“Trying to get to heaven” – the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

If I were to make a CD of Dylan songs based on meaning and feeling, I’d put “Trying to get heaven” followed not by “Til I Fell in love with you” as on Time out of Mind, but followed by “Not Dark Yet”.

And then I’d probably never be able to listen to that sequence, for in such a combination there would be too much emotion for me to deal with.

Just imagine it.   “Trying to get to heaven” ends with this

Gonna sleep down in the parlor
And relive my dreams
I’ll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems
Some trains don’t pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers like they did before
I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door

And “Not Dark Yet” begins

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

My point simply is that that “Trying to get to heaven” is just one step before “Not Dark Yet.”  In the former he really is trying to walk away from all the sadness and sorrow to something better.   But by Not Dark Yet, he knows he’s not going to make it.  He’s giving up, he’s fading away.  There’s no heaven, no hell.  Nothing.

Now as it happens, and as I’ve confessed before on this site, I don’t believe, but I have been to the funerals of my father, my mother and my best friend, all of whom did most certainly believe at the time of their passing – and if I am wrong and there is a heaven, they certainly made it.   But for me I fear there is only the darkness.

The music of “Trying to get to heaven” is perfect for the song – a simple melody for the first four lines and then in line five Dylan takes his voice to the highest point of the melody while suddenly introducing a most unusual chord for Dylan.  Its technical name is Am6 – consisting of A, C , E and F sharp.  It’s a perfectly reasonable chord to use, but just unusual – and yet perfectly in place with the feeling of the tune.  It is as if a little extra flavouring is added at that point.

Just taking all the lines that use that chord change and putting them together we get an interesting effect…

  • Every day your memory grows dimmer
  • You broke a heart that loved you
  • I tried to give you everything
  • I was riding in a buggy with Miss Mary-Jane
  • Some trains don’t pull no gamblers

Five different lines, but each putting out a poignant thought – he’s gambled, he’s hit the high spot (of being with Mary Jane) and he’s done his level best, but now its approaching the end.   A superb use of that Am6 chord and  that rise in the melody.

So finally, he knows it is over, and he’s closing his eyes.  The gambler can’t ride this final train into the eternal night, but he’s trying to make up for the bad moments in his life.

If anyone ever asks me what this whole metaphor thing is that I have in talking about Dylan, this is another song that I turn to.  The metaphors are truly wonderful.  “I’ve been wading through the high muddy water” – you can just feel him trying to make his way through life, trying to be a good guy, but like all of us, getting it so wrong, so often.

Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore

You want to say “it’s all done and dusted” and not say it because that phrase is far too prosaic.  Dylan’s line above says it with such elegance.  Here’s another…

Some trains don’t pull no gamblers

So it goes throughout the song.   Yes of course some of the lines come from old blues numbers, but every word that can be said, every notion that can be thought, all of it has been done before.  What Bob does is package it all up in a way that just gets straight to my emotions.

As for the ending

I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door

there are so many explanations you can make up your own mind.

Sugar Town is most commonly remembered as a Nancy Sinatra hit with lyrics which the producer of the record and writer of the song (Lee Hazlewood) called an out-and-out LSD song.    He also said, “I spent a lotta time writing a bad lyric like that! The words are as stupid as I could get them.  I edit a lot, even the dumb songs. The dumb songs are the hardest to write. Sugar Town took me a while. I wanted the dumbest lyric ever written to a song, to a doper song.”

There’s other meanings to the phrase – bands, TV series etc – but the song was a huge hit in the States by a famous artist – I think that is what most people think of.    Dylan saying, “yeah, I’ve written and recorded some poor songs – that’s how it goes – just remember me for the good.”

But of course, and as always, that’s just one interpretation.

Here’s one other thought.  It is, I think, the only place Dylan places the harmonica on the album.  A final farewell?

But if you want to go somewhere different, “Trying to Get to Heaven” is said by some to be a follow-up to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.   I’ve seen that written in lots of places, but I think that’s too easy, too simplistic.  I don’t think Dylan works like that.

No, for me this song is the final, “maybe its not too late to ask God for salvation, despite all I’ve done.  I admit all my faults… is there a way through to the Kingdom?”

But no, he realises there isn’t.  Two songs later he has realised…

Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

This is not to say that “Til I fell in love with you” is misplaced on the album – not at all.  But I’ll leave that for my next review.

For now, considering “Trying to get to heaven” and then “Not Dark Yet” I am just left saying “Goodnight Bob” and turning away to cry my eyes out.

Index to all the songs reviewed on this site.

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3 Responses to “Trying to get to heaven” – the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. paul says:

    I think this song is a tribute to Jerry Garcia, whom Dylan dug. Jerry passed in 95. Shake it Shake it Sugaree, Goin down the road and feeling bad. slide steel guitar. Jerry did knockin on heavens door for oncore.. to me i am right.

  2. Kieran Flood says:

    Great reviews, but you drove me to looking up the lyrics. For some reason, the official website has inferior transcriptions of the words actually sung – which isn’t uncommon for bobdylan.com – but the fifth and sixth lines in the third verse are far better on the album:

    “When you think that you’ve lost everything,
    You find out you can always lose a little more,”

    which I always hear as an update by an older man on his great lines from “Like a Rolling Stone” – “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

    The rewritten lines on bd.com are typically dry and uninteresting:

    “I tried to give you everything,
    That your heart was longing for.”

    Serious lack of flavour there.

    Very interesting site, and reviews, though – thanks!

  3. TK says:

    This incredible song is about Jerry Garcia who died in 95 a year or so before this was written and recorded. Garcia and Dylan were close friends. Garcia loved Bob’s lyrics and covered many Dylan tunes and of course they played together in concernt many times. The Garcia references in the lyrics are numerous for example:

    wading through the high muddy water
    When you think you’ve lost everything you find out you can always lose a little more
    Ive been to sugar town I shook the sugar down
    im just goin down the road feeling bad
    im goin down the river down to new orleans
    ive been all around the world boys
    i wonder if everything is as hollow as it seems

    These are all loving references to Garcia, whose funeral Dylan attended. Its a tribute and homage to a dear friend. Jerry loved Bob and his music and apparently the feeling was quitr mutual. The entire reference to trying to get to heavan before they close the door is a way of describing how Garcia chose to live his life i.e. not very healthy but one hell of a ride while it lasted.

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