Dirge: Bob Dylan’s poetic expressions of private impressions


by Jochen Markhorst

In March 2015, Dylan’s publisher Simon & Schuster publishes Shane Dawson’s I Hate Myselfie, a memoir in which the popular YouTube vlogger dwells on eighteen of his most embarrassing events. It is a bit of a juvenile, sophomoric work, but still (or: therefore) a success, a New York Times bestseller and the umpteenth example in a long, long line of authors who exploit self-loathing literarily.

That Italian poet from the fourteenth century, Petrarca, composes in Canzoniere 134ho in odio me stesso, e amo altrui, I hate myself and love another,” Kafka’s oeuvre is one long exercise in self-hatred, with Brief an den Vater (‘Letter To His Father’) as a climax (or low point, depending how you look at it), the posthumously published Journals by Kurt Cobain can only be read as a run-up to his suicide and even Erasmus thinks that self-love is a moral sin; the true Christian is characterized by self-hatred (Handbook of  a Christian Knight, 1503).

And a prominent place in Dylan’s record collection is occupied by Tampa Red, the blues wizard who records “I Hate Myself” in 1936, with the opening lines that inspire:

I hate myself for falling in love with you
'Cause you wrecked my life
And you broke my heart in two

From this perspective, Dylan joins a long tradition when he opens “Dirge” with I hate myself for loving you. But there is a big difference: with Petrarca, Kafka and Cobain, one does not doubt the sincerity of the words; the narrator really dislikes himself.

That is not the case with Dylan and that is due to his performance. Unambiguous the emotion is not. We hear some assertiveness, reproach and hurt, but self-hatred… no. Likewise, already the second line lacks any hint of self-reflection. ‘You were just a painted face on a trip down Suicide Road‘ is a good old-fashioned Dylanesque put-down, completely in line with the vitriol of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, “Positively 4th Street” and “She’s Your Lover Now”, in line with the most vicious songs from 1965. The degrading ‘you were just a painted face‘ is a variant of the equally villainous ‘you just happened to be there, that’s all‘ from “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)”, Suicide Road most likely being a side street of Desolation Row.

And not at all in line with the rest of the songs on this album, Planet Waves, an album on which, just as on predecessor New Morning, life-affirmation, joys of love and contentment are predominant.

That missing connection to the rest of the songs on Planet Waves does not stand alone; text internally “Dirge” is not very coherent either. Apart from maybe “Never Say Goodbye”, the other nine songs stay, verse line after verse line, decently true to one theme, varying on one message, staying neatly within the lines. “Forever Young” ties together fifteen interchangeable blessings, “You Angel You”, the most wordy song of the album, repeats the same message six times in six stanzas, just like “Going, Going, Gone” does in four verses.

“Dirge”, on the other hand, seems to be an exercise of free association and écriture automatique, in the vein of “Farewell Angelina” or “Tombstone Blues”, the surrealist masterpieces from that artistic peak in the mid-1960s. Or, looking in the other direction, a taste of the songs Dylan will write for Street Legal a few years later, idiomatic processions like “Changing Of The Guards” and “No Time To Think”.

Cold statistical data confirm this observation; “Dirge” is by far the most eloquent song of Planet Waves. Only “Wedding Song” has more words, but a much poorer ratio of words/unique words than “Dirge” (169 different words in a 275-word song).

Besides the similarity with the eloquence and the cryptic qualities of Street Legal, the lyrics of “Dirge” also have a matching ‘colour’. Verses have a self-standing, aforistic power and have no further relationship with the previous or following line.

And they are beautiful lines, by the way. ‘That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin‘ and ‘Like a slave in orbit, he’s beaten ’til he’s tame‘ for example, or ‘In this age of fiberglass I’m searching for a gem‘. Especially the latter has such an atypical, clinical metaphor, at best recalling ‘that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field‘ in “Señor” from – again – Street Legal, just like the next line (‘The crystal ball up on the wall hasn’t shown me nothing yet‘) would fit in “Señor” instinctively, stylistically and intrinsically, but never in “Something There Is About You” or any other song on Planet Waves.

The conclusion that “Dirge” is such an odd duck out, provides new fuel to the admittedly apocryphal but amusing creation myth, as recorded by Clinton Heylin, among others. That story starts with the question of who this Martha is, from the original title “Dirge For Martha”. She is then said to be a friend of Dylan’s childhood friend Lou Kemp and would have triggered the creation of the song by saying to Dylan, after hearing the test recordings of “Forever Young”: “Are you getting mushy in your old age?”

