Dylan's"Highlands" - lyric analysis- Part 4 - final part
Bob Dylan’s “Highlands” – lyric analysis – Part 4 (final part) by Kees de Graaf
5. The verses dealing with his pilgrimage to the Highlands – after the Boston Restaurant intermezzo.
‘Every day is the same thing out the door
Feel further away than ever before
Some things in life, it gets too late to learn
Well, I’m lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns ‘.
‘‘Every day is the same thing out the door’. Having left the Boston restaurant all of a sudden and thrown back into the busy streets, he is once again confronted with the seemingly purposelessness and monotony of every day’s life. In a live version of the song he adds: ‘Try to repair what went wrong the day before’. He is again disappointed as he expresses in ’Can’t wait’: ‘Skies are grey, I’m looking for anything that will bring a happy glow. Night or day it doesn’t matter anymore where I go’. Nobody in the busy streets seems to be going anywhere. Everything is again exactly the way that it seems. Those busy streets look like a giant ant-hill. A lot of criss-cross random activity, but what‘s the use of it all? Every day is like the day before. ’Feel further away than ever before’. It makes the poet feel more lost than ever before. The suffering feels as if it is unending. On his way to the Highlands every nook and cranny has its tears.
‘Some things in life, it gets too late to learn’. The high-tech cyber society demands you to catch up with any new development or hype but he knows that for some of these things you are just getting too old to learn. This is like he expresses in the song ‘Unbelievable’: ‘It is unbelievable like a lead balloon, it is impossible to even learn the tune. Every nerve is analyzed, everything is criticized’. Apart from this, it is hard to tackle some of the bad traits of character which have been grinded in his soul ever since early childhood. He concludes: ’Well, I’m lost somewhere; I must have made a few bad turns ‘. Deep down inside he knows that one of the preconditions to enter the Highlands is to admit that you are lost. To admit that you are in need for help to get there. You have made some bad turns and you are stuck. He feels lost in the rain, as once in Juarez, when it was Eastertime too.
‘I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They’re drinking and dancing wearing bright-colored clothes
All the young men with their young women looking so good
Well, I’d trade places with any of them, in a minute if I could’.
In this and the following verse he really feels like that stranger who was walking in the park in the song ‘Mississippi’. This stranger was walking through the leaves, falling from the trees and was feeling like a stranger nobody sees. All the laughter of those drinking and dancing people is just making him sad. He envies those people wearing bright-colored clothes, and all the young men and women looking so good. He just can’t live a life like that. For him, no bright colored clothes but only the cloak of misery is left and suffering, the frozen smile on his face that fits him like a glove. He knows he can’t trade places with those people. He is a stranger in a strange land, but he knows that is where he belongs. His utter misery is getting worse in the next verse:
‘I’m crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog
Talking to myself in a monologue
I think what I need might be a full-length-leather coat
Somebody just asked me if I’m registered to vote’.
‘‘I’m crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog’ The mangy dog reminds us of poor Lazarus in Luke 16:21 who, full of sores, desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table, and the dogs came and licked his sores. This is what happens if dogs run free. In ‘Meet me in the morning’’ the poet was able to outrun the hound dogs but here a mangy dog has the edge over him and compels him to cross the street to get away from this dog. A mangy dog, like flies to a rotten corpus, is attracted to a dirty ragged tramp that lives on the street. ‘Talking to myself in a monologue’ is what happens to a lonely homeless tramp, so alone, with no direction home, the only one left to talk to is himself. ‘I think what I need might be a full-length-leather coat’ .The only thing a gambler needs is a suitcase and a trunk but this lonely homeless hobo needs a full-length leather coat to protect him from the cold and the rain.
‘Somebody just asked me if I’m registered to vote’. Some states in the USA prohibit individuals convicted of a felony from voting. Some states prohibit voting when on parole and/or probation but allow voting after. Some states have a lifetime ban from voting for ex-convicts. One may register wherever one has an address. In most states, one must register, usually 30 days before a given election, in order to vote in it. The reason why the poet is asked if he is registered to vote is because he is out there on the street and looks like a homeless tramp without any address.
6. The turning point in the song.
“The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that it used to be
The party is over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes, everything looks far away”
‘The sun is beginning to shine on me’. Quite rightly this verse may be interpreted as the turning point of the song. For the pilgrim, at least up till now, there has been nothing but trouble and deep agony on his way to the Highlands, but suddenly the sun starts to shine on him. All of a sudden the future looks bright for him. ’But it’s not like the sun that it used to be’’ Those who interpret ‘the sun’ here not as the ordinary sun, the ecclesiastical body that shines on him, but as ‘The Son’, Jesus, may have good papers. Likewise, there are also good reasons to believe that the phrase in ‘Not Dark Yet’: ’I still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal’ may be read as: ‘I still got the scars that the Son (that is Jesus) didn’t heal’. Son instead of Sun. The sun cannot heal scars; on the contrary, prolonged exposure to sunlight makes scars worse instead of healing them. The poet wants to make it very clear that it’s not like the sun ‘that it used to be’. This ‘sun’, this light is different. This light is God, Jesus. God is a shining light like it says in Revelation 22:23: ‘And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the lamb’. The ‘lamb’ stands for Jesus.
