Bob Dylan's 'Long and Wasted Years' - an analysis - Part 3 (of 3)
Bob Dylan’s ‘Long and Wasted Years’ – an analysis – Part 3 (of 3) by Kees de Graaf.
In this final part of my analysis we continue where we left off part 2.
The next verse: ‘Two trains running side by side, forty miles wide, down the eastern line. Oh you don't have to go, I just came to you because you're a friend of mine’ shows that the oasis of good will expressed by the words 'Come back baby, if I hurt your feelings, I apologize’ cannot take away or conceal the rift which the downfall of man has caused in history. A rift between the first two people on earth, Eve and Adam. This rift, this brokenness, would from then on define and burden all future human relationships. The words ‘Two trains running side by side’ make it clear that there is a love covenant here between two people, a love relationship in which they share their lives. The lovers, the two trains, have a certain degree of unity because they run ‘side by side’ This fragile unity is also shown by the fact that these two trains are heading in one and thee same direction and that is ‘down the eastern line’. The feeling still lingers that actually it should be only one train and not two trains. In Dylan’s rewritten version of ‘Gonna change my way of thinking ‘ (2002) he mediates on the fact that one day harmony in love relationships will be restored and from that day on it will be only one train, not two trains, heading in the right direction. This idea is expressed when he wrote in that song: ‘The sun is shining, ain't but one train on this track’ . And in the song ‘Duquesne Whistle’ he, full of rejoice, adds that his time his woman will be on board of that train: ‘Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing, blowing like my woman's on board’. Perfect harmony will be restored between all the chosen players on the world scene, between Eve and Adam, between man and woman and between Christ and His bride. Lost paradise will be regained.
Although there is a certain degree of unity and harmony between the two lovers when the poet writes : ‘Two trains running side by side’, at the same time, there is also a deep rift, a large gap between the two lovers, between the two trains. This is expressed when it says that the two trains running side by side are running ‘forty miles wide’. There is a distance, a gap of forty miles between those two trains. The number ‘forty’ stands in the Bible for a fixed, predetermined and yet limited period time of tribulation, judgment and temptation. Some examples: During the sin flood it rained for forty days and nights , the people of Israel had to wander in the desert for forty years before they were finally allowed to enter the promised land of Canaan, Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert for forty days. When we take this into account within the context of the song, the number ‘forty’ may mean that although they are having a hard time in their love relationship, this predetermined period of tribulation and alienation, underlined by the number ‘forty’ will come to an end and a final decision about the final direction and destination of this love train still has to be made.
The words 'down the eastern line' may simply mean that this train is running down the East coast (the East coast of the US for example) but the poet may also have thought of the direction in which this train is running.From the words ‘down the eastern line’ one may conclude that right now the poet feels that these two trains are not running in the right direction. These two trains should go to the West but they are in fact running to the East, they are running ‘down the eastern line’ and that may be the source of alienation and separation between the two lovers. As lovers they are not on the same track. Although they say that wisdom comes from the East, it does not mean that the root of spiritualism that comes from the East is acceptable to the poet. Why not? Because in eastern spiritualism – like in Buddhism – there is lack of an authoritative figure. In Eastern spirituality there is no metaphysical deity to whom you should submit. Although in Eastern spirituality you are able, through inner contemplation, to fulfill your desire for purpose and broader understanding, the whole mental, spiritual experience and fulfillment is within your own grasp, just like Dylan once wrote in ‘License to kill’: ‘Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool, and when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled’. I read somewhere that there may be an autobiographical undercurrent in these words. They say that there was a time when Dylan’s former wife Sara Lowndes was involved in some sort of Zen Buddhism. Initially Dylan is said to have found some comfort in some of the ideas of his wife’s Zen Buddhism but later turned away from them as we may learn from a line in the song ‘Precious Angel’: ‘You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohammed in the same breath, you never mentioned one time the Man who came and died a criminal’s death’.
The ostensibly kind words that now follow: ‘Oh you don't have to go, I just came to you because you're a friend of mine’ seem to reduce and soften the poignancy of the fact that there is no unity between the two lovers and that they are on two separate trains which are obviously running in the wrong direction. At first glance these kind words – like the words ‘Come back baby, if I hurt your feelings, I apologize’ – seem remnants of a paradise lost and an attempt for reconciliation between the two lovers.
