“Is your love in vain?” The meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

I have to say I really don’t get why Street Legal got such a bad press (although in fact I think it got less negativity in the UK than it did in the USA) ,and indeed why this song was so hammered for its supposed misogyny.  Indeed it has always seemed to me if we are going to go down this road, that gets rid of the blues as an entire genre, not to mention the first twenty odd years of rock n roll.   Can’t we dance to “Shake Rattle and Roll” any more because it starts

Well get out of that bed, wash your face and hands
Get out of that bed, wash your face and hands
Well get in that kitchen
Make some noise with the pots and pans

or alternatively

Get out from that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans
Get out from that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans
Well, roll my breakfast ’cause I’m a hungry man

depending on which version you listen to.

Am I guilty of sexism because I dance to that song – or indeed am I doomed forever because a semi-pro band that I played in, played this and had quite a lot of fun doing so?

Loads of people wander through life bemoaning the fact that they can’t find the perfect partner that will either fit in with their life or take them out of this hell into a perfect existence.

All of us who have ever thought about finding a perfect partner invariable create both an imaginary friend and an imaginary world for that friend to life in.   That’s what we do.  That’s life.   It might be a world of two equals, it might be a world in which one looks after the home and the other goes out to work… are certain models of existence now to be rejected because they don’t fit with a specific style of life laid down by a record reviewer?

Quite honestly it doesn’t bother me at all that Dylan goes through a period where he says he just wants a woman who can cook and sew.  If he finds a woman who loves him and wants to make a home for him, while recognising he spends much of the year on tour or in the studio, and they are both happy and both willing partners in the arrangement I personally don’t see the problem.

But many others have always seen a problem here, and indeed have seen the whole album as somehow faulty.

Dylan is no longer the bright boy on the block describing the freak show and the strange world around him, as he did in the era of Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde.  Now he’s the man who has been divorced and hurt and left.  So, just as we might expect, the music plods along in a classic Dylan style of the descending bass, starting on E flat and travelling down, rising up suddenly to the infamous “cook and sew” line.  The melody is far more interesting than in many Dylan songs, and it works perfectly around the lyrics and their meaning.  And overall I simply can’t find a production problem with the vinyl LP recording that I’ve got.

Most women and men who have wealth or fame or some special talent or any combination of these are aware of others who fall for the image of what they are, rather than what lies beneath.  The questions Dylan posed are not sexist, but the problems faced by those in the public eye and those with a unique talent.

So the opening line takes us on the downward walk, slow step by slow step, going through E flat, D, C, B flat, A flat, B flat – and it is a testimony to the power of that opening that all this happens in the first line.

Do you love me, or are you just extending goodwill?

It is the slowness of that step down that makes the song work – the music cries out, “I’ve done these steps too many times”

The high point in this first verse comes with I’ve been burned before as Dylan takes us off to the sad C minor chord before descending again, and then giving us the first musical line once more as the last line of the lyrics in the verse.

To me Dylan is not only expressing the sadness of his position, he is also expressing the dilemma of the person in the public eye.  If he is out being a superstar all day, and she is at home, how on earth do they come together in the evening.  He wants escape from communication, she wants to enter into communication.  So asking, as the music plods down and down, if he can be himself, is a perfectly viable question framed in a perfectly viable musical expression.

In effect he has had it all, except the finding of a partner who can merge in and understand the life he leads

I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings
And I’ve never been too impressed

For me, the simplistic dismissals like “Dylan still needs a producer” as Jon Pareles said, are just that – simplistic dismissals.   In fact I have been so far away from those criticisms since the moment I bought the album when it first came out, I just can’t understand what was going on in their reviews. It was as if they were expecting something else, and because Dylan had travelled in a different direction from what they wanted, they had to knock the album

I know that some of the criticism of the album and this song in particular was that the songs move at a slow pace – but nothing in the legislation says that albums must be balanced for fast and slow, nor that there is anything wrong with music that takes ponderous steps.  Real life takes ponderous steps much of the time, for goodness sake.    And maybe that’s the problem.   Here Dylan strayed a little too far into real life for music critics who didn’t want realism.  He’s talking about a real simple dilemma within his life, not delving into a fantasy land inhabited by Louie the King, not attacking TS Eliot for his behaviour towards his first wife, not knocking the preventions of the girl who laughed at Napoleon in rags, not looking through the mist at Louise and Johanna in their attic… this is just everyday real life.  Maybe that’s  it.  Dylan isn’t supposed to get real.

And he’s not supposed to create a sound that reflects the lack of brightness in the everyday life of so many people.   But that is how it is.  Life is not always a rich tapestry of images, metaphors and colours.  Quite often life just is, especially after you’ve just been divorced.  Maybe its because I’ve had two of them that I find this song so utterly acceptable – a recollection of days that were far from my happiest, far from my brightest, but still part of my life.  It happened, that’s how it goes.  I got over it.  I’m fine now.

For me this song, and indeed this whole album, is Dylan giving us another take on life – this time from one of the lower vantage points.   And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Index to all the songs on this site.

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2 Responses to “Is your love in vain?” The meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. j. O'Connell says:

    A curious mixture of the banal and the profound- is this deliberate?

  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/313/Is-Your-Love-in-Vain (Additional Information)
    Bob Dylan’s Music Box.

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