Some people say that hate is not the opposite of love; it’s indifference. I think about that saying when listening to “Dirge.” I don’t know that you can spit forth that kind of negative emotion about somebody unless you have fiercely loved that person in the past. Passionate love and untethered vitriol are sometimes separated by the flimsiest of barriers, and Dylan eloquently and mercilessly elucidates that phenomenon here.
It is a case where the music is perfectly matched to the tone of the lyric. Dylan plays piano on the track, all rumbling, ominous chords falling on top of each other. Robbie Robertson’s acoustic guitar picks out notes high on the musical spectrum, contrasting the piano sound but mirroring the anguished emotion. Notably, those are the only two instruments played on the track, leaving lots of open spaces for Bob to howl his lyrics as if the wounds are still wide open.
“I hate myself for loving you,” is the first you thing you hear over the piano and guitar, and it gets worse from there. That line is crucial, which is why it’s repeated in the song, since it shows the narrator’s own weakness as well as the disgust he has developed for this other person. He has reached an abyss from which return is uncertain, “That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.” He makes several references to the fact that this person arrived in his life when he was at a personal low point, thereby making him more vulnerable to the pain that she inflicts.
The narrator is not free from blame here, for he seems to suggest that his own self-destructive streak led him to the girl: “We stared into each other’s eyes ’til one of us would break/No use to apologize, what diff’rence would it make?” This is a relationship in which the two parties could never have coexisted without completely obliterating each other, so combustible is their chemistry.
Yet Dylan’s protagonist seems to have made it out alive, if a bit worse for wear: “I paid the price for solitude, but at least I’m out of debt, ” he sings, and then closes the matter with some measly optimism in the final line: “I hate myself for loving you, but I should get over that.”
What’s fascinating about “Dirge” is that it appears on the same album as “Wedding Song,” in which the same kind of powerful emotion is expressed, only it’s all positive. The ironic thing is that “Wedding Song” comes after “Dirge” on Planet Waves. A more cynical sequencer might have put the hate song right after the love song, suggesting that one inevitably leads to the other. The narrator of “Dirge” most certainly would have done it that way.
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I’m a single Dad of a nine-year-old little girl, and nobody is more of a sap when it comes to discussing their kids than me. So I get why some people might be confused about Bob Dylan’s assertion that he didn’t want ”Forever Young,” a song for his own children, to be sentimental. I mean, if you can’t get sentimental about your kids, then what can you get sentimental about?
More on that in a second. First let’s talk about this song, which stands as one of Dylan’s most popular, likely because of the subject matter and the accessible lyrics. You can keep the weird country rock version that crops up on Planet Waves. I do like the Biograph demo take, if only because of the vulnerability of the performance. But it is the first appearance of the song on Planet Waves that is the definitive version for me and, I suspect, for most fans.
This is the version where the alchemy created by Dylan and The Band is most evident on that album. That intangible relationship between singer and band is different here than it was on The Basement Tapes. Then it was a ramshackle, improvisational magic that arose, almost mystically, from those sessions. By ’74, it was more polished and professional, but, at least on this track, the soul was intact.
The Band could cajole more emotion out of Dylan’s lyrics than anybody else could. The instrumental passage that closes out the song, marked by Levon Helm’s fluttering mandolin, Garth Hudson’s watery organ, and Dylan’s impassioned harmonica is one of the most moving in the entire Dylan oeuvre. (Speaking of The Band and lullabies, you should check out “All La Glory” off Stage Fright, one of their underrated classics. I know, I digress, but you really should.)
Which leads us to the lyrics, and Dylan’s hard stance on sentimentality. Those of you with children know that the worst thing about having kids is the fear about the parts of their lives you cannot control. At times, it keeps me awake at night to the point where I have to forcefully think about trivial subjects before I can nod off. All I, or anyone else, can do, of course, is prepare my little girl for the hardness of the world. Ultimately, she has to experience it herself.
