Tears of Rage: the meaning of the music and the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

I have to confess I find it hard to listen to Tears of Rage these days knowing that the co-writer, such an incredibly talented musician, became an alcoholic and drug abuser and committed suicide.   The waste of every human life is so awful – but it seems to hit my consciousness harder when I can listen to the man’s work and perceive such overwhelming ability.

But I guess the work of a critic is to separate such thoughts from a review of the song – a song in which Richard Manuel wrote the music to Dylan’s words (which Manuel indicated quite clearly were written out by Dylan first, but without any explanation for the meaning).

Indeed as Richard Manuel said in an oft quoted remark,

“He came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper … and he just said, ‘Have you got any music for this?’ … I had a couple of musical movements that fit … so I just elaborated a bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean, Bob: Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse?”

But for me the quandary is deeper than this.  Quite what “be the thief” means is never clear – is he stealing her life by doing that thing parents do in trying to get their children to behave as they behave, and think what they think?  Or was she very much a girl who was obedient in her younger day but then suddenly upped sticks and left?

Another very personal thought that crosses my mind comes from my own experience, which perhaps I may share at this point.  I have three daughters – now all grown up ladies leading their own lives.  The eldest two have families and live within half an hour’s drive of my home.  But the third lives in Australia – the other side of the world from England where I live.

That actually doesn’t bother me; she comes to England occasionally, and I can go and visit her when I feel so inclined, and those visits become completely memorable and stay with me for all the time we are apart.  Indeed the last time I was there I sat in her apartment during part of each day while my daughter was out at work, writing reviews of Dylan songs and staring at the beauty of the Pacific Ocean.

But I know some families can’t take it when one of the clan goes to the other side of the world, and actually say things like “Why is he/she doing this to us?” as if it is a deliberate act by the offspring to hurt the parents.  And I wondered whether this was the implication here.  We nurtured you, you were always such a good girl, so now why do you want to hurt us so much by leaving?

Or is it that the “false instruction” is conversion to a religion that takes her away from the family?  Or the reverse – a love of money and pleasure in a very well paid job, as with the lines

And now the heart is filled with gold
As if it was a purse

It is hard to disentangle but the chorus lines do endlessly make us sad, and I always end up thinking of the parent who just so desperately wants to see his child again…

Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief

As we all know, this is one of the songs that was recorded at the Big Pink, just before the John Wesley Harding recordings were going to happen, and is most certainly one of the songs from the collection that gets the most attention.  The Band’s version on their first album has the composer on lead vocal and is very highly regarded throughout much of the pop and rock world.

So it clearly is a song of great merit, for the musical construction, the ambiguity of the words, the remarkable version on the Band’s album.

There is a commentary by Andy Gill which speaks of the vocals being “Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.”   He also sees the song possibly commenting on the betrayal felt by many American Vietnam war veterans.

But when we start going down that route much depends whether you interpret Independence Day as being a coincidence – it just happened to be Independence Day when she was born or christened or baptized or … or whether you see that as the heart of the symbolism of the whole piece.  Or whether, and this is where my thought pops up – Dylan just happened to come up with those opening lines

We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day 

and thought, “that’s interesting” and worked on from there.

But many commentators do like to hold to the view that Dylan generally puts secret messages into the song, so there are comments that the “life is brief” theme takes us to the Old Testament once again.  Or maybe we are in the arena of Ars longa vita brevis – “Art is eternal, life is short”.  Which is why the song’s chorus is so utterly desperate – please come now, I’ve not got much time left.

I guess the problem that I have is I don’t really see how a father can be betrayed by his daughter short of her handing him over to the enemy during an uprising.  One bring’s one’s children into the world, one gives them all one has to give, and then one gives them their freedom.   When we have a family we create free spirits who can go their own way and do their own thing.   And just as a parents love has to be unconditional, so is the gift of freedom to make their own choices.

