to be anything but. Meet Me In The Morning is such a song. The lines are short; it’s full of simple expressions found in other songs; some versions omit a verse; and the blues style means that there are as many repeated lines as verses. All this is misleading, however, since a closely attentive reading of the full song will throw up a mine of intricacies and subtleties indiscernible to the casual listener.

Throughout, the narrator is addressing a lover with whom he has fallen out. The monologue form here enables the numerous faults of an essentially flawed narrator to be presented through his own words.1 And by way of a masterpiece of succinct writing (it takes only five words), we’re able to compare the narrator with the woman he desires but maligns. Unwittingly he informs us that she, like him, is attempting to mend the relationship. We find that his own efforts, by contrast, are blighted by bouts of pessimism and recrimination.


Imagery

A subtle feature of the song lies in the way it uses imagery. The narrator repeatedly refers to travel, bad weather, light as opposed to dark, and religion. However, a distinction needs to be drawn between what the narrator might be using an image to show, and what it actually does show. Further, while some images are the narrator’s, others can be attributed primarily to the fictional writer in the sense that it’s unlikely the narrator would himself have used them.2 Examples of the former include his comments on darkness in verse two, and on the rooster in verse three. One can believe that the narrator really might have quoted the aphorism about the darkest hour, and that actually hearing a rooster might well have prompted his subsequent comparison of the rooster with himself. Conversely, the first verse’s references to a road intersection and a journey to Kansas would seem to serve symbolic ends – and therefore the writer’s rather than the narrator’s. That particular meeting point and journey have no significance beyond the literal for the narrator, but they enable the writer to represent symbolically the state of the relationship, and the narrator’s plan for improving it.


Travel

It’s in part through images involving travel that the writer presents the narrator’s plans, obstacles he encounters, and his final pessimism about his chances of success. There are three references to travel in the song, in verses one, four and six respectively. In the first, the narrator proposes that he and the woman meet up to undertake a journey. In the fourth he explains why it can’t be undertaken immediately, and in the last verse the journey is implicitly compared by the writer to a sea voyage.

We’re not told why the narrator chooses the particular place he does to meet the woman:

”Meet me in the morning, 56th and Wabasha’

or what the attraction is of Kansas as a destination. But there’s no need. The real function within the song of both the meeting and the journey is symbolic. The writer is  representing the narrator’s attempt to rekindle the relationship. The two roads represent the differences between the couple because, like them in their present state, the roads are going in different directions. And since the meeting point is at the intersection of the roads, it can be seen as representing the initial meeting of minds required for harmonising the relationship. Their subsequent work on the relationship is represented by their journeying in one and the same direction towards Kansas.

We’re also not told why the morning is the time chosen for the meeting. However, it becomes apparent that the process of reconciliation cannot get going before then. In terms of the travel image it’s as if:

‘… the station doors are closed’.

The literal reason for the delay will become apparent from a consideration of imagery involving weather and light, which will be discussed below.

In the final verse the narrator anticipates that his attempt to renew the relationship will come to nothing:

‘Look at the sun sinkin’ like a ship
Ain’t that just like my heart, babe’

The setting sun reminds him of a sinking ship and that in turn reminds him of his own sinking feelings. While the full significance of these lines will also be considered below, it’s worth noting that the narrator’s efforts are again being associated with a journey. This time it’s as a sea voyage which ends prematurely with the foundering of the ship.

It’s unnecessary to attribute the travel imagery to the narrator. It seems unlikely he intends the Kansas and station references to be taken other than literally. Rather, it’s the fictional writer who should be seen as imbuing them with a significance for symbolically representing both the narrator’s outlook and his emotional state.


Weather

As with travel, there are three references to weather in the song – in verses one, four and five respectively. When at the outset the narrator says:

‘… we could be in Kansas
By [the] time the snow begins to thaw’,

he expects this to be interpreted literally. However, for the song’s purposes the ‘thaw’ is the thawing of the couple’s relationship. The writer is indicating that the healing process won’t be quick.

In the third verse, weather again has a figurative role:

‘The birds are flying low babe, honey I feel so exposed’

 Low-flying birds are a sign of an imminent storm. On a literal level the narrator is providing a plausible excuse for postponing the journey till morning. Figuratively, however, it may represent a setback – a violent, further downturn in the relationship. The narrator is fearing the worst but, tellingly, more for himself at this time than for the relationship:

 ‘I feel so exposed’.

The third weather reference has the narrator remind the woman of past suffering resulting from the state of their relationship:

‘… I … felt the hail fall from above’

This apparently trivial claim is presumably the result of the writer’s recasting in meteorological terms what the narrator actually said. This is because it symbolises the narrator’s supposed suffering in a way that, interpreted literally, would be inconsistent with his desire to win the woman’s sympathy:

‘… I’ve earned your love’

By substituting the weather image, the writer is able to confine the listener’s attention to the self-indulgent manner of the narrator’s attempt to curry favour, when it might otherwise have become distracted by unimportant details.


Light

Imagery involving light is extensive. It figures in verses one, two, four and six, appearing  as ‘morning’, ‘dawn’,’ matches’ and’ the sun’ respectively. As well as its conscious use by the narrator to stand for his happiness, it represents the pre-conditions for any successful renewal of the relationship.

The song comprises the narrator’s words, or thoughts, on the evening before the proposed journey. In verse four we’re informed that the metaphorical journey towards reconciliation can’t begin straightaway because of a further deterioration in the relationship, represented by an impending storm. His declaration in the same verse:

‘… I ain’t got any matches’

indicates that he has no resources of his own he can use to lighten the mood. Instead he needs to wait for a more propitious time. Unable to force the process artificially, he must wait for the natural light of morning.  He must wait, that is, until things have settled down before beginning the process of reconciliation. At the moment, metaphorically:

‘… the station doors are closed’

In the second verse the narrator refers to both light and the absence of light in a hopeless attempt to convince himself that despite the relationship’s having reached rock bottom, it’s about to improve:

‘They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn’

It’s hopeless because the word ‘darkest’ serves only to remind him of his misery – or what he calls the:

‘… darkness since you’ve been gone’

By the final verse the narrator no longer sees the sun as representing hope. As the evening sun sets, he’s overcome by pessimism. He compares it, and implicitly his hopes, to a sinking ship. And a ship, once sunk, will be sunk forever.


