Dirge: the meaning behind one of Dylan’s most bleak and morbid songs

By Tony Attwood

Oxford Dictionaries has a Dirge as a lament for the dead – especially one that is part of a funeral.  But it can also be just a mournful song – although the dictionary also casts it as “a  song or piece of music that is considered too slow, miserable, or boring” giving the example “after his ten-minute dirge, the audience booed.”

I think we might take the middle definition – a mournful song.  Rob Fraboni the recording session’s engineer suggests that Dirge was written during the recording sessions, unlike the other songs on Planet Waves which Dylan composed beforehand.

There is also the suggestion that Lou Kemp’s girlfriend Martha had the temerity to say to Dylan, on hearing “Forever Young,”  “Are you getting mushy in your old age?”  The tape log apparently has the song titled as “Dirge for Martha” but it became “Dirge” by the time the album was put together.

Whether anyone would have the temerity to say such a thing to Dylan is interesting.  If I found myself around the same recording studio I think I’d be hiding in the corner shaking, in case he realised I was there and threw me out.  But these youngsters eh?

Anyway, as I understand it, Lou Kemp has been a friend of Dylan’s from the Duluth boyhood days, and Kemp has been on tour with Dylan.  It is also said elsewhere the Lou Kemp managed a number of Dylan tours in the 1970s, so maybe this all makes sense.

If so, Dirge is not written for or about any particular woman – it was just a riposte to a throwaway comment of a close friend’s girlfriend and was put in, perhaps, because the number of songs available for Planet Waves was limited.  They needed one more so Dylan took the joke and turned it into a song. As I have noted elsewhere, with earlier albums Dylan could often put songs in, take them out, to get the balance of the album right.  But here there was no surfeit of songs – so in it went.

Notably, Dirge is one of the songs that has appeared on a mainsteam album but never been performed in public.   The official BobDylan.com site lists something like 629 Dylan songs in its index, of which 287 have never been performed live, not even once.

So it is not alone in this regard – we can think of “Down the highway” from Freewheelin, “Don’t fall apart on me tonight” from Infidels, and “Dirt Road Blues” from Time out of Mind – and I’ve just looked up the index for “D”!

I like the explanation that Dylan wrote the piece just to show he could be bleak and morbid, and it fits with the fact that musically there are similarities between this piece and “This Wheels on Fire” which uses the musical approach to come up with a completely different type of songs.

But to stay with the words for a moment, it is impossible to think of anything more depressing and end-of-worldish than the opening

I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down to suicide road
The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel
I hate myself for loving you and I’m glad the curtain fell.

In the second verse I am guessing (in my usual naive English way) that Lower Broadway is Downtown Nashville, the one-time home of the honkytonk bars… now “a renowned entertainment district for country music.”

I hate that foolish game we played and the need that was expressed
And the mercy that you showed to me, whoever would have guessed
I went out on Lower Broadway and I felt that place within
That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.

But after this there is an other world remoteness about the lyrics, which have the feeling of fiction.  None the worse for that of course, it is a very fine piece of writing – but it is the writing Dylan can do very quickly – the description of the down and out and life gone wrong.   The way of writing he learned from all those years with the blues.

This is the World Gone Wrong once more both in general terms about the world in which he lives…

Heard your songs of freedom and man forever stripped
Acting out his folly while his back is being whipped
Like a slave in orbit he’s beaten ’til he’s tame
All for a moment’s glory and it’s a dirty, rotten shame.

His own desperation with the world around him, rather than a particular person is played out in these verses,

There are those who worship loneliness, I’m not one of them
In this age of fibreglass I’m searching for a gem
The crystal ball upon the wall hasn’t shown me nothing yet
I’ve paid the price of solitude but at least I’m out of debt.

And then the personal antagonism…

I can’t recall a useful thing you ever did for me
‘Cept pat me on the back one time when I was on my knees
We stared into each other’s eyes ’till one of us would break
No use to apologize, what difference would it make ?

And I think that the final verse with its Doom Machine tells us most certainly that this is not a personal piece.  Dylan doesn’t use phrases like that, which sound more 60s protest than 70s personal, unless he is talking of the world at large.

So sing your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine
The naked truth is still taboo whenever it can be seen
Lady Luck who shines on me, will tell you where I’m at
I hate myself for loving you but I should get over that.

It is in fact a song that could easily have fitted into a much earlier album from the previous decade – and that fact fits with the “mushy in your old age” comment, that point me so strongly in the direction of the Martha story.  It is the only thing that really seems to explain this song being so out of alignment with the rest of the album.

So I don’t go for any of the interpretations that claim the song is about addiction, or rejection of his own past involvement in the protest movement, or even problems with Sara back home.  It is also, I think, a bit far fetched to say that this is a song in which Dylan is saying that he doesn’t want to be labelled or forced into any particular mould.  He’d already done that by now.  He’d wandered through different styles and approaches, he’d written songs in all sorts of forms and guises, he’d had fun at the expense of all sorts of journalists who had asked naieve questions about his being a leader of his generation… why come back to that now?

No, I think it is Dylan saying to his friend, “you want one of those old songs, ok how about this?”

And this is the sort of thing only a great artist, secured in his position vis a vis his art, can get away with, because he can rise above any sort of criticism – and is also not beholden to a style any more than to a record company.  Of course he still had a record deal, but Dylan was financially secure, and he knew that if ever his record company turned on him again, he had a million other offers waiting.

