Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight: the meaning within Dylan’s song

Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight

By Jerry Hallier

‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’, the final track on the 1983 album Infidels, is a  song that has not attracted much comment from critics and fans since its release.  

There are several possible reasons why ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’ hasn’t generated much critical interest: conceivably, many fans see it as just another run-of-the-mill break-up song from an album that is famous for its varied song quality. Then too, the performance of the song may put some people off.  The 1980s’ computerized drum sound appears, to these ears at least, very ill-fitting with the more ‘Dylanish’ slide guitar and organ–led arrangement, and Dylan’s singing at times sounds over-wrought. Maybe I’m wrong but these aspects possibly make it easy for many listeners to take the song for granted as unexceptional and not worthy of any special attention.

Seen this way, I suggest that there is a risk of not hearing what the song is actually saying. A close reading I believe reveals that ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’ is among those Dylan tunes where the listener can be wrong-footed by the song’s unreliable narrator.

To begin with, the song’s title and chorus give the impression that the narrator is trying to console his lover who is having some sort of distress about her decision to walk out of their relationship.

But while the chorus indicates that the narrator still wants / needs the relationship to continue, the verses show that, in truth, he is less concerned with his lover’s feelings and more absorbed with satisfying his own needs; indeed, in looking at how he attempts to persuade her to stay it appears more likely that it is the narrator, himself, who is likely to fall apart from the collapse of the relationship.  Taking each verse in turn, it can be seen that the man uses every insincere trick in the book to try to convince the woman to stay.

In the first verse, for example, he tries to convince her that without him she will be vulnerable to the dangers of the world.

You know the streets are filled with vipers

Who’ve lost all ray of hope

You know, it ain’t even safe no more

In the palace of the Pope

From there, he tries to make her feel sorry for him by saying he has squandered his potential to achieve something worthwhile and honourable:

I wish I’d have been a doctor

Maybe I’d have saved some life that had been lost

Maybe I’d have done some good in the world

‘Stead of burning every bridge I crossed

Ever the bleeding heart, he then explains that he is inadequate at telling her how much she means to him and wishes he could do so and get anything for her. Unfortunately, despite all these ambitions, he presents himself as an attractive victim who is held back, helpless:

But it’s like I’m stuck inside a painting

That’s  hanging in the Louvre

My throat starts to tickle and my nose itches

But I know that I can’t move

And so it goes on. In the bridge and last verses, he attempts to stoke her paranoia further about the wisdom of trusting anyone else, even her friends, and he tops it off by summoning up her memories of the fun they have had in the past (which, certainly, she will lose if she leaves him).

I also like the way Dylan uses the choruses to allow the narrator to repeatedly invoke some pseudo philosophical twaddle about the significance of the past and the future,  again to further raise doubt in this woman’s mind to leave him.  

Thus, it is difficult not to see the narrator as someone who is fully self-absorbed and entirely willing to use every means he can think of to make the woman feel guilty about leaving him and to manipulate her into staying. Certainly, he never once cares enough to ask her what she feels or wants.

While ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight’ is far from being a great song, neither is it just filler.  Its worth lies in encouraging us to reflect on the self-serving and manipulative behaviours that we all can resort to when somebody we supposedly care about doesn’t want to do as we wish. Given also that man here is unquestioningly selfish, the song also reminds us to be wary of assuming that the narrators in his songs are Dylan himself.

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  1. Yes Luis, I agree that your reading of the song is possible and might provide a different reason for why he sounds so needy. Your version also would involve different interpretations of some of the features of the song. Do you think the possible loss of his muse would justify some of his selfishness?

  2. On the vinyl bootleg Outfidels this driving song opens up side two and has a much looser feel, the singing also has a lot more nuance and sounds daring, as if he is talking in many voices. I always liked this one (the hilarious remark about drumsticks in his pants might be about Mick Jagger), and the imagery remind us of his poetry in the sixties. But why do you keep stressing the so called selfishness, even if the writer might show some of that? Dylan is so good as a lyricist because he does not deal in any political correct over analysed wisdom, he goes to the core where things clash and open up as if in a battlefield, psychological theorizing hardly applies to this exploration of the human heart, the unapologizing truths of nature and the mystic sense of something beyond our understanding.

  3. This is an important song for Dylan, not a throw away or space filler. The last song on an album for him always is. I find the vocal compelling and sincere. Dylan has never sounded so vulnerable. I don’t think there is any hidden meaning here. The woman is falling apart, having some sort of breakdown and he doesn’t want to be left alone. Placed at the end of the album it sums up Infidels. He’s back in the storm.

  4. Dylan finds everything is broken – including Judaism with its Isaac and Moses(gentiles), Islam with its Ishmael and Mohamned(infidels), or Christianity with its Paul and Jesus (heathens), and searches for Oneness on a secular and personal level at least for as long as it lasts….”Don’t fall apart on me tonight.”

  5. such a beautiful song,

    the part that resonates with me the most:

    “I ain’t too good at conversation, girl
    So you might not know exactly how I feel
    But if I could, I’d bring you to the mountaintop, girl
    And build you a house made out of stainless steel”

    which is really relatable for me in a past relationship, where I had trouble opening up my heart to a girl I was dating, and the relationship slipped away from me.

  6. I don’t think Don’t fall apart on me tonight is a song about a relationship with a girl at all, it’s a song about his tenuous relationship with god and religion and the Spirit. It’s not a breakup or makeup song at all. Dylan had disguised again

  7. Live self for self
    And drown the gods in me
    Or crush their viperheads beneath my feet
    (Dylan Thomas: Let Me Escape)

  8. On another level I see this as Dylan having existential emotions, not just about losing a romance. He cannot go on without her and feels so isolated. As a painting in the Louvre he has no voice and cannot speak. There is a lot of desperation in the song. A breakup always is a sense of loss, but here Dylan seems to take that loss a step further in not only losing a personal relationship, and he is so uncertain or unable to see the future.

  9. ‘Taking each verse in turn, it can be seen that the man uses every insincere trick in the book to try to convince the woman to stay.’

    Man, man, man. Dylan doesn’t need enemies with fans like that.

    This is a sincere man here singing, we know because we know all his other songs, and he is warning the girl about the insincere world.
    Apparently she has a tendency to fall for insincere men. This is not uncommon.
    And yes, he needs her too, while other men maybe only want to use her and place boobytraps.

  10. Computerized drums? That’s Sly Dunbar! In fact, the band on this record is over-the-top outstanding. It includes Bob (of course) along with guitarists Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor (I’ll not bother explaining who these guys are). The rhythm section is world famous reggae aces, the rhythm twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Alan Clark rounds out the crew on keys. These guys are not an example of 1980s shortcomings, in fact, exactly the opposite.

  11. I LOVE Dylan’s singing on this song, especially when I watch him sing on the video, with the spectacular band, including Mark Knopfler.

    I also don’t think he is “mean” to the “lady.” He is clearly dealing mostly with his own issues rather than hers, but that’s fine with me.

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