The Rooster

By the third verse we’re able to appreciate how deep-seated the narrator’s pessimism is. He hears a rooster crowing and jumps to put a negative interpretation on it:

‘… there must be something on his mind
Well, I feel just like that rooster’

Since roosters traditionally crow at dawn, one would have expected the narrator to interpret the crowing here as auspicious. That would be behaviour consistent with his previous willingness to see even the ‘darkest hour’ in a favourable light. Instead he decides to exploit it as a way of providing bogus support for the complaint which follows:

‘Honey, ya treat me so unkind’

Support for his complaint derives from a piece of specious and ultimately circular reasoning which, though not explicitly given, can be reconstructed as follows. First, he assumes that because he is unhappy, so must the rooster be. Secondly, he assumes that the cause of the rooster’s unhappiness must have been unkind treatment. Thirdly he assumes that if the rooster has been treated unkindly, then so must he have been. Having so ‘proved’ that he has been treated unkindly, he sets out to use this as ammunition against his lover.

The rooster episode, then, not only reinforces in the listener’s mind how unhappy the narrator is, but shows up weaknesses in the narrator’s character – weaknesses of which he seems unaware.


Betrayal

The narrator’s wilful misinterpretation of the crowing is not its only significance. A rooster’s crowing inevitably invites one to think of Peter’s three-fold betrayal of Christ.3 It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that there’s another allusion to betrayal – this time Judas’ – in the final verse:

‘… you kissed my lips’4

The lover seems to be being compared with both Peter and Judas and, if justified, that comparison would put the narrator in the position of Christ. However, if the narrator does indeed have the Judas kiss in mind, it’s significant that he doesn’t take into account a crucial difference between it and his lover’s. Whereas Judas’ kiss was a formal greeting, the woman kissed the narrator on the lips. From this we can assume that not only is she not guilty of betrayal but, on the contrary, she is attempting lovingly to restore the relationship.

It’s because he misinterprets the kiss as one of betrayal that at the end of the song the narrator is left in despair.


The Sun

It’s particularly ironic that the narrator should twice mistakenly have portrayed himself as Christ, for there is in the final verse a wholly appropriate reference to Christ which goes unnoticed by the narrator.

The allusion becomes apparent in the final verse when the narrator says:

‘Look at the sun …’

It’s natural to associate ‘sun’ with Son’, yet the narrator himself doesn’t make the connection. Instead, and more bizarrely, he associates the sun with a sinking ship. As a result he’s too ready to accept that his happiness, which the sun represents, is not only gone, but gone forever.  Had he made the connection with ‘Son’, he’d have been more sanguine. In other words, if the sun had reminded him of the Son rather than a ship, he’d have had no reason to suppose its sinking, and therefore the demise of his hopes, to be anything other than temporary.

There is an interesting structural comparison to be made between the narrator’s use of simile in this verse and his use of it in verse three. Just as in verse three he’d made a false comparison between the rooster’s feelings and his own feelings, on the basis of a false attribution of mental turmoil to the rooster, so here he makes a false comparison between the sun and his heart, on the basis of a false attribution to the sun of a ship-like quality. Just as in verse three the narrator displays a propensity to indulge in specious reasoning, so does he here, and in the same way. But whereas in verse three it was the woman who suffered as a result, here it’s the narrator who suffers.


Love

Only on the surface is this a traditional love song. It’s much more a study of a complex character. Nevertheless, it is about love too. This becomes particularly apparent in

verse five where the narrator attempts both to impress and blackmail his lover. After listing a number of trials he claims to have gone though, he ends with:

‘Honey, you know I’ve earned your love’

That he has earned her love is in fact unlikely to be true for two reasons. First, love, real love, is not earnt but given freely. And secondly, the things he claims to have done are unlikely in any case to have impressed her as having earned her love. The things he’s claiming to have done – in particular ‘struggled through barbed wire’ and ‘outrun the hound dogs’ – aren’t the sorts of things one might do for someone else. When one escapes and makes an effort to avoid recapture, one is primarily acting in one’s own interests, not someone else’s. One can assume from this that the narrator has done nothing to deserve the woman’s love, and that – desperate to show otherwise – he resorts to citing things he knows to be irrelevant.

That the woman has a much clearer understanding of love than the narrator is evident from her kiss. She doesn’t need him to have earned her love. Nevertheless, even if the kiss is the result of genuine love, there still may be some credit due to the narrator. Though we don’t know why he’s ‘struggled through barbed wire’,’ and ‘outrun the hound dogs’, these at least suggests he’s not inactive and is prepared to take risks. He may not have earned the woman’s love, but by this activity he might at least have triggered it.


Conclusion

The song is primarily a character study showing the gradual development of the narrator’s psychology. In particular it shows the part played by a range of personal qualities, positive and negative, in his battle to resolve an emotional predicament.  Sadly his positive qualities – optimism, energy, empathy, and inventiveness – are either misdirected, rendered impotent, or simply outweighed by the negative. Too inclined towards  pessimism, resentfulness, egotism and deviousness, the narrator seems increasingly incapable of resolving his predicament. By the end, despite bouts of forlorn hope, he seems resigned to failure.

But the song is about love too, and the role of love in reviving the relationship. It’s about the narrator’s own deficient understanding of love versus the woman’s. The narrator thinks love is consistent with complaining, criticism, pleading, and even blackmail. But the woman’s love is different –  a simple love, manifested by a kiss. And despite the narrator’s machinations and depth of emotion taking up most of song, it’s her love represented in a single line which both literally and metaphorically has the last word. If the relationship is to be saved, it’ll be through her love rather than his.