Everything indicates that “Dirge” indeed was written last-minute in the studio, towards the end of the recording sessions for Planet Waves. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, who improvises the tasteful Spanish ornaments, also remembers in his autobiography Testimony the rather spontaneous, unannounced birth:

“As Rob [Fraboni, the producer] and I were setting up to mix the album, Bob came into the control room and asked me to play on one more song. He sat at the piano and I picked up an acoustic Martin D- 28. He played through one verse to give me the flavor and then we cut it. This was “Dirge for Martha,” and I think we only did one take. That session reminded me of late nights eight years earlier, Bob and me playing music in our hotel rooms.”

Whether or not we owe “Dirge” to that empty-headed tease from some Martha, Robertson does not mention. It does not seem very credible, though. It is hard to imagine that the hardened Dylan after all these years full of poisonous reproaches and aggrieved criticism from nitwits, journalists and disappointed fans really could be affected by some clumsy insult from an insignificant girl.

Still, producer Fraboni also remembers a ‘Martha’ incident and states how Dylan considers to skip the album highlight “Forever Young”, which eventually leads to that strange compromise to put a second, less mushy version on the album.

So maybe it is true after all; perhaps the remarkable eruption “Dirge” is provoked by some silly lass.

The exegetes have a field day. Predictably often Sara is brought in and with the comfortable benefit of hindsight, a faction of both professional Dylanologists and excited bloggers analyze that the song is a run-up to Blood On The Tracks, to the ‘Divorce Album’ of the bard. And solely regarding the style of the lyrics, there is some argument to be found; the same fragmented, associative labyrinth as “Up To Me”, content likewise in minor, in farewell mode and true, the song is incomparable to the colour of the other songs on this album. But then again, the divorce from Sara is not until four years later and anyway, as those unimaginative Sara-exegetes have to admit, it is pretty impossible to squeeze the rest of the lyrics into that mould.

Most other exegetes also search for the key by framing the you from the opening line ‘I hate myself for loving you‘. ‘Heroin’ is a popular candidate, ‘Joan Baez’ comes along (because of that one line ‘Heard your songs of freedom’), ‘a mistress’, ‘fame’, ‘Albert Grossman’ and even ‘Edie Sedgwick’. And subsequently, just like with the Sara-exegetes, it turns out to be impossible to fit more than two or three verse fragments into such an interpretation.

It is not very surprising. Dylan does not write songs à clef, nor confessional songs, nor lyrics with a hidden, coded ‘actual’ meaning. At best, he lets poetic expressions of private impressions twirl down into his lyrics. I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening, as Dylan writes in the liner notes of Bringing It All Back Home (1965) – ‘a sketchy rendering of personal impressions, without pretense of insight’

In that light, with that ‘key’, one would indeed be tempted to trace and check off the images from “Dirge” with biographical knowledge of the man Dylan. ‘A face with a lot of make-up, about to commit suicide?’ – check, Edie Sedgwick. And who is singing those songs of freedom? Joan Baez, obviously. Or perhaps Albert Grossman, who promises him financial and artistic freedom, if Dylan does what he is told. And comme ça, from every image, from every line of verse, a connection to a biographical reality from the author’s life can be drawn.

The poverty of such an approach is the obviousness with which is taken for granted that the I from the song is identical with the author. The lyrics, however, do not give any reason for this assumption, apart from the banal fact that the lyrics are written by Dylan. But that same writer Dylan has repeatedly, and credibly, stated that the I from his songs is not automatically me, Bob Dylan. Je est un autre, after all.

If we can let go of that starting point, the idée-fixe that the poet writes about himself, it also becomes easier to appreciate the song for what it is: a gripping jeremiade of a lost soul, an eloquent variant of a lamentation by Hank Williams (“Take These Chains From My Heart”, for example) or a heart-rending blues by Robert Johnson like “Love In Vain” or “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”; songs about pitiful suckers who are in love with the wrong woman.

Despite all beauty, “Dirge” remains in the shadow. Dylan never plays the song; a further indication that he indeed just pulled the song from his hat, that November day in 1973. The established colleagues ignore the song too.

The living room versions of the fans on YouTube are without exception unbearable, as are those of the tribute bands and beyond that only a few professional artists from the second division are worth mentioning.

The jazz version of the Jamie Saft Trio, on the splendid album Trouble (2006), reduces “Dirge” to a desolate depression, but is spectacularly beautiful.


