Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #169: Dirge

Easily one of Dylan's bleakest tracks in his entire catalog, "Dirge" is a song that not only seems rather decidedly out of place on Planet Waves, but something that seems out of place in Dylan's 1970s output; really, maybe out of place in his output after the motorcycle crash (up to that point, of course). I'm quite certain I will be corrected if I'm missing something, but just about everything between the Basement Tapes and 1974 had been lighter in tone (certainly Nashville Skyline, and the notoriously "friendly" Self Portrait spring to mind), and one could have been justified in imagining that the Dylan who wrote "Positively 4th Street" and other such rapier-brandishing classics had grown up, properly matured, and had left all that poison-pen business behind. This makes "Dirge" all the more fascinating, mainly because there really hasn't been precedent for a song like this after the crash (and certainly not on Planet Waves up to that point - even "Going Going Gone" has more of a tone of resignation than anything else) and because Dylan has always had a way of channeling invective into something poetic (that line about paying the price of solitude is really fantastic, isn't it?). That's not a bad talent to have.


In cursory searching for theories and meanings behind this song, I've seen people suggest that the song is about drug addiction (the bit about going down suicide road), Joan Baez (which seems rather unlikely, unless Dylan had a burst of nostalgia listening to all those songs he'd written about her in the 60s and decided to crank out another missive just for old time's sake), Dylan renouncing his status as Voice of a Generation (the entire third verse - I'll get to that in a moment), and, of course, his deteriorating relationship with his wife. Given that in a short period of time he would no longer be married, one has to feel that this is the most likely explanation; a trial run for the real bitterness that we'd get one album later. Even without getting into any sort of specifics about what they shared and their children and so on, you can really easily get the vibe that Dylan's singing about his wife, or at least some woman he feels the need to spit this sort of acid at.

The reason that this might not totally be the case is that - well, have you heard the rest of Planet Waves? The general tone of the album itself is much more genial than this song is, I would say the majority of the songs deal more with love than anything else (for example, the song in the next post), and then we have "Wedding Song", the weird sort of yin to this song's yang, a track that trucks in just as much naked emotion as this one but channels it into a song of undying devotion (rather than undying despair and anger). Now, certainly one could suggest that this song is on here precisely for the yin and yang effect, giving what would otherwise be an album of quiet, gentle emotion along the lines of New Morning an added bite it would not otherwise have, and I would be inclined to agree with you. But I don't think that you could make the suggestion that somehow "Dirge" is more in line with Dylan's thoughts at the time than anything else on the album (as one could suggest, given what ultimately happened), as though all the declarations of love and such were just a cover for how Bob was really feeling. That, to me, seems rather too simplistic, and I generally try not to think of Dylan's in simplistic terms.

So what, then, about the idea that this song is really about Dylan giving up his throne? The crux of that particular argument lies in the third verse, where Dylan sings about "songs of freedom and man forever stripped", and concludes that it's "all for a moment's glory, and it's a dirty, rotten shame"; there's also the last verse's bit about singing "your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine", which isn't quite as suggestive, but who knows, right? It's an interesting idea - Dylan couching his disgust with his life as Sixties Idol and his renunciation thereof as some sort of romantic kiss-off sounds a lot like something he would do. However, I don't see that this theory can stand, and there are at least two reasons why. The first is that there are only a few isolated lines that you can really suggest have to do with Dylan and his reputation renunciation; would anybody pick out the "you used to ride a chrome horse" line from "Like A Rolling Stone" and suggest the song is really about Dylan telling his equestrian instructor to piss off? The second, and more poignant reason for me, is that Dylan didn't need to write a song about renouncing the role thrust upon him - his actions since 1966 had more or less done that for him. If Self Portrait hadn't made it clear that he was no longer going to be shackled by his past, what else would? His feelings didn't need to be made over and over again.

So, ultimately, what we have left is another song by Bob that defies easy analysis (even when the analysis seems like it shouldn't be all that hard - seriously, how can this NOT be about Bob and Sara?), made all the more interesting by the time period that Dylan wrote it in. There's still plenty to chew on here, both from the lyrical standpoint (that business about Lower Broadway - maybe Dylan's talking about the place where he got his drugs???) and the recording standpoint (this was the last song cut on the album, recorded fast like Bob usually does things - maybe he was singing about feelings that had just come up?), but in the end it's hard not to feel frustrated if you're trying to look for something deeper in this song. Ultimately, what we have is Dylan at his most pained and emotional, and the song is worth hearing for that alone.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

13 comments:

Sharon said...