 

  1. As will become apparent, it’s not necessarily the case that we have the narrator’s own words so much as an abstract representation of them.
  2. The fictional writer and the actual writer may coincide. The concept of fictional writer can be useful though if one wants to attribute a view to the writer (as distinct from the narrator), but without necessarily attributing it to the actual, real-life writer.
  3. “I assure you,” Jesus said to him, “tonight-before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times!” (Matt 26.34)
  4. So he went right up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him. (Matt 26.47-8)

 

 

 

 

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You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

Introduction

At first this would seem like a simple love song. It is a love song, but more than a simple one. Although it’s about a relationship, it’s also about love more generally as is made clear by the opening line:

‘I’ve seen love go by my door’

It’s love the narrator’s seen, as distinct from a lover. A feature of the song which marks it out from others in the genre is that it charts the development of the narrator’s understanding of love. We’re told, in monologue form, what his experience of love used to be, what it is now, and the very different way in which it might continue.

I’ll be assuming the lover is female, although there’s no specific indication that this is so, and the Verlaine/Rimbaud comparison in the fifth verse might well be thought to suggest otherwise. Another reason for considering the lover to be male is the narrator’s self-obsession. His lover is male in that the lover is himself, thus rendering the relationship an auto-erotic, homosexual one. This would fit with his being both shooter and target (see below). It would also fit with his giving himself ‘a good talkin’ to’ in verse six.


The Title

Our immediate impression is that the narrator is regretting the imminent breakup of a relationship. His complaint throughout the song is:

‘You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go’

It’s worse than just a break up, however. The narrator is better seen as anticipating his lover’s death. It’s for that reason he doesn’t accompany her, despite being prepared to travel thousands of miles in the hope of finding her. The song is about the development of his love in the knowledge that she is going to be gone completely.


Nature

For the majority of the song the narrator’s attitude to love is presented through his response to nature. The first natural image he uses is dismal:

‘Dragon clouds so high above’

Clouds often represent gloom, but when qualified by ‘dragon’, the suggestion is one of menace. The clouds are not being seen in their true state, but as dangerous. Yet for that very reason the dragon image seems inappropriate. The narrator is seeing danger where there either is none, or should be none.1 The fact that the clouds are ‘high above’ suggests his judgment is erroneous since high clouds are always innocuous. Furthermore if it’s ‘careless love’ he’s comparing them to, then the fact that this is described as hitting him ‘from below‘, suggests that the cloud image is inapt.

The narrator is happy to see the passing of what he calls careless love. At this later stage, we’re to believe, Cupid has got it right. He’s:

‘Right on target, so direct’

From this point positive natural images abound, beginning with:

‘Purple clover, Queen Anne’s lace
Crimson hair across your face’

– the red and white of the Queen Anne’s lace reminding the narrator of his loved one’s hair contrasting with her face.

In verse five the images, though still positive, start to become absurd, however:

‘Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme’

‘Crazy’ seems more appropriate as a description of the narrator for using the term in connection with flowers, than it does for describing the flowers themselves. The term may have occurred to him because, perhaps unconsciously, he really sees it as applying to his lover. It’s also the case that the description of crickets is highly idealised. Not only can they can hardly be said to rhyme, but since only the males ‘talk’ (or chirp, by rubbing their wings), there couldn’t be a reciprocal, two-way, male/female conversation.

In so far as the descriptions might be representative of the relationship, then, they might seem to represent the narrator’s unconscious or suppressed idea about it. On this view, he’s presenting his lover as crazy and, unlike real crickets, quarrelsome – the ‘back and forth’ nature of their conversation representing disagreement. Although he’s no longer indulging in ‘careless love’, the love that’s replaced it would seem still to be wanting.

The final natural image in verse five:

‘Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy’

also seems idealistic. Some, but not all, rivers are blue. And while ‘slow’ has already been used to describe his love, his willingness to use ‘lazy’ might be an indication of the narrator’s own outlook rather than the approach required for a successful relationship. The oxymoronic ‘runnin’ slow’ might reflect the conflicting responses to the passing of time which the narrator alludes to when he says, ‘I could stay with you forever and never realise the time’.


Pantheism

The final stage in the narrator’s developing attitude to love comes in the final verse.

The following lines again involve references to nature, but the descriptions are no longer outlandish. They seem to have a refreshing honesty about them. And it’s here we realise that the lover’s leaving might be a matter of her death:

‘But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love’

Love is again associated with the sky, but just ‘the sky above’ – heaven – and no longer dragons and clouds. ‘Grass’ is qualified, but by a simple epithet ‘tall’. ‘Tall’ and ‘high’ both suggest superiority, and contrast with his having previously been hit from ‘below’. And whereas earlier when he’d seen his lover, he’d been reminded of nature – purple clover and Queen Anne’s Lace – now it’s the other way around. When he sees nature he’s reminded of her. He sees her in nature.

But not only that. Nature now becomes extended to include people – ‘the ones I love’.

The last verse began on a note of hopelessness, the narrator having accepted that the lover is leaving and vowing to undertake the presumably hopeless task of finding her in:

‘… old Honolulu,
San Francisco, Ashtabula’

 – remote, apparently unconnected, and (in the last case) pretty unheard-of places. At the moment he expects to find her in the people he loves, but if that’s possible the further possibility is opened up of his finding her in people generally, wherever they are. And that therefore includes not just the American inhabitants of the three places mentioned, but those who gave these places their names – the Polynesians of ‘old Honolulu’, the Spanish who originally colonised San Francisco, and the Lenape who for centuries lived in Ashtabula. It’s the diversity of the people with whom the different places are associated which links them. The narrator will be finding his lover in the ones he loves in the sense that he’ll be finding her qualities in everyone. He’ll have acquired an all-embracing love.