But this is not to say that playing with ideas around this song isn’t itself a good idea.  There was one commentary I read that suggested that the entity that Dylan hated was his ability to write music – that he loved writing songs and creating new ideas, and when that ability left him in 1968 (when he wrote Lay Lady Lay but nothing else), he really resented it.

I don’t think it is true – but wow, what a clever idea.  It turned up on a web site from “Sharon”.  Obviously I can’t contact “Sharon” but I’d like to record my gratitude for really making me think and giving such an interesting perspective.

Other ideas that turned up include that it was an expression of Dylan’s regret and dislike of the fact that he took drugs for a while, or about his dislike of fame – that he loved fame and hated it at the same time, or even the relationship with Albert Grossman.

Anyway, that is often the sign of a great piece – that you can have multiple interpretations.  I somehow just like the comment about Bob getting old and soppy, and I love the notion that it is about the loss of his ability to write, and that is the strength of all this.  Out of one song you can get two such contradictory comments both of which can make one really think.

I have also read a review that suggests there is a link between this and “What was it you wanted” – one of my all time favourite Dylan songs.  That makes a lot of sense, and comparing the two songs is a fascinating study in itself – although I think I’ll save that for another day.

What is interesting though is that yet another review has Dirge as “probably one of the meanest, darkest and cruellest songs that Bob Dylan ever wrote.”  And yet I can see it as a response to a jesting line about how he has changed as he has got older.

But this review goes on to take the song line by line, and that seems to me to be the trouble.  Line by line analyses of songs are ok, but often miss the overall essence of the song.  It is a reason why I don’t favour the reviews that see songs from a religious basis as many (not all, but many) of them do tend to take a line and then point to the link between that line and a Biblical reference.  In all my years of studying literature, and my similar number of years of being a very, very, modest writer of books and songs, I’ve never found that this is how it happens to me.  And my few friends who have had far more success in either field than I have concurred.  It doesn’t normally work line by line.

But when one online reviewer said, “Only Bob Dylan could write something like this and pull it off,” I think I have to agree.  I just don’t think it has, “some good lessons for us about love and relationships.”

The writer of that comment continues, “Be with someone who is right for you and don’t waste your time in meaningless, empty relationship. It’s not worth the moments of glory, so just keep searching for your gem.”

Personally I prefer Stephen Stills “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one your with,” which he is reputed to have picked up from Billy Preston, and which probably came from “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love, I Love the Girl I’m Near” – a song in Finian’s Rainbow.

But then I guess that’s just me.

So finally, to the music.  What makes me think straight off of “If your memory serves you well,” is the second part of each song.

Both songs start in a minor key (very unusual for Dylan) but then move into the major half way through.

So we have

No man alive will come to you  With another tale to tell
But you know that we shall meet again  If your memory serves you well


The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel
I hate myself for loving you and I’m glad the curtain fell.

“This wheel’s on fire” was one of a collection of about 10 Dylan songs that were put on a tape and offered to artists with the promise that Dylan himself wouldn’t release them – and of course he earned a fortune from the many artists who have recorded the song.  But clearly there was a bit of it still lurking in his head at this time.

Moving from the minor to the major halfway through a piece is certainly not revolutionary in composition, but it is not that common in popular music.  In “This Wheel’s” Dylan goes from A minor up to C major.  In Dirge it is the other way, from D minor DOWN to B flat major – but the melody has similarities.

There is a very different feel about each song, of course, but a similar musical technique in the second half.

So there we have it.  Make of it as you wish – but all told, something of an out of place song on this album, but a very good song nonetheless.

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All the songs reviewed on this site

The songs in chronological order

Dylan’s opening lines: an index

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7 Responses to Dirge: the meaning behind one of Dylan’s most bleak and morbid songs

  1. Rajan Mahadevan says:

    ‘Dirge’ to me is anything but depressing; it is a cast-iron song and torch ballad as well ( check Dylan’s cover-illustration ), best sung by none other than Dylan himself. And oh yes, there’s the rage against the love-hate machine as much as social engineering perfidiously beats you until a condition of tame. Best Time&Space one-liner: In the age of fiberglass I’m looking for a gem.

  2. hans altena says:

    If this gorgeous song was inspired by that comment, which led to the unfortunate descision to put in a fast version of Forever Young instead of Nobody ‘cept You, I can feel mercy for it after all. I agree with most of what you say about it, but for me the balance of the endearing Planet Waves is found in the seclusion of Tough Mama and the superb Dirge, which takes off where Wheel’s on Fire landed, indeed. Those two songs add the grit, which was promised in the second track Gone.

  3. hans altena says:

    I meantime inclusion, sorry…

  4. hans altena says:

    Superb, Imeant inclusion, auto correction has me by the throat, just like this song

  5. mark turnbull says:

    The song, a beauty, would seem to be about Fame itself, and not a woman at all.

  6. bill Murphy says:

    To me this song was written about a daliance with hard drugs, always thought so from my first listen in 73. Makes a lot of sense. to me.

  7. Thank you for a great piece of interesting and informative writing. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/153/Dirge (Additional Information)
    Play every version of every song performed or written by Bob Dylan plus notable interpretations legally for free…

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