Dylan’s Wedding song: the meaning of the music and the words

By Tony Attwood

I have suggested that inside Planet Waves there is the winding road that leads to Tangled up in Blue, just as inside the Pat Garrett album there is the basis of Lily, Rosemary and the Jack if Hearts.

But there is something else in this album – the look back to the acoustic days with Dirge and this song – the last two songs written for the album.

While with Dirge we have the verbal evidence that the song was written in response to a jokey comment about Dylan’s sentimental change as he got older, with this song we have no such extraneous commentary to go on.  But we can still guess.

I believe the original version of Dirge was recorded on guitar before being re-worked on piano.  Here this guitar version of a totally opposite song makes the counterpoint.  Dirge begins “I hate myself for loving you,” while this beings “I love you more than ever.”

Such commentary that we do have on the writing and recording process at the very end of Heylin’s volume 1 (Revolution in the Air), suggests in came out in a burst, and Dylan just recorded the song.  It sounds rough and ready, the chord sequence changes between verses (and one can’t be sure if that is deliberate or not), Dylan stumbles over the lengths of the lines … all told this is an urgent if occasionally meandering statement from a man who just has to say it, and has to say it now.  When musicians used to say, “tell it like it is,” this is what was meant – a total outpouring in one go, never to be re-recorded.

But none of that means it is a personal piece of music, any more than Dirge is a personal piece of music.  Rather, as I suggest, having written Dirge, he needed to write Wedding Song, just for a sense of artistic balance and his own well-being.  And just to prove that he could still write songs like this.

As with Dirge this really does take us back to a much earlier Dylan, both because it is acoustic, and because it is strophic – the verse – verse – verse formulation without any break into the middle 8 (or “bridge”) – that variant section which in classic rock comes after the second verse.  As I suggested above, the variant we get is by changing the chord structure in the third line of each verse.

Image falls onto image as thought pushes thought out of the way, but there is that unrelenting vision that he is not the Leader, he is not here to change everything, certainly not here to tell us what to do.  He is just a guy.

It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large
Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge

Put another way “It ain’t me babe” in the sense that I am not a man who tells you what to do, but it is me babe in terms of the man who loves you “more than ever, more than time and more than love” all the way through to the ending, “I love you more than ever now that the past is gone”.   (Which immediately makes me think we really should have an index of last lines, as well as an index of first lines).

I don’t feel that Dylan was writing about himself or his own experience here, any more than he was in Dirge, any more than most novelists cast themselves as the central character in each novel, any more than an actor plays himself every time he gets on stage.

If there is anything personal here (and as I say, I doubt it) it is to be found in the tremendous sense of power and liberation that comes from his saying goodby to the “haunted rooms and faces in the street, To the courtyard of the jester which is hidden from the sun” – to the self torment, and to the artificial worlds and false people that were portrayed in the Basement Tapes.   And now there is a new life, for “I love you more than ever and I haven’t yet begun.”

But then, since I have never taken it that the people at the Million Dollar Bash were real, that is no change.    This is not stunningly brilliant poetry – but it is a powerful way of putting across the emotions which, if we are lucky, we all feel at some time in our lives.   He doesn’t say, “I’m nothing without you,” but says you make my life richer, in a much more interesting way.

Of course not every line is perfect.   “Your love cuts like a knife” is as old as pop music, and probably much older.  But the relentless power, makes all this work.

And because of the way the music is written, starting on A minor but falling away to G at the end of each verse, we feel like we have just had a long long sigh, reflecting on all this… we have no idea if it is going to go on or when the end of the song will come.  He ends the verses on this downbeat, placing himself as a person less than the woman he loves because she has given him all.  Just look at these last lines…

I’d sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die

But happiness to me is you and I love you more than blood

And if there is eternity I’d love you there again

And I love you more than ever with that love that doesn’t cease

‘Cause I love you more than ever now that the past is gone

He casts himself as nothing, blown along in the eddies and tides of time, only being here to love this woman.  There is nothing to change in the world because he has been given everything.  He hasn’t created it, he hasn’t modified it, he has had it presented to him, and he is happy to leave it at that.   As he said at the end of the first verse, “I love you more than life itself, you mean that much to me.”

Musically… it is like a roughened version of Dark Eyes.   Remember how the album ends with

Oh, the gentlemen are talking and the midnight moon is on the riverside.

Here is another picture in contrast to most of the album that has gone before – although we have the great contrast in lyrics with Dirge.

This is, overall, an album that looks deep into the heart of all sorts of emotions – consider what was explored in “Going Going Gone” in that middle 8 that so occupied my thoughts in the review, alongside this song, Dirge, Forever Young…

Indeed Forever Young itself now takes on a new meaning – stay forever young so you don’t get close to what I explore in the rest of these songs.

It is sometimes said that as soon as one sees the title “Wedding Song” one must think of Dylan’s own wedding.  And maybe that would be true if the song was presented on its own.  But it is not.  It is presented after Dirge, and at the end of the collection.  It has to be seen in that context.

Above all I reject the notion that I have read that “Dylan recorded it more or less in the same slapdash style as he did his acoustic albums”.  He recorded it in a way that gives it the total power it deserves.  The power of one man on his own, the wind buffeting his face as he sits on a rock next to the lady he loves trying to explain himself, stumbling over the words, not quite able to find the right phrase.  It is a glimpse of real life through a song in an age of technical production, and all the better for that.

Where I differ from many commentators is in thinking that when Dylan mentions three children, there is some secret point here.  For me, he is writing a piece of astoundingly powerful fiction, in which I can empathise with the character at the centre of the story.  Hell, when I was writing my bits of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 (sci fi tales made by the BBC and realised also in books) I didn’t have to go into our space.  I wasn’t in the books.  Same here.

So was Wedding Song “Dylan’s last Hail Mary shot at reconciliation with his wife” as has been suggested?  No not for me.  On its own I might be persuaded, but why on earth would a man who wanted to plot a reconciliation do it in public on an album with a song that followed a piece that started out,

I hate myself for lovin’ you and the weakness that it showed

No, he wrote it because he wanted a contrast with Dirge.  And he wrote it because he could.

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/ 

All the songs reviewed on this site

The songs in chronological order

Dylan’s opening lines: an index


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