Abandoned love: the meaning of the music and the lyrics of Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

Let me say from the start, I utterly love this song and always have, and that makes it harder to give anything remotely like a balanced review.  But I shall try.

According to Heylin Abandoned Love was the last song Dylan wrote before meeting up with Jacques Levy, which is odd, because when we look at the songs of the year in chronological order of writing it was clearly written at this point …

If Heylin is right then Levy did not have any involvement in those earlier songs.  Yet BobDylan.com shows Oh Sister as “WRITTEN BY: BOB DYLAN AND JACQUES LEVY” and Romance in Durango the same – as with Money Blues.

My order of the songwriting is identical to Heylin at this point so what is going on?  It is hard to say although in writing the reviews of those earlier songs I have suggested that if Levy is there, his influence is minimal.  Certainly Abandoned Love was recorded on 31 July 1975, although not released until Biograph, and we know it was earlier performed at The Bitter End cafe on Bleecker Street in on 3 July 1975, during a show with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott which was recorded illicitly.

Joe Kivak has written a piece about the show which I would highly recommend.  He concludes

It was an incredible feeling to be in that small club listening to Bob Dylan perform a new song. We all felt we were watching history in the making. After he finished, he returned to his seat near the back of the club and quietly watched the rest of the show. Jack appeared so speechless and overwhelmed by Dylan’s performance that he started his next song with Bob’s buzzing guitar.

There is a recording of this remarkable performance on YouTube and I do recommend it…


All Music doesn’t review the song but attempts to cover every aspect of the song’s meaning by simply listing the song as “Yearning”, “Feeling blue”, “In love”, “Grief”, “Reflection” which makes my currently stalled Classification file on this site look almost sensible.

Indeed I would argue that if you play the piece, especially the studio recording, it is hard to hear it as any of these.  This song is bouncing along, and no matter what the words say it is hard to find it “yearning” or full of “grief” with such a musical background.  It seems to owe more to some Irish folk songs in which the subject is death, doom, destruction, poverty etc, and yet the whole piece sounds rather jolly.

The opening line of the studio version (not included in the live version) tells us exactly what is going on….

My heart is telling me I love you still…

OK, that is yearning, but then we are off both in terms of the lyrics.

I can hear the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
Oh, something’s telling me I wear the ball and chain

Right, that is clear – he has been fooling himself, in love with the notion of being in love, upset by the parting, not by the loss, tied to the past by his own false visions.

My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost
He’s always off somewhere when I need him most
The Spanish moon is rising on the hill
But my heart is a-tellin’ me I love you still

The head rules by the heart brings sorrow, as the saying goes, and he’s been brought sorrow although you wouldn’t know this by the singing of the song.  But the truth is he can’t even bear to see her.  Yet he needs to see her one more time before he finally bids farewell (although something tells us that even if he did, he’d still try and get back to her, rather than bid a tragic farewell.)

I come back to the town from the flaming moon
I see you in the streets, I begin to swoon
I love to see you dress before the mirror
Won’t you let me in your room one time ’fore I finally disappear?

Now he admits that most people can cover up what they are, but he’s as open as a child who cries when a toy is taken away…

Everybody’s wearing a disguise
To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes
But me, I can’t cover what I am
Wherever the children go I’ll follow them

He pretends to be free, he talks about the beauty of freedom, but he doesn’t want to be free.  OK even if he can’t spend one evening with her watching her in the mirror, can’t he just have one last smile?

I march in the parade of liberty
But as long as I love you I’m not free
How long must I suffer such abuse
Won’t you let me see you smile before I turn you loose?

But no, this is pointless, he is resolved.  If I go searching I will never find what I want.   Searching for the long gone past is hopeless…

I’ve given up the game, I’ve got to leave
The pot of gold is only make-believe
The treasure can’t be found by men who search
Whose gods are dead and whose queens are in the church

Actually that last line above is quite something.  I’ve pondered it time and time again, and can find a dozen meanings, but which one Dylan intended I have no idea.  I guess I’d settle for the Zen way of looking at things – if you search for someone or something to worship you won’t find it in venerating dead heroes and keeping women on a pedestal.

But maybe not.

Now at this point we have a split.  Here is the version sung on the original live recording…

We sat in an empty theatre and we kissed
So send out for St John the Evangelist
All my friends are drunk they can be dismissed
My head tells me it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love you but you’re strange

So why St John?  Maybe no reason, or maybe because he was the only one of the apostles who was not killed by his faith (that’s always struck me as quite a thought – but then I look at these things from outside as I am not a Christian).  St John’s the survivor, unlike the singer’s mates are useless.  And we are back to the heart being ruled by the head and bringing sorrow?

And so he concludes that she should put on her disguise, come down from on high and let him feel and live with her beauty and love before he walks away forever.

So step lightly darling near the wall
Put on your heavy make up wear your shawl
Wont you descend from the throne where you sit
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.

By the time of the studio recording we have

We sat in an empty theatre and we kissed
I asked you please to cross me off your list
My head tells me it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange

Here his is just saying, she has the power, please just cross him off the list of men she influences so he can walk away.  He needs her to stop maintaining that power.

One more time at midnight, near the wall
Take off your heavy makeup and your shawl
Won’t you descend from the throne, from where you sit?
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it

So there it is.  Utterly superb in my humble opinion.  It is perhaps when we recognise that the next song Dylan wrote was Isis that we appreciate the power he is vesting in this woman.  Indeed we could say Isis is almost here in this song, on the throne, ruling, controlling.  She’s next on stage.

Musically, what makes the song feel so unusual is the fact that we have two extra bars at the end of the last line of each verse.  Combined with the unexpected chord structure in which the lines don’t end on the expected chord.  That combined with the lyrics which are such fun and so unexpected, makes this a tremendous composition.

The song is in G and the chords run

  • G   D   Em
  • C   G   D
  • Bm      C
  • G   D  C   G

If there is another song like it in chord sequence I don’t know it.  Added to this we have the total change of timing with the last few words of the final line sung twice as fast as the rest.

The excellent Dylanchords.info web site prefaces the notation of the two versions as

Bitter End Version

The (Vastly Inferior) Biograph Version

The trouble is that excellent though Dylanchords is, they tend not to give explanations for the occasional comments like this, and the writer/s is/are such fine musicians I’d love to know more about what they think.

The Biograph version is also on line (at least at the moment)

I hope you enjoy it all half as much as I do.  If you do, you’ll have a happy day.

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3 Responses to Abandoned love: the meaning of the music and the lyrics of Dylan’s song

  1. hans altena says:

    great article about one of the songs I admire most (also in the Biograph version, which I heard first), but the St John reference might be explained by the fact that he is the apostle of love… and then we have here first signs of Dylan getting nearer tot christianity as a resolve for his adoration of women as godlike…

  2. 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/10/Abandoned-Love (Additional Information)
    Play every version of every song performed or written by Bob Dylan plus notable interpretations legally for free…

  3. Joe Costella says:

    41 years ago yesterday I was at the bottom line for that performance. I got to meet and talk with Bob that night. It was the night he started gathering musicians for Thr Rolling Thunder Review.
    He also performed to Guthrie songs including Willie Boy Floyd. He was terrific. His performance harkened back to his earliest days in the Village.
    So glad a recoding is on YouTube. I was sitting next to a guy with a small cassette recorder surepetitously hidden in a bag, that’s probably the source.
    Love this site you created.
    I just saw Bob for the 83rd time last week, doing lots of Sinatra songs, he sure is versatile.

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