Floater (Too Much To Ask)

Introduction

The song comprises the thoughts of the narrator as his mind passes over events in his life, both past and present.

The narrator is apparently a young man who makes a living by fishing, has a difficult relationship with his boss and possibly a violent one with his father. As the song progresses, we also learn what he thinks about other family members, the local economy, those older men who haven’t left for a better life, and his love life. The character which emerges is far from ideal. Amongst other things he turns out to be bored, myopic, easily angered, violent, pessimistic, prejudiced, lazy and cruel. And he lets us know that while he’s putting up with his existence, he’s lost all hope of improving it.

While there are few positive qualities to balance the negative, it’s easy to recognise in the narrator a perfectly normal human being. And because he’s someone with whom we can relate, we can take the song seriously as an exploration of spiritual and material deficiencies which cause unhappiness.1 We not only become aware of the faults which can bring about loss of hope, but of how these in turn can impinge on the happiness of others.

The piece is divided up into the following sections:

  1. Blindness
  2. Obsession With Death
  3. More Violence
  4. Emerging life
  5. Spiritual Life
  6. Negative Outlook
  7. Old Versus New
  8. Lessons
  9. Excuses For Inactivity
  10. Cruelty


1. Blindness

From the outset the narrator is blind to what’s really the case. Bored, he resigns himself to:

‘Another one of them endless days’.

Yet, the day is not endless. Blinded by the dazzling rays, he fails to realise that their coming down over the window shows the sun to be setting, so that in fact the day is nearing its end.

This inability of the narrator’s to see what’s really the case is present throughout the song. So, when he says about his father that he’s:

‘Never seen him quarrel …’

with his mother, we can assume that he has simply failed to see what should have been obvious. That his father does in fact quarrel with his mother is lent support by the otherwise irrelevant-seeming comment that his father has ‘more lives than a cat’. The implication is that his father is a violent sort, constantly getting into scrapes. This is further backed up by the description of him as a ‘feudal lord’, suggesting an uncompromising desire to dominate, and with his own dealings with his father dealt with below.

This failure to see is not limited to the behaviour of others. It applies to the consequences of the narrator’s own behaviour. Thus when he says he’s:

‘… seen enough heartache and strife’,

he seems oblivious to the fact that he himself, as becomes apparent in the final verse, is a major cause of heartache and strife.

And it applies to his interpretation of events when, in the context of times being hard, the narrator says:

‘We’ll just have to see how it goes’.

As will become apparent, things are unlikely to go well for the narrator.


2. Obsession With Death

While the narrator sees no end to the misery of the day, he does recognise an end. But it’s the ultimate end – annihilation, death:

‘But old, young, age don’t carry weight
It doesn’t matter in the end

His focus on death is especially apparent when he issues a warning:

‘If ever you try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own life’.

Not only does this amount to a threat to take life, but it can be seen as a threat to take his father’s life. This is because the phrase ‘cross my path’, in seeming to treat the addressee as a black cat bringing bad luck, takes up an earlier cat reference. This was to the narrator’s father who, we’re told, has:

‘… more lives than a cat’

Death is again the narrator’s preoccupation when he tells us his hopes are:

‘… buried under tobacco leaves’

– buried, that is, as if they’re a corpse. Death has replaced hope.


3. More Violence

Ironically, the narrator assumes he needs to resort to violence in his own situation. This is despite claiming that the tactic doesn’t work on the ground that the threat to:

‘… strong-arm you, inspire you with fear’

has ‘the opposite effect’.

While ‘the opposite effect’ could mean that it causes him not to be afraid, this is unlikely. Why, if he’s fearless, should he:

‘… keep listenin’ for footsteps’?

It seems more likely that ‘the opposite effect’ will be for him to attack his aggressor. That would be consistent with his later warning that he might retaliate:

‘If you try to interfere with me …
You do so at the peril of your own life’.

That the narrator has a propensity to violence is also apparent in the final verse when he assumes he needs to ‘kick someone out’ rather than to simply ask them to go.


4. Emerging Life

This concern with death is made to seem unduly pessimistic for often where the narrator sees only death, there’s new life emerging. Even the leaves he imagines burying his hopes are beginning ‘to stir’ thereby suggesting that there is hope.

***

An unconscious awareness of such emerging life is indicated by the narrator’s use of the word ‘come’. ‘Coming’ is a word we often associate with new life or activity, whereas ‘going’ tends to be connected with death. The latter is the case when, in the context of times being held to be hard the narrator says:

‘We’ll just have to see how it goes’.

He means he’ll wait to see what his present way of life turns up. He’s clearly no intention of experimenting with a new one.

However, rather than the sun being said to going down, its rays are said to ‘come(s)’ down, suggesting it’s bringing new life rather than just the death of the day.

‘Come’ is associated with new life again when in the narrator’s family:

‘Things come alive …’.

The implication is that they come alive having previously been inanimate or capable only of dying – ‘they fall flat’.

And the word ‘come’ is used to indicate activity when we’re told :

‘One of the boss’ hangers-on
Comes to call …’

Whereas the narrator’s dismissal of the caller as a ‘hanger-on’ casts the caller as a parasite, with no life of his own, in fact, the opposite is the case. Far from being parasitical, when he ‘comes to call’ he’s actively pursuing his own life. He’s only a hanger-on’ to the very limited extent that he relies on the boss for employment, but that – one would think –  hardly amounts to ground for criticism.


5. Spiritual life

The emergence of new life should have a double significance for the narrator. It not only signifies that he ought to be able to fashion a better material life for himself, but that there’s opportunity for him to resolve spiritual deficiencies in his make-up.

It’s ironic that immediately prior to announcing that his hopes are ‘buried’ the narrator overlooks one sign of hope associated with new life. He remembers:

‘… all the ring-dancin’ Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves’

The ring-dancing reminds us, through association with hearing ‘the school bell ring’, that the narrator has something to learn.  Since Christmas is obviously associated with birth, the implication would seem to be that this something is the need to acquire a new life. It would seem significant, therefore, that the narrator gets only as far as remembering Christmas eves but falls short of remembering the day itself. It’s as if he’s always just on the verge of new life, but unable to get beyond death. Hence his hopes are buried with the Christmas eves.

