The greatest artists are consumed by their art. If one wants to go about finding Shakespeare, they have no choice but to look for him in his plays, and must then realize that what they have discovered is their own self and not Shakespeare’s. A college student is quoted in Harold C. Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare who says, “We probably know the members of our Shakespeare class, deep down, far better than we shall know any class again. You just can’t discuss Shakespeare without putting a window in your very soul.”
One example of this window to our soul is the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. How are we to interpret this character? Many readers or audience members at the play, interpret it to be a part of Hamlet’s imagination and a sign of the stresses on his fragile sanity. Yet, the Ghost appears to multiple people besides Hamlet. Was Shakespeare trying to tell us that this truly is meant to be an apparition? There is not a right answer, but your experiences and values will be what is determinative in how you approach this question, not Shakespeare himself or his intentions.
Freudians read into Shakespeare what they want to; Marxists what they want; acolytes of Foucault what they want. In the end we learn about these traditions from their interpretations, but we don’t learn about Shakespeare.
If a Shakespeare exists in the modern musical tradition, he might be Robert Johnson. Johnson’s singing, guitar playing, and thematic elements within his music did more to shape “rock and roll” music than any other early influencer. He haunted Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, and Bob Dylan for their entire musical careers. Yet, we know next to nothing about him. There are two reasons for this: first, the period of time in which he lived (1911-1938) did not place a value high enough on a black man like Johnson to have recorded key events in his life accurately; second, Johnson himself understood the incredible power of myth and, I think, purposely indulged in it so as to drown out any aspects of his real personality. We don’t know the day he was born, how he died, or even where he is buried. We do know the myth that he sold his soul to the devil at “the crossroads” as well as the incredible power of the music itself. Go looking for Robert Johnson and, like Shakespeare, you will only find yourself.
Music, along with various other art forms, is now a major commercial enterprise and fans of today’s musicians demand to know so much of an artist’s personality and psyche that it has been much harder for modern musicians to get consumed. Perhaps Bob Dylan is the only major musical figure that has had success in doing so, refusing to be labeled, categorized, or understood.
Part of Dylan’s aim of revealing little about himself is surely no more complicated than valuing privacy. His answers to questions from the press are also meant to point out just how absurd the interactions could become. When a reporter asked him how many protest singers there were, Dylan responded “136,” to which the reporter then asked, “Do you mean about 136 or exactly 136?” “It’s either 136 or 142,” Dylan responds.
Yet, Dylan has also understood the power of myth and anonymity and has purposely obscured himself for that reason as well. How Bob Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, how a folk singer electrified a Newport audience, how a motorcycle accident really went down – all have passed into the mythical rather than historical realm. Writing in Chronicles, Dylan said, “I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes.”
Ask Dylan fans to interpret his most famous songs and you will get responses that mirror responses for Shakespeare and Johnson as well. Everyone brings themselves into Dylan’s songs so much that Dylan himself is shoved aside in the interpretation.
Despite the challenge, it is very much possible to locate the real Dylan in some of his songs. One good example of this is the song “Abandoned Love,” which was written in 1975 and performed live at the time in impromptu engagements in New York, later recorded in the studio and released on Biograph. That this song was shelved from Desire in favor of “Joey” is one of the great travesties of musical history.
“Abandoned Love” was performed at the club “The Other End” when Dylan joined Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in a performance in 1975. Joe Kivak, an audience member, later described the performance:
“Their first song was “Pretty Boy Floyd,” with Bob singing harmony and his guitar buzzing right along. Then Jack started “How Long Blues.” After the first verse, he looked at Bob in a way that seemed to ask him to sing a verse. Bob simply shook his head and mouthed something inaudible. When the song finished, however, Dylan began strumming his guitar. But since it was still buzzing, he asked Jack to trade instruments with him. At that moment, everyone in the room was in a trance; it’s not every day one gets to hear an impromptu Bob Dylan performance in a tiny club. After a couple of lines, we realized he was performing a new song, with each line getting even better than the last. The song was “Abandoned Love,” and it still is the most powerful performance I’ve ever heard.