To try and unravel this sort of conundrum of the meaning I’ve been turning increasingly to the notion of what Dylan was actually writing about around the time a particularly problematic song arose.  In this case the chronology (with the briefest possible summary of each song) is…

These little comments of mine after each song are of course just snippets from the review, but to me they are the essence of the whole series of songs – being trapped, and if there is a chance of release from the entrapment it occurs only by chance.   Aside from the theme of being trapped there is also a certain theme of the randomness of society running through all these songs culminating in the way the Drifter gets out of jail free…

Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while everybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape

Of course these are just my explanations and I do recognise that a thousand other explanations are possible.  But if you follow this line, you’ll appreciate the randomness of events – the father has done everything right (as he sees it) and then she’s off.  How can she do this to him?

Maybe this was the world that Dylan saw when he suggested that “Everybody must get stoned”.

But which ever way we go, the notion that the parent is grieving over the path that his offspring has taken, seems to be the most viable one. It’s also the simplest, and that generally means it is the right one.

The chorus sums up all that heartache into four majestic lines, including that beautiful final declaration of the brevity of life, delivered with the assurance of someone who realizes how easy it is to forget that when you’re young and how hard it is to forget as you grow old.

As for why this works so well as a piece of music, for once that is not hard to explain.  The song is in G major, and starts with a melody built around the chords you might expect: G, Em C.   Then in comes A minor (on the word Day in the first verse).

That’s unusual – not impossible, obviously, but unusual.   Now a lesser composer would say to himself, ok, I’ve pulled my trick rabbit out of the hat, you have had your surprise extra chord – the A minor, so let’s go back to G and keep the song moving along conventional lines

But no, off we go to the chord of F.  Completely unexpected.   There are songs that will run through the sequence G, Em, C, G.   There are songs that run through F, C, G.

So not only have you got both in these opening four very short lines, you’ve also got that intervening A minor in there as well.

These chord changes force the melody to take on unusual twists and turns, and that is what causes it all to happen – and in such a very short space of time, and without any feeling of guile or attempted cleverness

And then you’d think, wow, but that’s enough playing around for one song.  But you’d be wrong.  Because suddenly we are with the chord of B, which takes us into another key before leading us back to G.   And then just in case you didn’t get it, he does it again, and only then takes us back home.

I certainly can’t be the only musician who on first hearing this, without any background notes as to who wrote what, simply said, “Dylan never wrote that song.”   The words yes, but not the music.  It just isn’t him.

Anyway, a beautiful but desperately sad song, with a very, very sad associated history.

To finish, here’s a totally different version.  Not really to my taste, but I include it in case you like it.  Joan Baez’ solo version.


All the songs reviewed on this site

The Songs in Chronological Order 1962-69

Articles about Bob Dylan on the site

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5 Responses to Tears of Rage: the meaning of the music and the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song

  1. Kingsley Bray says:

    I think it’s worth considering the song as a dialogue between two speakers — one character sings the verse, the other the chorus.

  2. David Weir says:

    Thanks Tony. Carrying her in their arms on Independence day might suggest that just by being born she has already become an independent being, and what the parents suffer later on is just the logical fulfilment of that fact. Also ‘What dear daughter ‘neath the sun’ has Ecclesiastes overtones. So, since there’s ‘nothing new under the sun’, the parents shouldn’t be surprised at their daughter’s wanting her independence. I wonder if the father shouldn’t be accepting some responsibility too if he’s had his daughter ‘wait upon him hand and foot’. Rather than accept this, he just moans that she ‘puts us all away’ – an exaggeration of what he really cares about (that she’s put him away).

  3. Lanny Nye says:

    Mr. Attwood,
    I Have studied Bob Dylan ( I am only an minor Dylanolologyst at best, having read only about 30 of the hundreds of books & etc.about him and his works) over many years may I make this observation of “Tears Of Rage”: perhaps he is talking about himself. After all so many of his songs are of a personal nature and when you consider his life around the time of the song’s writing it’s not improbable that he was still feeling the affects of the crushing weight of his fame, his last tour of England and France, and the motorcycle accident. Also, his father had not been pleased with his choice of careers at first and maybe there were lingering family issues over that. Just some food for thought.

  4. Dave piet says:

    The fool thinks himself wise, but the wiseman knows himself to be the fool.

  5. Bill says:

    I think the song is written for a cranky tired child. He himself said “I’ll be your baby Tonight” was about an actual baby! “oh what dear daughter neath the sun would treat a father so? To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him “no!” That’s a tea Party!

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