The narrator’s failure to associate Christmas with new life is consistent with his failure to notice a spiritual presence in nature. Thus the sun which should enable him to see can be seen to represent the new life associated with Christmas – the son of God.2 The summer breeze – positive when compared with a squall which the narrator pessimistically sees it as a precursor to – could remind us of the Holy Spirit.3

The spiritual gap in his life thus represented is made more obvious when we remember his announcing about his second cousin:

‘I tell myself I could be happy forever with her’

As the last verse will make clear, the manner of his pursuing a relationship with her is unlikely to enable him to ‘be happy forever’ i.e. in spiritual language, to have eternal happiness. The idea of ending a co-existing relationship, which he seems to recognise as a necessary pre-requisite for such happiness, is something he considers ‘too much to ask’.


6. Negative Outlook

The narrator’s failing to notice the capacity things have for life  is matched by a general negative outlook. In the case of the natural world this negativity is not just towards the sun. It applies to the sound of the bees, the activity of the wind and the temperature of the rain.

Sometimes this negativity is conveyed through his choice of language. The narrator disapproves of the sunlight for being ‘dazzling’, but then when the ‘z’ sound of ‘dazzling’ reoccurs in ‘buzzin’, the effect is to transfer his negative attitude towards the sun onto the activity of the bees, so that he seems to resent them too.

The same happens when the ‘z’ sound occurs again in ‘breeze’ so that it’s unsurprising he associates what should be pleasant – it’s a ‘summer breeze’ –  with a squall to be avoided.

***

Negativity is also apparent in the narrator’s attitude towards the people who have left. It comes out in his derisive use of ‘them’. The expression:

‘… them rebel rivers’

is disdainful, just as:

‘… them endless days’

was disdainful.

Furthermore in saying:

‘They all got out of here any way they could
The cold rain can give you the shivers’

he not only treats the people’s motive as if it merely to escape, but implies their reason for escaping to be no more than a dislike of the weather. Rather than recognise that people might have their own individual reasons for leaving, it would seem he’s imposing on others a trivial and negative concern of his own.

The expression ‘They all got out’ is also an indication of an unrealistically negative view of those who left. The absurd exaggeration seems to imply, unfairly given the lack of any supporting reason, that those who left lack individuality.

***

The narrator is again unduly negative in uncritically accepting what he’s heard, namely that:

‘… times are hard’.

If they were really hard, one might have expected him to have joined the leavers in trying his luck elsewhere. Instead we once again find him exaggerating in order to provide himself with an excuse for staying put:

‘It don’t bother me – times are hard everywhere’.5

Not only is the claim that times are hard everywhere a ludicrous generalisation, but there are good reasons to doubt that times are hard for the narrator. First, there are signs that food is plentiful. He himself catches a lot of fish, and gives no indication that the catch is ever inadequate.

Secondly, in an attempt to prove that times are hard, he says:

‘You can just follow your nose’,

using the expression in its colloquial sense. Ironically, that same expression taken literally would have made it obvious that times are not hard. If you literally follow your nose, it’ll take you to both warmth, and olfactory pleasure:

 ‘You can smell the pinewood burnin’’.

Not only is there wood for fires, but it’s good quality wood which ‘burns with the bark still on’.


7. Old Versus New

That there is life, and that the narrator could achieve it, is brought out by the contrasts between old and new on the one hand, and young and old on the other. On one level the old is associated with death and the new with the life which replaces it. So, the new grove of trees is clearly better than the old one because the wood burns more effectively. And the new clothes that the grandmother makes from old cloth would clearly be better than just the old cloth itself.

While the narrator recognises the advantages of the new over the old, he seems to assume the young are similarly superior to the old. This is despite initially seeming to be neutral:

‘But old, young, age don’t carry weight’

He’s giving the impression of having weighed up the respective advantages of youth and age and of coming down neither on one side nor the other. If this is deliberate, it’s disingenuous. He’s fooling himself. When he says ‘age don’t carry weight’, this more naturally refers to advanced age, rather than youth. He’s really claiming that years, and the experience which comes with them, count for nothing. This is borne out by his blaming those older than himself for the breakdown in relationships with the relatively young:

‘The old men … get
On bad terms with the younger men’

Here it seems likely he’s casting blame on his father, whom he refers to as ‘my old man’, for the breakdown of their relationship .

If the narrator is assuming that the young have an advantage over the old, it would seem to be confined to his own case. That with respect to others he can take the opposite line becomes apparent when he describes a classroom incident.5


8. Lessons

The classroom incident involves two ironies.

First the narrator wrongly assumes that the older person, the teacher, is the only one he can learn from. This is apparent when, in a rare positive statement, he says:

‘Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
If you wanna learn anything’

The context would appear to be a minor disturbance in a lesson brought about by a boy’s making insulting comments about a girl’s appearance:

‘… “You got a poor complexion.
It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch”’

Perhaps because it’s an English lesson, and because the boy might just be incompetently trying to chat the girl up, the narrator ironically dismisses the warring pair as Romeo and Juliet. Instead of being dismissively glib, however, he would have done better to learn from the girl’s response:

‘… ‘Why don’t you just shove off
If it bothers you so much’’

The retort is appropriate. Not only did the boy deserve to be put down, but – given that the narrator has nothing more to say about it – it seems likely that the girl did enough to resolve the incident. There’s no sign, even, that an intervention from the teacher has been needed.

The second irony lies in the fact that, although he isn’t aware of it, in a sense the boy is right when he says the girl’s appearance lacks ‘a youthful touch’. She acts with un-youthful maturity in making an immediate and decisive response. In the final verse we find a comparably immediate and decisive response from the older narrator to be woefully lacking. It’s the young girl’s response, then, that the narrator would have done well to learn from instead of complaining about not having been able to hear the older teacher.


9. Excuses For Inactivity

It’s probably the narrator’s proclivity for inaction which accounts for the song’s title Floater. Sometimes this inactivity seems to be caused by laziness. His assertion that it’s:

‘… stupid
To get into any kind of wind’

would appear to be an excuse for not working since the phrase ‘any kind of’ would seem to cover even an innocuous summer breeze.

And while some of the inhabitants are active:

‘They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
All the rest of them rebel rivers’,

the narrator, treats going ‘down’ the rivers as obviously bad, just as he treated the sun’s coming ‘down’ as bad when in so doing it was actively providing the very end to the day he wanted. The disparaging tone seems intended to justify his not joining them.

