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.



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

  3. Yeah I always was chary of the religious twist some fans give. I’d rather read it along with songs like Neighbourhood Bully and see a political thread,

  4. Lately I’ve been thinking about the Groom’s still waiting at the alter from a Jewish perspective. Well Shabbat is often described as a bride and on a deeper level the Shabbat bride is Shekinah, the presence of God in the world. So The groom is continuing to wait, because the presence of God is not among us.

  5. Reagan, not Nixon funded the Contras. Nixon did worse. Dylan stood up to Nixon’s villainy with some of his most ferocious lyrics, but by the time Reagan became prez Dylan was already two-thirds the way through his Christian trilogy and was no longer concerned with matters of social conscience rather with spiritual redemption. Reagan got lucky.

  6. /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./

    This verse is most definitely not about the Contras. It’s pretty starkly autobiographical, a typical Dylan complaint about his great fame, and how people misread him.

    @Kira, that is a common Jewish trope, but I don’t know whether that would be spinning in Dylan’s head in 1980, as he didn’t grow up in an orthodox environment. When he was hanging with Chabad a decade later he most certainly would have heard things of this sort. That said, the Shabbat – Israel analogy doesn’t really work here because of course the Shabbat bride is welcomed every Friday night, so the Groom as Israel isn’t waiting too long for the bride in Jewish belief.

  7. Probably just the voice of guy wondering why there’s nothing really to hold on to except himself…for the time being at least.

  8. Excellent insight! You really have a grasp on the subject matter! I agree on everything you said, but I’d like to add that I think there is a strong case that the song addresses a world at the end, with the singer addressing a woman he’s got to leave because she can’t read the signs of coming doom. So he needs to “set his affection on things above” but tells her; he and God are waiting for her when she wakes up. Which he says cleverly as “the groom’s waiting at the altar”

  9. I have always viewed this song along the lines of being a hard rains gonna fall version 2.0. Hard rain told us the world is all jacked up and we ain’t seen nothing yet- worst yet to come. Groom still waiting sounds like the world is still all jacked up and we still haven’t figured out how to fix it.

  10. ‘If she only made me feel obligated’ in one version vs ‘If she didn’t make me feel so obligated’ in another shades the meaning of the two versions.

  11. The Groom waiting at the altar for the Bride is an image central to Kabbalic thought and mysticism in southern Europe in the 1100s through 1492 and then in what we now know as the Middle East. In other words, west of Jordan and east of the Rock of Gibraltar. G-d is the Groom, and the Shekhinah, or community of believers, is the Bride. A Sabbath tradition was for the people to walk out into the fields at sunset to meet the Groom, singing. Seeking the mystical union of G-d and humanity. But it never sticks, we are the Bride who keeps jilting the Groom at the altar. So the Groom is still waiting. Even as the world is at an end, and wise men stand around like furniture…

  12. Any understanding of what this song meant to Dylan hangs on understanding who Claudette is.

    To do that, one must look at the life of Roy Orbison, who Bob admired immensely. Dylan was well aware of the story of Orbison’s on/off/on/off relationship with Claudette Frady, to whom Roy was married twice. It ended for the final time when she died instantly in a tragic motorcycle accident in 1966. Ironically, it was a less deadly motorcycle mishap Roy had in early 1965 that got them back together. The nightmare in this song is reflective of the one Roy Orbison lived in 1966.

    As others have already mentioned, by the time Dylan wrote this song between 1980-81 (live performances at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco over several nights in November, 1980 contain early versions of the song with lyrics, in places, significantly different from what Dylan recorded in the studio in 1981), Nixon was long gone from the White House and the whole saga of Reagan supporting the contras, even after Congress forbade it, was still in the future and didn’t come to light until around 1987 during the Iran-Conta hearings and the subsequent trial of Lt. Colonel Oliver North. That war is far from the only one where nuns have been killed by combatants on one side of a conflict for their assistance to supporters/combatants on the other side.

  13. The allegory is loose enough to have the Groom be the Jewish God waiting at the altar for the people of Israel( elivered out of Egypt,) to truly become his Bride; Claudette’s a Christian, a ‘stranger’, and believes the Messiah’s already come, and so leaves.
    The Groom is Jesus in Christian allegorical terms, but it’s difficult to nail the narrator (Dylan??) down….,which is not unusual, for sure.

  14. I am confused about the “background chorus” in this song. “Gonna place my attention on things above….” , which is sung, sometimes by a chorus, and sometimes by Dylan, just before “west of the Jordan”. What are the words and why aren’t they written down anywhere?

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