Dylan’s Ways to Leave His Lovers
by John Henry
There must be 50 ways to leave your lover, sings Paul Simon, with the implicit suggestion that he means at least 50. But he sums them up as putting distance between you and your lover (slip out the back, hop on the bus), and being bold and decisive (make a new plan, don’t need to be coy, don’t need to discuss, drop off the key). Underlying this jokiness, however, is a more serious, maybe a more grown-up message. The singer is in dialogue throughout the song with another woman, who is seeking to help him leave his current lover. She starts off by simply offering advice, but before the end of the song she takes more pragmatic steps to separate him from his lover:
She said it grieves me so to see you in such pain, I wish there was something I could do to make you smile again. I said I appreciate that and would you please explain About the fifty ways…
She said, why don't we both just sleep on it tonight? And I believe in the morning you'll begin to see the light. And then she kissed me and I realized she probably was right: There must be fifty ways to leave your lover.
Paul Simon’s witty song, “50 Ways to Leave your Lover” is distinctively quirky but also presents an unusual theme in popular music; how to walk out on someone that you no longer care for. Most break-up songs are written from the point of view of the jilted lover, lamenting with a broken heart that they’ve been dumped, or are about to be (because their lover already has been seen with somebody else, as in “I’d Rather Go Blind”, or Dylan’s “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”). There are a few more triumphalist break-up songs, though, where the singer is glad to be free of the abusive lover, as in Dylan’s “Cry a While”. Or, think, for example, of the Rolling Stones’ “It’s All Over Now”:
Well, she used to run around with every man in town; She spent all my money, playing her high-class game. She put me out, it was a pity how I cried. Tables turning now it’s her turn to cry, Because I used to love her, but it's all over now!
Or, their “You’re Out of Time”:
The girl who wants to run away Discovers that she's had her day. It's no good your thinking that you are still mine. You're out of touch, my baby, My poor unfaithful baby. I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time.
As with the broken-hearted jilted lover’s songs, the blame here remains with the other half of the relationship, not with the singer. In some cases there is no blame because the songs detail a mutual break-up, where both partners agree that separating is best. Dylan has written a number of these, including “One Too Many Mornings”, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, and “Seeing the Real You at Last”. There are other break-up songs, though, where the singer admits to being at fault in losing the love of their former lover, and regretting it—think of Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away”, or Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbi McGee”:
One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let her slip away; She's lookin' for that home I hope she’ll find. Well, I'd trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday, To be holdin' Bobbi's body next to mine.
But. it’s one thing to take the blame for failing, foolishly, to hang on to a worthy and wonderful lover; and it’s quite another thing to admit to callously dumping your lover, simply because you want to move on. Presumably, this is why Simon chose to make “50 Ways” a wryly comic song: representing the singer as trying to hide their callousness behind a facetious whimsicality.
Dylan, however, is different. He’s a songwriter who has made something of a speciality of writing songs—very wonderful songs—in which the singer is walking out on a current lover. Furthermore, the singer of these dumping songs never shows any feelings of guilt or remorse. There simply is an underlying callousness underneath the songs. You might say, therefore, that they are related to (perhaps special cases of) Dylan’s cruel put-down songs (songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Positively 4th Street”, “What Was It You Wanted”, and numerous others). The clear difference between the straightforward put-down songs and these dumping songs, though, is that the dumping songs are cunningly disguised, and can even come across as broken-hearted laments by a jilted lover.
Consider, for example, perhaps one of Dylan’s most famous moving-on songs, indeed one of his most famous songs of any stripe: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. This is more often than not regarded as a break-up song where the singer is being jilted. Part of the song’s brilliance is that it is meant to give the unwary listener that impression. As we listen, we are meant to be suckered into feeling sorry for the “jilted” narrator. But we are listening to an unreliable narrator—a narrator who is presenting things to put himself in the best light. There are in fact ample clues in the lyrics that the narrator is the one who is leaving his lover, and leaving without discussing it (as is recommended in “50 ways”), and without even saying goodbye. In fact, he’s sneaking out of her house in the middle of the night, while she’s fast asleep:
When your rooster crows at the break a dawn, Look out your window and I'll be gone. You're the reason I'm trav'lin' on; Don't think twice, it's all right.
He even tells us he’s deliberately walking on the dark side of the road so she won’t see him if she turns on the light. Our unreliable narrator tries to make out that this is her fault, but he gives himself away by inadvertently suggesting that, even if he doesn’t love her, she really loves him. He starts off by presenting her as someone who would not call after him, to ask him back, but immediately slips into admitting that he’s not listening.