The narrator began by describing love as having:

‘… never been this close before’

Ironically love ends up at its closest when his lover is imagined to be discoverable in one of the three remote places.

By the end of the song the narrator has started to see his love not just as a woman, but in pantheistic terms – as the Ideal expressed in nature. This explains his implied distinction between the absent lover and ‘the ones I love’. She is now being considered as on another plain to the ones he loves.


Prefiguring

This transformation of his idea of the lover into an idea of the Ideal, or God, is prefigured in a number of ways.

First, there’s the line:

‘Crimson hair across your face’

This may be the lover’s actual hair being compared with the Queen Anne’s lace, but it might also be taken more literally. If the narrator is taken to be addressing nature, then ‘your face’ will be the face of the earth, and Queen Anne’s lace will be the earth’s hair. Even at this early stage the narrator is beginning to equate the lover and nature – nature personalised with a face and hair.

That the hair is described as crimson (rather than, say, auburn) is significant. Crimson is the colour of fresh blood, and so the lover is the possessor of blood that’s been shed. The letters of ‘cross’ in the word ‘across’ help confirm that both she and nature are being identified with Christ. She is Christ in that she’s his potential saviour in enabling him to see what love really involves.

Another way the transformation is prefigured is in the line:

‘I could stay with you forever and never realise the time’

While on a literal level the narrator is simply claiming he’d be so overwhelmed by his lover’s presence he’d not notice time passing, there seems here to be an intimation of an eternal existence in ‘forever’. The line represents an advance on:

‘This time around it’s more correct’

– ‘this time around’ suggesting a need to escape from a temporal cycle of endless repetition.


Shooting

The narrator makes the passing comment that he’s:

‘Been shooting in the dark too long’

Of course, whatever other connotations the phrase might have, he means this as an allusion to his attempts to find love. He sees himself as Cupid shooting an arrow, and so as firing it at himself. One significance of this is that it’s an indication of his self-obsession. It’s also an indication of incompetence:

‘It’s always hit me from below’.

This incompetence in love is taken up in verse five by an explicit reference to the progenitors of French symbolist poetry, Verlaine and Rimbaud. Verlaine famously shot Rimbaud, not out of love, but in a jealous rage. Like the narrator, he more or less missed, hitting Rimbaud in the wrist. The narrator’s attempts at love are like those of Verlaine and Rimbaud, not just in the shooting but in the storminess and perhaps inappropriateness of his relationships (the ‘talkin’ back and forth’) which comparison with theirs implies. Despite the selfish motivation of each marksman, there’s a difference however. Whereas Verlaine was aiming to kill someone else, the narrator’s shooting does not involve violence (unlike his counterpart’s in Idiot Wind**).


Developing attitude towards love

The narrator’s progress towards a fuller understanding of love is reflected in the different ways the word ‘love’ is used. The word itself is used four times, each time in a different sense. In the opening line:

‘I’ve seen love go by my door’,

the abstract noun ‘love’ represents love generally, but does so by presenting it in concrete form as something ideal which has literally by-passed the narrator. But when the narrator goes on to declare:

‘I’ve only known careless love’,

he’s no longer referring to ideal love, but to an inadequate substitute.

By contrast with these uses, when he says:

‘You might be spoilin’ me too much, love’,

he’s using the term as a mode of address. And finally, in:

‘… the ones I love’

it’s a verb used to represent moral commitment.

These different uses of ‘love’ parallel the development of the narrator’s attitude. The first three show him in a negative light. He starts with regret that his past romantic experiences have been unsatisfactory, while exulting in his present relationship. He then lets us know, via the epithet ‘careless’, that his approach hitherto has been uncommitted and irresponsible. There’s no self-reproach; the term ‘careless love’ seems chosen to represent his own experience to date as something comparable with, albeit slightly inferior to, the real thing. One gets the impression he sees being uncommitted and irresponsible as just one of those unfortunate things which happen. He’s unaware there might be a causal connection between genuine love having by-passed him, on the one hand, and his acceptance of so-called careless love, on the other.

The use of ‘love’ in:

‘You might be spoilin’ me too much, love’

is presumably intended to suggest affection. Instead it seems to indicate no more than a presumption that the woman is his. It seems shallow, and in keeping with the maudlin tone of the line in which it appears. The word refers to the woman; it picks her out like a sort of pointer, but there’s little indication that the connotations of the word are uppermost in the narrator’s mind as he uses it. Since he refers to her hair as ‘crimson’, which might even suggest he sees her as a whore, and  two verses later he’s able to somewhat disparagingly characterise the relationship as ‘this affair’, it’s clear that his understanding of love is far from ideal.

The final use is different. He’s moved from sexual love (eros) to selfless love (agape). The fact that he sees the woman in the ones he loves suggest that his attitude to her has become appreciative of her qualities.

The change of attitude indicated in this final use of ‘love’ is prefigured in the resolution he refers to at the end of the penultimate verse. Whereas the narrator had referred to crickets ‘talkin’ back and forth’, by the end of this verse he’s ready to:

‘… give myself a good talkin’ to’

If the crickets talking was in part a sub-conscious reference to altercations between the woman and himself, then the narrator can now be seen as substituting self-admonishment for criticism of her. It is in keeping with this that the lines about seeing her in the sky, the tall grass and other people appear more distant and reverential. The contrast between the use of ‘love’ here and in the third mention, the apostrophising her as ‘love’, is huge.


Right

The development of the narrator’s understanding of love is also reflected in his comments involving the word ‘right’. In the first verse, the narrator condemns his previous approach, saying:

‘When something’s not right it’s wrong’

In doing so he seems to be trying to justify his present change of tack by saying something no-one could really object to, instead of risking saying something meaningful. On the surface ‘not right’ means ‘wrong’ so to that extent he’s come up with no more than a tautology.

