Bob Dylan Countdown #104: “Dirge”

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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2 Comments on “Bob Dylan Countdown #104: “Dirge””

  1. rw says:

    what a song. what a voice. what a great singer. who else could have done it?

  2. Shabtai says:

    A great song.
    Should be in the top 40, like BOTT classics.

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