No it ain't no use in callin' out my name, gal, Like you never done before. And it ain't no use in callin' out my name, gal, I can't hear ya any more.
That “any more” suggests she has been calling out his name, but he’s now choosing to ignore it. Similarly, he tries to claim he loved her, but she was too young to appreciate what it meant:
“I'm a-thinkin' and a-wond'rin', walkin' down the road, I once loved a woman, a child I am told.
But the next line is the most telling: “I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul.” He gave her his body, represented here in the clichéd claim about giving his heart, but the girl loved him enough to want his soul. But the singer makes it all too clear in the final verse that whatever his lover did for him would not satisfy him, as he so cuttingly summed it up: “You just kinda wasted my precious time.”
“Don’t Think Twice” is a love-gone-wrong song, but if anyone is to blame for the love going wrong, it is the singer himself, who tells us in no uncertain terms that he’s had enough and he’s moving on to take his chances elsewhere. Unlike Simon’s narrator in “50 Ways”, there is no suggestion that Dylan’s narrator has fallen in love with someone else. Dylan’s narrator is just fed up and wants to be on the road again.
Another brilliant song in a very similar mould is “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Well, at least, it is similar in its moral stance, but very different in its light-hearted and even jokey tone. Here is the narrator (we can justifiably say the narrator here is Dylan himself, since this was definitely written as a way of sending Ellen Bernstein on her way after Dylan had completed Blood on the Tracks), as in “50 Ways”, trying to hide his callousness behind a breezy carelessness.
Again, on first hearing, it sounds as though the lover is about to leave the soon-to-be broken-hearted narrator. But who is leaving whom here? Whose idea is it to split up? In fact, for all the wonderful expressions of the narrator’s love for the leaver, this song is equivalent to the old Music-Hall gag: “Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry?” The joke is that the bored host tries to encourage his visitor to go by giving them their hat, but then, realising this is a bit rude, the host tries to pretend it is the visitor who is eager to leave—why are you in such a hurry?
A more familiar move, you might encounter in everyday life is when you are having a conversation with someone and they suddenly say to you: “Well, I mustn’t keep you.” The speaker is the one who feels detained, but they pretend that you are the one who has to be moving on. “You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know”, sings Dylan as he presses Ellen Bernstein’s hat into her hand. He might as easily have written a song called “Missing You, Already”. In Clinton Heylin’s Behind the Shades, Bernstein said of her relationship with Dylan during the making of Blood on the Tracks: “It felt sorta like ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I was a very young 24… This was brand-new stuff to me, so I never thought to ask, ‘So, what’s going on with your wife?’… I didn’t want to get married, and I wasn’t being asked to leave.” At least, she wasn’t being asked to leave until Dylan presented his variation on “I mustn’t keep you”. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, but go now.
One more superb song that shows that Dylan’s need to keep on moving on with relationships brings out the best in his song-writing is “Abandoned Love”. With an emotional delivery precisely in between the faux regretfulness of “Don’t Think Twice”, and the jauntiness of “When You Go”, the narrator in this wonderful song has also made up his mind to leave his lover and move on. Like the other two, there is no suggestion that he has found someone else; he simply wants to be rid of his current lover. Nor is there any sense of guilt or wrong-doing—to abandon your lover is presented as just something you sometimes have to do.
There are clear signs here that our unreliable narrator at least thinks he is still in love with his lover: “But my heart is a-tellin’ me I love ya still”; “But my heart is telling me, I love ya but you’re strange.” He is conscious, though, that he has lost, not his precious time, but his precious freedom: “Oh, something’s a-telling me I wear the ball and chain”; “But as long as I love you I’m not free.” This last comment leads him to lay the blame for the break-up on the lover: “How long must I suffer such abuse?” Indications are, however, that the lover still loves our narrator, who is still on her list: “I asked ya please to cross me off your list.” This seems to be confirmed when the narrator sings “Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.” So, it is the narrator who wants to end things. Essentially, it is just the narrator’s own need to move on that leads him to walk out of this relationship: “My head tells me it’s time to make a change.”
These are the songs of a serial monogamist, and as such they constitute a sub-genre of break-up songs of a very unusual kind. There aren’t many break-up songs written from the point of view of the partner who is actively breaking things up—mostly, they are presented from the other side, from the point of view of the passive jilted lover. The fact that three of Dylan’s richest and most complex songs are written from this unusual point of view confirms his genius as a song-writer, and reveals the power of his mind and art.
You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years. Series we are currently running include
- The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
- The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
- Bob Dylan and Stephen Crane
- Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
- All Directions at Once
You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site
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