Saturday, September 27, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 270): "WEDDING SONG" (1974) Bob Dylan

Today someone very special to me is getting married, hence the choice of today’s song—which I’ll dedicate to soon-to-be newlyweds, my god-daughter Anna Livia and her husband, Jasen.

It may not be deemed a good omen to choose a song written and recorded by Dylan a few years before divorce proceedings began, ending his first marriage—and his wife’s second—which was in its 7th year when the song was released. But it could be said that having his feet put to the fire, as it were—glimpsing what he was liable to lose—is what made Dylan give such a searching expression to what his marriage means to him.

It’s not like he hadn’t been writing—since 1968 at least—songs that tried to capture some of the contentment he felt, some of the basis for the bond. In “Wedding Song” he says it outright: “You gave me babies, one, two, three / But what’s more you saved my life.” And follows up that homey truth with something a bit more stark: “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth / Your love cuts like a knife.” Hmm, not exactly the coziest way to evoke wedded bliss. The terms of the lex talionis, a tit for tat sense of punishment, cited as a way of saying, this is serious. Either of us crosses the line at our peril. Do unto others well while they're doing unto you.

True, the song really isn’t a “wedding song” in the sense of an epithalamium, but rather a song for taking stock of a long-standing marriage, though it could be said to enact a new proposal, a renewal of the original intention to wed. “I love you more than ever and I haven’t yet begun.”

Indeed, the song abounds in strong statements of enduring affection, set against the kinds of slings and arrows that tear at the peace of mind of even the most devoted couple, but, here, take a shape related to Dylan’s status as some kind of spokesperson or, for some, a prophet: “It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large / Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge / ’Cause I love you more than all of that with a love that doesn’t bend/ And if there is eternity I’ll love you there again.”

The last two lines first shrug off whatever might be conceived to be the singer’s “duty” to his fans or his art, then state what is to my mind a moving sense of the dedication he wants to evince. All the world offers is meaningless but for our love, and if there is life after this, our love will be all that matters there. We can’t change the world—or make eternity exist—but we have our love.

Earlier the singer gets perhaps a bit anxious about how much this commitment means, ultimately, in costs to one’s peace of mind or sense of what is generally called “autonomy”: “My thoughts of you don’t ever rest, they kill me if I lie / But I’d sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die.” In other words, there’s no self outside the marriage, no rest from its imperatives. That’s a bit much, if you ask me, and I’ve only been married less than half a year short of 30 years. Though I guess the sense of sacrifice, whether or not of one’s very senses (and if thy eye offend thee, pluck it out), is part of the general sense of the vows one takes.

There are also lines that might give us pause when addressed to the person who is supposedly one’s partner in all this: “Oh can’t you see that you were meant to stand by my side / And I was born to be with you, you were born to be my bride.” One wonders how many wives would accept that they were “born to be” married to their husband. The rhetoric of the lines makes her born for him slightly more than he was born for her. One suspects that’s simply patriarchy talking, in which a man proposes and, accepted, deems the woman “his” perhaps more than he is “hers.” But, given that the marriage might already be a bit shaky, the insistence seems to be trying to convince her of something she has lately had cause to doubt. “You’re the other half of what I am, you’re the missing piece / And I love you more than ever with a love that doesn’t cease.” There you have a firmly delivered wedding-vow-like affirmation of the bond, in the sense that the union is meant to conjure exactly that sense of each being “the other half” of the other. Possibly such vow-like statements are what led Dylan to the title “Wedding Song.”

I’m not certain that Dylan, as he generally does, saved the best for the last verse of today’s song. His “And I could never let you go, no matter what goes on”—a bit more of that fiat a husband might exercise upon a wayward wife—has to come at the end, I suppose, and so his final line, “And I love you more than ever now that the past is gone” could be a strong statement that further flings away the burden of being “Bob Dylan” for all and sundry, but it rebounds upon the relationship itself, as if suggesting that whatever in the past may be less than harmonious is “gone” and not to be considered. Whereas in most cases of marital strife it isn’t simply the present that is the problem but rather acts and words that have accumulated, a chain of events and occasions that are never really “gone” until one or both are past caring. “Now that the past is gone” sounds wishful in that light, not quite earned. Who are you, Mr. Husband, to say the past is gone?  But we can give Dylan credit, as a poet, for ending with such a performative utterance. As Rimbaud, speaking the poet’s inner logic, might say, “Everything I say is oracular and absolutely right.”

The verse that I might submit as the best is either the one ending with the glance into eternity (already quoted), or the one that feels to me like the kind of ending I'd like to go for: “The tune that is yours and mine to play upon this earth / We’ll play it out the best we know, whatever it is worth.” That has the virtue not only of calling attention to the song itself as a fairly frail manifestation of whatever enduring love is supposed to be—a vast history of love songs notwithstanding—but also of putting the emphasis on the notion of playing that “tune” together. Whether it finds favor or not, it’s our song to play, just we two.

Then Dylan reaches for one of those great sweeping lines he’s fond of: “What’s lost is lost, we can’t regain what went down in the flood”—which seems to me not only better, in terms of imagery and enunciation, than the line about “the past is gone” but suggests that something “went down” that can’t be gotten back nor possibly even atoned for. It reminds me of Tennyson’s Ulysses saying “though we are not now that force that once moved earth and heaven, that which we are we are.” Which is a way of saying, we aren’t what we were when we married, “But happiness to me is you and I love you more than blood.” That avoids that whole “fiat” aspect of the final, more desperate, more grasping verse, and registers something more vulnerable: “happiness to me is you”—that may be a heavy trip to lay on someone (you’re my very happiness! Without you I’m a miserable son of a bitch) but it feels more earned because more yearning—since his happiness is dependent on hers.

When first hearing the song I used to think the line about “blood” was just a bad rhyme for “flood.” Like: how much do you love blood, Bob? Then I realized that blood stands for “kin.” I love you more than those related to me by blood. That’s the other side of marriage that bears some thought: marriage makes you kin to her kin and your kin kin to her and her kin to them. But, let’s be clear, the one you love and are wedded to has to take precedence, has to override any allegiance to kin, if it comes to that. That’s the sticking point in many a story of bad marriages, undone by family dynamics; it’s also a “modern” statement against the tradition of marriage as being for the sake of family. Thus, I’ve always tended to rally to that line, taken in that sense, as circumscribing the “ourselves alone” dimension of marital relations.

Of course, when a marriage does end, as the Dylans’ did, and there are children, then “blood”—the “genes” we say now—are what binds the children of the union to their parents, so that the “brood” becomes the new reality to be dedicated to, regardless of what “went down in the flood,” which comes to include the marriage itself.

There are some strong statements here of the kind of relentless bond that marriage insists upon, and of the kind of “as heaven is my witness” vows that make the ceremony necessary, so . . . reason enough to quote a few lines at today’s nuptials.

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