Love Minus Zero: an attempt at Dylanology

Bob Dylan sings Love Minus Zero, 1965

I’ve been meaning for a while to share some thoughts on this, one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs. I decided I’d spend a few moments this weekend tidying up my initial musings – and here below is the edited version. The simple but beautiful melody of the song is something I don’t touch upon, but new listeners might enjoy the tune as much as Dylan’s words, which form the basis of my comments. The video too is worth viewing: Dylan manages to captivate some of the people he’s with when he performs the song.

I make no pretence at subject specialism in offering my reading of Dylan’s lyrics here. The reading is very much my own – and open to improvement! (Some confident words of comment on the song can be read here).

Here, for clarity, are the lyrics of the song:

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
And make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

This, I think, is a song about an exceptionally captivating woman who doesn’t feel capable of sharing her full self with the poet. She is a free spirit, utterly unpretentious, and she can’t be bought with romantic gifts. She speaks in understated but direct tones while adopting a position of remove from the everyday scenes she sees around her. She avoids the temptation to judge those she perceives as she looks on. She likes to encounter reality simply, vividly and without affect, embracing a total perspective that confronts things as they are, refusing to dilute the truth by idealising it. This makes sense, for she herself feels raw and undilutable: her determination to live and think truly produces the comparison with ice and fire, these being natural phenomena which are powerful, blunt, pure and difficult to tame.

All around her the world carries on its business – people live their lives, caught up in the words, stories, activities and environments which occupy them. They repeat things they hear, discuss gossip, and read books and draw their own conclusions as they go about their daily tasks.

Naturally things don’t always play out well: whenever the delicate edifice that constitutes civilised society breaks down, this woman is all too aware of it. The matchsticks out of which humans construct statues (i.e. objects to venerate) are redolent of the ominous statue of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel: this too turned out to be ephemeral, flimsy and prone to falter. All that is solid can melt into thin air. And mighty empires fall.

A series of further images evokes the vast array of human activity that stands to represent the ‘real’ – human life and human society in its true outlines.

The horsemen represent, in my reading, the movers and shakers in the world: the bourgeoisie. These horsemen stand – like knights on a chessboard – in superior relation to the ordinary pawns who can’t help but bear a grudge against them. The ceremonies performed by the horsemen perhaps symbolise the power to enact authoritative ritual in a society: perhaps this is what the pawns resent when they hold their grudge.

The dangling cloak and dagger and the madams’ candles, meanwhile, suggest intrigue, mystery, secrecy: the hidden side of life in this world. As for the ‘banker’s nieces’ (who seek perfection, and who seem to recall the banker’s niece in A portrait of a Lady), could they represent those around us who devote themselves to the unending pursuit of beauty, glamour, success, finery? This would fit with the idea that what they’re seeking is ‘all the gifts that wise men bring’ (i.e. presumably, gold, frankincense and myrrh, the gifts which symbolise the treasures of this world in the nativity).  

The woman of the song is acutely aware of this bigger picture. She sees it all, and she looks on wryly and imperturbably at the scenes which confront her. She winks at what she sees, but she doesn’t argue or judge. The wink, I think, is not necessarily a sign of ironical or callous indifference, for there seems to be a serious moral dimension to her approach.

On one hand, as already mentioned, she is careful not to judge or to argue about what she sees (she ‘knows too much’ to do this). On the other, while being keenly aware that success in being human necessarily involves failure, she paradoxically maintains a tough and pitiless view of how failure, in the final analysis, cannot constitute any kind of (worldly) success. Does she get this right? It might seem to clash with her position of knowing remove. Perhaps her wink is slightly callous after all.

This woman, despite sharing herself and her perceptions with the narrator, won’t allow herself fully to embrace his affections. She prefers instead to loiter, injured, in the person of Poe’s raven, at his window, in the pouring rain as it beats down on her. She refuses the warmth and safety of his home, despite her vulnerability – and so she remains something of an outsider to him, as she is to the world.

There is no suggestion that the narrator thinks this raven’s broken wing could be healed by coming inside, but perhaps the wing’s brokenness is what prevents her from flying off rather than any special sense that she would like to stay perched on his particular precipice, haunting him.

The narrator may happen to be a good and understanding listener who can appreciate this unusual individual’s depth at a moment when she is looking for someone capable of doing this. A convenient – and temporary – object of interest. This raven has set a clear limit around the scope of their interaction, making clear its limited boundaries.

The song’s lyrics are about finding and knowing a strikingly perceptive person who is capable of sharing the profundity of their reading of the world. But the lyrics also indicate the limits of this particular relationship: they respect the integrity of Dylan’s ‘love’ as she finds her own way. The raven will disappear into the night any time she wishes – if, that is, she can brave the dark while carrying her wound.