Dylan re-writes Dylan: Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In the first little venture into a possible series on Dylan re-writes Dylan we looked particularly at how the music was changed between one version of “We better talk this over” and another.

Taking the matter forward Aaron has had a look at “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” which turns matters around the other way.  The music changes in the sense that the lead guitar “commentary” between the lyrics is played by a different virtuoso guitarist, (and isn’t there at all in the version recorded for the album) and so is different in that respect, but otherwise the music stays much the same.  Same key, same tempo, same melody, same chord changes.  No, here, unlike “Talk it over” it is the lyrics that go for a meander.

The first example is the live performance with Carlos Santana on guitar

Now that fascinates me (Tony), because I read so many books about Dylan in which the minutiae of his lyrics are examined and given great meaning.  Their origins are found and the significance considered in depth.  And although it is quite clear that Dylan has read widely and does take inspiration from all sorts of sources, the fact that he can change the lyrics around so much in performance suggests to me that he is, at least on occasion, more interested in the phrases as phrases, rather than as deeply meaningful sets of lyrics.

So in this case we can compare the version above with the last ever performance (selected by Aaron) which has Mike Bloomfield as the guest virtuoso

What I am going to do however is compare the lyrics Dylan often sang, and the lyrics that are published on BobDylan.com which must have been handed over by Dylan to his publishers – most likely for the registration of copyright of the song.

Just consider these two versions of the first verse

Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement,
heard the last moan of a boxer, I seen the massacre of the innocent,
felt around for the light switch, became nauseated.
Just me, an over worked dancer, between walls that had deteriorated.
Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement
Heard the last moan of a boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent
Felt around for the light switch, became nauseated
She was walking down the hallway while the walls deteriorated

So there is this one small change here.  “Just me, an over worked dancer, between…” becomes “She was walking down the hallway while…”

My question is, what difference does that make?  Does the change make any difference to the meaning of the song?  Does it tell us anything new?   My answer is no.  It’s just using one phrase instead of another.  Both are pleasing, each is interesting, and perhaps one was more pleasing to Dylan than the other, but that’s it.  If this were a painting it would be a case of slightly different brush strokes.

Verse 2 has even more changes

Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery
Got the message this morning, the one that was sent to me
About the madness of becomin’ what one was never meant to be
highwaymen on murder charges pushin' women into robbery,
mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery.
Never did get the message, didn't even know one was sent to me
for the madness of becomin', what one was never meant to be.

So the first line changes.   We can have highwaymen on murder charges, or we have have try to be pure at heart.   We might prefer one to the other – I like the highwaymen because it gives me an image as opposed to the abstractness of “pure at heart” but on the other hand the contradiction between “try to be pure at heart” and “they arrest you for robbery” is more stark.

But what do we make of the difference between “Got the message” and “never did get the message” in line three?   It would seem that for the context of the song it doesn’t matter if the message was ever got or not, which is curious, but also fun.

Put your hand on my head, baby, do I have a temperature?
I see people who are supposed to know 
    better standin’ around like furniture 
There’s a wall between you and what you want and you got to leap it
Tonight you got the power to take it, 
   tomorrow you won’t have the power to keep it


Locked into a time zone, with a high-degree temperature,
worlds coming to an end wise men, 
   fools standin' around like furniture.
There's a wall between you and what you want and you got to leap it.
Tonight you got the power to take it, 
   tomorrow you won't even need the power to keep it.

There seems no connection here between “Put your hand on my head” and “Locked in a time zone” – the former is specific and physical, the latter is abstract.

In the next line Dylan expresses what seems the same idea in a different way and thereafter we have the same verse from start to finish.

In the next verse we really do get some changes…

Cities on fire, phones out of order
They’re killing nuns and soldiers, there’s fighting on the border
What can I say about Claudette? Ain’t seen her since January
She could be respectfully married 
   or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires
Wait on a minute, I found the solution,
too rich for my blood and I needed a transfusion.
Don't know what I can say 'bout Claudette? 
    She's in the mountains or the prairies,
she could be respectably married 
     or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires.

