Buckets Of Rain

Introduction

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


Buckets

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

‘Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears’.

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

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

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

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

‘Buckets of moonbeams in my hand’.

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

‘I got all the love…
you can stand’.1

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

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


Character

Self-centred

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

I got all the love…’

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

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

‘Everything about you is bringing me
Misery’.

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

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

‘… the cool way you look at me’.

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

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

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

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


Pretence of Affection

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

‘Everything about you is bringing me
Misery’.

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

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


Meek and Hard

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

‘… meek
And hard like an oak’,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Inactivity

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

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

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

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

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


Pessimism

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

‘Life is sad
Life is a bust’4

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

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

 ‘All you can do …’

 he assumes,

‘… is do what you must’.

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

All you can do …’.

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll do it for you …’,

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


Wagon/Bike

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

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

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

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

The fourth line:

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

 

1.     Sometimes these lines appear as:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shelter From The Storm

Introduction

The narrator is clearly Christ, and therefore God, or at least an aspect of him. But so too is the woman. At the same time each is human, with good points as well as imperfections.  The narrator suffers a desire to give in to temptation, and so not fulfil his divinely appointed role. The woman, on the other hand, represents the comfortable way of life the narrator is tempted to pursue. While she extols the virtue of generosity, this is tempered by her apparent commitment to a life of comparative luxury. Between them they represent to different extents two competing elements in Christ’s character, the desire for worldly comfort and a selfless acceptance of duty.

The narration seems to take place after the resurrection, but prior to the ascension since, while there are references to the crucifixion, at the end of the song the narrator is still living in what to him is a ‘foreign country’ – earth as opposed to heaven.

Arguably the song, in focusing on Christ’s human side, presents him as a more plausible redeemer than the Christ of the gospels, while simultaneously allowing for his divinity when viewed from an eternal perspective.

In support of this view I’ll give reasons for seeing both the narrator and the woman as a partially divine, partially human Christ.  While the woman is imperfect, the fallible human side will appear more dominant in the narrator and will remain so throughout the song. While he never consciously appreciates his own divine potential, he implicitly recognises it when he wants to return to a perfect past. What he fails to appreciate is that his sacrifice has already helped bring about this perfect state. Whereas he is unable to appreciate this from his earthly perspective, from an eternal one he, the woman and God already form a united whole.


The Narrator As God And Man

The narrator is God or, at least, God-like. That this is so is suggested in his language. When recounting his suffering in verse two, he says:

‘I was burned out from exhaustion …
Poisoned in the bushes …’

The use of  ‘burned’ and ‘bushes’ associates the narrator with God since it reminds us of God’s appearance to Moses in the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3). He also says he was ‘blown out’, thereby representing himself as a light – a traditional symbolic representation of God.

However, it’s as a man with a man’s fallibilities that the narrator is mostly presented in the song. His status as man is emphasised by his comment about:

‘… men who are fighting to be warm’.

This is because his initially positive reaction to the woman’s offer of shelter suggests that he too is fighting to be warm.

Another line which seems to allude to his human nature is the question:

‘Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?’

In the absence of any other male addressee, it would seem that the ‘man’ the narrator apostrophises is himself.


The Narrator As Christ

In addition to being both God and man, the narrator is Christ. The first indication that it’s Christ who is speaking is apparent from the declaration:

‘I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form’

The allusion is to Christ’s forty days in the desert where he’s tempted to abjure his divinely appointed role and give in to worldly ambition. It’s implied that he ‘came in’ from the wilderness in response to the woman’s offer of shelter, safety and warmth:

‘”Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”’.

Another indication that the narrator is Christ is his use of the phrase ‘I got my signals crossed’. In addition to its primary meaning it hints at the narrator’s coming death by crucifixion. And a further indication is in the observation:

‘… the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount’,

assuming that this is self-referential. The deputy is likely to be Christ, God’s deputy, and especially so if the nails are those driven through his feet to attach him to the cross. The preacher too could be Christ and is even more likely to be, given the ‘mount’ reference. The mount can be taken both as Calvary, the fill on which Christ died, and as the ass on which he entered Jerusalem just prior to his arrest and execution.1

Yet this isn’t quite the Christ of the gospels. The negativity implicit in the phrases ‘blackness was a virtue’ and ‘a creature void of form’ suggests he could equally be seen as the devil coming in from the wilderness. This, then, is an imperfect Christ – Christ the man – a thoroughly human Christ who is far from sure he wants to turn his back on worldly comfort.


Further Imperfection

That the narrator’s is imperfect again becomes apparent in the sixth verse after he decides to forgo the offer of hospitality:

‘Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost …’

By the phrase ‘something there’ the narrator probably means the woman. This is indicated by a previous use of the word ‘there’ in:

‘… she was standing there’,

However, the expression ‘something there’ is vague, as if the narrator has only a dim idea about what it is he’s lost. What’s actually missing for him now is the positive aspect of Christ’s character, the generosity of spirit, which the woman represents.

***

Imperfection is present again in that he never seems fully to have embraced his divine role. This is particularly apparent in the penultimate verse where the ‘lethal dose’ seems to have taken him by surprise. At that point he was still hoping to live, announcing that he’d:

‘… bargained for salvation …’.

Since the salvation he has in mind seems to have been his own survival, rather than the saving of mankind, this too looks like human weakness.

***

That he’s imperfect the narrator as good as admits when he says that he got his ‘signals crossed’. While he seems to be acknowledging a mistake in having opted for ‘a place that’s always safe and warm’, the phrase could equally refer to his failure to anticipate his crucifixion as well as to his failure to see its importance:

‘But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts’.

This is the last thing one might expect Christ to say. In fact plenty should matter, not least the task of redeeming mankind.

***

The narrator’s human imperfection is also apparent in his concern to avoid danger. The woman’s invitation attracted him because:

‘… there was little risk involved’,

– and even though it meant his divine mission being left ‘unresolved’.

***

And imperfection is apparent again in that his reference to a ‘futile horn’ makes it seem he has no notion of his own ‘second coming’, his return at the end of the world which is to be announced by Gabriel’s horn:

‘And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn’.

He treats the horn blast as if it’s a mere proclamation of death. Furthermore, while he considers the possibility that he might return, he makes clear it’s no more than a possibility:

‘And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word’.

According to traditional Christianity Christ’s second coming is a certainty – not merely an ‘if’. It’s also when he’ll reward the virtuous with eternal life – not just ‘do his best’ for them.

All these imperfections make it clear that the Christ represented by the narrator is a fallible human.


The Woman As God And Christ

Like the narrator, the woman, too, can be seen as embodying aspects of both God and Christ.2

In the final verse the narrator implicitly identifies her with God:

‘If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born’.

