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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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.