 

There seems no real connection between the “cities on fire” line and the “wait on a minute”, and it looks as if the need for “solution” was to find a rhyme for “transfusion” (or vice verse depending on the order in which the lines were written).

And the “prairies” line does look as if it was introduced to give a rhyme to Buenos Aires, not to add anything to the meaning.

Now, I must stress, none of this is written in any way to demean Bob’s writing or to suggest that in some way it is trivial.  But rather to make a point that I have made elsewhere, that sometimes Bob Dylan uses words to deliver the lyrical equivalent of painted abstract pictures.   Just as we can find the individual flourishes and the overall effect of an abstract painting interesting and pleasing, so I (Tony) personally find the images that tumble out one on top of the other here interesting and pleasing.

One could say, “Hey, Claudette, I don’t know where she went,” but that would of  course be terribly dull, so there are different ways of making this more enjoyable, more interesting, and indeed given the music, more exciting.

In short, to me this playing around with the lyrics of a song, suggests strongly that the actual lyrics and the meaning are not the important thing here: it is the sound and the individual images that Dylan is interested in.  There doesn’t have to be a connection between them; it is the lines of music and lyrics themselves that fascinate him.

Here is the official audio without a guest lead guitarist, and below it the complete set of lyrics

Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement
Heard the last moan of a boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent
Felt around for the light switch, became nauseated
She was walking down the hallway while the walls deteriorated

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar
I see the turning of the page
Curtain risin’ on a new age
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar

Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery
Got the message this morning, the one that was sent to me
About the madness of becomin’ what one was never meant to be

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar
I see the burning of the stage
Curtain risin’ on a new age
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar

Don’t know what I can say about Claudette 
   that wouldn’t come back to haunt me 
Finally had to give her up ’bout the time she began to want me
But I know God has mercy on them who are slandered and humiliated
I’d a-done anything for that woman if she didn’t make me feel so obligated

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar
I see the burning of the cage
Curtain risin’ on a new stage
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar

Put your hand on my head, baby, do I have a temperature?
I see people who are supposed to know better 
   standin’ around like furniture 
There’s a wall between you and what you want and you got to leap it
Tonight you got the power to take it, 
    tomorrow you won’t have the power to keep it

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar
I see the burning of the stage
Curtain risin’ on a new age
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar

Cities on fire, phones out of order
They’re killing nuns and soldiers, there’s fighting on the border
What can I say about Claudette? Ain’t seen her since January
She could be respectfully married or 
   running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar
I see the burning of the stage
Curtain risin’ on a new age
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar

Different images, each one fascinating and interesting.  Just as the sources are.  But for me the deeper meaning is, as often as no meaning at all, is a figment of the imagination of the critic.

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8 Responses to Dylan re-writes Dylan: Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Zealous members of The Sound School Of Dylanology ignore the structure of language and consider, for example, there is no obverse change in perspective or meaning between “Just me” and “She was”.

    No meaning assumed – no meaning found.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Search with all one’s strength for no meaning, rather than meaning, and no meaning’s bound to be found….words supposedly just paint splatters on the wall of analogies.

    However it is a wall full of holes, completely unsound; and bound to fall.

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    Like the walls o f The House Of Usher.

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    Just me, and an over-worked dancer….

  5. Daniel says:

    Just me, an over worked dancer, between walls that had deteriorated
    contrast…
    She was walking down the hallway while the walls deteriorated

    Changes the meaning for me…past tense, and present tense for one….and,
    Two people in a post-apocalyptic scene one person part of the deterioration,

    More than “slightly different brush strokes.” Like two different paintings for me…

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    Yes, indeed….

    You don’t need a grammarion
    To know which way the Time flows

  7. Larry fyffe says:

    …..the world’s already deteriorated

    And

    Been treated like a farm animal on a wild goose chase

  8. Larry fyffe says:

    Sorry…

    ….the walls already deteriorated

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