Bob Dylan’s ‘Long and wasted years’ – an analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 1 (of 3).
Undoubtedly this is another masterpiece – like so many – from the album ‘Tempest’. It is rather unique in Dylan’s oeuvre. Like ‘Brownsville girl’ the song is more recited than sung which very much adds to the drama of the song. Apart from this, there is no bridge, no chorus or refrain in the song which gives every word equal significance, felicity of expression and penetrance. The melodic repetition together with the descending guitar riff yields both momentum, dispense and tension. The phrasing is absolutely magnificent, Dylan twists and bends the words to give them maximum impact. From beginning to its sudden end there is no let up,you are overwhelmed by the continuous pounding of waves of words and when the drama suddenly comes to an end, it leaves you somewhat bewildered and with the feeling that the poet has something very important to say, yet you cannot immediately pinpoint what exactly this is all about.
What is this song about? The least one could say is that something has gone terribly wrong in this love relationship. Two lovers still stuck together in a bond full of pain, tears and remorse, seemingly mutually incapable to heal the wounds they have inflicted on each other. A thought which we feel can hardly be dismissed is that of burning Eden, paradise lost. If this supposition is correct, and I found many allusions in the song which point in that direction, ‘Long and wasted years’ may be a metaphor to describe the whole epoch of fallen mankind. An epoch which started when man fell into sin and had to leave the Gates of Eden behind, an epoch which still lasts as we speak and will last till the Latter Day The poet now confronts us with the bitter consequences of this downfall. Is there an auto-biographical undercurrent in this song? Maybe. However, we have to bear in mind what the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamar (1900-2002) wrote. Gadamar wrote that the finest and greatest art in this world always has something which is inexplicable and remains a mystery, full revelation of this mystery will blur great art and make it superficial. This also the case here. This analysis is an attempt to get a little closer to what may be nothing more than a possible interpretation of this great song.
Having said this let’s make a start with the daunting task of analyzing the lyrics of this song.
‘It's been such a long, long time, since we loved each other and our hearts were true’. In the poet’s mind this introductory dialogue may be taken from a scene in which Adam is addressing Eve, shortly after they had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. When somebody is in agony and pain for one’s perception, time moves slowly and happiness seems such a long time ago, that’s why he says: ‘It's been such a long, long time’. The memory of the perfect happy days in the Garden of Eden still linger but in Adam’s perception this happy period seems such a long time ago. The happy days flew by in the twinkling of an eye, just like Dylan wrote in ‘Standing in the Doorway’: ‘Yesterday – in the Garden of Eden - everything was going too fast, today, it’s moving too slow’. In the Garden of Eden they loved each other in the most truthful and perfect way: ‘our hearts were true’. There was a perfect understanding between the two, no anxiety or fear to blur their love relationship, mutually serving and supporting each other in all circumstances and walks of life. In some sort of a way the poet here reiterates what he wrote in the final verse of his song ‘Gates of Eden’: ’At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams, with no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means. At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true, and there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden’. But for Eve and Adam that is now something from a distant past. Adam goes on to say to Eve: ‘One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you’. That ‘One time’ may have been in paradise, in the Garden of Eden. It now looks as if this perfect matrimony only lasted for a brief day. However, they say that time flies when you’re having fun, when you are happy and having a great time. Though this ‘brief day’ might in reality have lasted much longer than a day, it now feels it was over before it had even started. It is just like a short dream as Dylan wrote in ‘Sugar Baby’: “Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick”.