But is he even right when he says that when something’s not right, it’s wrong’? He himself seems implicitly to cast doubt on this in the very next verse. Here he refers to the arrow as:

Right on target …’

Since by the end of the song the narrator’s understanding of love has changed markedly, this would suggest that the arrow was not right on target, earlier on, because it had stimulated a self-centred, patronising approach to love. Furthermore, the narrator seems to appreciate this when he qualifies the love that he’s now experiencing as:

‘… more correct’

If it’s only more correct, though partially right, it can’t have been right on target. At this stage, it would seem, the narrator has reached a mid-way position in his understanding of love. He has moved from ‘careless love’ to an appreciation of his lover’s qualities, but is still far from the very different understanding of love, which he’s closing in on in the final verse.

In terms of right and wrong, the narrator has moved from a simplistic understanding of these to one which recognises that neither is an absolute.


Conclusion

The development in the narrator’s attitude to love is matched by the development in his attitude to loneliness. Throughout the song, the narrator claims he’s going to become lonely when his lover goes. Only gradually do we realise that this going is her dying. Despite this, by the end he’s gone some way towards coming to terms with it:

‘You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know’,

He’s come to accept that in physical terms he can’t keep her. This knowledge represents an advance on his only previous claim to knowledge, knowledge of careless love which even he found unsatisfactory.

By the end, though, he’s also learnt to see that in some sense she won’t have departed. Her qualities are everywhere.  Despite his still repeating in the last line:

‘You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go’

there’s a sense in which he’s not actually going to be lonesome when she goes. That he says he is, is the result of an unresolved conflict in his mind. He’s yet to fully appreciate that the object of love, whose death he’s now accepted, is the same as the object of love whose existence he expects to find everywhere. Whether he will – and indeed whether it is – is left undecided.

 

  1. It’s plausible that the dragon clouds represent suicidal thoughts. In verse six the narrator castigates himself for ‘stayin’ behind without you’. Choosing to join the lover would be a matter of choosing to die.
  2. There are a number of points of comparison between this song and Idiot Wind. Some of these are as follows:
    First, whereas here love goes past the narrator’s door, in the earlier song the narrator himself would ‘crawl’ past the wife’s door. The effect is to emphasise the distinction between love as it should be and, in that song, the narrator’s guilt-ridden love.
    Secondly, the narrators in each song use shooting as a means of acquiring love. The  gunman in Idiot Wind acts as a foil for the present narrator whose shooting is utterly benign.
    Thirdly, in both songs the narrators are at some point inactive, whereas the wife and the lover are active. The present narrator’s inactivity causes his ‘stayin’ far behind’.  Only once his life has ceased to be represented by the ‘slow’ and ‘lazy’ river’, and he determines to search for her, does he look like achieving success.
    Finally, in both songs the object of the narrator’s love can be seen to have physically died, but to have continued to exist in a ubiquitous, eternal sense. And they are each  associated with the saving power of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Idiot Wind

Introduction

The song comprises the thoughts of the narrator as accusations made against him prey on his mind. Little is certain. We don’t know the full extent either of the accusations, or of his guilt. Neither do we find out how successful he is at resolving his inner turmoil. Revealed instead, by way of a necessarily one-sided dialogue with his now dead wife, are the subtle flaws in his character, and the beginnings of his moral regeneration.

As so often with Dylan, the song reflects on human psychology by making use of religious concepts. Sometimes these are obvious – ‘cross’, ‘visions’, ‘priest’, ‘destiny’, ‘holiness’ – while at other times words only take on a religious significance in context. An appreciation of the song does not require a commitment to any religious doctrines, but just a willingness to see them as tools for demonstrating the subtle workings of the human mind.

What follows is of course just one interpretation of the song, and it should be seen as no more than a set of suggestions about what the song might be doing. It’s very long – eighteen sections – so you might want to skim through, selecting which to read.


Murder

The alleged murderer is an intriguing character. There are good, but inconclusive, reasons to believe the rumours about him are true. It’s said he shot a man apparently in order to possess his wife and, it’s implied, to get hold of his money. After marrying the wife, he may even have done away with her as well. At any rate a more heartless reaction to the death of one’s wife would be hard to think of:

‘I can’t help it if I’m lucky’

Nevertheless, there is some doubt about the narrator’s responsibility for either death. The line:

‘Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at’

might be an expression of genuine frustration that even she didn’t trust him not to have committed murder. It’s difficult to tell since it might instead be an attempt to dissimulate. We have no reason to trust him, especially since having called the wife ‘Sweet lady’ he goes on to accuse her of corruption.1

What is clear is that the narrator tries to build himself up, while simultaneously suffering from self-loathing resulting from guilt.


The Dead Wife

Throughout the song the addressee can be taken to be the wife. And the reference to her tomb in verse six makes it clear she’s dead. There’s uncertainty, though, about both when and how her death would have occurred. That her fortune has come to the narrator implies she’s been dead for a while. The reference to flowers on her tomb implies the death was more recent, however. This inconsistency is more than compounded when the narrator addresses her with:

‘Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at’

This implies she was alive the previous day! We then find that not only was she alive ‘yesterday’, but that she’s still alive now:

‘It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe’

It certainly is! Breathing is among many things the dead can be relied on not to do.

There are two possible, mutually consistent, explanations of this. In physical terms she’s dead. But she’s alive in that she haunts him, acting as his conscience. He’s ‘hounded’ by her memory (v.10). In other words, since her in fact far-off physical death, she’s plagued him with guilt:

‘I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like’.

The second possible explanation is that she transcends normal temporal restrictions. In a non-physical sense she’s ever-present to him, her death being at the same time distant, near, nearer still, and ultimately yet to happen. Her existence is eternal in accordance with the eternal life she’s acquired – represented by the flowers on her tomb.

On either view, the narrator would do better to abandon his criticism and emulate her instead.


Time and Eternity

The opposition between the eternal and the temporal figures at various points throughout the song through references to time. That the narrator misjudges the wife is implied by the repeated use of ‘every time’ in the chorus:

‘… every time you move your mouth’

and

‘…every time you move your teeth’

The association of what she says with the eternal helps to establish her moral superiority.