The narrator’s laziness is made particularly clear when he’s compared with the boy. The girl tells the boy to leave her alone if her appearance ‘bothers’ him. The word ‘bothers’ reminds us that the narrator uses the same word when describing his response to those who say times are hard:

‘It don’t bother me …’

Had times actually been hard, it should have bothered him. Whereas the boy ought to have been less bothered than he is, the narrator ought to have been more bothered. He uses his not being bothered as an excuse for doing nothing.


10. Cruelty

Not all the narrator’s inactivity can be attributed to laziness, though. This becomes apparent in the final verse:

‘It’s not always easy kicking someone out
Gotta wait a while – it can be an unpleasant task
Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up
And tears or not, it’s too much to ask’.

What’s immediately noticeable in this appeal for sympathy is the narrator’s apparently deliberate vagueness. While the prefix ‘some’ occurs no less than four times in as many lines –  ‘someone’, ‘sometimes’, ‘somebody’, ‘something’ – we aren’t told who is being referred to, what the ‘something’ is, or when they might want it to be given up. In choosing to use vague expressions, the narrator might seem to be deliberately masking the truth.

If so, he’s not masking it well. It’s seems probable that the ‘someone’ and the ‘somebody’ refer to different people. Despite his choice of these cold, distancing words, the only plausible candidates would seem to be the second cousin he claims to be in love with and another woman the narrator is actually, or also, living with. One of the two, presumably the one he’s not in love with, is in danger of being ‘kicked out’ at the behest of the other.

We’ve seen the narrator making excuses for inaction before so it’s not surprising to find him doing the same again. Despite the tears of one, or perhaps both, of the women, he attempts to justify maintaining a relationship with them both. It’s necessary to wait before acting, he claims, in order to spare himself unpleasantness, and yet only two lines later the need to wait has been replaced by the absence of a need to act at all. Absurdly, he’s presenting a slide from delay to total inaction as if the two are one and the same.

A second absurdity is the implication that waiting a while will help if a task is unpleasant. It won’t; it’s merely procrastinating. What’s worse is that the inadequacy of his reasons for inaction leads one to suspect that it’s not really the unpleasantness of the task of eviction that’s preventing him from performing it, but his selfish unwillingness to give up one of women. The suspicion is reinforced when, despite the distress he’s causing, he cruelly and without any attempt at justifying his response dismisses what’s required of him as ‘too much to ask’.


Conclusion

The final verse alone shows the narrator to be prone to violence, selfish, vacillating, inert, dissembling and cruel. Several of these traits are exemplified elsewhere in the song, thus showing how deeply embedded in his character are the causes of the unhappiness he brings on himself and others. Thus the violent tendency shown here is apparent in his earlier threatening to take someone’s life, the inertia in his failure to follow the example of others in leaving for a better life, and his dissembling in his giving the weather as a reason why others left for a new life.

The narrator’s need for a new life is made clear by reference to both material and spiritual impoverishment. Materially he’s bored by what he sees as the ‘endless days’. At the same time he’s oppressed at work and by disagreements with his father. It would seem he’d be materially better off if he followed the example of others in leaving to find a new life elsewhere. Spiritually, he’s bereft. He treats those senior to him with contempt, he sees violence as a way of resolving disagreements, and he causes unhappiness to one or more women in his life. His spiritual state is symbolised by his blindness and obsession with death. That a new material existence is possible is made apparent by the example of the young men who have left to find one. That a new spiritual life is possible is made clear through numerous ironies. Instead of benefitting from the sun, a cause of regeneration, he’s blinded by it. Instead of associating Christmas eves with new spiritual life, his memories of them get buried. And for him, the summer breeze, instead of being a sign of spiritual ubiquity, is just the precursor of a squall. There’s even a willingness to champion the new or young against the old which doesn’t get carried over into his own life.

One imagines the narrator will remain unhappy in his love life, as will the women involved – unless, that is, he gets rid of the character traits which prevented his ending a relationship. In particular it’s his affinity with violence which blinds him to the true nature of his task. Had he seen it as a matter of asking someone to go, rather than of kicking them out, he might have felt able to act. Also responsible is a proclivity for finding excuses, and so his using ‘unpleasantness’ as a reason for waiting awhile. And it’s laziness which enables him to take the easy way out of translating waiting awhile into not acting at all.

 

Notes

1. I stress that I use the term ‘spiritual’ in an essentially secular sense to mean moral. ‘Spiritual’ seems more appropriate because the song brings out the moral shortcomings of the narrator’s character with the help of allusions involving religious ideas. It’s not to suggest that the spiritual is concerned with anything other than the way the narrator runs his life.

The word ‘material’ is used in a slightly wider sense than usual to mean, in essence, non-moral. The narrator’s material wellbeing would therefore cover things like his family relationships and lifestyle as distinct from, say, the goods he possesses.

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2. The sun appears in numerous Dylan songs in contexts which imply it’s to be associated with the Son. Dylan is continuing a tradition whose followers include the metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert who both employ a sun/Son pun. Thus Herbert in The Sonne:

‘To parents issue and the sunnes bright starre!
A sonne is light and fruit; a fruitfull flame
Chasing the fathers dimnesse, carri’d farre’

 and Donne in Hymn to God the Father:

‘But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now’

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3. Poe in Spirits of the Dead is one of many poets who, like Dylan, follow the biblical tradition of associating breeze with God:

‘The breeze—the breath of God—is still—
And the mist upon the hill,
Shadowy—shadowy—yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token—
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!’

Leonard Cohen does the same in Light as the Breeze:

‘She stands before you naked
you can see it, you can taste it
but she comes to you light as the breeze
You can drink it or you can nurse it
it don’t matter how you worship
as long as you’re
down on your knees.’

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4. The need to replace the old with the new, where the new is what is brought by Christ, is a major theme of John’s gospel. Right at the beginning there are four stories used to illustrate this theme. These are the marriage feast at Cana, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the woman at the well, and the feeding of the five thousand.

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5. The narrator’s proclivity for exaggeration is also present in verse thirteen where he threatens:

‘If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own  life’

The presence of ‘own’ before ‘life’ suggests that the narrator is exaggerating the danger to himself by implying that he sees his own life as threatened, and that this justifies his threatening the life of the addressee. In fact being interfered with or having your path crossed do not amount to your life being threatened.

 

 

 

Bye And Bye

Introduction

Far from being the sweet, romantic song the tune suggests, the song is about a man on the verge of murdering his family.