If she were just a woman, it’s unlikely that her birth would have been contemporaneous with God’s.

And like the narrator she can be identified with Christ (which in itself would make her one with God). First, we’re constantly reminded of the woman’s generosity which makes her Christ-like:

‘”Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”’

Secondly, in taking the narrator’s burdens, represented by his crown of thorns, onto herself, she literally becomes Christ in that she’s taking on his role.

It’s significant that we’re told that she ‘took‘ his crown of thorns, thus making apparent a contrast between her and the imperfect  narrator who previously ‘took too much for granted’.  In that she acts selflessly, in contrast to the narrator who is more concerned about safety and warmth, and avoiding risk, she is Christ-like in a way that he isn’t


The Woman As Imperfect

Despite her generosity the woman, like the narrator, is not perfect. Just as he suffers from human imperfection, so does she. This is apparent from her wearing:

‘… silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair’.

While the flowers represent her natural side, that the bracelets are silver suggests she’s attracted by luxury. These are perhaps the equivalent of the expensive, seamless garment which Christ was stripped of immediately prior to the crucifixion, and which is alluded to in the penultimate verse:

‘… they gambled for my clothes’.

Also her assumption that it’s acceptable to pursue a quiet life becomes a temptation to the narrator. One set of temptations, by the devil in the wilderness, seems to have been replaced by another temptation from her.


Dualities

The ideal for both the narrator and the woman might be seen as to become wholly, instead of partially, Christ-like. At present they’re each a duality comprising virtue and imperfection, including virtues and imperfections which the other lacks. Only if they unite will they form a perfect being – the divine Christ – for only then will the narrator’s sacrifice be as consciously chosen as the woman’s, and her attitude be as unmaterialistic as his eventually becomes.

These dualities are reflected in a further duality – God and man.  And this duality is itself reflected in the picture of Christ we get from the narrator’s somewhat cryptic announcement:

‘… the deputy walks on hard nails, the preacher rides a mount’.

‘Hard nails’ represents the side of self-sacrifice associated with the narrator’s crucifixion and the woman’s generosity, whereas riding a mount represents a form of transport associated with the narrator’s desire for comfort and perhaps the woman’s for luxury.


The Wall And The Word

As the narrator looks back, unity between the two aspects of Christ represented by himself and the woman still seems yet to occur. Instead, according to the narrator, a wall separates the one from the other. That the unity is yet to come about may not be the whole truth, however.

Previously, in welcoming the offer of ‘shelter from the storm’, the narrator had been in danger of giving in to his own desire for an easy life. This is reflected in his comment:

‘Not a word was spoke between us …’

There had been, as it were, nothing between them – not even a need for speech – prior to the wall. They’d simply shared the same natural, human, materialistic outlook.

Once the narrator changes tack, however, something does separate their attitudes. The wall which replaces the absence of ‘a word between us’ turns out to be a word. So, where there had been no word, there is now a word:

‘I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word’.

On the surface this means that he commits himself to acting generously towards her. However he also seems, unconsciously, to be alluding to the biblical claim,

‘The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1.14)

in which ‘word’ (Greek ‘logos’) can be taken to mean both God and, in flesh-form, Christ. Thus when ‘give my word’ replaces ‘not a word’, it’s an indication that the narrator- speaking as God – has ceased to be self-centred and – as Christ – has become something given by God to the world.

Although the narrator doesn’t realise it, once he has given himself there is no wall separating him from the woman. His act of generosity coupled with hers amounts to the beginnings of a new unity.2


The Foreign Country And Crossing The Line

The final verse enables us to see what’s been going on both from the narrator’s earthly perspective, and from a heavenly one.

The narrator, Christ, apparently speaking after his resurrection is still:

‘… livin’ in a foreign country’,3

that is, on earth. He’s still a man, and there’s even a hint of human acquisitiveness (reminiscent of his counterpart’s liking for silver bracelets) when he says about beauty (or Beauty):

‘… someday I’ll make it mine’.4

Even so, with the crucifixion over, he’s anticipating ‘crossing the line’ – which might be interpreted as returning to heaven. Meanwhile, he’s dissatisfied. Not only does he have a desire to make beauty his’ – perhaps to possess the woman – but he wants:

‘…to turn back the clock to when God and her were born’.

There are two interesting things about this desire. First, in wanting to return to an ideal past he seems unaware of the significance of his crucifixion. Secondly, his acknowledgement that God and the woman were born together implies that in the distant past they were identical.

The time ‘God and her were born’ would have been either the time of Christ’s birth – the ‘long forgotten morn’ of verse six – or the beginning of time, depending on whether the frame of reference is earth or heaven.  Either way he seems to be treating the woman as having been Christ and therefore as fully identical with God. By turning back the clock, he wants to recreate that identity. And in addition, his desire to make beauty his, can be seen as his wanting to share in that identity.

***

The narrator seems to acknowledge the desirability of this identity or unity when he says:

‘Beauty walks a razor’s edge …’

The idea seems to be that Beauty – the true, undivided Christ who exists timelessly in heaven – is being split down the middle to become the two aspects of Christ apparent throughout the song. His aim is to restore the unity of Christ, and the unity of Christ with God.

That it is indeed the complete Christ walking the razor’s edge is perhaps corroborated by the use of ‘walks’ in the ‘phrase ‘Beauty walks a razor’s edge. The word ‘walks’ had previously been used in conjunction with both the woman and (arguably) the narrator:

‘She walked up to me so gracefully …’

and

‘… the deputy walks on hard nails …’

***

Had he been aware of the significance of the crucifixion, he’d have known that his wish to restore the unity of Christ, and the unity of Christ with God, is unnecessary. There is no need to ‘turn back the clock’ and to make Beauty his. From an eternal perspective his crucifixion and the woman’s generosity have already put an end to their division, thus forming a unified Christ who is identical with God. The clock, as it were, has already been put back, and the line already crossed. The crucifixion has ensured that beauty (the woman), or Beauty (God), is already his.5


Conclusion

The song is doubtless open to other interpretations than the one given here. But even to the extent that this one is justified, it’s still a matter of opinion what it can be said to show. What follows, then, is only a suggestion.

The narrator and the woman are each presented as fallible human beings. To that extent they represent humanity generally – us. The song, I suggest, shows how human beings are to make moral progress or, in religious terms, to achieve redemption. This is achievable without any intervention from a divine Christ. The Christ here is manifestly not divine, at least from an earthly, temporal standpoint. Rather, redemption is achieved by an imperfect man and an imperfect woman who, as a result of the pooling of their moral strengths, and the consequent elimination of their moral weaknesses, become the divine Christ. This is made possible by the narrator and the woman each having strengths and weaknesses which the other lacks.

