Long and Wasted Years: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood.

(There is an index of all the songs reviewed on the home page of this site)

There is  a fundamental question that we face with Long and Wasted Years and which it is helpful to answer is we are looking for a meaning within the song.

First, is it the telling of a unified story of a singular couple of people in a particular moment in their lives?   And if so, is this Dylan playing his old tricks of not telling the story in sequence.  A sort of desperate later life “Tangled up in blue”

Or second is it an abstract piece of music, akin to an abstract work of modern art in which one can see images within but where overall there is abstraction – it is not a picture of “a lady” or “a landscape” or “church” or whatever but merely suggestions, shapes and patterns.

Or third is it an allegory for something else?

So if we listen to Dylan saying

“I ain’t seen my family in twenty years
That ain’t easy to understand, they may be dead by now
I lost track of ’em after they lost their land

is this some part of the abstract world, a word painting adding to the sense of loss and wandering, a sort of reflection on Dylan’s Drifter once more but now much later in life.

Or is the talk of “land” symbolic of something – one might think of Israel for example.  Or is this part of the story he is telling, which if we could but disentangle it, is a real coherent story.

We might turn here to the music for enlightenment.  The piece is musically very unusual for Dylan – it is in 2/4 meaning two beats in the bar.  I can’t immediately think of another Dylan song that does this.  There are eight bars in each verse, but because the verses are spoken the number of syllables per line can vary enormously.

So if we look at the opening “It’s been such a long long time” that takes up two of the eight bars.  “Since we loved each other and our hearts were true” is another two bars.  Then the recitation slows down, and “One time, for one brief day” is the next two bar phrase, while “I was the man for you” takes up the remaining two.

(To be more precise there is a fair amount of pushing forward and holding back going on, so that is not exactly right, but I hope you get the idea).

The two beats in each bar gives the song that plodding feel – an old man walking along the road with solid slow steps.  His brain is still active, he can think all these thoughts, but he’s plodding, plodding, plodding.

To try and resolve this, let’s see what sort of meaning, if any we can get from each verse – and then see if it makes a coherent tale.  I’ve tried to summarise each verse as a numbered line.

1: We loved each other so deeply for a while a long time ago

2: But now its all over, you’ve got guilty secrets, watch out they might come back to haunt you.

3: Can we do anything about this broken relationship?  Can we get counselling?  Do you want to work it out?

4: I’ve also drifted away from my roots, and my family has been dispossessed too, but I’m trying…

5: So come on, pull yourself together, you can’t just go to ruin

6: The demons I’ve been fighting have gone

7: And I’ve tried to pull myself back together but I’ve still got the scars – sorry if it has been really bad for you.  I didn’t mean it.

8: We’ve both been lost and had bad times – can’t we just come back together?

9: After all, we’ve been drifting so long.

10: We screwed up, we’ve cried, but the past is past, let’s move on.

There is a sense in listening to the song that at the end the singer was going to say something, but he can’t remember what it was, and that gives us a feeling that this is nothing remotely like a “my baby’s left me” piece, nor is it some complex religious allegorical tale, but rather, its a statement that says, “what a mess, but that’s where we are.  What do you say, we sit down and have a coffee and talk without blame or recrimination?”

In short, there’s far too much water under the bridge for anything to be sorted out any more, but that’s the past.  Stop the blame, let’s somehow work something out.

With this type of analysis I think we are looking an abstract painting style of musical poem in which we don’t know, and we can’t know.  All we get are hints and suggestions.  If you find a sense in it all, that’s fine, there probably isn’t one specific answer, and your sense is as good as mine.

But consider this: consider Dylan’s early references to the loss of place,  identity and friends in his early talk of the North Country.  This could well be a 50 years later reminiscence of that.  So the person to whom Dylan addresses himself isn’t a real person, but a symbol of all that loss.  That loss of a way of life, of the friends you’ll never see again.

Dylan has had a lifelong fascination with and horror of the disruption of old communities, and that line about losing the family just makes me think of the disruption talked about in so many songs.  From the North Country songs to the disdain of Fourth Street, to the bewilderment of the Drifter, the eternal feel is of loss.

So the Long and Wasted Years might be the pointlessness of one’s life, or the whole failure of our society.  Or the pointlessness of an empty marriage.  Or the old man coming to the end and thinking of his life, “what the fuck was that all about?”

Let me try a variation on this theme.  In the UK it is a common reflection among those who think on such matters that the notion of family life is hard to fit with 21st century post-industrial society.  Marriages somehow are held together for the sake of the children, the mortgage, and everything else, but when the children get up and leave to go to university, or move to find a job, or get their own apartment, the final glue that holds the marriage together dissipates and the relationship breaks up.  It’s probably a more common theme now than the theme that has the family staying together.

Now one can survive this if one stays happily in touch with the ex, or with past friends, or most importantly with the children.


I recall meeting a guy maybe 20 years ago, who was retired and renting a room in a house.  He had four children, now of course all grown up, and he had no contact with them, his ex-wife, his old friends….  Why, I have no idea.  A series of rows, the breakup of the marriage, I don’t know, but he didn’t know anything about his friends and family now.  Not even a Christmas card.

I can’t imagine that guy’s world at all.  I really, really can’t.  But the relentless downward pounding of the opening of each verse of this song and the title line gives me a clue of the endless emptiness, (which must be as cold as the clay).

So much for tears  so much for these long and wasted years.

It’s a sad and depressing outlook.

Index to all the songs reviewed here.

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