There are a number of similarities with Summer Days suggesting that the songs share the same narrator. Like that song Bye and Bye concerns the narrator’s unsuccessful relationship, and the theme of repeating the past. We again have his memories of different stages of the relationship – here beginning with his initial interest in the woman before going on to recount his disillusionment, jealousy and eventual madness. As time moves on, we see the narrator has become increasingly unhappy.  His initial romantic intoxication, characterised by the exuberant energy of ‘paintin’ the town’ and freely ‘swingin’ my partner around’, gives way to a constrained ‘scufflin’’ and  shufflin’’ and the pain implied by ‘walkin’ on briars’. Eventually movement all but ceases – he’s ‘rollin’ slow’, and his destination is death.

Something goes wrong in the relationship. The precise extent to which each person is responsible is unclear, but it transpires that the narrator is unfaithful and that, in his eyes, the woman is too.

Along the way it’s implied that he and the woman get married and have a child. The extra detail of the child, not present in Summer Days, makes the decision to kill all the more horrifying.


The Title

A number of things are significant about the title and its recurrence in the first and fourth lines of the song.

First, the expression is normally spelt ‘by and by’, and it’s used in connection with something expected to happen at some vague point in the future. The ‘e’ on the end of ‘bye’, as it’s spelt here, reminds us of ‘’bye’, the abbreviation of goodbye, and accordingly it’s pertinent in a dark way to the narrator’s intentions. He’s planning a goodbye to his wife and child, and perhaps his own goodbye to the world.

The phrase is additionally relevant in its normal sense, though. The song looks back on the past and forward to the future from the narrator’s standpoint in the present. The phrase’s occurrence at the beginning of the first and fourth lines shows the narrator not only remembering the past, but having gone back in memory to a time preceding the events he’s recalling – a time from which his earlier self can anticipate those things which (from the standpoint of the present) have already happened.

It might seem at first as if the narrator is presenting the memories in reverse order:

‘Bye and bye, I’m breathin’ a lover’s sigh’

and

‘Bye and bye, on you I’m casting my eye’

The reason is that one would expect the hopeless infatuation represented by the lover’s sigh to occur after the narrator’s first casting his eye on the woman. However, the majority of the song is presented in chronological order, and so one might expect the same to be true of these two lines. If so, that would tell us something about the narrator. It would suggest that the lover’s sigh is false. The sigh is perhaps no more than an indication of wishful thinking as the romantically inclined narrator imagines a situation which at best will exist at some undefined time – ‘by and by’. If so, this would make his position even more ludicrous than that of a medieval courtly lover who would at least have had a particular woman in mind. Such a lack of realism might help explain the failure of the subsequent relationship.


The Future

Just as he looks back beyond the past events he’s focusing on, the narrator also propels himself into the future, and then even further to a standpoint from which he can look back on that future:

‘… the future for me is already a thing of the past’.

One thing he means is that there’s no chance of his having the future he’d once envisaged with the woman. But the language he uses to say this seems to make him unduly pessimistic in having him commit himself to a pre-determined future. By confusing the future with the past, so that both are treated as settled, he denies himself any chance of future success.

Not only is it absurd that the narrator is capable of imagining a future where there isn’t one while treating the real future as non-existent – ‘a thing of the past’, but his outlook is inconsistent. This is because in the final verse he goes on to consider what he’s in fact going to do in the future. Planning the murder his family requires him to be treating the future as in his control.


Desperation

The narrator becomes desperate. It’s a desperate optimism which causes him to say in verse four:

‘I’m tellin’ myself I found true happiness
That I’ve still got a dream that hasn’t been repossessed’.

This too might be inconsistent in that the optimism clashes with the pessimism which is about to drive him to seeing the future as ‘a thing of the past’.

That the optimism is desperate is shown by the lines being full of uncertainty. The phrase ‘I’m tellin’ myself’ suggests that at the time he has in mind he has no belief in what he’s saying. Why otherwise would he need to ‘tell himself’? Furthermore, saying ‘‘I found’ true happiness, rather than ‘I have found’, makes it clear that the narrator considers, even at the time he’s recalling, any happiness to have gone. And even though the ‘I’ve’ of ‘I’ve got a dream’ suggests he was still clinging on to hope, he’s implicitly admitting that what he had was nothing more than a dream.


Where The Wild Roses Grow

The narrator’s announcement that he’s going ‘where the wild roses grow’ is sinister. The expression appears in the Nick Cave song of that title, itself based on a traditional song. It concerns a narrator who murders his sweetheart.

The present case is worse. Not only does it seem that the narrator has married the woman, but that they have had a child. This is implied when the narrator seems to present his behaviour from the child’s point of view:

‘Papa gone mad, mamma, she’s feeling sad’

We have the child’s view that its father has ‘gone mad’, the use of ‘Papa’ and ‘mamma’ making it unlikely that the narrator’s is referring to his own parents.

This madness, it seems, gives rise to the narrator’s stated intention to ‘baptise you in fire’. Whereas in Summer Days it was unclear what the place was which the narrator intended to set on fire, from the present song it would seem it was the woman’s own place – and presumably with both her and the child in it. Whereas in Summer Days we couldn’t be certain that the narrator really intended to carry out his threat, here his madness suggests that he does. The intention seems even worse however, since along with the woman, the child too will be burnt to death. That that’s the case is reinforced by the use of the word ‘baptise’ in ‘baptise you in fire’ – baptism normally being a ceremony involving children.1

The narrator claims that his murderous action will amount to his establishing his rule through civil war. But since civil war involves a state turning on itself, it seems he recognises that his asserting his control will be at the expense of himself. He’ll have destroyed the family of which he himself is a part. His claim that ‘the future for me is already a thing of the past’ suggests that he intends all three of them to burn to death. But even if he doesn’t intend to die as well, and even if he gets away with the crime, he’ll nevertheless have ruined his own future.


Disloyalty

Whether or not the narrator anticipates his own death, he perversely sees his act of murder as demonstrating how:

‘… loyal and true …’

he is. Why he should think this is unclear. He may have in mind the woman’s adulterousness and be contrasting it with what he takes to be his own loyalty to her. That he considers her to have been unfaithful can be divined from the final verse in which the narrator announces he’s taking measures to ensure she ‘can sin no more’. That her ‘sin’ is adultery is apparent in that, ironically given the narrator’s intention, the phrase is one used by Christ to an adulteress after he’d rescued her from a murderous mob (John 8.1-11).