Ramblin’ Jack started strumming along in the beginning, but he soon realized the rarity of the moment and stopped and stepped to the side. As Bob sang, the nervousness so evident earlier vanished completely. He was so moving. There he was, hitting us with new material, with everyone hanging on his every word. It was an incredible feeling to be in that small club listening to Bob Dylan perform a new song. We all felt we were watching history in the making. After he finished, he returned to his seat near the back of the club and quietly watched the rest of the show. Jack appeared so speechless and overwhelmed by Dylan’s performance that he started his next song with Bob’s buzzing guitar.”
Someone in the audience recorded the performance of the song, which can you hear here:
The timing of the composition makes it clear that the song was written in response to the marital problems Dylan was having with his wife Sara. Even apprehending the power of the song when first listening to it, it is easy to take its meaning as straightforward: a relationship is ending and the author is struggling to come to terms with that.
But, then, what are we to make of lines like this:
“I can’t play the game no more, I can’t abide
With their stupid rules that make me sick inside
They’ve been made by men who’ve given up the search
Whose gods are dead and whose queens are in the Church.”
What does “St. John the Evangelist” have to do with a troubling break up? Who is the “patron saint” and which ghost is he battling? The more you try to tighten your grip on the song, the more it starts to slip through your fingers.
Bob Dylan and Sara Lowndes met in 1964 and secretly married in 1965. When a friend asked him why he married Sara Lowndes and not Joan Baez, he said,
“Because Sara will be there when I want her to be home, she’ll be there when I want her to be there, she’ll do it when I want to do it. Joan won’t be there when I want her. She won’t do it when I want to do it.'”
Dylan was about to embark on one of the most miraculous periods of artistic creativity ever witnessed that produced Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde within a span of eighteen months when he met Sara. By 1966 his health was terrible and he very well might have died had it not been for her. The pace at which he was moving demanded enormous quantities of drugs. He abused Desoxyn (prescription methamphetamine) and other amphetamines, as well as Desbutal, a mixture of Desoxyn and the powerful barbiturate Nembutal. It is highly likely that he was also at least dabbling in Heroin. He also seemed to stop caring and took every opportunity to provoke confrontation, particularly with his own fans. Ultimately, he was struggling to understand what it was he wanted.
Perhaps Dylan’s greatest song, “Visions of Johanna” sheds more light than any other in understanding the Bob Dylan of this time. It was written in the latter part of 1965, probably close to the time that he and Sara were married. That has prompted interpreters to suggest that the “Johanna” of the title is Sara herself, while “Louise” is a portrait of Joan Baez. This seems not at all accurate. The song is about something much more eternal than romantic love.
The seminal verse of the song takes place inside a museum.
“Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile.”
What is the point of artistic greatness? Is it immortality or salvation? Some might think so. William Shakespeare has been dead for hundreds of years and yet I began this essay discussing him. That does give him immortality to some extent. But, he’s still dead, so what does it matter to him? People also continue to go see ancient paintings in museums, but of what benefit is that now to their painters?
Dylan had clearly been ambitious artistically. He had continued to push and reinvent the structure of the popular song. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” yielded to “Chimes of Freedom,” which yielded to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which yielded to “Like A Rolling Stone,” which yielded to “Desolation Row.” When Bob Dylan appeared in Greenwich Village, his ambition drove nearly everything he did. He sought out the people he most admired, used the people willing to be used, and forged a vision of songwriting that changed our culture.
The name “Louise” is German and it means “warrior” or sometimes is translated as referencing a struggle. “Johanna” is a Jewish name which means “God’s grace.” It is possible that these names were chosen at random. Of course, it is also possible that the maturing Dylan was discovering that he had a choice between artistic struggling and accepting the non-artistic gifts in life he was given.
The now seminal motorcycle accident happened on July 29, 1966. The events of the accident are still disputed. Most likely, Dylan really was hurt in the crash but exaggerated the condition he was in to execute the choices he was making for his life. He and Sara had recently become parents. A life of family and stability had become more important than his art. During the coming years, he would write less, sometimes not at all, and never had a great artistic triumph again until 1974’s Blood on the Tracks when the pain of a breaking marriage was fueling an artistic resurgence.
Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain’s greatest poet, once gave a famous talk entitled “The Theory and Spirit of Duende.” “Duende” was a term that Lorca used to mean a type of spirit within artists that they must do battle with in order to produce great art. Lorca clearly believed that suffering and longing were the sources of great expression, not talents bestowed on certain people. He said,
“The duende I mean, secret and shuddering, is descended from that blithe daemon, all marble and salt, of Socrates, whom it scratched at indignantly on the day when he drank the hemlock, and that other melancholy demon of Descartes, diminutive as a green almond, that, tired of lines and circles, fled along the canals to listen to the singing of drunken sailors.