A reason the narrator cannot escape being the object of suspicion is that:

‘People see me all the time …’

The phrase ‘all the time’ suggests that, unless he acts to annul them, his crimes will be of eternal significance. He, by contrast, daydreams about:

 ‘… the way things sometimes are’,

thus establishing his lack of concern with eternal values.


The Wife as Divinely Inspired

That the narrator is capable of undergoing moral regeneration is made clear by the biblical imagery used throughout the song. Although he dismisses the breath of the wife as an idiot wind, he fails to acknowledge the truth in what she’s saying – presumably that she’s aware that he’s her first husband’s murderer, and maybe even her own. In fact her breath – the ‘idiot wind’ – can be taken not just as her voice, but as a manifestation of the Holy Ghost (cf. Acts 2:2, ‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven’). She is thus to be identified with God, or Christian virtue.

God is present again when the idiot wind is described as:

‘Blowing through the curtains in your room’

– a curtain or veil having been used to conceal the presence of God in the Jerusalem temple.

Similarly, in a line making an oblique reference to the crucified Christ, there’s a mention of smoke – a further manifestation of the Holy Ghost:

‘There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pouring out of a boxcar door’

In Acts 2 Peter quotes the prophet Joel as saying:

‘I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.’

Not only are there billows of smoke from the boxcar referred to in verse four, but verse five contains a warning of:

 ‘Blood on your saddle’,

and in verse eight there’s fire – ‘the building burned’.

The narrator, then, is wrong in casting the wife as an idiot. She would be better characterised as infused by the Holy Ghost.
The Narrator’s Response

Later on there are indications that the narrator has begun to recognise the morally superior position of the wife.  However, his initial reaction to her question – asking him ‘where it was at’ – is to become defensive. He repeatedly call her an idiot, and patronises her:

‘I couldn’t believe … you didn’t know me any better than that’

and

‘… you’ll find out …’

Rather than bring himself peace, however, the narrator perversely continues a lone battle against her and the ‘people’ mentioned in verse two, insisting he’s in the right2:

‘There’s a lone soldier on the cross …
… in the final end he won the wars after losing every battle’

Implicitly, and perhaps unconsciously, he’s referring to himself as the crucified Christ. He sees himself as a victim refusing to give up the fight, pointing to Christ’s ultimate success at the end of time – the ‘final end’. This is ironic given that the sort of peace he needs – peace of mind – will only come when he gives up the fight and takes notice of his conscience.

That he’s deceiving himself is apparent from the accusatory nature of his response to the wife’s question:

‘You hurt the ones that I love best …’

We’re given no evidence the accusation is justified, although it might well have been if he’d directed it at himself. In murdering her and her husband, he might well have hurt the ones that she loves best.

The accusation continues:

‘… and (you) cover up the truth with lies’

Again, we’re given no evidence. And again, the accusation could just as well be directed at himself. He is covering up the truth with lies both in refusing to admit to murder and in putting his newfound wealth down to good luck. Each accusation is another example of his disingenuousness, his unwillingness to admit the truth.


Revelation

The fifth verse is dramatic. We don’t know why he’s woke up at the side of the road, but metaphorically ‘woke up’ can be taken to refer to a momentous experience – a revelation. This revelation is  presented as the effects of a head injury:

 ‘visions of your chestnut mare’

 which

‘… shoot through my head and are making me see stars’2

The word ‘shoot’ is important in that it links the episode to the husband’s murder:

‘They say I shot a man named Gray …’

It seems the narrator is remembering the murder as if he himself is the victim. Something, guilt perhaps, is making him empathise with the husband.

While seeing stars can be the result of any bang on the head, here it has further significance. In verse ten he tells the wife:

‘I followed you beneath the stars …’

an expression which not only implies she’s worth following, but seems to associate her with the heavens. In following her, he’s on the path to reform begun by the earlier, revelatory, experience of seeing stars.

The visions he had of the wife’s chestnut mare may well be related to memories of the wife’s death. As such, like Macbeth’s visions of a bleeding Banquo, they’d be a sign of guilt. The accompanying ‘shoot through my head’ reference suggests that guilt about this murder has got mixed up in his mind with guilt about the murder of her dead husband. If so, it would be the resulting double guilt which begins the process of his salvation.


Blindness

That the narrator has experienced a revelation is further supported by an implicit association with St Paul. Not only does the violent incident occur on the road, but a fortune teller seems to have predicted an occurrence similar to that of the blinding light experienced by Paul (Acts 9):

‘… lightning that might strike’

The narrator’s reaction to the revelation is enigmatic – a prophesy of death:

‘One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle’

While he could be remembering a threat he’d made to the wife, it seems more likely he’s remembering being threatened, perhaps made by her now dead husband – a threat which has been fulfilled. The language associates him with evil (‘flies’ – as in ‘lord of…’), and predicts blindness and physical death. So far the narrator seems to have escaped these fates. Physically he’s alive and sighted.

Spiritually, however, he’s blind and one feels that physical blindness would be morally appropriate. The incident can be seen as having made him aware of the need for moral regeneration. The awareness is dim, however, because three verses later he’s still hypocritically, and ironically, claiming about the wife:

‘… your corrupt ways had finally made you blind’


Gray

While the narrator’s empathy with the man he killed suggests a sort of identity between them, there may be a further way in which they’re the same. The name ‘Gray’ suggests grey, in other words a midway position between black and white, or good and evil. That is where the narrator is at the end of the song. In empathising with Gray he becomes like him – to be characterised as neither good nor bad. He’s advanced, he is no longer in denial, but he still has some way to go.4


Roads

One way in which the narrator’s progress towards moral redemption is presented is through road imagery. A number of synonyms for ‘road’ are used at different points in the song – ‘way’, ‘back roads’, ‘highway’, and ‘tracks’.