If the narrator is implying he has been ‘loyal and true’, he’s being disingenuous. This is apparent for two reasons. First his choice of the expression ‘swingin’ my partner around’ hints at extra-marital sexual activity. And then, independently of that, there’s the relationship between the line in which this phrase appears:

‘I’m paintin’ the town – swinging my partner around’

and the last line of the same verse:

‘I’m paintin’ the town – making my last go-round’

One might have thought that the partner is the woman who becomes his wife. But since painting the town involves both the partner and his ‘last go-round’ – a last sexual liaison – it would seem that it would have to be someone else. He’s having what he intends to be a last fling before settling down.

Much of what else he says can be interpreted in the light of this. He’s anxious not to be discovered being unfaithful so is:

‘… watchin’ the roads’.

And fearing that someone might tell the woman about his disloyalty, he comforts himself with the thought:

‘ I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust’

He may even be uncertain about whether or not he should give up his current philandering lifestyle:

‘I’m not even acquainted with my own desires’

The wording implies an implicit contrast with Rosalind in As You Like It who does ‘have acquaintance with my own desires’. Rosalind is loyal.2

There’s a further reason for thinking the narrator to be disloyal. While the reference to a last go-round might suggest he recognises that his past lifestyle has come to an end, that this is so is both supported and contradicted by his subsequent assertion that:

‘… the future for me is already a thing of the past’.

On the one hand, it seems to be saying that the past is over and done with – not therefore to be repeated. On the other it seems to be saying that in unifying future and past his future now is a repetition of his past. In other words he’s gone back to being unfaithful.


Positive Characteristics

Although the intended murder is terrible, the narrator is not to be condemned outright. First, we have reason to believe it’s planned at a time when the narrator isn’t in his right mind. He does it when, in the wording of the child, he’s ‘gone mad’.

In fact the narrator is presented as a realistic, rounded character with virtues to counteract his vices. He seems, for example, aware that his original outlook at the beginning of the relationship is unrealistic, the use of the derogatory phrase ‘sugar-coated rhyme’ implying a critical attitude towards his earlier self. He‘s come to realise he was being overly romantic and therefore unrealistic in his expectations.

In addition, despite not knowing what he wants once the relationship becomes rocky, he attempts to save it. If we take him at his word, he does everything he can – ‘all I know’ – to make a success of it. While in practice this doesn’t seem to amount to much, he at least tries to convince himself he’s ‘found true happiness’ – that the woman hasn’t ‘repossessed’ it.

And that he feels responsible for what’s happened to the relationship is apparent from the way he describes his mental state in verse one:

‘I’m sittin’ on my watch so I can be on time’

The phrase ‘sittin’ on my watch’, in addition to representing the narrator’s concern with timekeeping (in a somewhat bizarre way), comes across as an admission of carelessness in allowing something to happen which shouldn’t have. He was, as the phrase has it, asleep on his watch. What it was he allowed to happen we’re not told, but it may be he sees himself as having paid insufficient regard to the possibility of a rival.

This admission of fault itself gives rise to an attempt to be more careful in future. Although the line:

‘I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust’.

can be  an expression of overconfidence, it might also be taken as a declaration that he has taken steps to curb that overconfidence. Either way being over trusting gives way to an apparently necessary suspicion:

‘I’m watchin’ the roads, I’m studying the dust’

He’s now more wary. On the present interpretation, which runs parallel to the one given above concerning his unfaithfulness, sitting on his watch has given way to watching the roads for a rival.


Conclusion

The narrator here is the same as the narrator of Summer Days and the song is similar in that it comprises his memories about an unsuccessful relationship. There’s a shadowy recurrence of the main theme of the earlier song, about whether the past is repeatable, in the ambivalence shown by the narrator regarding the future. He’s shown early on to focus on an imaginary, idealised future which he fails to make come about. When, inevitably, his hopes are dashed, instead of reacting positively he decides to put an end to the future itself – his, the woman’s and his child’s. In doing so he prevents any hope of past happiness, imagined or otherwise, being repeated.

In terms of plot, as with Summer Days the song is inconclusive in that, while the murders seem intended, we don’t get to find out whether they are carried out. What we do get is a deeper insight into the mind of the narrator – what it is about him which results in his terrible decision. There’s more evidence here of why the relationship broke down, the narrator’s disloyalty, deviousness and lack of commitment to the relationship all becoming apparent.  While there’s no further evidence of, for example, the narrator’s extroversion, rudeness or reticence about his past, we’re able to see why he’s unable to cope. Just as he had earlier represented the future to himself in idealised form, we again find him unable to accept reality when he desperately tries to convince himself that that things aren’t as bad as they seem. He swings from absurd optimism to absurd pessimism. In the end his torment causes him to lose his mind – to give up the fight and recklessly impose cruel suffering.

Behind the horror of his decision, we can find a positive side to his character. Due to the song’s comprising the narrator’s memories of different stages of the relationship, we’re able to see how his outlook has developed. He becomes more wary and has learnt to be critical of his earlier idealistic feelings. And although he seems disloyal, the reference to his ‘last go-round’ shows at least that he intends to reform (albeit, like St Augustine, ‘not yet’). Furthermore, rightly or wrongly, he believes he’s doing what he can to save the relationship.

 

Notes

  1. According to Luke 3.16 ‘Christ will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ and so the narrator is perhaps attempting to justify his intention by seeing himself in some sense as Christ (as he does when he uses the expression ‘sin no more’). Here ‘fire’ seems to refer to Christ’s suffering. Christ is saying that he will baptise people in the sense that he’ll make up for their sins past and future by suffering on the cross. Dylan’s narrator likewise intends to do away with what he perceives as the woman’s adultery – by killing his family.

It may also be relevant that prior to the crucifixion Christ also said ‘I have come to bring  fire to the earth and how I wish it was blazing already. There is a baptism I must still receive and how great is my distress till it is over’ (Luke 12.49-53). Here it is his executioners who are baptising him in the metaphorical sense that they’re causing him to suffer and so, indirectly, they’re doing away with sin. Again Dylan’s narrator would be putting an end to any chance of the woman or their children repeating her ‘sin’ by killing them.

  1. It would seem he’s also not true in another sense. Given his philandering it seems unlikely he’s speaking the truth when he says:

‘You were my first love and you will be my last’

Mississippi

Introduction

The song rests on an irony. The narrator has been having an affair in Mississippi only to get back and find that the woman he is more committed to has apparently also been having an affair. The irony is in that her affair would be a direct result of his. He realises that if he’d behaved more responsibly and returned even a day earlier, the woman wouldn’t have given up on him and embarked on another relationship. Throughout the song we find the narrator berating himself for not having returned in time.

