Abandoned Love: the abandoned Dylan masterpiece

Abandoned Love (1975)

by Jochen Markhorst

It is a beautiful story, even though it is a true story. On a Thursday evening in July 1975, Dylan visits a performance by his old Greenwich Village buddy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, playing in the famous nightclub The Bitter End (which is briefly called The Other End in those days) on Bleecker Street. Elliott spots him, starts playing “With God On Our Side” and asks after a few lines if Bob might want to assist him. Pleasantly surprised, the hundred-headed audience sees Dylan taking the stage, grabbing a guitar and playing along with “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “How Long Blues”.

He seems a little nervous, declines a first invitation to sing something, but then he exchanges his rattling guitar (he has troubles adjuisting the capo) with Ramblin’ Jack’s and then starts to sing. “After a couple of lines, we realized he was performing a new song,” eyewitness Joe Kivak writes, “with each line getting even better than the last. The song was Abandoned Love, and it still is the most powerful performance I’ve ever heard.”

Someone in the audience is so thoughtful as to make a sneaky recording that soon becomes extremely popular in bootleg circles, proving that Kivak hardly exaggerates; it is an enthusiastic, sparkling performance of an extremely beautiful song. It really must be the highlight of the upcoming LP.

A few weeks later, July 31, it is one of the last songs he records for that new LP, Desire, along with two other love songs: “Isis” and “Sara”. In terms of lyrics, hardly anything has changed, but the sparkle has disappeared. The melody is of course still enchanting, the accompaniment at the high Desire level, the production crisp (unfortunately including that dated bathroom reverbeo in vocals and percussion), but compared to the live recording, a mattness has crept in, Dylan sings perfunctively. He dismisses the recording, which will appear on Biograph ten years later, for Desire. Perhaps the master also misses the pearl gloss of the gig on 3 July, or maybe he thinks a song about the end of a Great Love should have been on predecessor Blood On The Tracks – or is the content too intimate? After that one time he will never play it again, in any case.

That intimacy then would concern the candor about the end of the marriage with Sara, which indeed fairly effortlessly can be distilled from the lyrics. In the first half of the 70s, Dylan serves his followers and fans with a-typical openness. Songs like “Wedding Song”, “Idiot Wind” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” are compared to earlier and later work remarkably undisguised, stripped of the usual misty ambiguity, and provide more than ever insight into the man’s soul stirrings. Grist to the mill of the exegetes with less cryptoanalytic talent, anyway.

“Abandoned Love” is a highlight in that subgenre. The underlying melancholy, regret, heartache and despair are clear, yet wrapped in Dylanesque metaphors and poetic emblems. The admiring witness of the first hour is right; already the first sentence is of great beauty. I can hear the turning of the key has a compelling rhythm, a strong evocative power and a catchy symbolic charge. And after this, sure enough, every line gets even better. The narrator does not spare himself; he is deceived by the clown in me, driven by misplaced vanity and now torn by the old and familiar conflict between head and heart. Sure, intellectually he understands it is over, but then: my heart is a-tellin ‘me I love ya still.

The biographical interpreter starts focusing the third time the protagonist professes his love in so many words: my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange. We now know that the I person is thematizing the abandonment of a Great Love, a Great Love with whom he also has children – yes, this is really inspired by the upcoming former Mrs. Dylan. Who is, it must be said now, perhaps a bit strange.

The observation does not stand alone. On comparing various Sara observations from different sources, one cannot escape the notion, besides all the respectful and affectionate descriptions: she indeed is a bit weird. Marianne Faithfull is not the only one who registers that she does not say much (in her highly humorous, touching and disconcerting autobiography from 1994) and describes her as solid as marble.

Levon Helm, the drummer of The Band, also senses something ethereal: a Brazilian Madonna (in his memoirs This Wheel’s On Fire). Sara connoisseur Joan Baez devotes quite a lot of words to her love rival in And A Voice To Sing With, and the sympathy that Baez seems to feel is predominant. Between the lines, however, she sprinkles asides and remarks that together do paint an image of quite a peculiar little lady. More than once Sara’s gaze is quizzical or surprised, often in combination with foggy. She is “too frail to be a mom,” “ill-equipped to handle the practical matters of everyday,” and Baez must help her with banal necessities such as finding towels and how to make coffee. However, Baez thinks Sara’s eccentric, poetic phobia is enviable: Sara is afraid to stand on a bridge over still water. It even animates Joan to a song about her (“Still Waters At Night”, on the disappointing Gulf Winds, 1976).