By the end of the song the narrator and the woman have achieved what their counterpart in the gospels has achieved. Eternally they constitute the divine Christ, while in earthly terms they remain man and woman.

 

Appendix

An excellent article by Jochen Markhorst on the Untold Dylan blog yesterday (1.11.18) includes this ‘extra verse’ which seems to have been excluded from the final song:

‘Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied
By one more journey to the woods, the holes where spirits hide.
It’s a never-ending battle for a peace that’s always torn.
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm’.

My immediate thoughts are as follows. The first line:

‘Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied’

immediately seems to fit the interpretation I’ve given. ‘Bonds’ is a word used in religious contexts for the covenant. In the song, then, the breaking of the covenant amounts to the need for Christ’s new covenant. And this new covenant is represented by the future bonds being retied.

A second meaning it might have  is that the bonds between the two aspects of Christ, represented by the narrator and the woman, or between Christ-as-man and God, will be retied after the second coming (‘one more journey’). That reunification is hinted at in the final verse, as I’ve discussed above. If the reunification doesn’t occur until the second coming, then it doesn’t occur until the end of time. That is it occurs from an eternal, but not a temporal perspective.

The ‘never-ending battle’ is presumably the battle between good and evil. It’s never ending in temporal terms, but from an eternal standpoint it’s been won. In a similar way the separation between the two aspects of Christ, and between Christ (as man) and God, is never ending in temporal terms, whereas from an eternal standpoint there’s unity. That unity results from the sacrificial action of the narrator (again, as discussed above).

That the ‘peace is always torn’ seems to imply there’ll never be peace, but again this will be just from a temporal perspective (‘never’ being a temporal word). Accordingly, just as the separation of Christ into partially imperfect parts cannot be ended in time, so neither can peace be restored in time. However it can be, and is, restored eternally by the narrator’s sacrifice.

A hint that even though the battle can’t be won, and peace restored, except outside of time, comes with the word ‘torn’. This is because it reminds us of the tearing of the veil in the temple at the time of the crucifixion. This was a symbol of the reunification of man with God achieved by the crucifixion. It was therefore a symbol of the eternal end to the unending battle between good and evil.

Appendix updated 3.11.19

 

Notes:

  1. There are numerous other biblical references. An example would be ‘newborn babies wailin’’ which brings to mind Herod’s massacre of the innocents.
  2. Something else which the narrator and the woman have in common is that they’re both presented as hippies – the woman with ‘flowers in her hair’ and the narrator in using ‘man’ to address someone.
  3. Compare ‘… a better country–a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11.16). Also, the phrase ‘foreign country’ might be a reference to the opening of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. What seems to be significant here is that earthly, temporal existence is a foreign country compared to eternal (i.e. non-temporal) heavenly existence. What still has to be done in the former is eternal in the latter. Hartley uses the present tense (‘do things’) to suggest that the past is still going on, eternally, despite having gone from a temporal perspective.
  4. Similarly the phrase ‘I’m bound to cross the line’ reminds us of the narrator’s fallibility by implying that he’ll be going too far – giving in to temptation.
  5. That there is no need to turn the clock back is made clear in another way. The ambiguity about whether the phrase ‘when God and her were born’ refers to the beginning of time or merely to the incarnation suggests that there’s no distinction to be made between these apparently distantly separate times. If there’s no distinction between the times, there’s no point in turning the clock back.

 

 

 

 

If You See Her, Say Hello

Introduction

All five verses have the narrator wistfully recounting his thoughts about the woman who has left him. Three have him asking someone to act as an intermediary between him and the woman, while the remaining two represent his private thoughts.

A problem about the song concerns the extent to which the narrator wants to revive the relationship. At times he gives the impression of being far less committed than he makes out. The ambivalence may be due to the flaws in his character which precipitated the break up, and which now prevent him knowing how best to proceed.  As will become apparent, he has a skewed idea about what a relationship requires to be successful and is too ready to find excuses and to cast blame. At times his outlook is made to seem quite laughable.


Ambivalent Attitude

It seems at first as if the narrator is pining for his lost lover. He tries to make contact with her, sends her a kiss, says he respects her, and that he suffers both when he hears her name and when he recalls details of the break up. He also emphasises the distance which now exists between them when he says:

‘… she might be in Tangier’.

The effect of ‘Tangier’ is to make her sound inaccessible. Furthermore the very next line:

‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear’

reinforces that distance by its use of the words ‘here’ (and the homophone ‘hear’) applying to his vicinity, and ‘there’ applying to hers.

It becomes apparent, though, that he may be less concerned about renewing the relationship than some of these things suggest. It’s particularly significant, for example, that he doesn’t seek out the woman himself, but is happy to contact her – and send a kiss – via an intermediary.

More importantly, perhaps, this lack of concern is supported by his saying to the intermediary:

‘She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so’.

That would be an odd message to send someone you were hoping to restart a relationship with. The word ‘don’t’ makes it clear that he wants her to think his attitude has changed. Either he’s putting on a show of indifference, or else he really is indifferent.

That the narrator lacks desire for any personal contact with the woman is corroborated by the matter of fact way he says:

‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town’.

‘Here and there’ is an imprecise expression. It implies a lack of interest in things associated with her.

The apparent lack of concern continues in the final verse:

‘If she’s passin’ back this way, I’m not too hard to find
Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time’.

There’s no appearance of enthusiasm. That he thinks she might be ‘passin’ back’ shows that the distance between them is not an obstacle to their meeting in person, yet he makes no effort to make the journey himself. He seems happy enough to see her, but no more than that.

That he’s unconcerned about reviving the relationship might seem to conflict with his obvious suffering. The manner of her leaving, we’re told in verse two:

‘… still brings me a chill’,

and, also in verse two:

‘… our separation, it pierced me to the heart’.

Nevertheless, although the feelings may be genuine, the latter phrase tells us just that he was distraught at the time, not that he is now. And the former alludes to no more than a present reaction to the memory of what was at the time an unwelcome event.

Overall, and strangely for what at first appears to be a love song, it would seem that the narrator is prepared to put little effort into reviving the relationship. The question, then, is why?

Cunning

One answer is that the narrator is exercising cunning. By showing an absence of concern about reviving the relationship, he’s manipulating the intermediary. This is evident when he instructs the latter to:

‘Say for me that I’m alright’.

Why just ‘alright’?  One suspects it’s part of a device to get the woman to feel sorry for him. He puts on the semblance of a brave face, in order for the intermediary to see through it. The aim is to dupe the intermediary into passing on that he’s more unhappy than he seems. The narrator will go up in her estimations because, by not being open about his unhappiness, he’ll appear to be being strong in adversity.


Resentment

A second explanation for the narrator’s reticence is that it’s not love that’s uppermost in his mind, but resentment.