For every man, every artist called Nietzsche or Cézanne, every step that he climbs in the tower of his perfection is at the expense of the struggle that he undergoes with his duende, not with an angel, as is often said, nor with his Muse. This is a precise and fundamental distinction at the root of their work…
… The magic power of a poem consists in it always being filled with duende, in its baptising all who gaze at it with dark water, since with duende it is easier to love, to understand, and be certain of being loved, and being understood, and this struggle for expression and the communication of that expression in poetry sometimes acquires a fatal character.”
Speaking in Chronicles, Dylan later wrote of the period between the latter part of 1966 and 1974, “It’s hard to live like this. The first thing that has to go is any form of artistic self-expression that’s dear to you… Art is unimportant next to life… I had no hunger for it anymore, anyway.” When somebody mentioned to Dylan that his writing had become superficial and less satisfying, he responded, “I wasn’t going to go deeper into the darkness for anybody. I was already living in the darkness. My family was my light and I was going to protect that light at all costs.”
For a time, Dylan seems to have been genuinely happy with his new life. He certainly loved Sara and his children and reveled in a “normal” life where his wife played the traditional role of a woman. But, one has to suspect that in time this life grew to be akin to winning the lottery and quitting your job. It was everything you wanted, but at some point everyone grows bored and needs a purpose. This same feeling had to have been amplified in Dylan, because in addition to boredom his genius was slipping away from him.
That restlessness does not diminish the genuine love and appreciation he felt for Sara. The song “Shelter in the Storm” from Blood on the Tracks demonstrates clearly that Dylan understood the role she played in his life – she saved it and she saved him from a world where others only were interested in the celebrity and she gave him among the most treasured moments of his life. No other woman has ever caused him to be so vulnerable as he was when singing the song “Sara” on Desire.
This was the landscape of the inner world of Bob Dylan in 1975 when he wrote “Abandoned Love” and showed up to play to an appreciative and bewildered New York City audience.
“I can hear the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous, but he’s vain
Something’s telling me, I wear the ball and chain.”
The first verse is reflective of an understanding that the relationship was coming to an end. Various separations piled up before the pair actually did divorce in 1977. But, Dylan already knows it will happen, because choosing to once again indulge his musical gifts was equivalent to rejecting his life with her. He had indeed deceived himself, either by believing that both of these lives could co-exist or believing that he could have been permanently happy living with a collapsed genius.
The phrase “ball and chain” is telling as well. It’s a pejorative term for the weight of a relationship but originated as a restraint for prisoners. Dylan’s acknowledgment of this, again, has a dual aspect: his recognition of the restraint of his marriage as well as a kind of odd compliment to someone who had enough power over him to cause him to choose to be restrained for a period of time.
“My patron saint is fighting with a ghost
He’s always off somewhere when I need him most
The Spanish Moon is rising on the hill
But my heart is telling me, I love you still.”
This verse is quite puzzling at first. Just who is Dylan’s patron saint? A patron saint is primarily a Catholic innovation that grew out of the practice of building churches on the sites where martyrs were buried. Those martyrs became the patron saints of the particular churches. Quite literally, a patron saint is someone who is prayed to in order to ask for help in interceding with God on that person’s behalf.
“Fighting with a ghost” is a popular metaphor for wrestling with your own past, except here it is not Dylan who is fighting with aspects of his past that refuse to die, but someone who he asks to intercede on his own behalf.
It is hard not to be reminded of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel from the book of Genesis. After Jacob prevails from the all-night struggle, his reward is a new name, and a new identity. Dylan may have asked for a more stable inner world and one of contentment rather than struggle, but even as Sara gave him this opportunity, he was incapable of permanently accepting it. Although he would have preferred not to engage with his ghosts, his “patron saint” refuses to follow his wishes and is constantly off battling these ghosts. In the process, Dylan changes and is constantly in flux, even when his own sentimentality stands in contrast.
The “Spanish Moon” is a less common way of saying “supermoon,” or a moon that appears to us to be larger than normal because of shifts in perspective. The meaning here is clear: all of the signs point to the end of the day, but his heart is not allowing him to accept that quite yet.
