“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.


  1. A small song that might go unnoticed but the moment it hits you ohoo this is your song this is your life this is everybody’s dilemma :are we ready to accept the drawback
    of a woman for enjoying her virtues?! This is not a song against women:”can you make the flowers grow”? Yes she can!

  2. THE one he has chosen is already too complicated. She shows too much affection.
    THE future is there for him.
    THE robots are comming.
    THE only problem is that they can´t share bed and table, as the old bible tells.
    THE robot eats electricity.

  3. I think street legal is a great album. It may not be as great as blood on the tracks, but no other album is. The poetry on street legal is beautiful, the music fits the lyrics, and the last song is an emotional masterpiece.”a full bloodied Cherokee, he predicted it to me, the time and the place that we’d part” I love the alb um is great and Dylan is the best. How many artists have consistently made the large number of albums with the quality he shows. The greatest artist of our lifetime!

  4. The Street Legal Album, for me, is one of his finest albums. Yes, the ‘Is your love in Vain, song, completely disappeared after he performed it Live on tour to London Earls Court Olympia about 1973 ish but I have had it in my heart and head since then. Nobody needs a big brass backing band ( as Dylan had then) to sing this as it’s a perfect beautiful ballad, female vocal on acoustic guitar works well too!

  5. Changing of the Guards, Is your love in Vain?, Señor, and Where are you Tonight are great songs. The first of these is one Dylan’s best ever. Pity that he ever gave up on magic realism, still viva la legacy.
    Is your love in Vain? has an Achilles heel in this world of ours where an artistic flourish is damned as misogyny. So, Dylan nods. Surprised?
    I would sing the infamous line as either ‘That look I know would make flowers grow, But do you understand my pain?’ Or some other home-cooked corruption of the lyrics, — whatever took my fancy on the night. And why not? Bob Dylan would have no compunction about eating up and spitting out your lyrics or mine, and he’d be right.

  6. Just listened to my original 1978 copy of Street Legal on vinyl for the first time for many years, it was as if all the digital versions of various tracks were but nothing. A whole new perspective for me especially as now 60+! All enhanced by finding your analyses, not that I agree with them all but an added insight.

  7. Just a footnote to the song: it’s the only recording I can think of where Dylan harmonises with himself. There may be others but he hasn’t used vocal harmonies that often on his records.

  8. I was totally moved by your insight as reflected in your writing. I never thought of “Is Your Love in Vain” as anything else but a cry in the night to somebody who just might the right one. That’s why he says, “All right, I will take a chance. I will fall in love with you.” It is not misogynistic at all. He is risking as much as the woman he tells would be taking a big risk. It’s about a person who has been raised totally different than the other person, so there is doubt that the immediate and strengthening attraction can last forever. The situation is as real as any in the world and Dylan expresses it beautifully.

  9. I see it this way: if she comes back, he hopes that she really needs him like he needs her. Probably she has not become very succesfull in life, that’s why he says: when you can cook and sew it’s good enough, you don’t have to be a pilot or something like that, even though I am a famous popstar.

  10. Another magical Dylan piece. Happy to see Filips recommendation of the Soyka / Yanina version, which I also love. I think the song, like many by Dylan, works on several levels. Could be about a personal relationship. Could also be about an inner process of the soul. The immortal soul aspect crying out to man. Are you the one that finally listens to me?

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