Audio: Ten of Bob Dylan’s Most Mysterious Lyrics; Do You Know What They Mean?

Since I first heard Bob Dylan in 1965 — “Like A ROlling Stone” was on the radio — I’ve loved his voice, his music and his lyrics.

But I think I keep coming back to his songs again and again because I still don’t understand everything he’s saying.

There are layers of meaning in some of the songs.

Here are ten lyrics that I still don’t completely understand. Do you?

If you can help explain what even one of these means, let me know.

1 “She knows there’s no success like failure

And that failure’s no success at all” — from “Love Minus Zero, No Limit”

2 “You will search, babe
At any cost
But how long, babe
Can you search for what’s not lost?
Everybody will help you
Some people are very kind
But if I can save you any time
Come on, give it to me
I’ll keep it with mine ” from “I’ll Keep It With Mine”

I'll Keep It With Mine by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

3 “Now when Ill teach that lady I was born to love her
But she knows that the kingdom waits so high above her
And I run but I race but it’s not too fast or slow
But I dont perceive her, I’m not there, I’m gone

Well, it’s all about confusion and I cry for her
Well, I dont need anybody now beside me to tell
And its all affirmation I receive but its not
Shes adorned by the beauty but she don’t like the spot and she won’t” from “I’m Not There” (I’m not sure of those lyrics are accurate.)

I'm Not There by Bob Dylan & The Band on Grooveshark

4 “Too much of nothing
Can make a man abuse a king
He can walk the streets and boast like most
But he wouldn’t know a thing
Now, it’s all been done before
It’s all been written in the book
But when there’s too much of nothing
Nobody should look” — from “Too Much Of Nothing”

Too Much of Nothing by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

5 “Buy me a flute
And a gun that shoots
Tailgates and substitutes
Strap yourself
To the tree with roots
You ain’t goin’ nowhere
Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow’s the day
My bride’s gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair!” — from “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

04 You Ain't Going Nowhere by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

6 “Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine
An’ I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that
But then again, there’s only one I’ve met
An’ he just smoked my eyelids
An’ punched my cigarette”
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again” – from “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”

Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

7 “She wears an Egyptian ring
That sparkles before she speaks
She wears an Egyptian ring
That sparkles before she speaks
She’s a hypnotist collector
You are a walking antique” – “She Belongs To Me”

Also, why did Dylan change “Egyptian red ring” to Egyptian ring” and was a red ring significant?

8 “Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place” from “Visions of Johanna”

Visions of Johanna by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

9 “Dear Landlord
Please don’t put a price on my soul
My burden is heavy
My dreams are beyond control
When that steamboat whistle blows
I’m gonna give you all I got to give
And I do hope you receive it well
Dependin’ on the way you feel that you live

Dear landlord
Please heed these words that I speak
I know you’ve suffered much
But in this you are not so unique
All of us, at times, we might work too hard
To have it too fast and too much
And anyone can fill his life up
With things he can see but he just cannot touch” – From “Dear Landlord”

Dear Landlord by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

10 “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row” – from “Desolation Row”

Desolation Row by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

-– A Days of the Crazy-Wild blog post: sounds, visuals and/or news –-

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Michael Goldberg is a distinguished pioneer in the online music space; Newsweek magazine called him an ‘Internet visionary.’ In 1994 he founded Addicted To Noise (ATN), the highly influential music web site. He was a senior vice-president and editor in chief at SonicNet from March 1997 through May 2000. In 1997, Addicted To Noise won Webby awards for best music site in 1998 and 1999, and also won Yahoo Internet Life! awards for three years running as best music site in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Prior to starting Addicted To Noise, Goldberg was an editor and senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine for 10 years. His writing has also appeared in Wired, Esquire, Vibe, Details, Downbeat, NME and numerous other publications. Michael recently completed his first novel, Days of the Crazy-Wild, and is currently writing a second novel.

24 thoughts on “Audio: Ten of Bob Dylan’s Most Mysterious Lyrics; Do You Know What They Mean?

    1. If you read the interviews Dylan did before “Renaldo & Clara” was released, he is conscious of what the symbols mean. I’m sure that’s not the case with all his songs, but I bet he was thinking of specifics when he wrote some of them.

  1. To my mind, Dylan’s lyrics are a play of words like brushstrokes of colour paints. It would be a lucky happenstance if we get to dig the meaning right away. Meanwhile, why bother to tear them apart and not simply enjoy “as is” ?

  2. I know that “Stuck inside of Mobile…” has been interpreted as a song about reincarnation. I’m not sure about that but there are a lot of parings of words and phrases that compare and contrasts. Take, for example the line “smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette.” Makes sense to punch the eyes and smoke the cigarette. Another verse contains “the post office has been stolen and the mailbox is locked.” This works better as the mailbox has been stole and the post office is locked. Who knows, maybe he was stuck inside of Memphis with the Mobile blues again.
    Actually these are really observations rather than interpretations. Figuring out the meanings(s) is fun but a fool’s errand. I agree that it’s more about how it makes the listener feel and where the music takes you.

    1. I too agree that on one level, the combo of music and voice and the way the words sound and the images take you places and make you feel something. But these aren’t instrumentals. Dylan is using words and words have meaning. He wants to communicate something and has chosen specific words to do that.

      That said, I agree with Greil Marcus that it ends up being about what the listener hears in a song, no matter the artist’s intent.

      My curiosity, I guess, is in what other people hear in the songs, although I’d also love to know Dylan’s intentions.