Essentially the song lays bare the character of the narrator by presenting his thoughts and fragments of his conversations, imagined or actual. He comes across as lacking both self-esteem and a confidence in his ability to put things right.  Even he doesn’t seem to realise how he’s fooling himself, never seeming to depart far from the truth but rarely being totally honest either. Towards the end of the song there are signs of an increasing acceptance of responsibility for what has happened. The religious imagery which permeates the song suggests that the woman whose behaviour he despises could well be his salvation.1


The Woman

It is not certain that the woman the narrator has returned to is having an affair; we have only the narrator’s suspicions to go on.2 That he thinks she has can be gleaned from the fifth verse phrase:

‘… mule’s in the stall’.3

That he thinks she’s having an affair is also apparent from the frustrated outburst in the next line:

‘Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all’

– this sounding like an impatient response to the woman’s excuses, or protestations of innocence.

The narrator’s belief that the unnamed woman is in fact in a relationship would explain various other things he says. These include his regret at having not arrived back a day earlier, and the line:

‘I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too’.

It would also explain his claim that it’s both of them whose ‘days are numbered’. The suggestion is that both have done wrong and have only a limited amount of time to make up for it.

As will become apparent, the line:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’

is open to a number of interpretations. If we see it as being addressed to the woman, that too would indicate that he sees her as having betrayed him. The effect, he’s saying, is that because of her their relationship can never be the same again.


Rosie

The narrator’s outburst is immediately followed by:

‘I was thinkin’ ‘bout the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleepin’ in Rosie’s bed’

Who, one wonders, is Rosie? And what is her relevance to the outburst? It must be that Rosie is a woman he knew in Mississippi, and the cause of his delayed return.

We can assume that this Rosie couplet comprises a thought which occurs in the present, some time after the outburst. The narrator is reminding himself that while the woman was speaking he – amazingly – was consoling himself by thinking about Rosie. The narrator does not trouble to say whether the memory is accompanied by a sense of guilt.


Dishonesty

While it’s easy to see the narrator as someone who blames both circumstances and the woman for his own failings, there are indications that he accepts some responsibility for the break up. This is most apparent when in the penultimate verse he refers to:

‘… the corner that I painted myself in

There’s no attempt at this late stage to blame anyone but himself.

To a lesser extent the refrain too implies acceptance of responsibility:

‘Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long’

Here he admits fault, but apparently not moral fault. He accepts that he made a mistake, but there is no hint that he’s accepting responsibility for anything more serious than that. Furthermore it’s made to seem a very minor mistake; he stayed an extra day, but what’s one day in the scheme of things?

Well, quite a lot. He’s already admitted that both his and the woman’s:

 ‘… days are numbered’.4

If one’s remaining time is measured in days, then the loss of even one should not be taken lightly. He wasn’t with her when he could have been. And he’s not open about what he was doing instead. The truth about that has to be divined from the otherwise gnomic comment:

‘City’s just a jungle; more games to play’.

For him the city is somewhere where the law of the jungle applies. ‘Games’ can be taken as referring to sexual licentiousness. He’s not only taken advantage of the city’s lax ethical standards, but given himself extra time to do so.

The jungle image is implicitly taken up again in the line:

‘Walkin’ through the leaves, falling from the trees’

Falling leaves might represent the spiritual death of those whose ethical standards are low. The narrator sees himself as walking among the spiritually dead, by which he would mean the woman and her new lover. Since he’s walking, by implication he’s not including himself as spiritually dead.

However, this is the second time walking has figured. The first, at the beginning of the song, was:

‘… we walk the line’.

– the ‘line’ perhaps being one separating success from failure, or good from evil. What’s significant is that since both the narrator and the woman are walking the line, and the narrator is walking among the spiritually dead, so must the woman too be walking among the spiritually dead. In that case, since there is no one else, the spiritually dead must include the narrator and his lover. Although the narrator doesn’t admit it openly, his language suggests he is every bit as morally impoverished as he takes her to be.

The narrator is honest to an extent when, in reference to the city, he claims to be:

‘Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away’

– thereby implying the city’s no place to be. But that’s not saying much. He clearly wasn’t so trapped that he didn’t manage to get away a day later.

Furthermore use of the word ‘heart’ may have been deliberately chosen to give a wrong impression. It suggests that the city is something good, so that the narrator had no need to escape from it. ‘Heart’ has connotations of kindness and consideration for others, so there’d have been no problem if those were the things that had trapped him. His choice of language is disingenuous. What he’s actually trapped by is the prospect of having his desires satisfied. If the city represents such selfishness and neglect of the needs of others, it ought not to be associated with the heart.

There’s a further significance to the use of ‘heart’ here since it foreshadows it’s later use in:

‘My heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free’

At first the claim might sound positive. However,  when one remembers that the narrator has used ‘heart’ to represent a tendency to immorality, it’s hardly good that the narrator’s is light and free. One might conclude he’s allowed it to be a bit too free. Again he comes across as untrustworthy, and again it’s by way of his using ‘heart’ to give a wrong impression.

There’s another example of the narrator’s using language dishonestly in his claim:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.

Taking the ‘you’ this time as referring to himself, it seems to be an attempt to justify not giving up his way of life in the city altogether. But the supposed justification seems to depend on ‘you’ being taken differently – that is, to mean ‘one’, or to refer to people generally. He appears to be saying that since nobody can ever come back all the way, it’s hardly surprising that he can’t. This too is disingenuous. He’s supplied no reason to suppose that people generally can’t completely give up a way of life, so it’s inappropriate to use this to support his own failure to do so.


Refusal to Change

In addition to his lack of honesty, the narrator suffers from an inability to make progress. This is made apparent in what might seem a rather bland comment:

‘Everybody movin’, if they ain’t already there
Everybody got to move somewhere’.

In fact the lines get to the core of the narrator’s predicament. Staying still, both metaphorically and literally, achieves nothing. It’s ironic, then, that while he recognises part of his problem to be not having moved (he stayed too long in Mississippi), and he realises the necessity of his moving when he says that everybody has got to move’, he still doesn’t. He reacts to the necessity with:

‘Stick with me baby …’

Not only is he implying that he’s staying put, but in a sense he’s encouraging the woman to do likewise.