Isn't 'Dirge' just too bitter and final to be addressed to Sara at this point? Dirge makes sense to me at least as an expression of the bitterness Dylan had felt at the loss of his inspiration over the previous four years. Thus, maybe, it is a song of betrayal addressed to the muse who had unexpectedly left him.

Anonymous said...

Many of his biographies suggest that Bob adored the role of family man. I have always wondered whether this song might reflect a tension born from conflicting desires: cherishing his young family, on the one hand, versus what can now be seen as a lifelong imperative, the desire to perform.

Bill said...

In the thirty some years I've listened to this song I've never considered that it was about anything besides his dabbling in drugs, particularly heroin. I can't remember who first floated the idea, hopefully not Weberman, but, to me, it never felt like it was directed at another person. Could he actually write Wedding Song and Dirge towards the same person, in such a short time?

Anonymous said...

Could it be he is talking about fame and the effects of fame on his personal life. Fame can be like a drug and toxic in many ways. You crave fame and fortune but it never comes without a price.

Nathan said...

I think in the context of Dylan's relationship with Albert Grossman, the song makes alot more sense. As you said, with an album full of love songs, it wouldn't make sense for this song to be directed to Sara. If we look at as being addressed to Albert Grossman, alot begins to come into focus. Grossman was pulling alot of deals behind Bob's back, sending him on seemingly endless tours, and so, when "the lights went out" and "the curtain fell," Dylan was able to see what had been going on all the time. He "hates himself for loving" Grossman, who seemed to be more like a father figure to him in the 60's. They spent weekends together, Grossman and his wife were the only two people present at Bob and Sara's wedding, even the motorcycle crash happened as he was leaving Grossman's house. I don't see this as a song about lost love as much as a song about betrayal, and, as Bob has said numerous times, he felt betrayed by Albert Grossman. This song may be an expression of that. Many people have made the same case for "Dear Landlord," and while it may be, I think this songs comes across as much more directly related to the events that transpired between the two.

Anonymous said...

But is the song really that bad? I kind of like it, the desperation, the ugliness.

Anonymous said...

Its a great song in its naked raw truth.Touch's and breaks your heart. Albert was a walking Doom Machine.
That articulate perception"I hate myself for loving you". Not a simple I hate you. Great song.

Tim said...

Can't you imagine a married man hating himself
for STILL loving someone other than his wife? Why does it have to be someone famous that the fans know about? "Your songs of freedom" could be about their record collection rather than them singing, and then the field is wide open. Of course, when did Bob pay the price of solitude? Play it back to back with "Simple twist of fate" (which IS for Suze) and see whether you think it could be to Suze. (I am not sure, one way or the other.) Could the person being sung to in "Dirge" be the same person of whom he sang "I still believe she was my twin"?

I love "Dirge". The sound is magnificent. To me, it
is the sound of a man constructing an argument for
hating someone, while still loving them (for, after all, love is not rational). I don't even like you any more, but I still love you. What is wrong with me?

And the last line is gorgeously misleading. He'll get over hating himself for loving you, after which it
is not the case that he'll no longer love you, but rather he'll still love you, but no longer hate himself for doing so. Getting over loving you is far too much to hope for.

Perhaps none of you who have commented so far have ever fallen in love against your better judgment, when you have every reason to not do so. (Or remained in love with someone who broke your heart - that should strike a chord with Tony, as unrequited (?) love seems to have substantially changed the pace of output of this blog.)

Anonymous said...

This could not be about Sara! Let's take Bob's song "Sara". That is not the same kind of love as the love in "Dirge". If you all think about, you'll see it clearly.
"Sara, sara.
It's all so clear, I could never forget.
Sara, Sara
Loving you is the one thing, I'll never regret"
versus
"I hate myself for loving you"

That's not the same kind of love, is it? That's why this song couldn't be about Sara.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like it's about an affair. It's possible to fall in love against your better judgement and lose what you really cherish, even if it's troubled. Filling a need that's not being met dishonestly, it's a dirty rotten shame. It's a sordid relief when the curtain falls though, you pay the price of solitude, but at least your out of debt. Accepting such mercy will drive you mad, it's not worth it.

Dan said...

Could the song be about more than one person. The doom machine references Albert, and what not. I still think its about Sara but there could be lines in there that refer to others too

Anonymous said...

The song is about fame.

Abraxas said...

What about "Heard your songs of freedom and man forever stripped"
I think he wrote it for Joan myself. "Slave in orbit" seems to be an obvious reference to Lynch's speech to the Virginians on how to beat your slave.