We all want to be the one to crack the code and find the absolute meaning in the song intended by Dylan, even when he scoffs at our attempts. We may be very smart or very stupid in our attempts to decipher meaning as intended by Dylan, but truth be told, we cannot, at least not on a regular basis, do so.
For one thing, we each have our own unique biases and optical prisms we view life from. If we have a Christian bent, we find Christian meanings in Dylan songs that are not realistically there. If we are Jewish, we find Jewish meanings in Dylan songs where perhaps none existed. If we are secular and anti-religion, we insert our own religion protestations in Dylan songs. In other words, we interpolate our own values and beliefs in Dylan songs, to satisfy our own needs.
The other reason we will not crack the code in each Dylan song is because Dylan, in creating his song, uses his own unique and deep set of life experiences and everchanging moods. There are so many personal and public inputs that go into every Dylan song, that it would not be reasonable or even possible for him to relate each song’s intended meaning to us, if indeed there is an intended meaning.
This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to interpret his songs. Our evolving interpretations is what gives each song, extended life.
Dylan, in creating his song, is like Dr. Frankenstein. His songs become living monsters. Each song has a life of their own. Our interpretations of Dylan songs help give each respective song, life. (Other artists covering and interpreting, musically, Dylan songs, sometimes in different genres, also give Dylan songs, extra-life). Through space or place and time, we give our interpretations and found meanings relevant to us, and which may resonate with other people.
Dylan songs are timeless because they are biblical in proportion. Dylan songs, which often borrow content and imagery from Bible sources, is very much like the Bible. They are both timeless.
Like Dylan songs, the Bible uses metaphors and colourful imagery. Critics of religion and the Bible tend to throw out the baby with the bath water when they fail to recognize the inherent wisdom collected over thousands of years of human civilization in the Bible. Ironically, critics of religion often read and interpret the Bible, the same way that religious fundamentalists interpret it. They both read and interpret the Bible literally, as if it were primarily a history book written directly by G-d.
Mainstream and religious followers have for centuries got past this literal reading and interpretation of the Bible. We recognize the allegories and imagery in the Bible (and in Dylan songs), and study it not so much as a history book but as a record or narrative of the human condition and lesson on human behaviours. For example, in the opening editorial analysis of the English translated Stone Edition of The Torah and Genesis, it states, “We begin the study of the Torah with the realization that the Torah is not a history book, but the charter of Man’s mission in the universe”. The figures in the Bible, while not necessarily real either, represent humans with all their decencies and all their flaws. By way of example, we can relate to King David who exhibited both exceptional and questionable human behaviour. We don’t necessarily believe that G-d directly wrote the Bible, but we allow for the possibility that G-d inspired some or all its writings.
The Bible, like Dylan, uses concise language to narrate a story. The stories are sparse with puzzling gaps in information. We, the reader, must fill in those gaps. We fill in those gaps, in different times and places, to attach our own meaning and relevance in what we read.
Reading an article, Theater of the Mind in the February 2021 edition of Psychology Today, by Antonio Zadr (PH.D.) and Robert Stickgold (PH.D.), also helped me to surmise that Dylan songs are often like dreams. Dreams, like many Dylan songs, have a narrative structure with lots of images and allusions, not entirely random, partially related, and partially coherent. The dream, according to Allan Hobson of Harvard Medical School, “(is the result of the forebrain) making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery from the relative noisy signals sent up to it from the brainstem.” With Dylan songs, Dylan is the “brainstem” sending us imagery and we are the forebrain trying to make sense of it.
The fact that we continue to attach meaning and relevance in Dylan songs, through space and time, demonstrates that his songs will stand the test of time and always be recognized as great works of art.
Let’s come back to my interpretation, improbable as it may be, that the lost love references in Time Out of Mind songs could be a reference to G-d as opposed to or in addition to a woman.
In Dirt Road Blues, DYLAN cannot seem to find peace of mind or salvation until he regains his lost love. DYLAN’s desperation and search for his lost love, in this song, can just as easily be G-d as it is a woman.
In Standing in the Doorway, we hear the following verse:
“Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow You left me standing in the doorway crying I got nothing to go back to now”
DYLAN is frustrated that a woman or G-d is not returning his love for her/Him.
“Standing in the doorway, crying” may be an allegory and image that Dylan uses several times in the album.
Seth Rogovoy believes, “You left me standing in the doorway crying” could also be an allusion to the Yom Kippur Neilah service when Jews, are tearfully pleading with G-d to be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life, just before the closing of the gates”. In ’Dylan’s’ case, he is still crying after the door is closed which is very ominous. ‘Dylan’, by still crying after the gates of heaven closes, may not be too confident about G-d’s judgment for him.
In Million Miles, DYLAN might as well be a million miles from his lost lover, which could easily, physically, and figuratively, be G-d.
In Cold Irons Bound, DYLAN says, “It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay.” All physical beauty decays, including the beauty of a woman whose love he presumably lost. It is an odd thing to say about a lost love that one can’t shake. Perhaps then, ‘Dylan’ is not referring specifically to a former loving woman with this reference.
