1965, Bob Dylan falls in love.
Not Bob Dylan, the man, artist, and songwriter, but Bob Dylan, the persona and guide through his imaginary world, built of notes and lyrics. The protagonist, who takes us by the arm, pulls us close, and talks about his dreams and fears. I have little idea about the biography of the actual person, or who he was spending time with during the recordings made from 1965-1966. The recently released Bootleg Series, The Cutting Edge, featuring studio recordings made from that period, has allowed the time to consider some familiar stories in a new way. One of the more startling aspects, reflecting on this period, is the complexity with which he sings about love and relationships. Unlike with other musical figures, I have never had the desire to know much intimate biography—fearing the truth of his life will obscure the riches of his work.
So, in that spirit, taking only the music at its word, this is a story about a man and his lover.
He first tells me about her in “She Belongs To Me.” After hearing the song attached to that title, it seems more than ironic. She doesn’t, in fact, seem to belong to him. Almost every lyric describes a distanced fascination coupled with deep insecurity. You may “start out standing,” proud to steal her anything. Problem is, he has already declared that this woman has got everything she needs, and I believe him.
Imagine that you fall in love; you meet up with a friend, who asks what she is like. The first thing to report is, “Well, she doesn’t really need anything. Not even me.”
So, this is the beginning of a complicated love story—where everything you hear is contradicted and reshaped by the next moment. She might love him, she might need him, but he is left unsure, off-balance. Still, he can’t turn away. Unlike in so many pop-song love affairs, there is no swagger, only an understanding that this woman is a puzzle box that may never open. “You will start out standing,” but you will soon fall, wind up on your knees, imprisoned, peeking through a keyhole.
Bob really does love her though, spinning stories of her magic—the Egyptian ring that “sparkles before she speaks” and all that. Well, I’ve seen this ring and, honestly, it is rather dull in anything but the most direct light. In fact, she doesn’t wear it much, but keeps it in a dish on a shelf with her collection of poetry books and jars of dried flowers. Though her eyes are nothing like jewels, she does sometimes sparkle when she speaks and when she whispers, close, her voice can almost hypnotize.
The next time he feels like talking about her is in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” Again, the title sounds assured and confident, more so than anything that follows. As he continues, I’m reminded of that line from “The Age of Innocence” where, after Newland Archer says he is in love with his young fiancée “as much as a man can be,” the Countess Olenska turns around his compliment, rendering it feeble, asking, “Do you think, then, there a limit?” I bet Bob read that, too.
“My love, she speaks like silence,” he adds, which is, in itself, a puzzle of a line. I think about silence, what it’s like when there is nothing to distract you from the sound of your own thoughts, your inner life. I guess she’s like that; she gets in there deep. She doesn’t tell him that she will be faithful, because she is “true… like ice, like fire,” neither of which are permanent.
Also, she “knows there is no success like failure, and that failure is no success at all.”
So, she wants you to learn from your mistakes but not to stop trying? No clarification comes, and I am beginning to worry. Bob can get lost and he sometimes takes himself so seriously. And when the fire dies down, or the ice starts to melt, he has so sure footing. “The bridge, at midnight, trembles.”
By the time of “Highway 61 Revisited,” his world is weary, full of traps and hustles, but she has only been elevated in his esteem, becoming royalty: Queen Jane, Cinderella, Bette Davis, his “lady” (the one who looks out, removed from the desolation).
Sometimes, life can be so hard that you can’t really look at it without a filter. Bob likes to use fractured narrative, built on a magpie’s memory of history and fables. It works, despite a penchant for obscurantism that could stop you at the gate. With “Desolation Row,” he offers fragments and invites me to fill in the gaps. Singing about a moaning Romeo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Casanova, and the Phantom of the Opera—all of them tragic, romantic figures, grotesque and disfigured by love.
Then someone says to him, “You’re in the wrong place my friend. You’d better leave.” This is when I want to say, “Bob, move on. Plenty of fish in the sea.” In answer, he just rattles on about fishermen waving flowers at the sea. As if a flower was something a mermaid could recognize or appreciate. I get it. She is behind glass now, or under the waves, impossible to reach. I would still rather see him try for impossible love than go listen to Paul McCartney talk about holding hands, or even Smokey Robinson confess to hiding his tears.
The world is either about to sink or go up in flames.
Things are going to get worse, even for her. I remember back in “Queen Jane Approximately,” he offered a litany of what ails her, inviting her to come down and see him. She didn’t. She has made it this far without a fairy godmother or Bob Dylan and—having everything she needs—doesn’t easily ask for help.