This resentment comes across in his bitterness. He even uses the word ‘bitter’:

‘Though the bitter taste still lingers on …’

In so doing, his intention is to criticise the woman and this alone suggests he’s not as enamoured by her as he’d like us to believe.

And his claim that the way she left ‘still brings me a chill’ also suggests that it’s not a loving emotion which subsumes him.

Although he attempts to balance these feelings with the claims that:

‘She still lives inside of  me …’

and that he and the woman have:

‘… never been apart’,

these claims come across as too mushily sentimental to be taken as genuine. If she still ‘lives inside’ him at all, it’s in the unintended sense that she rankles him.

One suspects that the real reason for his saying she lives inside of him is to make him seem beyond reproach. He’s attempting to put the blame for his misery fairly and squarely on her.


Ridicule

The absurdity of the narrator’s approach becomes doubly apparent when we notice that the words ‘lives inside of me’ echo those of St Paul:

‘… it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2.20).

First, the narrator seem to be using the woman’s supposed living in him to justify not living his own life, as if she can live his life for him. Secondly, and relatedly, the idea that there is a comparison to be drawn between his love relationship and the relationship with Christ which St Paul is advocating is ludicrous. St Paul is advocating allowing Christian ideals to replace one’s own more selfish outlook. There’s no way that this has a counterpart in a romantic relationship. By using Paul’s language out of context, the narrator makes himself ridiculous.

The ludicrousness of the narrator’s approach is compounded when he goes onto say in verse four:

‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town’

It’s significant that this line echoes the earlier line from verse one:

‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear

The lines each contain ‘here’, ‘there’ and the homophone ‘hear’, but whereas the focus in verse one was on the geographical distance between ‘here’ and ‘there’ – their respective vicinities – now, with her supposedly ‘inside of him’, neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ matters.

The absurdity of this change of focus becomes apparent when we realise that the narrator seems to be unconsciously travestying a further biblical text:

‘Neither shall they say, See here! or, see there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17.21).

While Luke wants us to believe that ‘here’ and ‘there’ don’t matter if God is within you, the narrator is saying they don’t matter if the woman is within you!

Once more the allusion seems heavily ironic to the point of ridiculous. It doesn’t even make sense for the ex-lover to be primarily within (‘inside of’) the narrator in the way Luke thinks the kingdom of God is. Luke is using metaphorical language to make a point about moral living which simply has no counterpart in a romantic relationship.


Narrator’s and Woman’s Contrasting Attitudes to Life

 While the narrator’s echoing of Paul and Luke seem intended, ridiculously, to imply that he has discovered a superior way of living, it becomes clear that the opposite is the case. For example, in the final verse we encounter the phrase:

‘Sundown, yellow moon …’.

Although presumably chosen for its romantic connotations, this image of nightfall has the unintended effect of associating the narrator with death. And, ironically given the allusions to Paul and Luke, ‘sundown’ (Son-down) suggests spiritual death – death without resurrection.

That the narrator’s approach is tantamount to giving up on life is reinforced by the very next phrase:

‘… I replay the past’.

Instead of looking ahead to a new life, he looks back on the one that’s gone.1

By contrast, the woman looks ahead:

‘She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear’

Spring represents the new life for which she left the narrator. And the reference to ‘living’ in the second half of the line makes it clear that she, unlike the narrator, is going to make the effort to live.


Further Religious Imagery

There’s further irony in what is presumably another (presumably unconscious) biblical reference. The narrator claims that the woman’s departure:

‘… pierced me to the heart’.

This presents her as one of those who tormented Christ, and has him putting himself in the position of Christ. (‘But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water’ (John 19.34). Again it’s hard to see how the implicit glorification of himself, together this time with the denigration of the woman, can be justified.

In fact a further implicit biblical reference suggests the opposite. His offering her a kiss, albeit by proxy, makes her Christ and him a Judas-like tormentor (Mark 14.44).2


Narrator’s Character

That the narrator’s implicit comparisons with himself and Christ are ironic becomes even more apparent from the insights into his character we’re afforded from reading between the lines of what he says. Even things which suggest he’s well intentioned, genuinely bereft, and perhaps deserving of our sympathy, can also be interpreted as highlighting  flaws in his character.


Domineering

He unintentionally betrays how domineering he can be when he declares:

‘Oh whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in the way’.

While his intention is the opposite – to let it be known that he won’t be restrictive – the mere fact he raises the subject causes suspicion. Why does he need to offer the assurance, unless to allay fears that he would in fact stand in the way? Furthermore, to the extent that the narrator is out to revive the relationship, and the woman isn’t, it would be difficult to see him as not standing in her way.

It’s also rather odd that he’s offering that assurance to the person he’s addressing. This may be because he’s hoping he’ll pass it on, but it might also be because he expects this person too to see him as obstructive.

***

A second reason for seeing the narrator as domineering is his reference to:

‘… the night I tried to make her stay’

The expression ‘make her stay’ could be taken as implying compulsion – that he was requiring her to stay whether she wanted to or not.

***

Thirdly, his approach in the song is itself a sign of an over-dominant character. It comes across as a series of instructions to the addressee – ‘say hello’, ‘say for me’, don’t tell her’,kiss her’, and  ‘Tell her she can look me up …’

Furthermore, in this last case it’s not just the intermediary who is being bossed about. It’s the woman too in that a way of getting in contact is being set out for her. His addition of

‘… if she’s got the time’

seems no more than an insincere attempt to be conciliatory. It’s clear from the end of the immediately preceding line:

‘I’m not that hard to find’,

that he wouldn’t accept lack of time as an excuse for her failing to look him up.

***

 Further evidence of his domineering character is contained in the line:

‘Always have respected her in doing what she did in gettin’ free’

We might want to applaud the generosity implicit here if we didn’t wonder what precisely the woman can have done to merit his respect. It can’t simply be that she left him, because he’s still bitter about that. The key words would seem to be ‘in gettin’ free’. If so, it must be that he respects her for having escaped, and this can only be because he’d been effectively imprisoning her.

***

Finally, that he’s domineering comes across from his not shying away from appearing self-critical:

‘Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting’ soft’

On the surface this appears as an honest admittance of a fault. However it’s more than that. Not only does it seem to be said in the hope of hearing it denied, so that it’s a covert appeal for sympathy, but – in the absence of any evidence that he’s either too sensitive or soft – it appears calculated to remove any idea that the narrator is dominating. Softness, in particular, suggests the opposite.


