Love minus Zero / No Limit. Bob Dylan takes a Zen approach to the perfect relationship

 By Tony Attwood

This review revised May 2017

The second of the two love songs from the first side of “Bringing it all back home” is infinitely more complex than “She Belongs To Me”. While musically it seems to be straightforward, the lyrics (and indeed the very title, written originally as a fraction) suggest Dylan has most certainly travelled to another place.  

The music works around the three major chords, and the melody flows across 16 bars of 4/4 in every verse. All very conventional.

But the lyrics are not as ever heard before. There’s a Zen-like opening (My love she speaks like silence) which shows us this is another place entirely from the conventional love song, and then we realise, there are no rhymes.

It was an approach to writing that Dylan rarely used – indeed writing this I am struggling to think where else he did use this approach. It seems strange within such a conventional musical base to make such a departure, and yet that is the point. The convention of everyday is undermined by the attitude of the individual, for that is what the song is about. “She knows there’s no success like failure and that failure’s no success at all” – a radical way (but nonetheless valid for all that) of seeing the world.

It is a song about the inner attitudes and visions of the singer’s lover which allow her to co-exist with this world without compromising her visions. The visions that she and the singer share are snapshot visions – exactly as the visions within the Gates of Eden are – but these are of a Zen-like acceptance of the world which allows one to see everything far more fully than is possible most of the time. There is no battle, because the world and the singer can coexist.

“She knows too much to argue or to judge.” You can’t get more Zen like than that..

But it is also a song about the all-encompassing feeling of love that can (if we are lucky) envelop us all in, at times.  That period when one’s lover is everything – indeed more than everything.  Wherein one’s lover appears to be above and beyond reality, where everything one’s lover is, says, does, becomes is automatically of value in itself and does not require questioning.  When indeed nothing can be questioned.

This is a period which (at least in my experience) cannot last and that failure to continue with this sort of adoration eventually can destroy the relationship.  Only by reaching the same level of speaking like silence and knowing too much to argue or to judge can one reach out and be as one with the lover.

Dylan has performed the song many times and it turns up on various compilation albums, but if you are fully familiar with the original and the variations at the live shows, listen to the Newport 65 version (its on YouTube) – perhaps the fastest he has ever played it, and an amazing contrast to other approaches. But it still works, it is still true.

There is also a very alternative version from Jimmy LaFave here.

What else is on the site

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  1. This is my favorite lovesong. In fact, when i meet my wife, she made me feel exactly like i felt when i heard this song. Thank you for the explanation.

    P.D. Im sorry about my english!!! I´m from Argentine, i´m naturally spanish spoken.

  2. Sometimes I get tired of Bob “never doing a song the same way twice” – it often backfires – but he always treats Love Minus Zero with the respect it deserves.

  3. Speaking of different versions of this song, I find the rendition at the Budokan rather intriguing. This is the song-and-dance-man taking centre stage, not without a mischievous wink at the intellectual austerity that usually follows his trail in academia.

  4. “…and then we realise, there are no rhymes.”

    Are you sure there are no rhymes?

    Not even….

    Silence/Violence, Fire/Buy her
    Stations/Situations/Quotations, Wall/At all
    Dangles/Candles, Grudge/Judge
    Trembles/Rambles, Bring/Wing

    Great Dylan song.

  5. Love plus Robert Frost: ‘Yet she’s true like ice, like fire’.

    ‘Some say the world will end in fire/
    Some say in ice’ (Fire And Ice)

  6. And Edgar Allan Poe:

    “Once upon a midnight dreary…./
    …that is something at my window lattice/
    ….’Tis the wind and nothing more>
    (The Raven)

    “The night wind blows cold ‘n’ rainy/
    My love, she’s like some raven/
    At my window with a broken wing.”
    (Dylan: Love Minus Zero)

  7. The Grateful Dead make the Frostian allusion also:

    “You know all the rules by now/
    And the fire from the ice”
    (Uncle John’s Band”

    And Robert Frost got the figurative language from
    the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spencer:

    “My love is like ice, and I to fire/
    ….Is not dissolved through my hot desire”
    (Ice And Fire)

    Johnny Cash too is influenced by the hot-blooded

    “Bound by wild desire/
    I fell into a ring of fire”
    (Ring Of Fire)

    As is William Blake, a preRomantic poet, admired by Dylan:

    “Bring me my arrows of desire/
    ….Bring me my chariot of fire”

    And so Dylan’s salute to John Lennon:

    “You burned so bright/Roll on John/
    Tiger, tiger, burning bright/
    ….In the forest of the night”
    (Roll On, John)

    The song’s title taken from an old blues tune;
    the lyrics from Blake’s poem ‘Tiger’.

  8. This is what I call a praise song, where the beloved is praised (Dylan has a few of these, most notable Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands).

    The lyric starts off easy to understand, he compares his lover’s qualities to those most common in modern courtship and romance, the overly sentimental that is exploited by the commercial industry of love (e.g. Hallmark cards, florists, etc. “valentines can’t buy her”). Ok, so his beloved is not of that common type who consumes the clichés of the love industry, she trusts her own intuition about her beloved, much goes without saying (“she speaks like silence” “She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful” “she’s true, like ice, like fire”)

    In verse two the lyric moves to comparing the more common person in common situations to his beloved. In this verse he may not really be getting at much, or maybe that is the point. He doesn’t criticize these people much but maybe because they are not pretentious, just kind of going through the motions without any real revelation or enlightenment.

    By verse three Dylan seems to conjure up the occult (at least that is what I intuit, as opposed to the sentimental and the common of the 1st 2 verses), or those who claim esoteric or rare knowledge (the pretentious?) or at least a view into things that is occult. This verse is vague. Read what you like into the “horseman” and “pawn” (chess characters) and the “madam” that alludes to a “cloak and dagger” situation that isn’t clear at all. As in most of Dylan’s more obtuse, symbolic lyrics, it’s the last line or couplet where he gets to something more lucid. In this case, the beloved has a live and let live attitude, whatever works, her wink indicates that she gets that they are charlatans but she is merely amused.

    In the first half of the last verse the lyric invokes love from the perspective of the professional class (doctor and banker) who maintain the tradition of court society (e.g. the ritual of bringing gifts to show appreciation). It is not stated but implied that she is not part of that caste either.

    In the last half of the verse he brings in nature (howling wind, cold rain) and his lover is from this world, she like a raven with a broken wing at his window; she is part of the natural world, as opposed to those contrived social situations described in the previous verses, and, she is wounded (broken wing) and at his window, as if to say she arrives by intuition at the place she belongs, where she would be wanted, understood, perhaps even healed.

  9. Correction to comment in verse two, not so much about common/ordinary people and experience but that of intellectuals or people who intellectualize love.

  10. “Love Minus Zero/ No Limit” was the first Dylan track that took my mind away. Probably inspired by Sarah, described by a few as “Zen-like” as well as a sharp businessperson, though LSD might have helped the music which has the feel of a mellow low-dose trip. A lot going on in this formally constructed poem: allusions to both urban and country living; Dylan’s protest era (“the horsemen” are the Klan whose “pawn” alludes to D.’ s “Only A Pawn”); EA Poe (“like a raven”) to name a few. Although owing a something to classic American poetry, “speaks like silence” and other paradoxes smack of French lit. Completed in only two takes (!), the support musicians, esp. Bobby Gregg and Bruce Langhorne, color the song very well. Bruce blows a high-fret/ high- string note on the last verse but you cldnt “punch in” corrections in them days and no way could they get another take that near-perfect.

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