The duo of Patches & Gretchen from Minneapolis attracts attention because Dylan’s Desire violinist Scarlett Rivera plays along, but their cover is not too distinctive. Gretchen is holding a rolling pin with an attached crib sheet for the lyrics, that has some entertainment value.

The most beautiful cover is on In Between, a 2010 album by Erik Truffaz. The Frenchman is originally a jazz trumpet player, and a particularly good one too, and makes excursions to hip hop, dance and rock. “Dirge” is a highlight on In Between. Guest singer Sophie Hunger is doing well, but overwhelming is the musical skill of the quartet. Beautifully arranged, sparse trumpet, great drumming and assertive, lyrical guitar. Superb Hammond organ, too.

Also not the slightest trace of any self-hatred either, but what the heck.

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  1. Yes indeed, if there’s an original thought out there, I could use one right now , and your article gives me an original idea.

    Let’s make a movie about a singer/songwriter’s life in which the songwriter has writer’s block until he meets a beautiful but demanding enchantress who serves as a muse for him – he says to her: “I was just a song and dance man til I met you”.

    All the dialogues for the characters in the movie we’ll take from his song lyrics.

    We’ll call the movie ‘Bob Dylan In Love.’

  2. You forgot one contender for the key to the you in this song: Fame. The late John Bauldie did an excellent article in the Telegraph promoting this opinion.
    Thanks for your work.

  3. “Dirge” remains one of Dylan’s most opaque and uneven lyrics. Like “Dark Eyes” it seems to have been written very quickly to fill out an album, and the joins still show. “Suicide Road” and “Doom Machine” sound like bad Springsteen. That fibreglass line reeks of a notebook entry that found no other home, and “crystal ball upon the wall” is surely a rap-rhyme Dylan couldn’t resist: crystal balls don’t hang about like pictures, but rest on table-tops. Further lyrical glints splintered into “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Senor,” and unlike “Forever Young” the song was soon forgotten. Listened to casually today, it sounds much like a rough sketch for “Idiot Wind” several months later. My reading is a little different.

    Dylan’s images here are far closer to Lou Reed or Hubert Selby Jr. than Springsteen: painted faces, beaten slaves, sexual partners testing each other’s gaze, angels lurching into sin, and activities on Lower Broadway that would make your mother weep. You can also be patted patronisingly on the back when you’re – as we used to say – giving head. The words surely make a lot more sense as either a former hustler’s lyric or a farewell to a private, same-sex relationship – perhaps one with S&M overtones. Maybe the real “Martha,” like Queen Jane and the Jet Pilot before her, was a man and this is a final kiss-off to her.

    We can’t know. Possibly the lyric‘s nothing but a riff on “Midnight Cowboy.” On the other hand, Dylan once confessed – or joked – that he’d had to work the street when he first arrived in New York, his affection for gay friends shines through “Chronicles,” and there was that glaring reference to Verlaine and Rimbaud on “Blood on the Tracks.” His private life is nobody else’s business – but as with “Just like a Woman,” I believe this song opens and deepens if its “naked truth” is heard as something quite other than a vanilla farewell.

  4. I’d have no problem believing that he wrote it in response to “Martha” and her playful jibe. It had been many years at this stage since Dylan was considered cutting edge, and maybe he felt that what she said held a smidgen of the truth? I don’t know, but like you I feel little love for this song, it sounds forced, though its venom is of the same type as Idiot Wind, though of lesser a calibre. It’s just that when he wrote Idiot Wind he was firing on all cylinders, and Dirge (like most of Planet Waves, to me) sounds like a man who’s buildimg up to something, but he’s not quite there yet.

    By the way, I accept that this is only hindsight, but that’s how that record always sounds to me…

  5. I agree that the song appears to be about fame, and his relationship to his audience. But what is all this about Dylan’s vitriol? I can’t help but think that people WANT him to be vitriolic, regardless. “You just happened to be there, that’s all” is also a comment about the narrator, and in line with the way that, on Blond on Blond, he describes situations dispassionately including confused emotions and actions. Martha? Anything to do with Mary (both of New Testament fame)? Just a thought.

  6. When seen as a comment on ‘celebrity’, the mystery and obscurity of the song dissolve.

  7. Great post. My favourite track from the album. I believe Dylan often composes on the piano and I love that old fashioned dumpty-dum piano, somehow taking us back into the 1930s to Broadway in its heyday, the excitement of the stage being set, the lights dimming, the curtain falling, the moment of existential angst afterwards… wonderful.

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