Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dylan and Gates (Not Ol' Bill)

Mood Swings (installation detail)
Ever since last summer I've been intending to share some thoughts about Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" from Blonde On Blonde. While reading That Thin Wild Mercury Sound this past fall the urge was re-ignited. Having now completed the book a second time I'm still not ready. Instead, this blog post will focus on one feature of the song, repeated three times on this classic album--gates.

The reason I find the prevalence of this word so intriguing may well, in part, be due to Bob's late-in-life interest in metal sculpture. His 2013-14 art exhibition titled Mood Swings filled the Halcyon Gallery with welded gates. His artist statement included these words:

Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways there is no difference.”—Bob Dylan

And that is exactly how the word can be understood right here in the opening line of "Absolutely Sweet Marie."

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can't jump it
Sometimes it gets so hard, you see
I'm just sitting here beating on my trumpet
With all these promises you left for me
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?

Photo by Russ Ward on Unsplash
There's no question this song is about unrequited longing. You hear that plea even more forcefully in "Where Are You Tonight" on Street Legal, but that's a sidestreet and our focus here is gates. In "Absolutely Sweet Marie" the gate is a barricade. We're at a railroad crossing and the red lights are flashing.

Despite a lifetime of listens, I really never gave much thought to how many ways Dylan references gates in his work. In "I Want You" which is also featured on Blonde On Blonde, he this time mentions opening a gate.

And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinkin' from my broken cup
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you.

And then again we find a gate reference in "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

In this instance, he has brought something to the gate and is making a gentler appeal to the lady in waiting.

* * * *
Sometimes he may choose to use the word gate because the ease with which it rhymes with other words. For example, in "Everything's Broken" he sings,

Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates...

And in "Simple Twist of Fate"

She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate 
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.

Is the gate significant? Maybe not, but might be, because of the numerous other gates here, it may be.

In "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" he sings...

Clouds so swift
Rain won't lift
Gate won't close
Railings froze
Get your mind off wintertime
You ain't goin' nowhere

In other words, good times, open gates. Down in the easy chair.

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash
To be sure the word is not always loaded with sexual connotations. In "The Walls of Red Wing" he sings about the gates that hold men in.

Oh, the gates are cast iron
And the walls are barbed wire.
Stay far from the fence
With the 'lectricity sting.

There's the spiritual references, as well.

Well, your clock is gonna stop
At Saint Peter's gate.
Ya gonna ask him what time it is,
He's gonna say, "It's too late."
Hey, hey!
I'd sure hate to be you
On that dreadful day

St. Peter's gate is pretty much the same as Heaven's Door, yes? Where have we heard that name before?

And Heaven, life's endpoint, has been foreshadowed in the Edenic Paradise that Adam and Eve were banished from in the beginning. In "Gates of Eden" from Bringing It All Back Home we find the word "gates" repeated with each refrain:

No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden

Heading for the Gates of Eden

All except inside the Gates of Eden

There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden

And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden

It doesn't matter inside the Gates of Eden

And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden

And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden

Note how switching from describing what's inside Eden to what is absent outside multiplies the force of that last refrain.

The next track on this same album is the one that sank the hook into my own heart's sinews, making a profound impact on me as a youth, and countless others from my generation, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." The word gate re-appears here as well in this most memorable stanza:

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

* * * *
In Dylan's poignant "North Country Blues" (from Times They Are A-Changin') the closed gates again convey a negative symbolic implication, the end of something. He sings:

So the mining gates locked 
And the red iron rotted 
And the room smelled heavy from drinking.

Songs with other applications of the word gate include All Over You, Quit Your Lowdown Ways, Long Distance Operator, Two By Two, Golden Loom, Foot of Pride, Day of the Locusts, Scarlet Town, When He Returns (Slow Train Coming) and two references to the Golden Gate Bridge in Down the Highway (Freewheelin') and Clean Cut Kid (Empire Burlesque).

2013 publicity still for "Mood Swings" opening at Halcyon Gallery

Freud famously once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." His meaning: It is what it is. On the other hand, the meaning of words and images in Dylan's lyrics are frequently not what they appear to be. Sorting out the multi-layered allusions from the straight-up "it is what it is" meanings has been an endlessly fascinating conundrum for many long-time Dylan enthusiasts.

What comes to mind for me is a dialogue between Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in Roman Polanski's 1974 classic Chinatown.

Jake Gittes: Maid's night off?
Evelyn Mulwray: Why?
Jake Gittes: What do you mean, why? Nobody's here, that's why.
Evelyn Mulwray: I gave everyone the night off.
Jake Gittes: Easy. It's an innocent question.
Evelyn Mulwray: No question from you is innocent, Mr. Gittes.
Jake Gittes: I guess you're right.

When is a word pregnant with meaning and when is it just a descriptor? When we dig into Blonde On Blonde, I don't believe it's a stretch to say that no word from Dylan is innocent of deeper layers of meaning. This is what makes his lyrics nothing short of scintillating.


Brett R said...

Nice Comments. His line about gates and 'negative space' always intrigued me as well, but in a less literal sense. It always brings to mind 'Most of the Time' which I feel is all about the negative unsaid part of the song. If most of the time he feels a certain way, then (unsaid) some of the time he feels differently (which is similar to the negative space in his gate comment. One of my favorites by the way.

Ed Newman said...

Great example of the unsaid as negative space. Love that song, too.
After reading your note I think that that is what made Boots of Spanish Leather so powerful as well. The guy hears what is "unsaid" in the negative space of her replies to him....
Thanks for the note.

Laura Leivick said...

Off-topic, but apropos "Absolutely Sweet Marie":

Ed Newman said...

An interesting story. Seed sown.

Laura L Eliot said...

I loved every word of your analysis of Dylan. His use of gates so often in his writing has always fascinated me. Thank you for your insight.

Laura L Eliot said...

I loved every word of your analysis of Dylan. His use of gates in his writing has always fascinated me. Thank you for your insight.

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