In verse five the narrator dreams about:

 ‘the way things sometimes are’

This reminds us of Christ’s claim ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6), and it’s this way which seems to have occurred to the narrator as an alternative to his present way of life.

As regards roads, ‘back roads’ suggests a desire to avoid attention, particularly since one would normally take a major road on a long journey. It may be, then, that Gray was ambushed on:

‘… the backroads headin’ south’.

Contrasted with these backroads are the highway and the tracks described, in verse ten, as:

‘… roads to ecstasy’.

‘Ecstasy’ here is presumably meant both in its literal sense of standing apart from oneself, as well as in its more usual sense of extreme happiness.5 By verse ten the narrator is making spiritual progress. Previously ‘tracks’ would have been devoid of positive connotations since, the wheels having stopped, the narrator is left waiting on the running boards. If the wheels and the running boards belong to the burning boxcar, representing a disabled means for making spiritual progress, then the tracks – train tracks – would lead nowhere. Now however ‘tracks’ has the positive connotations of ‘highway’ and accordingly again suggests spiritual progress.


Activity v. Inactivity

It’s ironic that the narrator waits on the boxcar’s ‘running boards’ since ‘running’ in the present context suggests the active pursuit of a moral lifestyle.

There’s further irony in that earlier (in verse four) he ‘ran into the fortune-teller’. There he was being overactive. It would have been better not to have run into the fortune-teller if the latter’s prophesy of ‘lightning that might strike’ implies striking it lucky – financially, through murder.

At this early stage of the song, then, we find the narrator running when he should be being circumspect, and waiting when he should be running.

And he waits for an excessively long time:

‘I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime
turned
Slowly into autumn’

If spring represents birth, and autumn the approach of death, he is admitting to having done nothing for most of his life. However, there is hope because death – spiritual death, also represented by the cypress trees – is only ‘near’. But instead of taking advantage of this and admitting his guilt, he waits for the wife to save him.

This waiting is ironic, and perhaps hypocritical, given that in verse two he complains that in his presence people:

‘… can’t remember how to act’.

The significance of remembering will be considered further below.

A similarly passive attitude is apparent when he says:

‘You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart’

Why, one wonders, should she be responsible for changing his heart?


The Priest

It’s not just the narrator who waits when activity would seem more appropriate:

‘The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building
burned’

The seventh day can be taken as the day after God had finished the process of creation, creation being represented by the building. Like the boxcar, it too is burning. And like the narrator, the priest does nothing – he sits. If burning here represents the destruction of God’s creation by sin, then the priest’s lack of activity seems to represent an indictment of the Church – the organisation responsible for the moral uprightness of those like the narrator.

The criticism may not be being applied just to Christianity. The priest sits stone-faced, suggesting that the burning building also represents the Jewish temple, already alluded to in verse six, whose destruction was foreseen by Christ when he said ‘Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another ….” (Matthew 24.2). Judaism too would be failing in its responsibility.


Confusion

The narrator’s moral progress along the ‘tracks’ is slowed by his mental confusion. This comes across when, after blaming his misdeeds on gravity and destiny, he proceeds to make light of them:

‘Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped’

There’s something ludicrous about the idea that something could be just a little upside down. And if it’s a (metaphorical) vehicle that’s upside down, there’s something even more ludicrous about adding that the wheels have stopped. Upside down vehicles have no use for wheels whether stopped or not. He begins by making light of something serious, and then treats something relatively unimportant as having more significance than it does. It’s clear that what’s really upside down is not so much ‘everything’, or even the vehicle, but the narrator himself.

This becomes even more apparent when he announces:

‘What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good …’

and

‘… you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom’

For someone who’s upside down, even what’s the right-way up is going to look inverted. Until he realises his error in judging his bad acts to be good, and the Christ-like wife as ‘on the bottom’, his salvation is going to be delayed.


Memory

The narrator’s slow progress continues in verse eight with the admittance that he can’t remember what the wife looked like:

‘I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look
into mine’6

Misremembering the wife’s features can be taken as an indication of continuing guilt in that it echoes an earlier failure of memory in verse four where he can’t remember what it’s like to be guilt free:

‘I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like’

Eventually, however, the narrator does remember the wife:

‘I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory

It’s being hounded by her memory – his memory of her – that helps bring about the required change in his heart.


Salvation

While for most of the song the narrator assumes he’s incapable of saving himself, and at least unconsciously thinks of the wife as a potential saviour, there are indications that he could bring about his own moral regeneration. He accuses the idiot wind of:

‘… blowing like a circle around my skull’

The use of ‘skull’ instead of ‘head’ suggests that he’s to be seen, and perhaps sees himself, as spiritually dead. A circle so placed, however, is reminiscent of a halo, or even the crown of thorns, suggesting potential saintliness and a potential to be Christ-like respectively. It would seem that morally he could save himself, whether or not he fully realises this. Whereas the spring/autumn imagery suggested life turning to death, the present image suggests the reverse.

The tenth verse, however, makes it clear that the narrator does not yet see himself as Christ-like. He sees himself as out of touch with the morally superior wife. The association of ‘crawl’ with snakes:

‘Every time I crawl past your door …’,

suggests he’s given up on himself as unremittingly evil, although at least he’s no longer trying to pass off bad as good.

It’s ironic that the line ends:

‘… I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead’

because the circle around his skull suggests he’s already started to take on the identity of the Christ-like wife (just as previously he’s taken on the identity of the husband).

And whereas earlier, on the roadside, he was made, passively, to see ‘stars’, now he tells us:

‘I followed you beneath the stars …’

This is active. He’s taking responsibility. And the sense in which he’s following her is, presumably, in adopting her outlook. It seems that in providing an example for him to emulate, she has done enough to ‘change his heart’, or at least to enable him to change it.


The Beast

In the penultimate verse the narrator is exultant:

‘I’ve been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free’.