His fortune-telling lady has closed up shop and gone inside. The album ends, the future uncertain.
“Fuck,” Bob tells me, “I can’t write anything when it’s this cold.” I just went on a brisk winter walk through Brooklyn, the chilled sunlight felt just right, almost like the organ on “Just Like a Woman.” Bob feels different; he’s remembering the summer, those first days that he spent time with her, before they were lovers. He could only begin to know part of her, since she is intentionally obscured to most, but he recognized something both familiar and rare.
She was listening to him talk, casually retelling a childhood story that hurt once, but is the sort of thing you repeat until you think no one can see the stinger. Even before the tale is over, he looks up to see that tears are gathering in her eyes. He is dizzy, weak with recognition. Suddenly everyone else in the room seemed to be made of stone. So he gallantly offered his last piece of gum, it was all he could think to do.
They meet alone that August, at a little place in the East Village. She tells him more of her story and sort of breaks apart, right in front of him. As this happens, he feels like he is seeing past years of growing up, straight into something that’s been with her all along—way back when she was nobody’s child, living lawless, taking the dark out of the nighttime.
People reveal things to her, secrets she doesn’t know what to do with. This has happened since she was a girl, standing in the corner, understanding too much to ever be young.
Something makes grown men buckle and whisper in her ear, first on the farm, then in the city. A high school teacher once drove all night just to hand deliver a poem, then he turned and left without a word.
It’s a dangerous power, she knows. This is a warning to him. And here he is, confessing.
She got out, leaving home. Not looking back. Her pockets are well protected now, but after growing up with nothing, she carries that poverty deep inside, wherever she goes. Self-reliance never sounded so sad.
Sometimes sadness can be a comfort. If you hold it with the right person, it can feel like a thick blanket that covers you with only the things that really matter. They share this now, like a fort.
After wiping her face and excusing herself for the restroom, he watches her go, then opens up his little notebook and writes, “Halloween, buy her a trumpet. For Christmas, give her a drum.”
That was forever ago. “Blonde on Blonde” is mostly fixed in the past. After the opening skit about how high (or maligned) he is, the night settles in.
He’s up all night, stranded with Louise (she’s all right, she’s just near) and their favorite radio station, but his mind is on his lover. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” She’s everywhere. He is haunted, sleepless. He tells Louise, although their lives have become so entwined, he has to leave, apologizing. “Sooner or later, one of us must know, I really did try to get close to you.”
“How can I explain,” he says, “ it’s so hard to move on,” with a voice that sounds like he’s falling down a well.
Walking away, heading out to find his lover, every other song feels like a musing or a memory on the path that climbs toward the epic, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
“Temporary Like Achilles”… She can be as hard as solid rock, and sometimes he can only get through her first door.
“Just Like a Woman”… He has, however, been all the way inside her most private locked room. He was hungry and it was her world.
“I want you”… so bad.
After being stuck in Mobile, Alabama, for far too long, Bob arrives at her gate, weary. More than tired, nothing left. He dropped everything along the way except for the drum he promised, which he hoisted above his head through swamps or rolled along the desert floor.
She don’t look back, but she does look down, and sees him waiting there, thinner than she remembers. Eyes wide, filled with all the “too much” that he has seen.
A little boy, lost with broken eyes.
She cared for him, and still does, of course, but it’s exhausting to love someone like that. It’s hard to always be seen—like a shift you never clock out of. No hiding. Even now, on the highest floor, behind the drapes, he can see her, hands in her back pockets, still wearing that iron vest—the one that can stop an arrow, or drown you in a shallow river.
He can see her like no one else ever has, and that’s all he has to offer. He can paint her portrait.
Bob sings of her “mercury mouth,” and smoky eyes—quick and ever changing.
The basement clothes, the hollow face, her deck of cards, “missing the Jack and the Ace.” She would be the first to admit to not playing with a full deck, probably because of the disappointing men in her life.
“The farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide to show you the dead angels they used to hide.” People tell her things.
“Your gentleness now that you just can’t help but show.” He has seen her melt.
He knows her love is not easily won, he knows she is often mistaken for someone else; he knows she won’t be carried by anyone and this might take a long time.
All he asks for is a sign—some meager indication that she needs him too.
Then he waits.
In real life, Bob Dylan, flesh and blood, moves on. But in my imagination, the poet/lover is still sitting on the sidewalk, next to the Arabian drum, warehouse eyes fixed on her gate.
The record spins, the music fades.