‘Long and Wasted Years’ – A Wedding Song Too?
A song from Dylan’s new album that has been conquering my mind of late is track four: ‘Long and Wasted Years’. I suppose more than anything that captivates me on this three and half minutes of delight is the musical phraseology of the song and in particular that repetitive riff that sounds to me in my ears and in my imagination like a peal of bells. Not though the bells of lightening that you might hear when you duck inside a doorway on a wild cathedral evening; nor the bells that Sweet Martha may ring for a poor man’s son; nor the bells that summon worshippers to matins or evensong and nor the tolling of a lonesome bell that you might hear in a valley of stone.
The peal of bells that I hear is a joyous sound, a celebratory ring; the kind that you may hear as a newly wedded bride and groom step into the sunlight after having plighted their troths to one another in the company of all the gathered together dearly beloveds. And in that moment when they exchanged those holy vows, they then surely loved each other with true hearts. For that time, for that brief day, if for no other, she was the girl for him and he was the man for her.
It is a moment that Dylan portrays in the opening lines of ‘Long and Wasted Years’. Set against the peal of those wedding bells he fondly describes such a brief day, from the point of view of someone looking back to that happy time:
‘It’s been such a long, long time
Since we loved each other and our hearts were true.
One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you’.
This sense of affectionate nostalgia continues with a subsequent line and a memory of that brief day when the couple walked together as bride and groom:
‘It’s been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle’.
And an image of their togetherness, both for then and in the future:
‘Two trains (wedding trains?) running side by side’.
This position of physical togetherness, of being ‘side by side’, resembles the image expressed in Dylan’s first wedding song (appropriately titled ‘Wedding Song’) that was recorded in November 1973 and released as the last track on the Planet Waves album in January 1974:
‘Oh can’t you see that you were born to be by my side
And I was born to be with you, you were born to be my bride’.
But, all these years later, something has become amiss as it appears that, somewhere along the line, the trains that were once running together have become separated. After expressing that the trains were running side by side in ‘Long and Wasted Years’ it is clear from the succeeding line that the tracks between the trains have widened, for they are now running:
‘Forty miles wide, down the eastern line.’
And the colour of the emotions between the first and second wedding songs has also changed. In the first ‘Wedding Song’ proper Dylan declares that his bride has:
‘Quenched my thirst and satisfied the burning in my soul’
The colour then was red and rich with a burning in the soul. In ‘Long and Wasted Years’ things have turned a primary white and the temperature is nine below zero with further confirmation of a separation:
‘We cried on that cold and frosty morn
We cried because our souls were torn’.
As with most of the songs on the album there is, in ‘Long and Wasted Years’, an episode of violence. This episode, where the narrator’s enemy is crushed, is run down hard, is broke apart and dies a violent death does not seem to have anything much to do with the tender-hearted drift of the song but it is certainly consistent with an overarching theme of the album. Indeed if this album was a tapestry there would be a thick black thread woven deep into its fabric. A thread of violence and in particular of death by violence. The tapestry would show images of corpses being dragged through the mud; of people being stoned to death or being torn apart limb from limb by fierce dogs; where brother rises up against brother to slaughter each other; where people get shot in the back and where there are multiple stabbings and other multiple deaths by disaster or design. Wherever you look someone seems to kop it in the most violent manner and indeed the album could have been more appropriately entitled ‘Murder Ballads’. But that has already been done.
There is however another side of Bob Dylan in the songs on this album and if you look a little closer at the tapestry there is something that tempers the tempest, eases the bloody violence, tones it down and dilutes it the way lavender essence dilutes laudanum.
This other side is a yearning, a call to the souls of previous times and a quest to resurrect situations to the way they once were. It is no more so than in the song ‘Long and Wasted Years’ where the relator (and remember, these songs aren’t necessarily about Bob Dylan) initially muses, regretfully:
‘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.’
And I don’t think that I have heard Dylan’s voice so earnest as he desperately hungers for a reconciliation:
‘Come back, baby’, he pleads
‘If I ever hurt your feelings I apologise'.
‘Is there a place we can go?’ he asks
‘Is there anybody we can see?’
The emotion of fond recollection; the calling from a previous time and the matter of resurrecting the past and returning home where the grass was always greener is taken further in other songs, in ‘Duquesne Whistle’ for instance:
‘The lights of my native land are glowing
I wonder if they’ll know me next time round.
I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing
That old oak tree, the one we used to climb.’
In ‘Narrow Way’ he hears a voice telling him to:
‘Go back home, leave me alone’.
In ‘Pay in Blood’ he remarks:
‘How I made it back home, nobody knows
Or how I survived so many blows.’
‘Scarlet Town’ where he was born, must have been a special place, because you would find:
‘The seven wonders if the world are here’.
If every picture tells a story, think about the story that is painted by the picture of what, in my view, is the best bunch of words on the entire album. It is the 41st verse of the song ‘Tempest’ and it goes as follows:
‘In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the Book of Revelation
And he filled his cup with tears’.
There is a famous painting by the artist William Holman Hunt that was completed in 1852 and which the artist gave the title ‘The Light of the World’. Hunt was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of angry young artists who scorched the notion of creating a revolution in the art world of the mid-19th Century. Rebellious, romantic and raring to go they produced stunningly beautiful works of art that were rejected by the top hats of the day but are now regarded as masterpieces. The history books tell it that, during a particular period of creativity, Hunt experienced a religious epiphany, a spiritual illumination, whilst reading the Bible and specifically a passage from the Book of Revelation. The painting, which is said to be the result of this religious experience, depicts a scene from a deepest dark forest and against a somewhat sombre background the figure of Christ is seen knocking on the door of a woodman’s hut. Christ is carrying a lantern that illuminates his surroundings and throws light on the door of the hut. So important to Hunt was the cause of the inspiration for the painting, the spiritual illumination arising from the reading from the Book of Revelation, that he had the particular passage incorporated into the painting’s frame: Chapter 3, verse 20 ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and him with me’.
Now there is an entirely hypothetical question, and one that is asked by a timid voice from as far back in the hall as you could possibly imagine: what if the Captain of the Titanic, ‘barely breathing, kneeling at the wheel’; what if, in that deepest dark moment when ‘he knew he lost the race’ to keep the ship afloat; what if, he then hit upon that very same passage from the Book of Revelation that caused such a spiritual illumination to William Holman Hunt? If there is an answer to the question it could be found in the possible punctuation to the 41st verse of Tempest as follows:
‘In the dark: illumination.
He remembered bygone years.
He read the Book of Revelation
And he filled his cup with tears.’
Such an interpretation would bring a different twist to this verse. Lifted by such spiritual illumination the Captain’s cup would not be filled with tears of sorrow or tears of rage, but with tears of joy. And his memories of bygone years would be equally joyful: perhaps the lights of his native land would be glowing and he would remember that old oak tree, the one he used to climb; perhaps he would remember with fondness his family who he hadn’t seen in twenty years; perhaps he would recall the seven wonders of the world that could be found in the town where he was born and perhaps he would remember the joyful occasion of a family wedding and hear the pealing of church bells. In that event those years may well be bygone but they would not have been long and wasted.
In another light and on another easel, much could be made about the images that I see in these songs of deaths by violence, a resurrection to previous times and a calling from home. No doubt people will talk over such situations and circumstances for some time to come as there is a lot to say about this album. For my present part I am happy to hear that joyous peal of bells in ‘Long and Wasted Years’. I am also heartened as I listen to what the man says, on another track from the album, about his continued creativity in the here and now:
‘I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings’.
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