That’s where Dylan is coming from. He’s not so much making pie-in-the-sky wishes as he is giving prudent advice on how an innocent child can navigate the obstacles of the future. My child, not only do you have to respect the truth (“May you grow up to be righteous/May you grow up to be true”) but you also have to recognize it (May you always know the truth/And see the lights surrounding you.”) Not only must you persist against life’s many indignities (“May you always be courageous/Stand upright and be strong”) but you must make sure to never give those indignities the satisfaction of claiming your happiness (“May your heart always be joyful.”)
The simplicity of the wording belies the difficulties of these things actually coming to pass. When Dylan sings the chorus, there is desperation in the way he howls, evidence of a father’s helplessness coming to the surface. The sadness inherent in the realization that bad things will likely befall children at some point and time is palpable.
Knowing all of this, all parents can do is plead to a higher power (“May God bless and keep you always”) and hope those entreaties are heard. This song understands that parents need as much courage as their kids. It may not be sentimental, but it ultimately might be the most honest lullaby ever recorded.
My daughter’s too old for her Dad’s lullabies anymore, but back in the day, I use to sing her to sleep all the time. When I would look into those big, brown eyes and sing ”Forever Young” to her in my best basally Dylan as she nodded off, I always appreciated the song’s honesty, even as the sentimentalist in me wanted to lie and tell her everything will always be all right.
How many ways can you say “I love you?” If you’re Bob Dylan, you can say it nine different ways in this song alone, including four in the first verse. That’s not even counting all the other words of praise he has for the object of these overflowing affections, whom we can most likely assume to be his wife Sara.
He says it in touching ways (“I love you more than ever and I haven’t yet begun.”) He says it in clichéd ways (“I love you more than life itself.”) He even says it in somewhat creepy ways (“I’d sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die.”)
All of this sweetness might have given listeners a toothache had not a pervading sense of uneasiness crept into “Wedding Song,” the haunting final track off Planet Waves. The Band take five on this one, leaving Dylan and his acoustic guitar singing a love song almost unsettling in the ferocity of its emotion. It sounds at times like a guy trying to overcompensate, protesting way too much.
It’s the push and pull of the flowery paeans to devotion and gratitude butting up against the minor keys and Dylan’s somewhat snarling delivery that makes “Wedding Song” a song that would probably scare the bejesus out of the reception guests if it were actually played at a wedding.
That’s what makes it so fascinating, of course. The song ends abruptly after the last line, “‘Cause I love you more than ever now that the past is gone.” Being the literature buff that he is, Dylan surely knew Faulkner’s quote about the past never being dead (he even paraphrases it somewhat in “Summer Days.”) So if this love is conditional upon a buried past, and yet the past and its problems always eventually resurface, well, you can do the math to figure out how this things will turn out.
I can understand why this song was left off Planet Waves, Dylan’s 1974 collaboration with The Band. It’s a solid song, better than a few others on the album. But the album is already pretty weighed down with love songs, and this one might have got lost in the shuffle next to more overtly powerful stuff like “Dirge” and “Going, Going, Gone.”
It’s also doubtful that the version released on Bootleg Series would have been left as is had it made the album. There likely would have been tinkering and polishing before that point. As it stands, the song sounds at times like The Band is just warming up and feeling their way through it, and the recording suffers for that casualness.
Still, there’s an undercurrent of desperation running between the lines here that makes this more than just an ordinary song of praise for a beloved. Much of Dylan’s material around this point had uncertainty on the margins even as love inhabited the center. “Nobody Cept You” is ostensibly a love song, and yet there is a trip to the graveyard included, where the “bones of life are piled.”
It’s pretty clear the depth of emotion that the singer feels for the titular “You” in this song. What isn’t clear is if those powerful feelings of love are enough to stave off the encroaching darkness. Nothing less than the narrator’s possibilities for a happy life are at stake in this battle, and it’s that unexpected import to the proceedings that makes “Nobody ‘Cept You” a little more than just what it seems to be on the surface.