      1. I’m not sure that Dylan’s words are chosen to communicate things. Many of those songs from his druggy days make about as much sense as his first book “Tarantula.” Later decades saw a wide range of music styles and traditions, some with sorta straightforward lyrics, others are cryptic. The question is whether Mr D is “conveying” a message. I submit that it means one thing to him and a thousand different things to fans. I believe his appeal is that everyone who listens to his music is touched by the words and music and personalizes the experience. And sometimes, maybe most of the time, they have no idea what the words mean.

        1. Awesome comment. Thanks. This is beautiful: “I submit that it means one thing to him and a thousand different things to fans. I believe his appeal is that everyone who listens to his music is touched by the words and music and personalizes the experience.”

  3. I believe dear land lord was writeen for Albert Grossman his mannager, they had a split up around that time. Some of the songs that never made it onto official ablbums were still works in progress. visions of Johnanna they say was writeen for Joan Biaz.

  4. 1. It’s a koan.
    4. Fatalistic view of life. All of this has happened before; all of this will happen again.
    5. More fatalism from the Basement Tapes. Might as well settle down; you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Tomorrow never comes.
    6. No exit. Reference to a line from “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”
    7. You belong to her.
    8. Carnal vs. spiritual.
    9. Al Grossman.

  5. His song lyrics often remind me of riding on a train, gazing out the window, and the scenery is flying past. You catch glimpses of all sorts of images, and they all make you feel a certain way. The scenery can change depending upon the speed of the train, or the weather outside, or your own state of mind, but everything combines to produce a sensation, much like “A Series of Dreams”, that may be one way one time and quite another way another time. But if you try to pinpoint one thing in the midst of all the blurred images… if you say, for instance, whoa, what is up with that fence over there or yikes, I’m confused by the people we just passed walking along the tracks, well, you’re on the wrong train… or you’re never going to “get the picture” because you’re too busy searching for specifics. Like Bob says, “Look not for answers where no answers can be found”. Trust yourself.

  6. some possible drug lyrics in Memphis Blues – reminding me of the great actor that we just lost. ‘Rocks’ show up in drug jargon – Tracks (in people’s arms) certainly do, ‘Main Street’ could be slang for Mainlining – ‘holes’ caused by needles (which have long bee referred to as ‘shooting’ or past tense, shot…

    Grandpa died last week
    And now he’s buried in the rocks
    But everybody still talks about
    How badly they were shocked
    But me, I expected it to happen
    I knew he’d lost control
    When he built a fire on Main Street
    And shot it full of holes
    Oh, Mama, can this really be the end

  7. I think it is safe to say that for quite a long time, BD was more than happy to draft purposefully confusing or otherwise ambiguous lyrics, full well knowing the debates and hand-wringing that would percolate throughout the legion of fans. He was, at one time, higher than a kite on the 4th of July, and it’s “easy to see without looking too far” that he was ROTFL at the great depth and lofty meaning we were all so earnestly assigning to his lyrics. Face it… some of it just rhymed, some of it just sounded cool, and some of it was pure nonsense. The kicker is, a lot of it was other-worldly brilliance… something that he admits he will never be able to do again, nor will anyone else on this planet. Remember, he “came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form”.

  8. In the dime stores and bus stations
    People talk of situations
    Read books, repeat quotations
    Draw conclusions on the wall
    Some speak of the future
    My love she speaks softly
    She knows there’s no success like failure
    And that failure’s no success at all

    One of my absolute favorite Dylan songs, but the last two lines of verse two have always bothered, disturbed, even upset me. What on earth is he referring to? This Anglo Saxon obsession with success/failure, winners/losers – as if mankind could be reduced to a single dichotomy! Maybe Dylan is trying to sink this whole notion by letting his Goddess-natured, Zen-like detached lover stand above all that: above all the futile success/failure situations, books, quotations, conclusions and talk of the future. In other words, as expressed later on the album in It’s Alright, Ma, she is above ‘the rules of the road that have been lodged’, knowing that ‘It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge’. In her world, where people’s games no longer exist, the success/ failure dichotomy is dissolved. She just ‘winks, she does not bother/ she knows too much to argue or to judge.’

    I so agree with Jack Attack’s comment:“I submit that it means one thing to him and a thousand different things to fans. I believe his appeal is that everyone who listens to his music is touched by the words and music and personalizes the experience.”

    Here’s what Dylan meant according to Clinton Heylin – as he, Dylan, explained to a journalist in 1965: ‘When you’ve tried to write this story about me, if you’re any good you’ll feel you’ve failed. But when you’ve tried and failed, and tried and failed – then you’ll have something.’ Any wiser?

    To explain Dylan’s irreconcilable opposites (speaks like silence – like ice/like fire – failure/success) Heylin refers to John Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability’: ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact
    and reason.’

    I guess that’s exactly what makes Dylan so great: he takes us there time and again. To the uncertainties, the doubts and the mysteries. And we, invariably, reach after fact and reason. As I just did with the above attempt at an explanation!

  9. ‘The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face..’ I reference this to two things: One being Elsa Lanchester as ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1931) when she is brought to life by the mad scientist. Look at the electric flashes in her hair!
    My second reference is to Joan Baez who intensely disliked Dylan’s ‘desertion’ of protest songs to invent a brand new form of electrifying rock’n’roll with The Band,

  10. I agree with comments that imply that often there is no direct meaning to some of Dylan’s songs. Being a poet he often expresses his ideas, attitudes and feelings through poetic symbols. If you are interested in life and language as I am it’s fascinating to try and take them apart. I looked carefully at “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” 1971 version and put my interpretation on “SongMeanings”. It’s there if you’re curious.

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