For this month’s Bob Dylan song, I have no link. The song is from Time Out of Mind, his big comeback album late in the Nineties. Dylan didn’t write many songs in that decade, producing only two albums of original songs, Time and Under the Red Sky (1990). Time Out of Mind was released after Dylan had his brush with a potentially fatal condition. The album’s dark moods suggested to his listeners that he was reflecting on the end of it all, though it was recorded before his health crisis. No matter. Dylan was 56 when the album came out, in the fall of 1997. On Sunday I turn 55, so . . . close enough. Feels to me that the dark mood is just par for the course.
Even back in 1997 today’s song jumped out as one that suited my mood. I was not exactly enjoying the ride in 1997, for various reasons. Did it have something to do with the late 30s? Yeah, probably. There are bluesier and more melancholy songs on the record than this one. So I don’t mean to say that I feel the song is despairing when I hear it—then or now. It’s resilient, I think. But it also recalls the dark brooding of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from 1973. There, the singer (the song was written to accompany a dying sheriff’s last scene in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) knows he’s reached the end; it’s time to lay down his gun and his badge and try to enter heaven. In “Trying to Get to Heaven,” the terms of the negotiation aren’t clear. The speaker lets us know that he’s not so concerned by worldy things any more, that he’s thinking of heaven and being called up yonder and the final reckoning and, I suppose, the bliss that is to come. Sure, right.
But that sentiment—which isn’t fully addressed at all—is only found in the refrain which, like all Dylan refrains, comes in to restate and to move us forward. Each time it’s said it has been inflected but what has come before. In each verse, the line—“I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door”—follows a line about moving or traveling. So that “heaven” might just be: the next place down the line. Much of the song sketches relations to places, places that no longer matter because they’re being left behind in favor of “heaven.” There’s a bit of the feeling of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” in the sense of “can this really be the end?” An end devoutly to be wished.
The lines that synched most with me when I recently played the song were: “Every day your memory grows dimmer / It doesn’t haunt me like it did before” (further sold by the ghostly organ that slides in behind). Since I’ve mentioned the “ghosts” that to some degree haunt this daily accounting, a statement like that is apropos. Memory does indeed dim and the memory of a particular person (and place) can fade. One of the advantages of getting old, we might say, is no longer having to recall things with such clarity.
The lines that hit me just now, in considering the song, were the lines about Missouri—where this week there has been a heavily armed police presence (in Ferguson, near St. Louis) after a policeman killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, and many residents have taken to the street in protest and outcry. “When I was in Missouri / They would not let me be / I had to leave there in a hurry / I only saw what they’d let me see.” Words that are uncannily apropos as there have been alleged efforts to control what is seen on media of such confrontations. I don’t mean to say that the song is topical—I think, in the context of the song, the lines indicate a personal persecution, but the “they” and the hurried departure are curious details, and it's ironic that, in the “Show Me State,” you can only see what they show you. And, no matter how one parses it, the next lines seem a non-sequitur: “You broke the heart that loved you / Now you can seal up the book and not write any more.” A nice way of saying “that’s all she wrote.” Maybe everyone either experiences or causes a broken heart at some point, and there’s nothing more to be said about it.
A particular strength of this song is Dylan’s vocal. It’s probably my favorite on the album and the album is strong in its vocals and in the way Daniel Lanois creates its textured soundscape. It puts Dylan outfront but surrounds him with lots of atmosphere—like the way the bass surges up at times, stately, or the slide that punctuates the title line, or the understated harmonica solo that plays it close to the chest.
A favorite verse for delivery is the third, about people on the platforms, “waiting for the trains / I can hear their hearts a-beatin’ / Like pendulums swinging on chains.” The emphasis on “hearts a-beatin’” feels both fond and wistful, and hearts beating like swinging pendulums? It’s almost surreal, certainly an odd image and simile. Then the delivery of the line “When you think you’ve lost everything / You find you can always lose a little more” comes as almost a consolation (remember, Lear said “the worst is not so long as one can say ‘this is the worst’”—things can always get worse and you can always lose a little more). Listen to how Dylan draws out “looose a lit-tle more.” It’s almost said with a twinkle. Nah, buddy, your losing days ain’t over yet.
The sixth line in each verse, which has to carry the end rhyme for “door” in the refrain, often gets an interesting inflection, as in “Miss Mary Jane’s got a house in Bal-ti-more,” the line that follows one of those oddly pertinent Dylan asides: “They tell me everything is gonna be alright / But I don’t what ‘alright’ even means.” John Lennon, for one, told us it was gonna be alright in the song “Revolution”—which was a way of acknowledging that things were not alright, just then. It’s in the nature of a sweet by-and-by that things will be better. Dylan’s riposte—“I don’t know what ‘alright’ even means” cuts against the notion that any thing ever will be, ever. Or that one could know it is. Dylan’s speaker reserves the right to say it isn’t because he couldn’t say it is.
And, as usual, the final verse—while not an out-and-out corker—does give a sense of ending. First there’s the great delivery of “Gonna sleep down in the parlor,” sounding like a tired housecat crawling away to seek some creature comforts. Then comes reflection on just how not “alright” things might be: “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / If everything is as hollow as it seems.” This is truly despondent—but it’s not a strong claim. The speaker doesn’t insist everything is hollow and not alright. He’s only wondering if all is as it seems—hollow. Or maybe there’s a meaning or a deliverance still lurking within the facts of things, here on earth, not up in heaven. The boast “I been to Sugar Town / I shook the sugar down” also has its despondent side. If shaking down the sugar means he’s dispensing it, then, OK, he’s still someone with something to offer. But in a more metaphoric sense the lines suggest that being “to Sugar Town” is like being lovey-dovey, all sugar kisses and honeyed phrases. He “shook the sugar down”—as if shaking down an illegal trade—could be a triumph over the urge to sweeten the despair of the song.
And yet there is something, if not sweet, then at least charming in Dylan’s vocal and attitude. Rather than try to bluff his way into heaven, he seems to have adopted the technique of gentle persuasion via a mixture of despondency and admiration. The speaker’s world seems both diminished and augmented by the song’s reflections. As with a lot of songs that look back at a “then” compared to a now (“Some trains don’t pull no gamblers / No midnight ramblers like they did before”), the thing lost or mourned isn’t all that clear—it was just the way things were. What’s clear is you can’t have it that way any longer. Fuck this, boys, see you in heaven is the takeaway.
I’m just goin’ down the road feelin’ bad