However, when you take a look at the origin of those words, these words ‘Oh you don't have to go, I just came to you because you're a friend of mine’ are not as friendly and as cool and forgiving as they sound. Just like an earlier line in the song, these words echo an African-American folktale called ‘Uglier Than A Grinning Buzzard’ . An old shrewd buzzard lures an unsuspecting squirrel for a ride on his back. The squirrel accepted the buzzard’s invitation but the squirrel paid by his life for this mistake and was eaten by the squirrel. We quote from the story: ‘Hold it right there now,' the buzzard said, 'I am not begging you to go. You don't have to go if you don't want to. I have folks lined up who want to go for a ride. I just came to you because you're a friend of mine and I thought you might like to cool off, but if you don't want to go, you just tell me’. What may be the message underneath those words? . It may be a warning not to be deceived. It may be a hint that eastern spiritualism – spiritualism from ‘down the eastern line’ - may sound inviting and attractive at first glance (causing instant inner peace) but this sort of spiritualism is deceptive and it will kill you in the end because enlightenment, fulfillment and salvation has to come from somewhere else and enlightenment and salvation is not a capacity which man possesses and may exploit as he pleases but this capacity has to be gracefully given to man through the way of trusting your fate in the hands of God.
The words ‘I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned’ seem to support the idea- of which we wrote in our introductory remarks - that the ‘Long and wasted years’ refer to the entire epoch from the downfall of man in paradise till the Latter Day, albeit seen from an anthropological stance and not from a metaphysical one. Seen from where we as humans stand as sinners, this whole epoch seems like ‘Long and wasted years’ but not from where God stands. God uses what we regard as ‘Long and wasted years’’ to create something entirely new and in His plan these years are not long and wasted at all. So here we see a phenomenon, which we see more often in Dylan’s work, and that is that it looks like Dylan has Jesus speak through his mouth. So it is as if Jesus says: ‘I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned’. We find something similar in Dylan’s song ‘Summer Days’. In ‘Summer Days’ Dylan has Jesus say: ‘I’m leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift, gonna break the roof in—set fire to the place as a parting gift’. In this line Dylan refers to Jesus’ ascension into heaven on a cloud (Acts 1:9). After His Ascension Jesus sent them the Holy Spirit as His Counselor (John 14:16). The Holy Spirit is the parting gift from Jesus, a parting gift which indeed ‘set fire to the place’ as we may read in Acts 2:3: ‘and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them’. It is possible to interpret the words ‘I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned’ as pointing in the same direction. After His Ascension into heaven, when Jesus turned his back to this world so to say, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit and by the fire of the Holy Spirit the gospel spread through the world like wild-fire, that’s why it says: ‘the whole world behind me burned’. However, it is also possible, and more likely, not to think of fire from the Holy Spirit but of Judgment’s fire here. When Jesus paid in His own blood on the Cross, it meant the downfall of Great Babylon. As soon as Jesus turned His back to this world and ascended into heaven the fate of Great Babylon was sealed and the Great Babylon, the powers which are hostile to God’s kingdom, will enter into a process of burning. Revelation 18:8 speaks of this burning Babylon: ‘Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her’. This will culminate in the purifying fire of the Latter Day as we may read in 2 Peter 3:10: ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare’. (NIV)Therefore, this Latter Day will be the day when the words ‘I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned’ will come to its full impact and culmination.