False Self-Praise

There’s another type of falsity apparent in the lines leading up to the one about being too sensitive:

‘And I hear her name here and there as I go from town to town
And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off’

The narrator claims his response to the discomfort of hearing the woman’s name has been ‘to turn it off’. But by his own admission he’s only heard her name ‘here and there’, and presumably over quite a long time since it’s been as a result of traveling to different towns. What, then, has he learned to turn off’? There doesn’t seem to have been very much. Again, rather than actually suffering from constantly hearing the woman’s name (assuming that that’s what ‘it’ refers to), the narrator must be trying to elicit sympathy. It’s not that he’s over-sensitive, so much as that he wants to others to believe that he’s over-sensitive.

There’s further irony here in that despite there being nothing appreciable to turn off, the narrator’s complaining would suggest that he’s not turned anything off anyway.


Inconsistency

The narrator Is hard to please. On the one hand he complains that things are getting ‘kind of slow’. On the other he complains that the past ‘all went by so fast’. Both these things might be true. Nevertheless, if he dislikes life slowing down, it’s somewhat odd that he complains when things move quickly. Alternatively, if he prefers things to move quickly, it’s odd that he complains when they slow down.

This suggests that he’s not being wholly honest. Rather than giving an accurate account of his feelings, he may once again be seizing on opportunities to elicit sympathy. For example, if we take the claim that everything went by ‘so fast’ at face value, that in itself might suggest the time he and the woman were together was not as good as he’s making out. The greater the number of happy occasions there were, the more time they would have taken. As it is, there were sufficiently few such occasions for him to know ‘every scene by heart’.


Unduly Romantic

The narrator’s understanding of love seems shallow. One feels that he gets pleasure out of presenting himself as a forsaken lover.

Again he makes himself laughable by taking on the role of the fictitious medieval courtly lover – not just by pining for the woman, but by using an intermediary to intercede for him.3

That he sees himself in a traditional romantic role is apparent when he says:

‘We had a falling out, like lovers often will’

In itself the second clause is redundant.  It’s irrelevant that other lovers are often in the same boat. However, by showing his situation to be typical of theirs the narrator is able to distract from his own responsibility for the break up.

This presenting himself as a romantic occurs again in the final verse:

‘Sundown, yellow moon …’

By using the language of love songs to describe real life, he’s showing he has a rather skewed idea of what a relationship needs to be. And in the light of this it’s hardly surprising that the woman has left him.


Conclusion

This is an unusual love song. The narrator, while apparently pining for his departed lover, seem unenthusiastic about making contact again. Numerous biblical allusions seem to mock his outlook and emphasise the contrast between the woman’s forward-looking, life-affirming approach and his own orientation towards the past.

As the song progresses we become aware of numerous flaws in the narrator’s character which might have contributed to the break up and to the dishonesty of his response to it. He’s bitter, domineering, false, inconsistent and has an over romanticised view of what a loving relationship entails. He seems more concerned with justifying himself and getting his own back than in reviving the relationship.

 

Notes:

1. Like Orpheus, and the consequence is the same – failure to bring the woman back.

2. Another biblical reference has him comparing the two of them to man in his ‘fallen’ state:

‘We had a fallin’ out …’

It is this fallen state from which the woman recovers when she begins a new life, but from which he doesn’t when he focuses on his previous life.

He may also be being presented as making a further implicit comparison of himself with Christ – this time Christ’s second coming in the phrase ‘as I make the rounds’.

3. The narrator is thus a counterpart of Chaucer’s Absolon in The Miller’s Tale.

 

 

 

 

 

Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts

Introduction

A number of things suggest that this is not the straightforward tale of love and tragedy it at first seems to be. Instead the song is replete with inconsistencies and ambiguities in which spatio/temporal distinctions and distinctions between one character and another break down.  Who, we wonder, is the mysterious ‘he’ of the first verse who is merely like the Jack of Hearts? Why is it pointed out that he’s standing in the doorway’? Why does Lily bury her dress? And how does one explain the ‘brand new coat of paint’ and the reference to Lily’s father?

There are many other questions one could ask, and there will be other interpretations to the one offered here. Nevertheless by considering just some of the issues, and demonstrating their interrelatedness, it will be possible to show how the song is essentially a moral and psychological study of one person in particular – Lily.


The Narrator

This is the only song on Blood On The Tracks which is narrated entirely from a third person perspective. The narrator here is different by not being the main focus of attention. But, just as with the narrators on the other songs, we should be wary of trusting him. On occasions he is clearly relying on hearsay, presumably due to a lack of first-hand knowledge:

‘… it’s said they got off with quite a haul’,

It was known all around that Lily had Jim’s ring’

and

‘… they say that it happened pretty quick’.

This should lead the listener to be cautious about accepting other things he says – his judgments, and his accounts of events. We should question whether Big Jim is really to be dismissed as no more than a clever wastrel, whether the narrator’s chummy reference to the robbers as ‘the boys’ isn’t out of order, and whether the events which make up the song really occur at the times and places described.


The Story

On a surface interpretation the song seems to involve four main characters – Lily, Rosemary, the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim. Lily and Rosemary are in a relationship with Big Jim, although it’s left unclear which – if either – is his wife. At the same time both are attracted to a mysterious character called the Jack of Hearts who seems to be associated with a gang of bank robbers. Rosemary murders Big Jim and for this she is hanged at the instigation of a corrupt judge.1


Virtue v Corruption

There is more going on than such a surface interpretation allows, however. In particular there are reasons for seeing the Jack of Hearts as a representation, perhaps an idealisation, in Lily’s eyes of Big Jim. And there are reasons for seeing Rosemary as representing the darker side of Lily. As a result Lily becomes a more complex and more central character than a surface interpretation would suggest.

Lily can be taken as representing virtue. Corruption is rife in the song. Robbers are stealing from a bank. Big Jim is two-timing. Someone, probably Big Jim, is wining and dining the hanging judge. The judge is already a ‘hanging judge’ before any crime has become apparent. He and Rosemary each irresponsibly get drunk. It’s against this background that Lily has to decide how to deal with the problem of her relationship.


The Jack of Hearts
I

At first the Jack of Hearts could not seem more different from Big Jim. Big Jim comes across as vain and attention seeking –  ‘so dandy and so fine’/’every hair in place’. Despite this he seems wrapped up in himself. We’re given his thoughts, but he doesn’t speak even when spoken to.

The Jack of Hearts is much more appealing. There’s no description of his appearance, from which we can assume it’s unostentatious. He’s affable, engaging others both by initiating conversation and by way of his facial expression:

‘… he asked him with a grin’.

He speaks politely:

‘”Could you kindly tell me …?”’,

even going so far as addressing a stranger as ‘friend’.

Whereas Big Jim is grasping, taking ‘whatever he wanted to’, the Jack of Hearts appears to be generous:

‘”Set it up for everyone” he said’.

Just from his manner it’s easy to see how he represents someone who’d be far more attractive to Lily than Big Jim.