The fictitious conversation goes on when Adam says to Eve: ‘Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn't say’. ‘Talking in your sleep’ may mean that whatever Eve said in her sleep she did not say those things consciously. ’Talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn't say’ may show that when Eve and Adam fell into sin in paradise, not only their conscious state of mind but also their subconscious state of mind had been corrupted. For the first time after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam overheard Eve say wicked things, wicked things Adam obviously never heard before. For them this was a new phenomenon. Whatever Eve and Adam’s mind produced in an unfallen state in paradise, also in their sub- consciousness, was always true and without any sin or flaw. But things had changed. In the Garden of Eden Man had deliberately risen against God by eating from the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-7). This is what happened immediately after Eve and Adam fell into sin: ‘At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you? He replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked’. Here we see shame and fear enter into this world. Things deteriorated between the two of them. Adam blamed Eve and Eve claimed that the serpent had beguiled her (Genesis 3:12,13). Ever since that day it has become an integral part of the human condition to decline any personal responsibility for whatever evil there is in this world and always blame others, others like your husband or wife, your neighbors, the government, the system, or other races, nations and religions.
After Adam overheard Eve talking in her sleep ‘saying things she shouldn’t say’ Adam now says to Eve: ‘Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday’. The words ‘go to jail’ may be a metaphorical expression for ‘to be sent to hell’ meaning that one day Eve will be held accountable for all the wicked things she has said and done and has to face judgment. We find this metaphor more often in the Bible e.g. Revelation 20:7: ‘When the thousand years come to an end, Satan will be let out of his prison’ and ultimately Satan will be judged.
‘Is there a place we can go? Is there anybody we can see? once again expresses fear and bewilderment. These words may be uttered when somebody has committed a crime and urgently needs help or medical assistance. When somebody has committed a crime one cannot go to the authorities or to a doctor, for if one does he or she will immediately be arrested and imprisoned. Man has no courage to go back to God because he now fears God and cannot go back to the serpent because that will bring him into further trouble, so in bewilderment he desperately asks: ‘Is there a place we can go? Is there anybody we can see? Of course Adam could have gone back to God but after the downfall of man this is also part of the human condition that man has no inclination at all to turn to the only place where he can have his problems cured and that is with God. When the poet goes on to say: ‘Maybe, it's the same for you, as it is for me’, this sounds like an understatement. Once again, after the fall of man into sin, part of the human condition is his ability to exactly pinpoint evil and sin in other people, but to turn a blind eye to one’s own mistakes, flaws and sins. Adam clearly sees Eve’s sins but underestimates his own situation which is equally dreadful. It is as if Adam says to Eve: ‘You have sinned and you will be held accountable for what you have done but my flaws and sins are not so bad as yours, therefore I say: ‘Maybe, it's the same for you, as it is for me’, we have to wait and see if I’m equally accountable for what I’ve done but I don’t think I am’.
When the poet goes on to say: ‘I ain't seen my family in twenty years, that ain't easy to understand, they may be dead by now, I lost track of them after they lost their land’ the focus of the camera now seems to shift from this post paradisiac scene to a more universal level, albeit there is still some sort of a connection with the Garden of Eden because in a way also Eve and Adam lost their land when they were expelled from the Gates of Eden. When it says: ‘that ain't easy to understand’ it is as if the poet wishes to emphasize that the words ‘I ain't seen my family in twenty years, should not be understood in a literal, autobiographical, sense, as if Dylan had not seen his family, his siblings, in twenty years or so. ‘That ain't easy to understand’ challenges the reader not to focus on what seems obvious here – Dylan’s own family or siblings – but to meditate on and search for a deeper, more spiritual meaning. At the same time ‘That ain't easy to understand’ also says that although it is not easy to understand what the poet means, it is not impossible to find out what the poet means and he actually challenges you to find out what he wants to say. The fact remains that Dylan wants to be understood here.