‘Double-crossed’ can be taken in two senses. Consciously he may intend it to mean ‘betrayed’. She’s betrayed him but, because she’s dead, he’s now free of her.7 The betrayal interpretation is supported in the next line with another implicit reference to betrayal, albeit unconscious since it casts him as a Judas-like traitor:

‘I kissed goodbye the howlin’ beast …’

where the ‘howlin’ beast’ is supposedly her. On one level he’s back to seeing good – the Christ-like quality in her – as bad. He is Judas.

In another sense, though, ‘double-crossed’ is an unconscious reference to his redemption. Whereas the circle around his skull indicated what he was capable of, ‘double crossed’ – on the latter interpretation – indicates that he’s started to achieve it. In a Christian sense ‘double-crossed’ is appropriate since the crucifixion needs to aid his redemption twice over, once for each murder.

On this interpretation he’s kissed goodbye a different ‘howlin’ beast’ – the ‘howlin beast’ within himself. And since he’s done it:

‘… on the borderline which separated you from me’

he is in a position to cross the borderline and so become united in outlook with the wife.

It’s this unity in outlook which enables him to refer to her ‘holiness’, and her ‘kind of love’ – presumably a selfless Christ-like love in contrast to the selfish love for her which ended with his becoming a murderer. As a result of his identity with her, and by way of hers with Christ, he will be resurrected. He will ‘rise’ above the pain of his guilt.

Both the betrayal and redemption interpretations of ‘double-crossed’ seem plausible, however, and this suggests that the narrator isn’t clear whether the beast he’s got rid of was in the wife or in himself. This in turn suggests that although he’s on the way to salvation, he’s as yet to fully achieve it.


Knowledge

A further indication that the narrator is on the way to achieving salvation is his relinquishing a ‘know-all’ attitude.

The wife has a God-like omniscience, knowing he’s guilty despite his protestations to the contrary. It’s ironic, then, that the narrator taunts her with a lack of knowledge. Early on he patronisingly accuses the wife:

‘I couldn’t believe … you didn’t know me any better than that’

– presumably meaning ‘better than thinking he might be a murderer. Again patronisingly, he claims to be amazed that she still knows how to breathe. And in the fourth verse, he smugly and prematurely condemns her justified lack of faith in his ability to pull through:

‘You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done …’

Even in the eleventh he admonishes her:

‘You’ll never know the hurt I suffered’.

It comes as a surprise, then, when his final reference to knowledge comes with humility:

‘And I’ll never know the same about you …
… it makes me feel so sorry’

This humility is as close as he gets to salvation.

By the end he seems ready to adopt a new attitude. The final chorus makes no mention of it being a wonder that the wife knows how to breathe. The implication is that not only does he no longer think it’s a wonder, but that he too knows how to breathe or, in other words, how to bring about his moral recovery.


Conclusion

The song ends with an acceptance of the unity he has achieved with the wife. Spiritual death, – ‘the dust upon our shelves’, has been defeated. Unity with the wife, and in turn with Christ, is symbolised through the use of inclusive personal pronouns. Whereas for the majority of the song personal pronouns tend to be ‘I’ and ‘you’, now they become ‘we’ and ‘our’.

Yet even so the narrator’s transformation seems incomplete. He still thinks of the woman as an idiot. That he includes himself as an idiot too at least shows that he’s treating her as his equal. That is a step on the path to his spiritual renewal.

Although the plural pronouns refer to the narrator and the wife, their reference need not be confined to them. They can also be taken as referring to humanity at large, and this gives the song a more universal significance. The closing line:

‘It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves’

makes better sense if it’s taken as an expression of amazement that humanity can function at all given its faults.

It may be amazing, but we need to recognise that it’s still the judgment of a flawed narrator.

 

1. Some doubt is cast on his guilt by the near homonyms ‘bucks’, as in ‘million bucks’
and box, as in boxcar. It’s plausible that his money came from some other criminal
enterprise such as robbing the boxcar rather than an inheritance.

2. The description of these people is ambiguous:

‘People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts’

        One way of seeing them is as critics of the narrator who’ve seen through him.
Another, though, is to see them as overcome by him as if he’s a saint – which, viewed
from an eternal perspective, he may be. The lines seem open to either interpretation.

3. The contrast between the onomatopoeic ‘shoot’ and the long vowel sounds of ‘are
making me see stars’ suggests how an instant sudden action had long, drawn out
consequences.

4. This mid-way moral position is represented in of other ways too. The wife is dead,
but not completely dead – she can breathe. And her ‘raging glory’ suggests a mid-
point between out-of-control violence and divinity.

5. Those who think that Dylan’s songs are all about drugs will be disappointed to learn
that ‘ecstasy’ has other meanings, and will doubtless try to show that it doesn’t.

6. Not remembering her face might be an allusion to her divinity (cf. 1 Corinthians
13:12  ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’). If her eyes are
not looking into his, this may be a sign that she is not looking for fault. She is not
prepared to point out a speck in his eye (cf. Matthew 7.3-5)

7. The expression ‘finally free’ reminds us of the expression ‘final end’ in verse four.
Whether it’s her or the beast in himself he’s finally free of, the effect of the repetition
is to make it seem to have has eternal significance.

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.


Self-Pity

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.


Patronising

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.

Again,

‘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.


Conclusion

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

Introduction

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.


Fate

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.


Seediness

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.


Redemption

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.


Conclusion

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

Introduction

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.

***

Dante

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

Time

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

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.


Conclusion

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.

 

Notes

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.

 

Appendix

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.)


Marcel
: 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?

and

‘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)

and

‘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’.


Self-Defeating

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.


Time/Eternity

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.


Conclusion

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

Introduction

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.


Imposing
: 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?’

and

‘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.


Aggression
: 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.

.
Conclusion

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

Introduction

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.


Waiting

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.


Imagery

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


Eternity

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’

and

‘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.


Conclusion

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

Introduction

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.


Temptation

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.


Hell

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.


Sincerity

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.


Refrain

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 .


Conclusion

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’.