Identity of Big Jim/Jack of Hearts

Despite these differences, there are a number of indications that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are to be taken as one and the same person. On this view the Jack of Hearts is Big Jim’s alter ego. The former might be taken as representing respectively a romantic idealisation of the character, and the latter the person as he currently seems to be. I shall begin by noting similarities, or a lack of differentiating characteristics, before going on to consider how the characters’ identity is supported by other considerations.

.
1. Similarities

There are four ways in which the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are made to seem similar, suggesting that they are two sides of the same person.

The first similarity is that morally they are both scoundrels – one a bank robber, the other a grasping wastrel. Bias on the part of the narrator makes him downplay this aspect of the Jack of Hearts when he’s treated as just one of ‘the boys’.

***

A second indication is that in both the first and thirteenth verses a similar description is applied to each. Verse one has:

‘He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts’

while verse thirteen tells us that when the dressing-room door burst open:

‘… Big Jim was standin’ there, you couldn’t say surprised’.

Since both descriptions involve standing and a doorway, the temptation is to see both as involving the same person and the two separate events as having fused into one.2 Such a conclusion would have the advantage of explaining why the ‘he’ of the first verse is described as being only ‘like the Jack of Hearts’. Being like the Jack of Hearts would allow for the figure’s being Big Jim.

***

Thirdly, there’s an absence of differentiating characteristics in verse twelve, omitted from the recording. The expression ‘the man’ is used for both Big Jim and the Jack of Hearts:

‘the man she dearly loved to touch’

and

‘the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much’.

While the woman appears to be Lily, we’re given no way of telling which ‘man’ is which. It could be that Big Jim is the one she loves, especially since she ‘has his ring’. But equally it could be that the Jack of Hearts is, since her saying ‘I’ve missed you so’ seems more likely to have been said to someone she sees a good deal less of than Big Jim. There’s a similar ambiguity about the ‘man she couldn’t stand who hounded her’. We can’t say who’s being referred to since it’s not obvious that she’d see either Big Jim or the Jack of Hearts as hounding her. The ambiguity is resolved if ‘the man’ in each line really does refer to either.

***

Fourthly, where Big Jim is said to look ‘like a saint’, the Jack of Hearts appears as a monk. Whether the descriptions should be taken ironically or not, the applicability of positive religious terms to each provides another reason for taking them as one and the same person.

Since we so often can’t differentiate between them, there’s a sense in which there’s no distinction to be made. We have reason for taking the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim as the same person.

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2. The Missing Jack of Hearts

The view that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim are in some sense identical, is corroborated by the apparently inexplicable absence of the Jack of Hearts on three occasions.

First, since the murder takes place around the end of verse thirteen, we can see the identity of Big Jim and the Jack of Hearts would also explain the absence of the Jack of Hearts from the riverbed meeting place in the following verse. The robbers waited there:

‘For one more member who had business back in town’.

It would seem that the robbers are surprised by their associate’s absence. And ‘business back in town’ sounds vague, as if they are being forced to find a way of rationalising his absence. That unexpected absence is explained if, when Rosemary kills Big Jim, she is in that very process killing the Jack of Hearts.

Secondly, after Rosemary’s death we’re told:

‘The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts’

We’re not told why he’s missing, or for that matter why it’s even worth pointing out. But if they’re the same person, he cannot be present since Big Jim is lying dead elsewhere.

Other explanations of these absences will be considered later on.

.
3. Omission Of Big Jim

A further indication that the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim can be taken as aspects of the same person comes not from what we’re told, but from what we’re not told.

There’s a significant omission in the final verse where we’re told Lily is thinking about four things – her father, Rosemary, the law, and the Jack of Hearts. One would have expected her at least to be giving some thought to Big Jim, if – as we’ve been led to believe – he was her lover or husband.

But she would indeed be thinking of Big Jim, if the Jack of Hearts she’s thinking about is Big Jim.

.
4. Staring into Space

Fourthly, Big Jim’s behaviour in verses five and six is more consistent with his sharing an identity with the Jack of Hearts than it is with the latter being a separate person. We’re told that Big Jim:

‘… was starin’ into space over at the Jack of Hearts’

When someone stares into space, they’re not seeing anything. And to be staring ‘over at’ someone, is not the same as to be staring at them.

Accordingly Big Jim can’t actually have been seeing a real face when he says:

‘I know I’ve seen that face before’

If it wasn’t someone else he was seeing, the possibility is opened up that the face represents a different – perhaps more favourable – representation of himself. He only thinks he’s seeing the Jack of Hearts.

It turns out that he’s in fact staring in the direction of Lily, but presumably without seeing her:

‘… there was only Jim and him
Starin’ at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts’

This provides a fifth reason for seeing the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim as identical. Not only are the two of them doing exactly the same thing, but the phrase ‘was only’ implies there’s just one person.


Identity of Lily/Rosemary

Just as the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim, while separate on the surface level, can be seen as identical, so can Lily and Rosemary. Rosemary is Lily’s alter ego. There are a number of obvious similarities between them which bring this out.

Consider again the line:

‘The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts’

This implies Lily was there, yet she isn’t mentioned. Other than the missing Jack of Hearts, the only people mentioned in the penultimate verse are Big Jim, Rosemary and the hanging judge. If Lily isn’t missing, the implication is that Lily is one of those people. And that would be so if she’s Rosemary.

Secondly, Rosemary is in ‘the role of Big Jim’s wife’, while Lily has ‘Jim’s ring’. Both descriptions suggest the person described could be in a unique relationship with Big Jim.3

Thirdly, Lily is referred to as a ‘butterfly’ which seems to associate her with Rosemary who ‘fluttered’ her eyelashes.

Fourthly, both are attracted to the Jack of Hearts.

Finally, they are both associated to an unusual extent with death.


Death

This last way of seeing Lily and Rosemary as two aspects of the same person needs further attention. The characters can each be seen as sacrificing their lives.

.
1. Rosemary’s Sacrifice

Rosemary, we’re told, was:

‘… lookin’ to do just one good deed before she died’

The intended good deed would seem to be the killing of Big Jim. The woman who has:

‘… done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide’

may now be attempting to change course as a result of seeing what she takes to be her better self reflected in the knife.

There are two reasons why something as immoral as murder might seem good to Rosemary. It might seem good to her if it has good consequences. And it might also seem good if she sees it as inevitably leading to her own self-sacrifice.

A good consequence might be that, by stabbing Big Jim, she will be saving the Jack of Hearts from being shot by him.4

And it would seem she does see the murder as leading inevitably to her own self-sacrifice. She shows no sign of being surprised by her fate on the gallows:

‘… she didn’t even blink’.

That this fate is to be seen in terms of self-sacrifice is suggested by the imagery used in describing the scene of her death:

‘… the sky was overcast and black’.

