Dylan: The lyrics AND the music. Abandoned Love

By Tony Attwood

Two versions of “Abandoned Love” exist – some rave over the Other End version, while others seem very satisfied with the Biograph version.   Personally, I am more than happy with the Biograph version, but I’ve also included below the “Other End” version in case you need a reminder…

However my main point here is to consider the song from the perspective of the “music and the lyrics” theme.

One of the first things most musicians recognise in the song is that the chords are not that usual or complex but at first hearing they appear so.   The chords run…

G              D           Em
I can hear the turning of the key
C               G                        D
I've been deceived by the clown inside of me.
Bm                                        C
I thought that he was righteous but he's vain
 G   G7          D      Em  C               G  
Oh, something's telling me I wear a ball and chain.

which is interesting but not that unusual – although the chords are spiked up a little with occasional passing notes, and in the Studio Outtake version by the violin’ counter melody.

In fact although the song is in G, it confuses us by ending the first line on E minor, and then feels as if it has modulated to D by the end of the second line.  The third line leaves us uncertain (which is a good musical reflection of the lyrics) and the six chords of the fourth line are used to gake us back to the key of G – where we started.

That is all very unusual for any rock or pop song, but what really gives this song its unique musical element is the combination of these changes with a particularly interesting melody. The melody thus evolves from the sequence of the chords (being in the key of G for example but then ending the first line on E minor is unusual – not unique but unusual).  Equally the fourth line with five chord changes is again unexpected), and accompany the unexpected image of the ball and chain.

And all that is before we consider the melody – and the counter melody played throughout by the violin, plus the occasional vocal harmonies behind Dylan (not a very Dylan-ish thing to do).

But if we just consider the melody, it is varied, but retains a gorgeous shape, but also incorporates that unexpected hold on the last word of the third line – another very unusual effect.  And thinking of those third lines we find that they are not actually key lines in the song.  Some of them are, others and just fill ins, and I suspect it is that which, among other things, made Bob decide that the song hadn’t quite realised its fullest potential.

Here are all the third lines

  • I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
  • The Spanish moon is rising on the hill
  • I love to see you dress before the mirror
  • But me, I can’t cover what I am
  • How long must I suffer such abuse?
  • The treasure can’t be found by men who search
  • My head tells me it’s time to make a change
  • Won’t you descend from the throne, from where you sit?

It would be very hard to make the music always fit with such a diverse array of thoughts in those third lines.  For that powerful all-important third line is sometimes found with loving lines “I love to see you dress before the mirror” but other times the ultimate negative, “How long must I suffer such abuse?” or the highly enigmatic: “The treasure can’t be found by men who search.”

In short it is great fun and gorgeous music, but it just doesn’t feel right, quite possibly because it is trying to do several things that pop and rock music isn’t actually built for.  Later in his songwriting career, Bob would have found a way to resolve this, but instead he abandoned the piece.

And I think in part he also abandoned the song because that third line musically does gives a problem with held vocal note.  It is interesting for the first few verses, but here we have seven musically identical verses, and for that third line to work musically and lyrically the lyrics really do have to have a consistency in that third line.

Yet what we find in just looking at the third line is a description of her which is of pure desire (“I love to see you dress before the mirror”) but which becomes, inexplicably I feel, “How long must I suffer such abuse?” and then ends with a criticism of her arrogance with “Won’t you descend from the throne, from where you sit?”

Now of course in many relationships each partner has mixed emotions – loving the person but disliking strongly one or two things she/he does, is common.  But that doesn’t seem to be Bob’s theme here.   He is writing about the entanglement of contradictory emotions – and he is doing it with a piece of music that doesn’t change, verse by verse.

Thus I see it as a great theme to try (in my opinion, and of course I am just the outsider looking in) but it is, I think, almost impossible to do within a strictly strophic format (strophic being the verse, verse, verse… sequence that we find in many folk songs).

And this highlights what for me is the contradiction of the song.   The melody and accompaniment are very interesting and unusual, and the ending of the third line in each verse is singular – but the story in the words, although coherent, takes us on a journey which the music doesn’t reflect.

What is particularly interesting is that although the music itself (and here I don’t mean the performance, but the actual music) doesn’t change between the two versions but the lyrics do – and this is where problems can arise if the song is dealing with complex, challenging feelings.

The Bitter End version included a verse that was dropped

I can't play the game no more, I can't abide
by their stupid rules which kept me sick inside
They've been made by men who've given up the search
Whose gods are dead and whose queens are in the church.

And also included as the last two verses

Send out for Saint John the Evangelist
All my friends are drunk, they can be dismissed.
My head says that it's time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love ya but you're strange.

So step lightly, darling, near the wall
Put on your heavy make-up, wear your shawl.
Won't you descend from the throne, from where you sit?
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.

In the alternative version, these became

We sat in an empty theatre and we kissed
I asked you please to cross me off your list
My head tells me it's time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love ya but you're strange.

So one more time, at midnight near the wall,
take off your heavy make-up, and your shawl.
Won't you descend from the throne, from where you sit?
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.

The fact that Bob Dylan could change “Put on your heavy make up” to “Take off your heavy make up” might seem a trivial alternation to a line, but it actually reflects quite a profound alternation in his vision of the woman.

But overall I think (and as ever this is just me, as ever, reacting to the music and lyrics) this change, trivial though it might seem, reveals an uncertainty over the essence of the woman at the heart of the storyline.   Is she heavily made up to disguise what she is, or is the singer asking that she should disguise herself so that she does not reveal what she is.

Musically it is a great piece, but that music, being the ever-repeated four lines, comes with constrictions, and that I think is what Bob felt finally defeated the song.

For myself (and again I stress, as ever this is just me), I came to this song today with a deep and positive feeling for it as a forgotten gem.   But, as is the nature of writing these commentaries (although it may not always seem so to you as a reader!) I do listen to the song repeatedly before and during the writing of my little piece.   And that is where the song breaks down.

So I end up thinking, there is not enough variation in the music to sustain the expression of the emotion in the lyrics.   Indeed the music has no variation within it, which I think is needed for complex expressions within a song.   To give an extreme example consider, “The country music station plays soft, But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off”.   In Visions, there is a consistency of the images throughout and they are totally in tune with the music – but that music varies even to the extent of the last verse having extra lines in it.

In Abandoned Love that sort of variation is not achieved, although the lyrics seem to demand it.   The music is bouncy and fun, while the lyrics are attempting, it seems to me, to take in the individual’s dislike of a woman’s changing views, and that is very hard if the music doesn’t change.

It might have been that with Abandoned Love, Bob did realise, as all songwriters do, that the constrictions of a strophic song (ie one that is verse, verse, verse) but with the end line being repeated or near repeated, there has to be an absolute consistency between the start and the end, and a consistency of image.

Abandoned Love is dealing with the incredibly complex issue of self-deception, but with a bouncy fun tune that repeats and repeats.   If Dylan had tried this a few years later, he more than likely would have made a huge success of the song, but as he was still learning what was, and what was not possible, I don’t think at this moment he could find the way through.

Which is not to say that other writers were like to be more successful, but rather to point out that just because Dylan had written “Visions of Johanna” ten years before Abandoned Love, it didn’t mean that every composition would be a masterpiece.   This song is fun, but it was, and remains, a spot of light relief, a curiosity, from a master of the art who had long before soared to the highest peaks of both music and lyrics.

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