Likewise, in the Dylan songs in which Sara is sung, the bard always puts in a few words that suggest that his adored one can be somewhat detached or vulnerable. She is a Sphinx and hard to define (“Sara”), she apparently has no wishes, because she’s got everything she needs (“She Belongs To Me”), she is like some raven with a broken wing and speaks like silence (“Love Minus Zero / No Limit”), has a ghostlike soul and a face like glass (“Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”). In any case, Sara inspires Dylan to his most beautiful love songs, that much is clear. And the sideways remarked eccentricities all fit well with that one subclause after that declaration of love, I love ya but you’re strange.

However, the rejection of this little masterpiece may not be due to unease about the content. The text’s style is unsteady, and that may bother the poet Dylan. The text-internal tension between clear, classic lines of verse like Everybody’s wearing a disguise or clichéd pathos like The treasure can’t be found by men who search on the one hand and symbol-charged, ambiguous imagery like My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost or the breathtaking power of Send out for St. John the Evangelist / All my friends are drunk, they can be dismissed (rejected lines from the first version) on the other hand, almost tangibly illustrates the crossroads on which the poet is now standing. It is a final eruption of the lucid poetry on Blood On The Tracks and a first glance at the heavy, hermetic lyricism of Street Legal.

After the release of that underwhelming studio recording from July ’75 on the sales success Biograph (1985), “Abandoned Love” also penetrates into the repertoire of eager colleagues. The Everly Brothers act fast (on Born Yesterday, 1985) with a rather corny, Celtic coloured version. It sounds more authentic with the full-blooded Irishman Séan Keane (All Heart No Roses, 1994), but the drabness is just as intolerable. The interpretation by Alistair Moock is already easier to digest, although his singing style pushes the song in the direction of “Streets Of London”. George Harrison changes the opening line for puzzling reasons into I can see the turning of the key, and delivers a beautifully arranged cover – but no; old George’s voice has never been wild or mercury, only thin, unfortunately. And the 80s sauce over the production does not do much good either. By the way, Harrison records it in the fall of 1984, well before Biograph‘s release; presumably his friend Dylan has pointed out to him the existence of the song.

The most beautiful covers are the various live versions from the Californian Chuck Prophet, the master guitarist and singer-songwriter who never really breaks through. Prophet produces distinctive, quirky Dylan covers (his “From A Buick 6” is a highlight), but refrains himself with “Abandoned Love”, in a faithful, loving, driving arrangement that, in part due to the guitar tsunami, towers high over the other covers.

Still, to the maestro’s embryonic, original pub recording from July ’75 no one comes close – not even Dylan himself.

See also…

Abandoned Love: the meaning of the music and the lyrics.

Dylan in Depth: the series.

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  1. Puzzling? Well, ‘see’ does rhyme with ‘key’, and then there’s the ‘synesthesia’ effect ….Dylan himself employs ‘see’ in the second version given above.

    Unless it’s really pathetic, what version is better is difficult to objectively define as a listener has his own personl tastes –
    I argee with your choices …..but that’s simply because great minds think alike. (lol)

  2. Blimey. I’ll be damned. I never knew or noticed that Dylan is singing see on the studio version. In Lyrics , it is also hear.
    A nice little Dylan song fact as a Christmas present on Christmas Eve. Thanks Larry, and Happy Christmas to you.

  3. Another good story, but I beg to differ, I think the studio version has that beautiful Desire gypsy feel, and as such is a clear enough departure from Blood on the Tracks. Somehow it seems a sister song to Up to Me, which could have been on Desire too, if the musicians would have been up to it. Could have saved us from Joey, although I like Emmylou and the accordion in that song musically speaking.

  4. I’ve always felt the studio version easily tops the live version. It’s got a beautiful floating Melody, with the violin taking you on the trip.

    The live version…I find some of the lyrics (at least for Dylan) embarrassingly lazy. “I can’t play the game no more I can’t abide/by the stupid rules which (get?) me sick inside”. Also…”all my friends are drunk they can be dismissed”. Yuck.

    I’m sure for those there that night it was a magical moment, but Ive always felt that the studio version (at least to me) is sung with conviction and care, rather than just yelling the words as they sound in the live version.

  5. Talking about the key: the change from “hear” to “see” is also a change of the perspective, isn’t it? Dylan has done this several times. You mainly ” hear” the key when someone else is turning it, but you “see” it when youself are turning it. This also changes who is taking the action, who is subject and who is object. In “Abandoned Love” the singer states three times that he is the one who takes the action, lead by his “head” and though his heart is bleeding. This should also answer the question if the person with the key is coming or leaving.

