The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

It has never been part of the rules that the poet has to know what his best lines are.  Most poets are saved from the inquisition because either we don’t have the earlier versions of their work, (at least until they have finished writing for good) or they are merely dealt with in doctorates, and not given over much to public scrutiny.

But not Dylan; he loses out on both counts.

Because of Heylin et al we know that he once sang lines like

World’s coming to an end, wise men standing around like furniture

People bringing the Lord’s name into every senseless conversation

Felt around for the lightswitch, felt around for her face, been treated like a wild animal on a wild goose chase

But whichever version you find, there is power and fun, hostility and absurdity. Just consider the “official” opening of the song

Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement,
Heard the last moan of a boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent
Felt around for the light switch, became nauseated.
She was walking down the hallway while the walls deteriorated.

This is heavy blues and bad dream country.  This is drug related or the product or an over-active imagination.  Who is the groom, and why is he, rather than traditionally jilted bride, left at the alter?  From the very start we want to know.

One explanation given is that “Christ is the bridegroom and the bride for whom he waits is the Church, representing the Christian faithful.”

I have read reports that this is related to John 3:28: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full.”   But in reality I still don’t quite see what that has to do with the whole song.

Maybe the images surrounding such a metaphor are a pretty odd way of saying nothing specifically religious, but they come out of the reading of the gospel. One day the concept of the groom being left at the alter came to his head, having read John’s gospel, and Dylan picked up the guitar and lines came tumbling out.  Not everything is crafted over weeks and months.

East of the Jordan, west of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the page, Curtain risin’ on a new age,
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar.

This is seriously odd, and you can take your pick of a whole range of options.  I’ve read lots of them in last week but I can’t say that any of them have me thinking, “ah, so that’s where Dylan is”.

The Groom comes from a period in which Dylan composed “Property of Jesus,” “Yonder Comes Sin,” and “Caribbean Wind” as well as writing new arrangements of some of his earlier songs such as”Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell (For Anybody).”  It was left off Shot of Love, and then returned to it for later editions.

Rolling Stone magazine, when it did its feature on “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Songs of the 1980s” suggested that although the 80s were not Dylan’s strongest decade as a writer, it was an era in which “Dylan’s quality control hit an all-time low” – at least in an early part of the decade.

Their prime complaint is the inclusion of Lenny Bruce is Dead and Dead Man, Dead Man.on the album and not this song.

It is a common complaint – that Dylan doesn’t know his own best work, and yet such a complaint ignores two fundamentals.  One is that Dylan very clearly often conceives his albums as whole pieces, not a collection of “the best songs I’ve written of late”.

The other is something that affects all artists of high merit.  They are invariably so deeply engrained within their work that they cannot perceive these works of art as those not involved in the creative conception will do.   Songs don’t materialise in one single play through – at least most of the time they don’t.  They grow inside the composer, often unplayed, untried, until emerging semi-formed and then need coaxing and crafting out.  The experience of this internal germination, and the external crafting and manipulation is profound.  It might last a day or a month or a year, but however it comes about, it is a profound experience.

Often the writer is left feeling that somehow he has not expressed in sound everything that he felt and thought during the gestation process, and so what to us mere mortals might sound like a supreme treasure, is rejected from the collection because it isn’t right yet.

I suspect in this case, the song sounded ok to Dylan, good enough to issue indeed, but out of phase with the rest of the album.  It would not be the first time.

So, “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” came out as a single, and Dylan later changed his mind and put it on the album.  Rolling Stone’s article says, “it fits perfectly into the album,” and that is a matter of opinion.  I don’t think it does – but sadly Rolling Stone didn’t really explain why they thought it would fit.  Mere assertion doesn’t ever help us much.  We need to look further.

For example, in a 1983 interview in New Musical Express (a UK weekly)   “The purpose of music is to elevate and inspire the spirit.  To those who care where Bob Dylan is at, they should listen to Shot of Love. It’s my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie. It’s all there in that one song.”

Now compare and contrast Property of Jesus with

Put your hand on my head, baby, do I have a temperature?
I see people who are supposed to know better standin’ around like furniture.
There’s a wall between you and what you want and you got to leap it,
Tonight you got the power to take it, tomorrow you won’t have the power to
keep it.

This is a song of the disconnected images of nightmares, it is the creatures at the Million Dollar Bash going haywire on meths and tormenting each other.  I don’t think it has much connection with most of the rest of the album.

One description I read, as I did my research on this song, speaks of the “chaotic absurdity” of the piece, the “breathing in hot pursuit of the listener across the switchback longs and shorts of the verses and the punching ups and downs of the chorus melody.”

And yes, I’d say that is a fair description.  The lines vary in length ludicrously, the rhymes are bizarre, and all around us the world is falling to pieces.  So tht concept of the switchback works for me.  I don’t need an actual meaning for the bride at the alter any more than I do for Bob’s passing interest in “Gibraltar” (which I’ve visited three times, and a charming place it is too,) nor do I need to know who these people are, to appreciate the cracks in the pavement.

Cities on fire, phones out of order,
They’re killing nuns and soldiers, there’s fighting on the border.
What can I say about Claudette?  Ain’t seen her since January,
She could be respectably married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires.

Fair enough Bob, if that’s how you see it.  Dali had visions like that too; chaotic, surreal, violent, ambiguous and absurd.  All at once.

And if you want a political context, then how about the funding of the Contras in Nicaragua which eventually was banned by Congress, but President Nixon, being who he was, continued it.

Thus when I heard

Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery,
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery,
Got the message this morning, the one that was sent to me
About the madness of becoming what one was never meant to be.

I thought of the Contras, that mix of counter revolutionary ideals and human rights violations.  But then, as I have said so often, I’m English, and I got the news about Nixon and his fun and games in a European context filtered by our news media, and by my experiences as a young man.  I was reminded of what I had read of the chaos of war, or messages getting through or not getting through, of the way war changes noble ideals into horror stories…

So yes I can see “She was walking down the hallway while the walls deteriorated, as “the world is falling apart.”

Or maybe, “this the way the world ends – not with a bang but with ceaseless unmitigated chaos.”  And yes, looking at where we have got to since the times when Dylan recorded the song, he could be right.

Index to all the songs reviewed.


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2 Responses to The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Lew Carbone says:

    Interesting article, with a great description of the structure and imagery of the lyrics, but with a little mixed-up US history. By 1981, the year “Shot of Love” was released, Nixon was long gone, having resigned in 1974. Reagan was first inaugurated in 1981, the the Iran-Contra thing didn’t become a big issue until his second term.

    I did enjoy the article, though. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Martin Zitter says:

    Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You” is the best song, and attendant video, of this period.

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