The poet is now on the brink of entering the Highlands, of entering Heaven. That is why he says: ‘The party is over and there’s less and less to say’. He has nearly reached the end of the trail. Whatever he had to say has been said. Like he says in ‘’Standing in the Doorway’: ‘I see nothing to be gained by any explanation, there’s no words that need to be said’ or like in ‘Thunder on the mountains’: ‘I’ve already confessed, no need to confess again’. From now on it is: ’Ain’t talking, just walking’. The book of Ecclesiastes says in Chapter 3:7: ‘There’s a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’. The game, the party, is now over. The camera zooms out; he is lifted up in heaven, as he ascends from the world, the earth moves ever further away from him, till he is clear out of sight.
‘I got got new eyes’. Earthly eyes, they just tell you lies (as he said in ‘License to kill’) but these new eyes enable you to see what everybody in the world is up against (as in ‘Sugar Baby’’); enable you to lay down your weary tune and to trust your fate in the hands of God (as in ‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum’’) . ‘Everything looks far away’ means that the poet has freed himself from the chains of his wretched earthly existence; he now looks from above, from an ever growing distance down to the earth and is less and less concerned and troubled with earthly matters and is more and more wrapped in heavenly peace and serenity.
7. The learning process of the poet as he progresses towards the Highlands.
There are five verses (verse 1, 4,7,15 and the final verse) in the song which dwell on the Highlands and they all start with: ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’. It is clear that his heart, his sympathy is not in this world and the poet has listened to what Colossians 3:2 says: ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’. Now as the song progresses the poet experiences a sort of learning process; he is getting more and more ready for life in the Highlands (Heaven).
In verse 1 it says: ‘I’m gonna go there when I feel good enough to go’. Mentally he is not ready to go yet at this point. He first needs to go through a process of inward renewal and purification a process which takes time. This is a process may even take a lifetime.
In verse 4 he feels sure that the Highlands (Heaven) is the only place where he belongs: ‘wherever I roam, that’s where I’ll be when I get called home’. Rambling and gambling for the one he loves, he yet finds no comfort in a world where beauty goes unrecognized. In fact he knows for sure that spiritually he lives another world, where life and death are memorized and where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls. You don’t determine yourself when you will go there. Born at the right time, God will call you home at the right time. The poet goes on to say that ‘you can only get there one step at a time’. This is again the learning process you have to walk through on this earth. To grow from childhood to maturity takes a lot of pain. Even Jesus suffered in the process as Hebrews 5: 8 says: ‘Although he was the Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered’. We all wear the same thorny crown but deep down inside the poet knows that he needs all those hardships and sufferings, as necessary steps on his way to the Promised Land, the Highlands of Heaven. Step by step he is getting closer and closer.
In verse 7 he has made a lot of progress on his way to the Highlands. The night has passed and he finds himself now at the break of dawn. He sees the light of the dawning day on the horizon. And he realizes: ‘Behind the horizon, behind the sun, at the end of the rainbow, life has only just begun’. He is not there yet but the poet concludes that there are no other options left now; the Highlands is ‘the only place left to go’. In verse 15 he confirms this once again: ‘Can’t see any other way to go’.
In the final verse he has gone past the break of dawn, it is now the break of day. He feels a change coming on and the first part of the day is already gone. ’Over the hills and far away’. He has passed the hills and has mentally reached his destination: The Highlands. He is at almost the same stage as he is in the last verse of ‘Ain’t Talking’: ‘Up the road, around the bend. Heart burning, still yearning, in the last outback at the world’s end’. Peace and quiet is starting to fall down on him. For all those who have eyes and for all those who have ears he has the following message: ‘there a way to get there’. He does not explicitly say what that way to heaven is, but he is nevertheless absolutely sure that such a way exists.
’I’ll figure it out somehow’ means ‘I have already figured it out and if you want to, you can figure it out too’. The secret is in what Jesus says in Matthew 5:3,4,5: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Highlands), Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’. Those who suffer now will be blessed.
‘I’m already there in my mind, and that’s good enough for now’ wraps it all up. Still living on earth physically, spiritually he is already in heaven. His heart is already in the Highlands. Like it says in ‘When the deal goes down’: ‘I owe my heart to you (to God) and that’s saying it true, and I’ll be with you, when the deal goes down’’. That is the place where my heart is. Don’t throw this picture back at me and say: ‘ It don’t look a thing like me’’. Accept this please. ‘Ain’t talking, just walking’. That is all I have to say. ‘That is good enough for now’. Goodbye and fare thee well!
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