    Maybe this line from “Sara” gives a another hint:

    “You always responded when I needed your help
    You give me a map and a key to your door”

    The singer / poet in Abandoned Love claims he got the key from a reliable person, but then finds out, that he only saw what he (or the clown inside of him) wanted him to see.

    “I can see the turning of the key
    I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
    I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
    Oh, something’s a-telling me I wear the ball and chain”

    And with the key you not only unlock a door but also lock it. Still it remains unclear why someone would lock a door when he is leaving. To lock someone in? This would make no sense in this context.

    Well, this is just something I thought of while reading the excellent article above and while drinking an X-mas beer.

    (Please excuse my English, I’m not a native speaker)

  6. When Dylan uses the word abandoned he refers to something, which is illegal. Look the word “ban” up in a dictionary. Robin Hood was banned and became an outlaw. Something which is not legal is abandoned. This song is NOT about his legal wife Sarah.It is about a illigitimate relationship. The woman is the queen of songs. She also speaks Spanish. She marches in the parades of liberty. He must cut loose from her. He feels he is a clown. Oh yes he had the same problems in 1966 and Bob Dylan (the jester) used the same words about her. Her name is of cause Joan Baez (what a snake).

  7. Woe unto ye who would affix one definitive literal meaning to a figurative song, and actually see a “snake” crawling when none be literally mentioned – or figuratively for that matter.

    The song stands as a work of art regardless whether or not the listener knows anything about Dylan’s life though it would be foolish to dismiss biography out of hand as having no influence on the song if he/she does know.

    You can have your apple and eat it too.

  8. #LarryFyffe: of course you are right: One must not mistake the first-person-narrator in the song with Dylan. Or the adressed woman with a real person by the name Sarah, Joan or whatever.
    But while listening to “More Blood, more tracks” I’m convinced that the narrator in the songs looks a lot like Dylan. Maybe more than in any time before or afterwards. And that the literary “you” in Abandoned Love could be one of the above-mentioned women. But again you are are right: “The song stands as a work of art”: It doesn’t matter.
    Nevertheless: Pain and desire are strong influences, it’s not by accident that Blood on the tracks is one of Dylan’s strongest records.
    If you want to find out about the meaning of a novel, a poem or – in this case – a song, you can do this in several ways, if you want. Positivism is only one, but in this phase of Dylan’s life it can help, I believe. Nevertheless it is probably more accurate to talk about the poet / singer / author rather than “Dylan”.

  9. Indeed, see MixCloud : Definitely Dylan -11 March, 2018 – ‘Woman and Dylan’ by Tenschert about ‘the death of the author” – which I just now came across , but agrees with mine, and your perspective to a large extent.

  10. Larry Fyffe. The word “snake” was ny comment to Baez description of Sarah. “She is too frail to be a mom” and so on. — The envy oozes out of Baez mouth. The word also refers to the snake in paradise (again my words). LF you tell me this is art and it does not matter WHO the persons are. You have been fooling around in all those songs for years without understanding much of the meaning. I thougt you needed a little help: Dylan did not like fanatic people and people who think they are always right. It was a huge problem in those years I remember from the time I studied litterature at the university. I left. I learned a lot of socialrealisme. – very usefull.

  11. I really don’t see anything in the song ‘Abandoned Love’ about Joan saying anything about Sara …..or a reference to a snake, figurative or not.

    The song being about Sara could be made just as well, could it not?

    He or she who thinks they have the right meaning of a Dylan song down pat, like yourself -‘Her name is…Joan Baez’- is inviting a critique. So I am I to assume that Dylan would not like you??

    As far as an absolute interpretation goes, it comes with the territory.

    And, of course, I did not say biographical information does not matter.

  12. But then you’re connecting Baez’s book to the song, both mentioned in the article above, so there’s room for misunderstanding here.

  13. Regarding the change from “hear” to “see”. As commented on above “see” is the way Dylan delivers it in the only studio take we have, the one released on Biograph.

    Harrison follows that change, but there are some other variations in that studio take (vis-a-vis the published lyrics) which do not appear in George’s version. Two most noticeable are the added introductory phrase (“My heart is telling me, I love you still”) and that for the line “Won’t you let me see you smile one time before I turn you loose?”, Dylan’s studio version omits “one time” whereas Harrison doesn’t.

    Perhaps George was given a copy of a studio outtake to base his 1984 cover on, just not the Biograph one…

  14. Nice to see this great song given so much credit!

    To me, the power comes from it being open to different levels of interpretation. Besides being about a failed relationship, it may also describe a spiritual process of severing ties with the ego and worldly desires.

    I also like Dylan’s studio version very much, while appreciating how special that one and only live performance must have been to witness in person.


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