This relates Rosemary’s death to the crucifixion when, ‘darkness came over the whole land’ (Matt 27.45). Accordingly, Rosemary’s death is associated with Christ’s dying for others.

Given that it stemmed from a murder, the association must in part be ironic.

.
2. Lily’s Sacrifice

Just as Rosemary can be seen as sacrificing herself, so can Lily. The difference is that as a result of Lily’s action Big Jim lives rather than dies. And whereas Rosemary’s death is literal, Lily’s is metaphorical. She is just sacrificing a more selfish part of herself.

We’re told that after the show:

‘Lily washed her face, took her dress off and buried it away’.

What we have is clearly the language of ritual. One does not normally bury one’s clothes. And the washing, in the context of ‘buried’, reminds us of the preparation of a corpse for burial. Lily, it seems, is making preparations for her own death.

Lily’s death, although it’s the counterpart of Rosemary’s, does not involve murder. On the contrary, she can be seen as abandoning her original murderous outlook as represented by Rosemary. She comes to abjure it by announcing to Big Jim:

‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive …’

The sense in which she dies is that by not killing Big Jim, she is sacrificing herself to him. True to form she ‘did whatever she had to do’ and, on this view, what she had to do did not involve murder.

While Rosemary’s self-sacrifice is explicitly associated with Christ’s, Lily’s is the more Christ-like in that her sacrifice is for his good. With respect to Lily there’s no irony involved.


Further Temporal Distortions

It becomes apparent that Big Jim both does and does not die, depending on whether he’s at the mercy of Rosemary or Lily.

In that he does die, it’s because Rosemary has knifed him. In that he doesn’t, it’s because Lily has abandoned the Rosemary-side of her character and put her trust in his better side. There’s no issue about whether he does or doesn’t die – the song represents both as being the case.

That he does not die is supported by three temporal distortions. These are over and above the spatio/temporal one we’ve already encountered concerning an appearance in a doorway in verses one and thirteen.


First Distortion

The first temporal distortion which allows Big Jim to be still alive at the end of the song is required by something Lily says after washing and changing her clothes in verse ten:

‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive …’

At face value this is meaningless, whoever it’s addressed to. There’s no reason at this stage for believing the life of Big Jim or the Jack of Hearts as being under threat.6

However, the statement ceases to be meaningless provided that it’s spoken only after the time of the attack on Big Jim, and it’s addressed to Big Jim. If that’s the case, it becomes pertinent that the addressee is not only alive, but  still alive at that much later time.

It’s pertinent because it directly contradicts the information that Big Jim has been killed.


Second Distortion

That time is distorted in this way, so that the conversation occurs much later than it seems to have done, is corroborated by a further temporal distortion. This involves Lily’s warning:

‘Be careful not to touch the wall, there’s a brand new coat of paint’.

If she’s speaking only at a time prior to the attack on Big Jim, there’s no obvious reason why there might need to be a warning involving a freshly painted wall.

However, if the warning is given after the attack, the reason becomes clear. Since no other wall has been mentioned, the wall in question has to be the one forming a barrier between ‘the boys’ and the bank. It makes sense for this wall to have been freshly painted, but only after it has been repaired following the damage inflicted by the bank robbers. And for this to be the case requires Lily to have been speaking not only after the time of the attack on Big Jim, but after the redecoration of the cabaret which is still only underway in the final verse.


Third Distortion

A third temporal distortion provides further corroboration of the previous two. It involves a reference to Lily’s hair:

‘Lily had already taken all the dye out of her hair’.

Although this occurs in the final verse, it’s part of the process referred to in verse ten which involved washing her face and taking her dress off. This too suggests that the conversation in verse ten is to be seen as occurring much later than the supposed attack on Big Jim.

Time, it seems, is distorted on no less than three occasions to allow that, despite it’s being clear that Big Jim is murdered, it’s also the case that he isn’t.


A Spatial Distortion

The distortion just considered may be purely temporal. Nevertheless it is accompanied by a spatial one. This, again, involves the wall.

On the one hand, Lily seems to be referring to a wall in the cabaret when she warns that the paint’s wet  – and maybe even to the wall of her dressing room.

On the other, the robbers can’t be drilling from inside the cabaret, since their activity is taking place ‘two doors down’. And it would be even more absurd to suppose they’re drilling from inside Lily’s dressing room.

Just as time is having to be distorted to accommodate Big Jim’s survival, so it seems  is space. The wall is in two places at once.


Lily’s father

While these temporal and spatial distortions allow it to be the case that Big Jim survives, Lily’s motivation for bringing this about becomes more apparent in the final verse. Here we’re informed that Lily:

‘… thought about her father, who she very rarely saw’.

The fact that she rarely saw her father is not necessarily surprising, particularly since we’d previously been informed that ‘she’d come away from a broken home’. Nevertheless the relevance is not immediately obvious.

It becomes clearer, however, when we consider how various characters are described.

Most of the characters are represented by playing cards. Rosemary looks like ‘a queen without a crown’. Big Jim is ‘the king’. And the missing member of the band of bank robbers is the Jack of Hearts. Curiously Lily herself, while described using a royal metaphor, is not represented by a card. She’s ‘a princess’.

‘Princess’, as used here, has a significance which goes beyond the usual connotations of the term when used of a girl. A princess is the child – the daughter – of a king and queen. And such a relationship is alluded to when Lily’s described both as ‘princess’ and ‘precious as a child’. Since Big Jim is the ‘king’, he is in some sense her father – the father she very rarely saw.

In what sense? Obviously he’s not literally her father. But the king/princess relationship does suggest he has a responsibility towards her.

And the description:

‘… precious as a child’

might seem to indicate that he doesn’t fulfil that ‘paternal’ responsibility. Rather he commits himself to something else that’s precious – precious stones. He runs a diamond mine. For him, a woman’s role is just to wear his ring and to act the part of wife. He has no sense of responsibility for someone ‘precious as a child’. Instead, the ‘everything’ which he ‘laid to waste’ would have included her. She (as Rosemary) has even been driven to the brink of suicide.

Equally, though, it might be that Big Jim does accept that responsibility. Lily’s favourable attitude towards him – ‘I’m glad to see you’re still alive’ – might be the result of this. For all we know,  she might really be precious to him.7

In thinking about her father, then, Lily is thinking about Big Jim – not as a lover, but as someone who may or may not have treated her just as her natural father has done. Either way, the perceived relationship would in itself justify her act of self-sacrifice for him.8

Murder or Suicide

In addition to the Jack of Hearts/Big Jim and Rosemary/Lily identities, there’s a third identity pair. Big Jim and Rosemary also share characteristics which, in a sense, and on one level, make them the same person.