A similar attitude is present when he claims to know:

‘… that fortune is waitin’ to be kind’.

He just assumes that things will turn out well without his having to do anything. To say that ‘fortune is waiting’ is just a roundabout way of saying that he’s waiting for fortune.

And when he announces that:

‘Things should start to get interesting right about now’

he’s putting his faith in things becoming interesting of their own accord rather than through his doing anything to make them interesting:

His refusal to accept the need for change is again present where he expresses regret that:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.

As suggested above, while ‘you’, here, might refer to him, it can also be taken to refer to the woman. If it’s her he’s addressing, then he’s presenting himself as fixed. He expects her to come to him to make up for their mutual wrongdoing, rather than the other way round. He seems to have no intention of making up the remaining distance by meeting her halfway – that is, by admitting his own guilt. That would require moving, which he won’t bring himself to do.


Love Or Sex

It might sound romantic when he all but ends his appeal for sympathy with a further appeal in verse eleven:

‘So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine’.

But the line is full of irony. The listener can’t help noticing that this appeal for the woman to ‘give’ comes after the admission:

‘Got nothin’ for you, I had nothin’ before’.

The narrator expects the woman to give her hand (presumably in marriage) without his having given anything to her. Furthermore, the appeal may just be a change of tactic. It follows an episode of bitterness on his part in which he can be seen as criticising her for not previously having given him her hand:

‘Some people will offer you their hand and some won’t
Last night I knew you, tonight I don’t’

The second line makes it clear that it was sex which he had previously offered and which she refused. It’s that which accounts for the bitter tone. The narrator would be bitter that, while the woman has acceded to his rival’s desires, she has rejected his. Since an appeal for sex didn’t work, he’s now appealing to her sense of romance.


Tendency To Give Up

One reason for the narrator’s failing to find a way out of his predicament is that he gives up too easily. It’s remarkable how often negatives, including the word ‘never’, figure in what he says:

‘All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme’.

He’s not just saying that he doesn’t have the ability to put his admiration for her into words, but that he could never do so. ‘Could never …’ – he’s given up even before the first hurdle.5

And ‘thoughts so sublime’! Perhaps these thoughts could have been a bit more sublime if they hadn’t focused on what Rosie’d said, and on sleeping with her. They’d then have stood some chance of doing the woman justice.

It’s clear, then, that in the above couplet the narrator is just making an excuse. This is further suggested by the fact that the couplet is immediately followed by the refrain. It’s as if his sub-conscious is telling him the real reason he hasn’t done the woman justice is that he’s been gallivanting in Mississippi.

The tendency to give up is present again when alludes to:

‘So many things that we never will undo’

Again, he’s given up before he’s even started. It’s hardly surprising he sees himself as ‘a stranger nobody sees’.


Drowning

The negative outlook continues in the ninth verse:

‘Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin’ fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past’

The sinking ship metaphor makes it sound as if events are beyond his control, since obviously one passenger can’t stop a ship from sinking. Thus he’s finding an excuse for not taking responsibility for his predicament. But when we realise that the ship represents his life, it’s far from clear that he’s as powerless to prevent disaster as he likes to imagine.

The metaphor is extended with the idea of drowning in poison. One’s ship sinking doesn’t necessarily have drowning as its consequence. And it definitely doesn’t mean one is being poisoned. Again, the drowning and poison references seem designed to imply helplessness, yet he’s given us no reason to think that he is helpless. On the contrary:

‘My clothes are wet, tight on my skin’

Somehow being shipwrecked has become a matter of being no more than uncomfortably damp on dry land. So much for drowning in poison. Yet he still presents his condition as a disaster.


Nothing

The narrator’s inadequacy comes across in the emptiness of his life. As he says himself in an apparent reference to life without the woman:

‘The emptiness is endless …’

That the fault for that is his becomes apparent when we see how other expressions associated with ‘emptiness’ figure throughout the song – in particular ‘nothing’:

‘Got nothin’ for you, I had nothin’ before’

He’s hardly making himself seem attractive. Not only has he nothing to give (presumably as a present) after his absence, but he seems to be making his having previously  given nothing an excuse for his giving nothing now. The feeble impression he’s creating is then cemented by his saying:

‘Don’t even have anything for myself anymore’

The inclusion of the word ‘even’ compounds the pathetic absurdity of this call for sympathy. It gives the impression that not having anything for oneself is worse than not having anything for someone else. Such self-centredness is hardly going to impress.

The verse ends with what seems to be a telling giveaway:

Nothing you can sell me …’

While this third ‘nothing’ reinforces the effect of the previous two occurrences, and the admission of not having anything for himself, the verse seems to be ending with a startling Freudian implication. ‘Nothing you can sell me …’ seems to imply the woman’s a prostitute. Since there’s no indication that this is in fact the case, the likely explanation is that so much of his time in Mississippi has been spent buying sexual favours that he forgets he’s not doing just that when he’s addressing the woman he wants to marry.

The negatives continue to abound. In the ninth there’s a fourth use of ‘nothing’:

‘I’ve nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me’

While this is intended to emphasise a positive emotional outlook, it would be true to form for him to think that affection is all he has got. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t take the opportunity to mention his affection for the woman. If he’s going to stand a chance of reviving the relationship, he ought to at least lavish that on her.

It might come as a relief to find him using the word ‘something’ as opposed to ‘nothing’ but, when he does, even this implies a lack:

‘I need somethin’ strong to distract my mind’

It’s pathetic that he needs to be distracted (presumably from thoughts of other women) rather than being able to exercise self-control. And while his reply that he’s going to ‘look at’ the woman he’s addressing might seem positive, even this serves to reinforce his negative self-image. In presenting the woman as strong he seems to be casting himself as weak.


Hope

There is hope for the narrator despite all his negative qualities. The eighth verse suggests that by following the woman’s example the narrator can destroy the blemishes on his character. The suggestion is made by way of religious imagery:

‘Well I got here followin’ the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are’

The first line associates the narrator with the Maji who honoured Christ by following a star, and hence associates him with the Christian values of love and selflessness. Additionally, since biblically the star leads to Christ, the language here implies that the woman at the end of his journey is in a sense Christ. In other words she can be seen as having a Christ-like role.

