True love tends to forget: Dylan laughs at himself from Mexico to Tibet

By Tony Attwood

“True love” doesn’t do that much for me.  It’s just another song, although it has a really interesting use of chords in the verse.  When has Dylan used

A / C sharp minor / B minor

as a sequence before or since?  And there’s an E11 in there at the end of the third line too.

But if the chords are unusual, the lyrics are not.   He feels maybe he’s had enough, but no, actually he loves her.  Well, ok.  But it’s been done before.  True love tends to forget the problems, the rows, the mistakes, even when it is “like playing Russian roulette”

So, that’s it then.   But no, because suddenly, amazingly, the chord sequence changes.  Yes, this is the middle 8, so we expect a change, but even so, we are in A major and if that is not a pure and simple A major then what is it?

But next all hell breaks lose.  The chord is G, then we modulate to D, then it is D minor….

And when we focus on the lyric there is the lyric.  What are we to make of this?

I was lying down in the reeds without any oxygen
I saw you in the wilderness among the men
I saw you drift into infinity and come back again
All you got to do is wait ’till I’ll tell you when

I have no idea what this is about, but the imagery is exactly what Dylan does at his best.  New images, new metaphors and we have to work them out for ourselves.   Going back to the “don’t forsake me baby” in the next verse is a pain.  But even that verse patter is redeemed at the end by the “Mexico to Tibet” comment – a totally random combination.

If only the whole song could have been based around that middle 8.  It is so good it is worth saying twice, as Dylan sings it twice.  He clearly knew that he’d done it there.  If only…

I was lying down in the reeds without any oxygen
I saw you in the wilderness among the men
Saw you drift into infinity and come back again
All you got to do is wait and I’ll tell you when

In this live performance listen to the way Dylan treats the lyrics with his extra inserts “True love that’s right True love un hu”   When did Dylan ever need to do this? He’s making fun of his own lyrics!  And he destroys the wonderful electric middle eight.

And here’s the thing: run this video of the live performance but stay with it because up next comes one of the great, great live re-workings of a Dylan song by Dylan.

Compare and contrast: Lost Dylan on stage followed by Dylan the absolute genius on stage.  Same guy, different songs.

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  1. I love this song. It’s too easy to give in to the temptation of overanalysis. It seems fairly self explanetary to me. In the first verse the relationship is getting tiring (I’m getting weary), she’s changing, doesn’t seem the same as before (she’s so hard to recognise). He finally realises that there’s no point having regrets, then he comes back to the central idea of the song which is that true love tends to blind us to the things we don’t want to believe are wrong in our relationship – we’ll take her anyway, warts and all.

    As for the bridge: the first line is about him being confused and suffocating, the next lines allude to her drifting away from him and dalliances with other men,

    Songs aren’t forensic reports, and they don’t have to be statements of fact. They can be abstract thoughts that “say” one thing but make us feel another. That’s really where the magic lies, that’s the part that we can’t pin down. Dylan is an absolute master of this, and he does it beautifully here (and on this entire album). Then there’s also the cadence of the lyrics, and how they work within the melody. It takes an absolute master like Dylan to come up with something like this. The melody is great, and the style of the song is such that a crooner would love to cover it.

    Critics gave this album (Street Legal) pretty luke warm reviews, but that’s because they expect that every time Dylan does something it’s going to be world changing like it was in 1965/66, and they focus on what they’re not getting out of it and completely miss it. I think it’s one of his best, the writing is staggeringly good. If it were anybody else they would be held up as being the next great artist to watch.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents…

  2. Seems like “reeds” may be a reference to Baby Moses who was placed in the reeds by the riverbank by his mother to protect him from the Egyptian mandate to drown (“no oxygen”) every male child. Moses of course grows up to be a prophet, one who sees the Israelites will have to endure 40 years in the “wilderness” before their redemption. Who is the you, here? Is it god he sees “in the wilderness among the men” or “drift into infinity and come back again?” The other verses could be describing the perspective of Moses mother as she lays her baby in his little basket, holding onto her faith that something will come of her decision. I don’t know, but there are enough biblical allusions here to suggest some meaning here.

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