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.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
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.