This has obvious moral significance for them both. We can speculate that the woman’s Christ-like role involves dispensing forgiveness. While the narrator seems unforgiving of the woman’s putative transgression when he says:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’,

it would be Christ-like for her to forgive him his actual transgression. His ‘following the southern star’ would then amount to his approaching her position of being forgiving. (A beginning would be for him to pay attention to her rather than saying ‘I have heard it all’.)

The second line of the above couplet associates the narrator himself with Christ by way of the word ‘crossed’. It suggests that in making the journey across the river for the sake of the woman, he has undergone the sort of sacrifice his spiritual renewal requires. Furthermore, what the narrator characterises as drowning in the river might otherwise be seen as baptism – spiritual renewal resulting from his effort to be with the woman again. Taken figuratively, his journey to the woman requires the discomfort represented by drowning in poison. The discomfort, in moral terms, is that of admitting his guilt and of a willingness to forgive what he sees as her guilt. While he’s understandably hostile to drowning in poison, his success with the woman requires he undergo that discomfort which at the same time would amount to his spiritual renewal.


Other Religious Imagery

It is apparent, then, that although the narrator gives the impression that there’s no hope for him, religious imagery makes it clear that this is not the case. This section will be primarily concerned with images not mentioned so far, either in the main text or the footnotes.6

Positive imagery:

In the seventh verse there’s a further way in which it’s possible to see the woman as representing Christ. In being strong enough to make the narrator go blind, she is like the bright light which resulted in Paul’s conversion. As such she can again be seen as a conduit to the narrator’s own spiritual renewal.

Just as the narrator misinterprets the task ahead of him as ‘drownin’ in the poison’, so he misinterprets his life when he complains he’s ‘got no future, got no past’. A state of having no future and no past is one of timelessness or Eternity. The narrator’s comment amounts, then, to dramatic irony. Although he doesn’t realise it, under the Christ-like guidance of the woman he has the opportunity of achieving what in Christian terms is called Eternal Life.

Negative imagery:

While a number of religious images are used to represent hope for the narrator, others represent the opposite. The most obvious religious image drawing attention to the negative side of the narrator’s character is:

‘… the devil’s in the alley …’,

By identifying himself with the devil, if that’s what he’s doing, the narrator is unconsciously recognising his moral limitations.

Similarly the word ‘raised’ in the line:

‘I was raised in the country, I been working in the town’

suggests that a selfish, uncaring attitude associated with the city has replaced a more selfless one. This is because ‘raised’, with its religious connotations of new spiritual life, is being associated with somewhere other than the city where the narrator has been. That urban living and new spiritual life do not go together is made clear by the association, through rhyme, of ‘town’ with ‘down’ in the line which follows:

‘I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

 –  ‘down’ being the opposite of ‘raised’.

The reference to fire in:

‘Sky full of fire …’

also suggests that the narrator’s behaviour is contravening the will of God. Various biblical references treat fire as a heavenly punishment for the wicked (e.g. 2 Kings I, Luke 9.54 and Revelation 8.5)

While overall the religious imagery reflects the narrator’s character by reflecting his many faults, the positive images suggest that there is hope for him. The overall effect, however, is to suggest that the narrator is on a knife edge – ‘walking the line’ between moral success and failure.7


Conclusion

Since the song was apparently originally intended for Time Out of Mind, it’s not surprising that the narrator comes across as hopelessly inadequate and lacking in self-esteem. For most of the song he’s not really admitting responsibility for the loss of the woman, and he seems to assume getting her back is a lost cause. While we’re given no reason to suppose he’s not right in this, beyond a tactical move involving a proposition of marriage he’s made little effort to win her back. Instead he resorts to exaggerating the effect his loss has had on him while assuming that it falls to the woman to demean herself by admitting a guilt which is every bit as much his.

There is some hope for him, however. He does accept some responsibility for his loss in recognising that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d returned to the woman earlier. And towards the end of the song, when he speaks of having painted himself into a corner, he seems to be accepting full responsibility. Some of the religious imagery also implies that there is hope for him. Nevertheless the final verse leaves us with his unjustified assumptions that he can be unforgiving towards the woman, and that things can never be the same again.

 

 

1. Some phrases in the song echo those of T.S.Eliot’s The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock. Like Prufrock the narrator is not doing what he knows he should do to further a relationship which, in the narrator’s case, it seems he has already betrayed. I’m not suggesting that the similarities are generally more than coincidence; it may just be that Dylan had Eliot’s words at the forefront of his mind as he wrote the song. I can’t see that recognising them helps elucidate the song’s meaning beyond perhaps showing that they have themes in common. It might be the case, for example, that Dylan’s narrator should be concerned to ‘spit out the butt ends of [his] days and ways’. The Eliot phrases are extra-indented below:

‘Time is pilin’ up’ (Verse 1):
‘And indeed there will be time’

‘I have heard it all’ (Verse 5):
‘For I have known them all already, known them all’

‘I’m gonna look at you ‘til my eyes go blind’ (Verse 7):
‘The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase’

‘I’m drowin’ in the poison …’ (Verse 9):
‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’ (Verse 12):
‘To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—’

‘ways’, ‘days’ and ‘hand’ passim:
‘Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?’

           ‘There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands’

2. See the Religious Imagery section for suggestions about how the woman can be taken to represent both God and Christ.

3. Muddy Waters uses the phrase ‘another mule kicking in your stall’ in Long Distance Call. Apparently it means that a woman has another man.

4. The expression ‘days are numbered’ is biblical and is followed by ‘there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will grow again’ (Job 14:5-7). The implication for the narrator is that whatever he has done to destroy his prospects can be undone. In part the song concerns the limited extent to which he achieves this undoing.

5. Although he seems to be addressing the woman, it’s more likely he’s just imagining a conversation with her. Had he actually said what he seems to be saying, he would have gone some way towards doing the very thing he claims he could never do.

6. From the start the narrator’s life is presented as a moral journey using the Christian concept of ‘the way’. Thus the song begins:

‘Every step of the way …’

and the last words before the final refrain are:

‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

In the second verse the narrator, supposedly stuck in the city, is:

‘… trying to get away

The effect of these ‘way’ references is to draw attention to the spiritual progress the narrator is either attempting to make and has already made.

7. There’s a reminder of the garden of Eden in:

‘Walkin’ through the leaves, fallin’ from the trees
Feelin’ like a stranger nobody sees’

The narrator’s ambiguous moral position is represented by the association with Adam and Eve in the garden on the one hand, and God feeling ignored while walking in the garden on the other (cf. Genesis 3.8).