Distortion of Egon Schiele, Embrace (Lovers II), 1917

Love in Fourteen Songs

A Spotify playlist. Fourteen songs about love; seven with lyrics by women, seven with lyrics by men. Pair them up, compare and contrast them. Exclude biography, argue only on the evidence of the text. Consider one song a response to the other, consider this an exploration of love. Here goes.

You can listen to the tracks in full with a registered Spotify account, which comes for free.

STANDING IN THE DOORWAY—BOB DYLAN | FLAMING SEPTEMBER—MARIANNE FAITHFULL—ANGELO BADALAMENTI

In these two songs the love affair is over, and the ex-lovers adopt different stances to address the fallout.

‘Short Letter, Long Farewell’, the title of a 1972 novel by Peter Handke, could well serve as a leitmotif for many a Dylan song. Indeed, ‘Standing in the Doorway’ is a late instalment in the lover’s long farewell: the song’s tired dignity testifies to the long road travelled. Indeed, its weariness is everywhere. Consider, for example, the self-pity: ‘You left me standing in the doorway, crying’: The lover, giving up the fight, admits defeat; passive, reduced to a spectator, he can only watch as the beloved walks away. The pity slips into pathos: ‘I got no place left to turn’, ‘I got nothing to go back to now’, ‘even if the flesh falls off of my face, I know someone will be there to care’. But the only one who can give him a destination, replace nothing with something, give him the care he cares about, has turned her back on him. His fixation on her, kept alive for so long, has become a weary abdication of responsibility for himself.

The lover’s evocation of his state, however, can still be touching. He is out of time: ‘Yesterday everything was going too fast, today it’s moving too slow’. He is out-of-synch with other people: ‘All the laughter is just making me sad’. He is lucid: ‘I know I can’t win, but my heart just won’t give in’.

As for his evocation of the relationship itself—the dead horse he’s not quite resigned to stop beating, the tired horse he’s still clinging to on the merry-go-round of his obsession—what he says shows he still has farther to fall. ‘Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you’ testifies to the hate rejected love can engender, while the devastating line that follows it—‘It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow’—makes it clear the beloved has had more than enough of the lover’s beseeching. ‘I would be crazy if I took you back, it would go up against every rule’: a pathetic reversal designed to salvage the man’s pride, for the last thing the woman wants is to be ‘taken back’. ‘I see nothing to be gained by any explanation, there are no words that need to be said’: The communicative impasse, the despair that comes when the coin of language has become a counterfeit currency, here gives way to the fantasy that reciprocal presence may suffice to restore lost communion. But the fantasy is not full-bodied, it’s more a relic of an illusion now given up. Indeed, the lover is aware that he’s ‘standing in the doorway, crying’, and that the beloved is not coming back.

How does ‘Flaming September’ respond to ‘Standing in the Doorway’? With gravity and grace, with compassion and determination. Here, the woman is fully a subject, not defining herself against the lover who has gone. Her stance is entirely free of the sentimentality, the self-aggrandizement and the self-pity that characterizes ‘Standing in the Doorway’. Her vision has been purified by the flames she’s been through, and those flames, we sense, date before any particular September. The witches, the weird sisters, are dancing; it goes without saying there’s ‘no happy ending to the game’. Armed with such lucidity, the woman will never be taken for a ride on a worn-out horse. She could show disdain, she could heap contempt, on the man who’s gone; instead, she simply reminds him of ‘all the life she gave to [him]’. Note that she says ‘life’, not ‘love’, for what passes for love can often be deathly. She already knows the answer to the questions she asks, ‘What can you give me that is true?’, ‘What can you show me that is new?’. The authentic can touch her, she’s open to discovery, but she knows where it’s not coming from: ‘Don’t bother to call me’, ‘Don’t bother to tell me’. And while her ‘youth lies bruised and broken’, she takes responsibility for it: ‘I’ll live on here just the same’. She doesn’t claim to be self-contained, she does say she doesn’t need anyone, but she knows who and what she doesn’t want.

Where ‘Standing in the Doorway’ evinces a weariness that, despite the long road travelled, still can’t accept the sovereignty of the other, ‘Flaming September’ shows not a personal weariness but a world-weariness, and what’s more, one that is, paradoxically, free of complacency. Indeed, neither denying vulnerability nor flaunting it, the song is all the more touching for being free of both illusion and self-pity: dignity and courage characterize it.

Courage and dignity, sovereignty and acceptance, vulnerability, illusion and self-pity: ‘Flaming September’ and ‘Standing in the Doorway’.

Standing in the Doorway

Bob Dylan

I’m walking through the summer nights
Jukebox playing low
Yesterday everything was going too fast
Today, it’s moving too slow
I got no place left to turn
I got nothing left to burn
Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow
You left me standing in the doorway, crying
I got nothing to go back to now

The light in this place is so bad
Making me sick in the head
All the laughter is just making me sad
The stars have turned cherry red
I’m strumming on my gay guitar
Smoking a cheap cigar
The ghost of our old love has not gone away
Don’t look like it will anytime soon
You left me standing in the doorway crying
Under the midnight moon

Maybe they’ll get me and maybe they won’t
But not tonight and it won’t be here
There are things I could say but I don’t
I know the mercy of God must be near
I’ve been riding the midnight train
Got ice water in my veins
I would be crazy if I took you back
It would go up against every rule
You left me standing in the doorway, crying
Suffering like a fool

When the last rays of daylight go down
Buddy, you’ll roll no more
I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard
I wonder who they’re ringing for
I know I can’t win
But my heart just won’t give in
Last night I danced with a stranger
But she just reminded me you were the one
You left me standing in the doorway crying
In the dark land of the sun

I’ll eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry
And live my life on the square
And even if the flesh falls off of my face
I know someone will be there to care
It always means so much
Even the softest touch
I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
There are no words that need to be said
You left me standing in the doorway, crying
Blues wrapped around my head

Flaming September

Marianne Faithfull—Angelo Badalamenti

The summer dying
September lives in flames
The sisters dancing
No happy ending to the game
Don’t bother to call me
Think I’ll stay here just the same

Flaming September
What can you give me that is true?
Do you remember
Do you remember
Do you remember
All the life I gave to you?

The summer dying
September lives in flames
My youth lies bruised and broken
No happy ending to the game
Don’t bother to tell me
I’ll live on here just the same

Flaming September
What can you show me that is new?
My heart remembers
Do you remember
Do you remember
All the life I gave
To you?

Flaming September
What can you show me that is true?
My heart remembers
Do you remember
Do you remember
All the life I gave
To you?

Flaming September

Egon Schiele, Embrace (Lovers II), 1917

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2017 | All rights reserved

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