First we have to find out what ‘to lose one land’ means. The line ‘I lost track of them after they lost their land’ seems to echo the ‘Battle of Angels’ which is an early version of Orpheus Descending. After Myra had asked: ‘Don’t you have folks anywhere?’, Valentine Xavier answers: ’I lost track of ‘em after they lost their land’. In Biblical times, in Israel, the land was the life and blood of God’s chosen people. God took the tribes of Israel to the promised land. This land was an inheritance of grace. This land was a free gift from God and had to be cultivated and was not for sale, it had to be passed on from one generation to the next. It is the reason why Naboth refused to sell his land to King Ahab (I Kings 21:2,3). However, Naboth had to give up his land, not because he sold it, but because he was subsequently falsely accused in a mock trial and stoned to death for ‘the wrongs that he had done’. In those days ,selling your family land was seen as a treacherous act towards your family and simply ‘not done’ because land was the only God given means by which families and communities could survive. In those days, to lose one’s land is the same as to lose one’s identity both as a nation and as a tribe or family.
However, the word ‘land’ used here has an ever deeper meaning than just the physical land of Israel or Canaan. The promised land, the land of Canaan, was just a foretaste of the real land and this real land is heaven. Dylan dwells on that in his song ‘Sweetheart like you’ where it says: ‘There’s only one step down from here, baby, It’s called the land of permanent bliss’. This land of permanent bliss is heaven.
This land, the full realization of one’s identity, this New Jerusalem, the city of gold, is close by and will be coming down from heaven (Rev. 21:2) and will be a tangible reality once again, in the same way as the land of Canaan was a tangible reality. Each follower of God will have his own land – one’s own mansion – one’s own identity - in the New Jerusalem, just like Dylan also said in ‘Sweetheart like you’: ‘They say in your father’s house, there’s many mansions (John 14:2) ,each one of them got a fireproof floor’..
When it says: ‘I ain't seen my family in twenty years, they may be dead by now, this might be a vague reference to the arch patriarch Jacob who had been working in Haran with his uncle Laban for twenty years when he was instructed to go home and return to Canaan (Gen. 31: 3 and 41). The distance from Haran tot Israel was more than 400 miles. Jacob had not seen his family for twenty years and without today’s modern means of communication (mail, telephone internet) he had no knowledge of their whereabouts and might quite rightly have concluded: ‘they may be dead by now’.
What may be the deeper, spiritual meaning of this verse? We first have to see that falling into sin – like Eve and Adam did in the Garden of Eden ,or Jacob when he deceived his brother Esau and ultimately the people of Israel when they refused to recognize and accept Jesus – will lead to permanent estrangement from your land, it will lead to losing your identity, this notion is expressed by the metaphor ‘losing your land’.
On the other hand, the longing for a land where one’s identity is fully acknowledged and recognized, this home-coming, is very much present on the album ‘Tempest’. Listen to what Dylan says In ‘Duquesne Whistle’: ‘The lights on my native land are glowing, I wonder if they'll know me next time 'round’ .It is as if Dylan has Jesus speak through his mouth here. Jesus ‘native land’ is the land of Israel and as the Duquesne train passes by, it is as if Jesus sees the lights of this beautiful land flicker and Jesus wonders: ‘will they know me next time round’ . When Jesus says ‘I wonder if they'll know me next time round’ this should be seen from a human perspective as if Jesus wonders if they – the people of Jerusalem – will accept and acknowledge Him when He will come back to His land and that will happen on the Latter Day.
Therefore,we paraphrase this verse as if Jesus says the following: ‘I ain't seen my family in twenty years, which means it has been twenty centuries since I’ve seen my family, my Jewish compatriots, at the time when I was in there in the land of Israel my Jewish compatriots refused to acknowledge and accept me. Being disobedient and not acknowledging and accepting me is the same as being dead and now it looks as if they are dead – they may be dead by now. Being disobedient and not acknowledging and accepting me when I was there, led to my compatriots losing their land. They lost not only their earthly temporal land but what is worse, those who persist in being disobedient and not acknowledging and accepting me will lose their future eternal home and identity. After they lost their land I lost contact with them – I lost track of them – so I went to the gentiles to show them my mercy, and the gentiles acknowledged and accepted me but I will come back and be merciful for the remainder of my Jewish compatriots, I will also reconcile and reunite with some of them ’ ( see also Romans 11:25-32).
More to follow......
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