But, it is equally true that Dylan is deliberately evoking the great Spanish poet Lorca, mentioned earlier in this essay and someone more commonly associated with Leonard Cohen, but who was also a tremendous influence on Dylan. The title of his poem “La Luna Asoma” can be translated many ways, sometimes as “The Looming Moon,” but “asoma” can mean here that the moon is showing itself or peeking above the horizon. It could also be translated as “The Rising Moon” and would be the most common way the expression would be phrased in English, although “looming” implies a size out of proportion to itself as well as a portending of something negative.
Lorca’s poem is an ode to the loneliness brought on by the night as well as the inescapable feeling of being lost in the darkness of nighttime. “No one eats oranges under the full moon,” says Lorca, with oranges metaphorically being the sun.
In just this one verse, Dylan is able to articulate both the inescapable signs that something precious is ending as well as the loneliness, fear, and sadness that end brings to him.
Despite the obvious signaling of the moon, he has to see her again and be with her.
“I come back to the town from the flaming moon
I see you in the street, I begin to swoon
I’d love to see you dress before the mirror
Won’t you let me in your room one time, before I finally disappear.”
For the woman who gave him “shelter from the storm,” he feels the need to be with her in her most private moments once again and experience a kind of warmth that it is simply not possible to force and cannot arise except organically. Absent that, our memories are all we take with us when those most precious exit our lives. Being “in your room” is reminiscent of “try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm.”
This is, of course, the central irony and the reason why the parting produces such deep sorrow. It is precisely that feeling of warmth, intimacy, and stability that he craves which is what ultimately leaves him feeling sterile and unfulfilled. It is as if a choice for happiness is not on the menu.
Isn’t there some possibility of deferring such a moment of pain or reorienting himself and adjusting his identity? He says no.
“Everybody’s wearing a disguise
To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes
But me, I can’t cover what I am
Wherever the children go, I’ll follow them.”
Most of us are able to pretend, at least for a little while. But not children. They cannot pretend to be anything except what they really are and communicate their impatient desires. No other option exists for Dylan either, he has tried his best to cover over his pain, but he has failed at that. And so not only can he not pretend to give up on his ghosts, he is also unable to pretend that the continued longing he feels does not exist.
“I march in the parade of liberty
But as long as I love you I’m not free
How long must I suffer such abuse?
Won’t you let me see you smile, before I cut you loose?”
Perhaps Kris Kristofferson via Janis Joplin had it right, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”? Or maybe Dylan himself did when he wrote “Like A Rolling Stone.” Rather than merely taunting “Miss Lonely,” sincere questions were being asked. How does freedom feel? Is the loss of duty and the capacity to guide your own path worth the severing with your past? Those questions are now being turned back on him. “How does it feel?” Well, it feels a lot like abuse and if he can’t have the warmth of intimacy any longer, can’t he at least see her smile and leave with the satisfaction that she has found a measure of happiness?
But, now we come to the most perplexing verse in the song, which is actually sandwiched between the two verses discussed above.
“I can’t play the game no more, I can’t abide
With their stupid rules which get me sick inside
They’ve been made by men who’ve given up the search
Whose gods are dead and whose queens are in the Church.”
The best clue to the meaning may come from the very end of the song when the woman who is the subject is asked to descend from her throne. She is the queen.
Individuality was the right Dylan fought hardest for throughout his life. He absolutely refused to be pushed in a direction by anyone else regardless of the consequences. The footage of Dylan on his 1966 tour is quite remarkable in showing how he not only was unwilling to accede to the demands of the audience at the time, he very often intentionally provoked them.
Everyone has some philosophy on how life should be lived and at this point, Dylan just wasn’t interested in hearing about it or about any other rules someone else may lay down. If there is any kind of direct religious connection it comes from the story of Adam and Eve. Reflecting on the story in 1 Timothy, St. Paul declares that Adam was not deceived by the serpent as Eve was. How he would know that I don’t know. But, it does imply something amazing: Adam loved Eve more than his own life and more than God. He would have had to.
It was Nietzche who declared God to be dead and many people who may not readily identify themselves as lacking a belief in God certainly live their lives as if he is irrelevant to them, while simultaneously exalting romantic love to take God’s place. That was something Dylan was unwilling to do for anybody no matter how deeply he loved them. Doing so would subsume his own identity and genius and be equivalent to “giving up the search.”