G’d’s “beauty”, which is spiritual, never decays. Perhaps DYLAN is intentionally making this statement to signal to us that his lost love cannot be that of a woman, whose beauty erodes over time. It must be G-d.
In Can’t Wait, DYLAN is once again standing, praying, in front of the gate:
“I’m breathing hard, standing at the gate”.
Also, in Can’t Wait, DYLAN sings, “It’s late, I’m trying to walk the line”
“Walk the line” means “to behave in an authorized or socially accepted manner. “
We would have presumed Dylan was to behave in a socially acceptable manner to regain his lost love but if his lost love is G-d, he may have to toe the line, ritually speaking, to recover G-d’s love.
If Dylan or DYLAN is struggling with his relationship to G-d, he is following in the tradition of most, if not all religions and certainly Judaism.
Abraham challenges G-d when He announces he will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, killing all its inhabitants.
Jacob wrestled with an Angel of G-d, which could also be an allegory for the struggle in his own mind for his faith in G-d.
The Prophets, beginning with Moses, desperately wanted to reject their callings or missions directed by G-d.
DYLAN has decided at the end of the song, Highland, that he will not follow the conventional path that he took during his Christian phase, or even the ways of the orthodox Jewish order or the disciplines from any religion.
“There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow”
DYLAN is going to find his own way, not some religious institutional prescribed ritual way, to unite with G-d.
Maybe the Highlands is that figurative place where he finds communion with G-d in his mind’s eye. (Or perhaps he unites with G-d with the creation and performance of his songs).
That is why the last line of the song and album is such a powerful album ending statement:
“Well I’m already there in my mind and that’s good enough for now.” (In other words, DYLAN will find communion with G-d, not through institutional religion, but by his own way and G-d’s calling, through mind and song).
Or as Paul Anka or Frank Sinatra would sing, “I’ll do it my way.”
Getting back specifically to the song, Richard F. Thomas remarks about the studio recording, Love Sick, in his book, Why Bob Dylan Matters, “The melancholy (of the song) is only made more stunningly poignant and beautiful by the bluesy voice of the singer and the music of it all.”
While the sorrow and pain are evident in Dylan’s vocals, the song structure also contributes to the underlying sadness with its use of minor to major to minor chords.
Tony Attwood in Untold Dylan also finds purpose with the music in connection with its lyrics:
“Trying thinking of that pulsating beat and the reverberating guitar gives us the plod of the lyrics walking, but the sudden quick guitar change at the end of each verse jerks us out of the descent.”
Margotin and Guesdon in their book, Bob Dylan, All The Songs, describes the production perfecting this song:
“The gloomy atmosphere of the production is in perfect harmony with the lyrics. According to Daniel Lanois, ‘We treated the voice almost like a harmonica when you overdrive it through a small guitar amplifier.’ The vocals are actually very dark, sepulchral, almost evoking the classic horror films. This ‘spinning’ effect is produced by an Eventide He500 stereo flanger. It is also one of the first times Dylan permitted the distortion of his voice by studio effects.
“Since the 1960’s, (Dylan) had refused to follow the sonic experiments of many artists of the time. The result is mesmerizing. The orchestration releases a dark feeling, in particular Augie Meyers on organ and Jim Dickinson on the Wurlitzer.
“In the introduction, a rhythmic loop is buried in the sound mass. The presence of two drummers does not affect the clarity of the mix. Neither of them takes over the song. On the contrary, their parts remain airy. The production is again remarkable: Daniel Lanois created an absolute unique world.”
Evidently, Love Sick is a favourite of Dylan. As of 2018, he has performed it 835 times.
Although sonically speaking, I like the audio album version of Love Sick best, there is an interesting performance I would like to share with you.
Look for the “Soy Bomb” incident during the Grammy Awards Dylan and band performance:
Dylan hardly bats an eye when the “Soy Bomb” guy comes on stage!
Michael Portnoy, the “Soy Bomb” guy, was hired by Dylan’s production company to stand in the background with the other dancers and groove to the music.
Unexpectedly, Portnoy ripped off his shirt, displaying “Soy Bomb” written across his chest, stepped on stage, and started dancing and contorting spastically.
Portnoy explained his found meaning and relevance in the song:
“Soy”… represents dense nutritional life. “Bomb” is, obviously, an explosive destructive force. So, “soy bomb” is what I think art should be: dense, transformational, explosive life.”
According to Entertainment Weekly, “he meant Soy Bomb as a ‘spontaneous explosion of the self’ to re-invigorate the current music scene.”
Both Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, parodied the event with Will Ferrell and Jay Leno, respectively, portraying Portnoy.
And the song continues to breathe and find new life.
When asked by a reporter in 1965, what, if anything, would he sell out to…
Dylan wittingly replied, “Ladies undergarments.”
In 2004, Dylan actually consented Victoria’s Secret Line of Lingerie to appear and use his song, Love Sick, commercially, in one of their ads.
A sexy, scantily clad model appears in the ad with Dylan looking on:
Here is a toast to Bob Dylan. “To his songs and their everlasting life!”
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