The similarities between Big Jim and Rosemary which suggest their identity include their both having visions – ‘staring into space’ and ‘seeing her reflection in the knife’ respectively. They also involve falsity. Big Jim’s involves his being a dandy and having:

‘… every hair in place’.

And while Rosemary merely:

‘… combed her hair …’ –

her falsity too is characterised by the use of the word ‘false’:

‘She  fluttered her false eyelashes …’

If Rosemary and Big Jim are seen as one and the same person, Rosemary’s murder of Big Jim comes across as even more reckless. She’ll not only be killing herself indirectly by bringing about her hanging, but directly. This would amount to her second attempt at suicide, because we’ve already been told that she:

‘… once tried suicide’.

Further, the identity of Big Jim and Rosemary would explain why her previous attempted suicide counts as one of the  ‘bad things’ she’s done.  It would suggest that she has previously made an attempt on Big Jim’s life.


Difference Between Lily And Rosemary

Although Lily is in a sense identical with Rosemary, a further reference to hair brings out the crucial difference between the sides of the characters they represent. Lily, we’re told, had:

‘… taken all of the dye out of her hair’.

By having her reject the sort of falsity which characterises both her alter ego and Big Jim, Lily is being presented as natural and honest. It’s this honesty which prevents her going down the criminal route represented by Rosemary. Rather than kill Big Jim, she makes an appeal to his better side, represented in her mind by the Jack of Hearts.


The Jack Of Hearts II

We now see that there are two reasons for the Jack of Hearts’ absence at the end of the song. The first, already mentioned, is that in murdering Big Jim Rosemary is killing his alter ego.

But even on the view that Big Jim is not killed, and the Jack of Hearts therefore is still alive, the Jack of Hearts still fails to meet his comrades at the riverbed.

This may be explained by the fact that the Jack of Hearts is the side of Big Jim that Lily is trying to reform. Her success in reforming Big Jim will be reflected in a comparable change in his alter ego. This will amount to that alter ego’s giving up of his criminality and dissociating himself from the gang of robbers.

The Jack of Hearts’ absence is a sign of Lily’s success with Big Jim. On the one hand he dies as does Big Jim. On the other he’s spiritually saved as much as is Big Jim.


Conclusion

The central character of the song is Lily, a rather fragile girl who’d rather not be with her present lover or husband, Big Jim. On one view she has a darker side, represented by Rosemary. If this darker side is allowed to reign, she’ll end up murdering Big Jim. If it isn’t, Big Jim lives on.

There is no straightforward answer to whether or not Big Jim lives or dies. Neither is there a straightforward answer to whether Lily and Rosemary, or the Jack of Hearts and Big Jim, are one and the same person. While the song is full of ambiguity and inconsistency, rather than making it incoherent, these features enable it to present alternative responses to the moral dilemma with which Lily is faced, and to assess the moral and practical consequences of each.

Despite the mutual inconsistency of the alternatives, the song presents them both as having occurred. By rejecting her Rosemary-side, Lily is turning her back on murder and what would effectively be suicide. By giving in to her Rosemary side, Lily brings about not just Big Jim’s death but her own. She can either destroy him physically or save him spiritually. Each possibility acts as a foil for the other.

 

Appendix: Other Religious Imagery

That Rosemary’s death, and therefore Lily’s, is to be associated with the crucifixion is supported by other religious imagery. The opening line mentions that:

‘… the boys were all plannin’ for a fall’

While there’s no explicit indication as to what ‘fall’ refers to, it may be that the word ‘fall’ can be taken as referring to the ‘fall of man’ which Christ’s crucifixion is seen as annulling.5

In this case the robbers, ‘planning for a fall’ would effectively be planning their own spiritual demise as a result of their criminal activity. Now the robbers, including the Jack of Hearts, have the chance to be beneficiaries of Lily’s redemptive act. In the light of this Lily’s otherwise cryptic comment to Big Jim:

‘… you’re looking like a saint’,

seems more pertinent. In committing herself to Big Jim, she allows him the opportunity to redeem himself.

That Big Jim is open to redemption is suggested by his being referred to as:

‘… no-one’s fool …’.

He is thus distanced from the biblical fool by being open to renouncing his corrupt practices. (cf. ‘The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good’ Psalm 14.1).

The benign influence that Lily has on Big Jim is perhaps also indicated by the ‘gentle breeze’ which is pervading the cabaret. The breeze can be taken as a manifestation of the Holy Ghost. (cf. ‘Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat’ Kings 19.12-13).

 

Notes

  1. The hanging judge represents corruption in two ways. First, he seems to be accepting favours from another corrupt customer, probably Big Jim. Secondly, his being known as the ‘hanging judge’ seems to imply he’s made up his mind about the extent of people’s guilt in advance of hearing any evidence or the jury’s verdict.
  2. The Jack of Hearts’ appearance in the doorway in verse one can, be taken as Big Jim’s later appearance in a doorway in verse thirteen. Accordingly there is no unique fact about the time of the appearance. Similarly there’s no unique fact about whether the appearance takes place in the doorway to the mirrored room, as it seems to be in verse one, or the doorway to Lily’s dressing room, as it seems to be in verse thirteen. Despite seeming at first to have separate locations, the two doorways are not clearly spatially distinct.
  3. Even descriptions which imply there are two people are consistent with their being just one. That Lily is favoured by Big Jim over Rosemary is apparent from her ‘having Jim’s ring’, whereas Rosemary is ‘like a queen without a crown’. On a deeper level this could indicate that Lily is anxious for more than she’s already got. This would seem to be supported by her wanting a third queen to match those she already has in the card game. The third would be herself. She wants to supplant Rosemary as Big Jim’s wife.
  4. Rosemary’s self-sacrifice might also be seen as freeing Lily to marry, or marry again elsewhere.
  5. On this view, it would make sense to see the festival mentioned in the opening line as a Passover celebration since that was the time at which the crucifixion occurred. The biblical celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem was a time of political tension, the Roman authorities anxious to prevent insurgents and others exploiting the chaos for revolutionary ends. The curfew in the song might also be seen as an attempt to maintain the status quo made by those benefiting from corruption in the town.
  6. It can’t be the Jack of Hearts who’s addressed unless we’re prepared to invent at least three reasons to support the view. We’d need a reason to explain Lily’s thinking the Jack of Hearts might not have been still alive, a reason for its being necessary to inform us of this, and a reason for its being necessary to inform us of Lily’s attitude towards it.
  7. Rosemary as queen (and considered as a separate person from Lily) may be different. If her one good deed is to benefit Lily, she cannot easily be accused of abrogating her responsibility.
  8. ‘Father’ is also the term used by Christ in referring to God. Lily’s thinking about her father again associates her with Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 

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 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 they’re 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.