Sunday, November 2, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #51: Love Minus Zero/No Limit

It was only a few years into my Dylan fandom that I realized that "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" was actually a mathematical equation (yes, an Asian not catching something math-related; try to keep your world from spinning off its axis), and only after Mr. Justin Shapiro was kind enough to have pointed that out to me. Basically, the title is a clever way of saying "love without limits or boundaries" - at least I think it is - and lets the discerning listener know that the song is about that rarest of white unicorns, a relationship founded on unconditional love. And Dylan's song is so beautiful and sweet that you could actually imagine for a second that unconditional love actually exists. Certainly, at least, you could imagine somebody worthy of being described as "true like ice, like fire", as poetic a declaration of a person's faithfulness as you'll ever find.

When I was pondering what I'd write about for "Love Minus Zero/No Limit", I found my mind wandering, oddly enough, to "Tangled Up In Blue". Now, I know that both songs are quite different from each other, in terms of length, subject matter, and especially in the lyrical devices employed. "Tangled Up In Blue", although occasionally abstract in the way it goes about things, weaves a narrative tale from beginning to end; "Love Minus Zero" does not tell any particular story and seems to make a point of being abstract (what's all this statues made of matchsticks business about?). And yet, to me, it sort of feels like there's a connection between the two of them, as though one could not exist without the other. And maybe, in some small way, there is. Maybe that very abstract nature of "Love Minus Zero", the way Dylan piles surreal imagery on top of what is essentially a declaration of a woman's true character, was a step Dylan needed to take to arrive at "Tangled Up In Blue", quite possibly the most perfectly realized song Dylan ever wrote in his career. Perhaps it was the discoursing about "ceremonies of the horsemen" and such, the way that Dylan sets the mood of a dark and foreboding world around him where the only protective cocoon is the love he feels, that would push Dylan to fuse that ability to set a mood through word pictures and his ability to tell a story the way he did a decade later. The word pictures of "Tangled" are clearer, true, but just as striking to my ears as those of "Love Minus Zero".

And it is those pictures from "Love Minus Zero" that make the song so striking, that hooks you in every time you hear it. The band Dylan assembled gives the song as gentle an arrangement as an electric band can afford, making me think of Simon and Garfunkel's prettier ballads, except Paul Simon never quite wrote a song as gorgeous as this one. What stands out after repeated listens is the bass line, which constantly seems to wander off on its own path, and yet always sounds like it was perfectly written for the melody, underpinning Dylan's own lyrical meanderings. And Dylan does meander; the first verse starts with a description of Dylan's love, and then the lyrics make their way through bus stations, through candle-lit dark rooms, and across bridges long past twilight, only returning occasionally to mention his love as a counterpoint to the strangeness he sees all around him, even as "a raven/at my window with a broken wing". She may be vulnerable like all of us, but she's still the rock Dylan leans on without hesitation or thinking twice.


Now, I suppose my referring to unconditional love as "the rarest of white unicorns" would lead you to believe that I'm a heartless cynic who can't understand what real romantic love is like. Well, I am. No, seriously, I just believe that unconditional love is something that does not exist. I mean, even in the strongest and most committed relationships that people can have, certain boundaries need to be kept in order for them to work. That's just human nature. And at the same time, unless you've just met somebody for the first time and are still basking in that wonderful feeling you have when you've connected with a new person on your life at that deep and meaningful level, you know that nobody, not even the love of your life, is completely perfect and that they are unerring in what they do. And I don't hear the words of somebody that just fell in love with someone else in "Love Minus Zero", but the words of somebody that's committed to a person they've been with long enough to know they're committed. The point I'm trying to make, then, is that to me, that's the real fantasy element - the fact that this woman is so brilliant, so untouchable, that there's nothing you could say about her other than she's completely faithful and true to you. Rare white unicorn, indeed.


So that's the enduring image for me and this song - Dylan singing about a woman who does everything right. (Okay, maybe that's a little tongue in cheek.) That probably leaves me in the distinct minority, since there have been plenty of odes written about the lyrics and the way that Dylan strings these crazy images together into a way that somehow manages to make sense and paint a beautiful picture of comforting love in a world that offers no such comfort. And the real world may not always work that way, but it's strangely comforting to imagine that it really does, and that in a universe with those that only seek perfection and those that "make promises by the hour", there are people that can guide you through and always be by your side. Sometimes you want a song that makes you feel like that's true.

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11 comments:

Daniel said...

Love your blog, and love this song. I too took a while before i realized it was a math problem. Also, 'Love' is a tennis term for zero, and if there's a zero in the denominator, there is 'no limit', so it's actually a mathmatical equation of 0-0/0, which equals 0/0or an indeterminate form in calculus. In real numbers, dividing by zero gives "no meaning." So maybe Dylan is actally talking of love without conditions as having no meaning, or being indeterminate, or impossible.

Anonymous said...

This song has, hands-down, the greatest fadeout in the history of popular music. The second guitar drops out, the volume of the strumming guitar goes up, and it fades at just the right moment, gets me every time!

marius h said...

Just thought I'd air the possibility of her either not being real at all, but the person dreamed of, a person that would make sense of all that other stuff the singer is forced to face through his day, and/or she could be seen as the muse.

I liked what you said, though, and daniel as well, I hadn't thought about tennis.

Anonymous said...

In purely mathematical terms, if we put this equation into the lowest terms. ie. love minus zero/ no limit- we end up with 'suze over it' Could this be Dylan's coy attempt at mitigating his loss over the failed relataionship with Suze Rotolo? You be the judge.

Tyler said...

Good article, but I would take issue with saying that Simon never wrote anything better. This is a great song, but other songs such as "America" and "Kathy's Song" are better, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

My favorite aspect of the song is how Dylan uses cliches about love to argue that his lover embodies or transcends them. That is to say, other people express love by buying roses, while his lover laughs like them; other people make promises, but she can't be bought with them; other people express their love with idealistic and violent phrases ("I'll die for you," "You're my true love") while her love is expressed through her own purity (like ice or fire).

Gronk said...

I like the idea of this song being about The Muse, in the same way as Shelter From The Storm and Red River Shore (IMHO) ... The line "my love she's like some raven at my window with a broken wing" is just pure alchemy.

girlie said...

Hi Tony,

FYI here in Australia i did a ArtWork series based on the Song. the series was called "Love Minus Zero Equals No Limit." a series of maths equations on recycled metal from central Australia, The entire first series I produced was sold to one gorgeous woman from a large financial institution here in Sydney.!! Am still working on more with the same title. its Black and white as is my favourite film clip of the song shot in London when Bobby was hanging out with Donovan.its on YouTube. I also produced/managed/marketed a major exhibition of Mr Dylans Artworks here in sydney a few years back, Sold out his works on the opening night . would really appreciate it if you posted a shorter version of your fantastic essay on my Facebook or Zoltankoteczky.wordpress.com or Artistlane zoltankoteczky or all three. its beautifully written. And i just saw Bobby a few weeks ago in the front row of Sudneys most beautiful intimate theatre at the state theatre, sydney australia, Love your work. Zoltan Koteczky.

Anonymous said...

Lately - for a while now actually - well ok, almost from when I first heard the song I've taken "my love" to mean his emotonal/spiritual feeling. That thing we all share, that we call by a four letter word.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/385/Love-Minus-ZeroNo-Limit and listen to every version of every song.

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