Some see in what now follows: ‘It's been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle’ an autobiographical note from the poet in covert terms. ‘Long aisle’ would refer to ‘Long Island’, New York. This place Mineola, Long Island, is supposed to be the location where Dylan, in a secret ceremony during a break in his tour, married Sara Lowndes under an oak tree on November 22nd 1965. True or not, we feel that within the context of the song, the poet digs deeper than that. We feel that the words ‘It's been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle’ embroider on the previous line ‘I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned’. Again- as so often –when the poet says: ‘It's been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle’ the poet has Jesus or God speak through his mouth. In the Bible the love relationship between God and his people and between Christ and the church is often metaphorically compared with a marriage between God and His people or Christ and the church, whereby God or Christ is the groom and his people (the church) His bride. For example Isaiah 54:5: ‘For your Maker is your husband-- the LORD Almighty is his name-- the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth’. (See also Ephesians 5:23,24). So when God or Jesus now overlooks this whole epoch- which from a human point of view can be denoted as a period of ‘Long and wasted years’ - it is as if God or Jesus now says: ‘It's been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle’ which means that I made a covenant with you, Adam and Eve, long time ago in paradise and we started walking down that long aisle of time and history with you and your posterity. You, Eve and Adam, your posterity, my people, my children, throughout history, all these long years, you were unfaithful to me and committed adultery over and over again but I never gave up on you, I kept on walking with you on that long, long aisle and we have nearly reached our eternal wedding party which will be held very soon at the end of times, just as it says in Revelation 19: 7-9: ‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear." (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God's holy people.) Then the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb’. Unlike the so-called ‘never ending tour’ this eternal wedding supper will never end and when that day has finally come all tears will be wiped away and that will be the moment when the epoch of ‘long and wasted years’ will come to an end. But before that day comes we first have to go through a valley of tears, this is put into words when it says: ‘We cried on a cold and frosty morn', we cried because our souls were torn’. Eve and Adam, who represent the whole future mankind, driven away from the gates of Eden into a cold and frosty world, these two ardent lovers still together, ‘heart burning, still yearning’, are now fully confronted with the bitter consequences of their downfall. It is like Dylan wrote elsewhere in the song ‘Mississippi’: ‘So many things that we never will undo, I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too’. All that is left now is bitter remorse and tears in a cold world, full of cold hearts. It may be the reason why it says: ‘We cried on a cold and frosty morn'.
It is as if on behalf of mankind that Eve and Adam cried bitterly because innocence had died and their souls – though not destroyed – were battered and torn because of sin. Implicitly there is at the same time also a glimmer of hope in the words ‘We cried on a cold and frosty morn', we cried because our souls were torn’ because it reflects what Ecclesiastes 7: 3,4 explicitly says: ‘Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better . The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth’ (KJV) and also what it says in 2 Corinthians 7:10 ‘For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There's no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death (NLT)’.
The final words ‘so much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years’ may be understood as some sort of final conclusion. There is a song called ‘Wasted years’, written by Wally Fowler and sung by Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. Its chorus runs like: ‘Wasted years, wasted years, oh how foolish, as you walk on in darkness and fear, turn around, turn around, God is calling, He’s calling you from a life of wasted years’. The expression ‘so much for’ has various shades of meaning. For instance, ’so much for’ may express disappointment at the fact that something has not been helpful at all. Did all those tears and all those long and wasted years during which ‘we cried on a cold and frosty morn’ because our souls were torn’ help us to get out of this dreadful situation of pain, bondage and brokenness?. No, these tears and years did not help us at all, and in spite of many tears and in spite of the long years we spent to overcome this ordeal, we did not succeed in overcoming our problems. What a waste all those tears and all those wasted years!: ‘so much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years’.
Another meaning of ‘so much for’ is used to indicate that ‘it is the last of someone or something, you have finished talking about a subject, there is no need to consider someone or something anymore’. Within the context of the song, it may implicitly express the hope that one day all tears will be wiped away and have to be considered no more. The present suffering is not unending (Romans 8:18) and one day it will be ‘enough is enough.’ The number of tears and of wasted years is limited and one day the memory of all those tears and wasted years will be wiped out, just like it says in Revelation 21:4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’.(NIV) Psalm 56: 8 may give a lot of solace: ‘You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book’, in the same way as Dylan once wrote in the song ‘If You ever go to Houston’:
‘Put my tears in a bottle, screw the top on tight’.
At the beginning of this analysis (Part 1) we wrote that ‘these 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 .’Long and wasted years’ bears heavily on the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is as if we hear Ecclesiastes speak: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, what does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2,3). Ecclesiastes realizes that when only seen from an anthropological, human, perspective, all these long years feel as if they are wasted, as if all these years are in vain and serve no purpose at all. However, Ecclesiastes also came to understand that when seen from a divine perspective these years are not long and wasted at all and that for everything ‘there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1-9) For God, Who created time and Who is above time, Psalm 90:4 is a reality: ‘ For you, a thousand years are as a passing day, as brief as a few night hours’. What to us, mortal human beings feels like an endless period of ‘long and wasted years’ of tears and suffering, a sort of a detour without any ending, for God these years represent an indispensable part of a perfect finished plan, ‘so much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years’……...
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