He is not done with the quasi-religious imagery, though, and he spins another puzzling verse.
“Send out for St. John the Evangelist
All my friends are drunk, they can be dismissed
My head says that its time to make a change,
But my heart is telling me, I love you but you’re strange.”
St. John the Evangelist was the writer of the Gospel of John and is traditionally thought to also be the writer of Revelation, a book about the end of the world and one in which Dylan continually found immense fascination. But, I don’t think that is quite the point here.
The only realistic possibility, besides being a somewhat random reference (which is a possibility) comes from a Street Legal song, “Where are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).” In the aftermath of divorce, this song seems to very much still be inspired by his split with Sara and it also includes a reference to St. John.
The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode.
In that last hour of need, we entirely agreed, sacrifice was the code of the road.
I left town at dawn, with Marcel and St. John, strong men belittled by doubt.
I couldn’t tell her what my private thoughts were but she had some way of finding
Them out. He took dead-center aim but he missed just the same, she was waiting,
Putting flowers on the shelf.
She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair and discovered her invisible self.
I am going to assume that the belittling of doubt did not come from within “Marcel and St. John,” but rather they themselves were doubted by others since there is no great story of the doubt of St. John in the same way as there is for St. Thomas.
Who was Marcel? The most likely candidate is Catholic existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who frequently wrote about a “broken world,” a world that is broken in essence and not one that has become broken in recent times. He also wrote about living life as a “witness” or as an “observer.”
“An observer is somebody who looks at life impersonally, as objective data to record and use. But a witness takes upon himself to testify, in court for example, perhaps in danger to his life. A witness accepts a commitment – a commitment to testify, to be faithful to truth…To live like a witness is to be faithful to a light in the darkness, which is what makes life meaningful.”
OK. What does that have to do with “St. John”? The whole narrative of the song is a spiritual journey in the context of a broken relationship, in which the singer learns things about himself, about her, and about meaning. He is metaphorically traveling from darkness to light. That is the most likely reason why St. John is mentioned here, because of his famous quotation of Jesus: “I am the light of this world.”
Street Legal was Dylan’s last secular record before his religious period, but by 1978 he was surely more willing to embrace spiritual subjects than in 1975. But, the thread between the two songs still seems to be intact. If life is a journey towards some kind of purpose, this relationship and his current friendships were simply not helping him achieve the progression he needed.
The audience laughs when Dylan sings the line “I love you but you’re strange.” It does not seem to be intended to be a joke, rather Sara is now “strange” to him because of frequent separations and a growing apart. They are no longer in sync with each either. “Now there’s a wall between us, something that’s been lost.”
That loss of a shared psyche also sets up the punchline of the song.
“So one more time at midnight near the wall
Take off your heavy make-up and your shawl
Won’t you descend from the throne on which you sit?
Let me feel your love one more time, before I abandon it.”
Is it possible to merge once more before the final separation? Probably not, but if to Dylan “she still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart,” then any stolen moment remains a precious one within his memory.
Interpretation is an art and there is no reason to be dogmatic about a particular point of view. In fact, many of the more difficult lines of “Abandoned Love” will never have a definitive interpretation. Should Dylan himself even tell us what they mean, his own recollection would be highly suspect.
Having made that disclaimer, that does not mean that it is impossible to locate Dylan himself within certain songs, and this is clearly one of them. Seeing “Abandoned Love” as merely a “break-up song” or a song about a man not over a love is too simplistic to cover its depth. The song is more precisely about a choice and the sorrow brought by an inability to simultaneously live multiple lives. It is also, without question, heavily influenced by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and his concept of duende.
In the years that followed, Dylan would go through a period of born-again Christianity and ultimately lost relevance for a time before recording his late masterpieces Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft from 1997 and 2001. No pop cultural icon went through such constant transformation in the same manner that Dylan would continue to and in such surprising ways.
There was a summer night in 1975 when he spilled his blood on Bleecker Street and allowed himself to be located within a song. You have to suspect, though, that by the morning he was once again a different man and the process of consistently finding him again proves as much a futile exercise as it had so often proved to be in the past. When you think you’ve got him figured out, he once again slips from your grasp.