Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bob Dylan Song #172: Wedding Song

And so we come to the close of Planet Waves with one of the most interesting songs of Dylan's career, a song that puts a lot of its potential meaning directly in the title (why wouldn't you immediately think of Dylan's own marriage upon hearing that title?) and also is imbued with a whole different meaning after Dylan's next album came out ("wow, what the hell happened between then and now?"). On top of that, this is one of the precious few Dylan songs since Bringing It All Back Home that is purely acoustic, and from the sounds of things Dylan recorded it more or less in the same slapdash style as he did his acoustic albums (you can hear Dylan's hand slapping against the guitar, or perhaps the guitar hitting the buttons on his shirt, near the end; Dylan plays the third line of every verse differently, to both the song's benefit and detriment; and there are definitely moments where Dylan seems to be searching for words). It's kind of an odd way to end an album that's been billed as a collaborative effort, and yet a fitting way to end an album that has given so much of its lyrical content to love and devotion and such things. In short, it's kind of what you'd expect from our man Bob - a mass of contradictions that still manages to add up to the image we have of him as a whole.

So what the heck are we, the listening public, to make of this song? There are moments that stray towards legitimately uncomfortable emotional nakedness (that first verse, in particular), or perhaps it just seems that way because we're not used to that sort of thing from Bob; there are also moments as cloaked in poetic mystery as his Electric Trilogy mindbenders (I'm thinking of that "courtyard of the jester" bit). Dylan talks about his children out of nowhere - although he only mentions three, presumably because the extra syllable would've thrown the entire line out of whack - and he also plays at elements of possible discord in his relationship ("we can't regain what went down in the flood" - I've often wondered if this is where the title of Before the Flood came from) that don't quite fit in with the rest of the song's always-and-forever beatitudes. He makes a mention at the end about how he "love(s) you more than ever, now that the past is gone", which can't help but spark any number of theories about what exactly he's getting on about. So, just like most of Bob's songs, then!

To get back to the most obvious point - and, I suppose, the one most people would expect to be talked about in this post - "Wedding Song" has gained an extra and probably unwanted level to its fame because of what came afterwards. I would agree that it seems like something of a disconnect between some of the more over-the-top platitudes Bob's slinging here (who would expect him to sing about ANYBODY "sav(ing) my life" in an unironic manner?) and something along the lines of "oh, I know where I can find you/in somebody's room" (not to mention his improvised bit of business on the Hard Rain version of "Idiot Wind", which is just plain mean-spirited and not even particularly creative), and that "Wedding Song" takes on another plateau of significance because of that disconnect. Hell, maybe it makes sense from the most purely emotional position - I loved you this much, but you were a bitch, so now I hate you this much. QED.

Or maybe we can explore that position a little bit more. The thing about Blood on the Tracks (oh, how long I've studiously avoided trying to discuss that album, only to have to buckle and show some of my cards with just one damn song to go) that makes it a) such a masterpiece and b) a cut above every other breakup album that has ever been recorded is the fact that it shows so many different shades of what it means to be in love and have that love collapse, sometimes even in the same song. "You're A Big Girl Now", which contains the line about adultery (real or accused), also contains one of the most fascinating lines in Dylan's entire catalog, where he sings "I can change, I swear/See what you can do", both revealing naked heartache and desire for reconciliation and taking a bitter semi-mocking jab in practically the same breath. "Idiot Wind", for all its rage and bile, turns the "you're an idiot, babe" of the choruses to "we are idiots, babe" at the very end, Bob ultimately as self-aware as we all know he is. And I argue that an album with that much shading and complexity, one that has so many angles of that most unknowable of the human condition examined to a T, can only come from a love as strong and deep as the one that Bob must have had with his wife. Suze Rotolo (RIP, by the way) got some great songs. Sara Lowndes got a hell of a great album.

It has been said, I'm sure (as in, I'm quite certain somebody said it once, but can't for the life of me remember who) that "Wedding Song" was Dylan's last Hail Mary shot at reconciliation with his wife, a way to try and show her that he still deeply cared for her and their strained marriage was still worth saving. That makes just as much sense as anything else - after all, Dylan REALLY lays it in thick on some of those verses, doesn't he? But I would think that, even if that were true and Dylan simply wrote the song on the way to the studio because he wanted to end his album with a blown kiss of a song to his wife, that viewpoint might diminish the very thing that the theory is trying to prop up - i.e., Dylan's love of his wife, even at the very end of their relationship. I would think that the following album, full of bittersweet emotion, sadness, anger, and even the occasional ray of hope peeking through the black clouds, should tell that story well enough. "Wedding Song" might very well have been a last-gasp declaration of love, but I'd hope that enough time has passed that it can just be seen as a declaration of love.

And that, after far too long of a hiatus in between songs, is the end of Planet Waves! Thank you all for your support and your readership, even with the long arid stretches between content on this site. The next post will be my take on Tour '74, and then we get into what is (in my opinion) the pinnacle of Bob Dylan's career, and a pretty good candidate for the pinnacle of popular music as a whole. Hope you keep reading!

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cje said...

fascinating commentary on a fascinating song. Though I fear you may need 15,000 words for each track on BOTT at this rate!

João Pedro da Costa said...

Well, let's not forget "Sara" on Desire. That one was the real last Heil Mary.

gi. said...

hey, genius, if you're so clever why don't you place a simple 'search' button so we can surf through the pages and through the songs? I'd really appreciate that.

Pulp Revolution said...

One of the interesting things about being a relatively young fan of artists with long careers is that I feel I lack perspective. I wonder what Dylan fans must have thought about Planet Waves as a whole and Wedding Song specifically for the year before Blood on the Tracks was released. In some ways the album and the songs suffer from the fact that what came after it was so brilliant. Could they have realized how much Wedding Song would influence the sound and feel of the next record? Especially the NY sessions.
I think I'll never truly understand the magnificence of Desolation Row because I had the ability to listen to New Morning or Blonde on Blonde or Oh Mercy within minutes of Desolation Row ending.
What would we say about Dylan if Cat's in the Well was the last recorded sound we heard? How about Sugar Baby? It's All Good?

Phil D said...

Wedding Song always struck me as belonging in the soundtrack of the wedding scene in Ride The High Country - I find it raw and powerful and did not doubt its sincerity then or now. The personal context of Dylan's marriage, etc., is interesting but ultimately not the point.

drowning too said...

And Tony, I hope you don't quit after BOTT. I for one would like this to go on even through low points like Down in the Groove and Knocked out Loaded to eventually bring us to the present day.

Anonymous said...

Wedding Song always struck me as a man trying to persuade himself he still loved his wife. And failing miserably. The unhappiness is clear and stark.

I once drove my ex to the airport to catch a flight in UK to Australia, and she was to be away for 3 weeks. This song played as the car neared Heathrow, and she commented how sweet she found it. I told her what I thought. It was not a good departure....

Elizabeth J. Neal said...

On top of that, this is one of the precious few Dylan songs since Bringing It All Back Home that is purely acoustic, wedding songs

Richard C. Lambert said...

T, can only come from a love as strong and deep as the one that Bob must have had with his wife. Suze Rotolo (RIP, by the way) got some great songs. Sara Lowndes got a hell of a great album.

wedding songs

Unknown said...

I agree! Thank you for all the info!

I was quite shocked when i discovered this unknown gem.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.

Drew Watts said...

This is such an interesting share. We too have been making plans for an adorable DIY ceremony at one of the garden themed DC wedding venues. It will be a small family wedding so we are just looking for some budget friendly DIY ideas for entire ceremony. I wonder if you could help regarding it.

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