Glass

You cannot go a day or walk most streets without seeing glass. In fact, if you are reading this blog page, you are probably staring at the screen though glass. We can see through it, see our reflections in it, and drink out of it. It can be smooth or jagged. It can shut you in or shut you out.  In Bob Dylan’s songs, the word “glass” plays many roles, its sense explored with a wide scope.  Dylan likes to frame the perspective offered in songs—glass as something that you can see through while it obstructs you—invites while it hinders–provides the kind of opposition, paradox, and conflict his songs dwell in.

Beyond Here Lies Nothin” kicks off the study of “glass” in a verse where two words rhyme with it:

Down every street there’s a window
And every window made of glass
We’ll keep on lovin’ pretty baby
For as long as love will last
Beyond here lies nothin’
But the mountains of the past

Glass lasts, that’s why every window is made of it; it’s part of our lives just like those mountains of the past that are still with us now.

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Tempest offers good examples of the variety of ways Dylan has used “glass” throughout his career.  In “Long and Wasted Years” he refers to the kind we put on our face:  “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes.”  In “Tin Angel” is the kind we drink and toast from, “They looked at each other and their glasses clinked.”  And in “Tempestglass refers is from the famous chandelier on the Titanic: “Glass of shattered crystal/Lay scattered roundabout.”  “glass” is not used for rhyming, but that’s coming.  It’s his range with the word that impresses.

Here’s a sampler of Tempest from Sony Records.  And here’s to you, Bob, my glass is raised, for creating an album for us at the age of 72 that American Songwriter ranked as the number 1 album in 2012.

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David Yaffe captured Dylan’s theft of the dialogue lines of Love and Theft‘s “Summer Days,”
She says,“You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You
can’t? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.”

from Gatsby’s response to Nick in The Great Gatsby:  “”Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”
Relevance to “glass“?   Not much, except “past” is the only word that rhymes with “glass” in the whole song.  “glasses” appears twice in the third verse:
Everybody get ready—lift your glasses and sing
Everybody get ready to lift your glasses and sing
Well, I’m standin’ on the table, I’m proposing a toast to the King

This is verse seven.  Bit of a stretch to hear that “glasses”/”past” assonance, but I will say this.  I’ve always associated Gatsby, the man of the past with a glass in his hand–just an image I’ll always have.
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Sweetheart Like You” is one of those songs that make you say, “This is it; this is the one that captured the sound Dylan wanted during this phase of his music.  For me, “Someday Baby” is the song that did the same from 1997 to 2004.  It’s where Dylan channeled all that he wanted his music to be at this time in his artistic life.
The line with “glass” in it is a classic onomatopoeia moment of Dylan’s, maybe his best:
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You can be known as the most beautiful woman
Who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal

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Whatever crawling across cut glass would be like is the cr/acr/cut/ss sounds combined with Dylan singing them.

I put this up there with Paul Simon’s “sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon” or Eliot’s “pair of ragged claws scuttling across the sands of silent seas.”

No rhyming fame for “glass” in this song, but  a brilliant sound effect, smooth as glass.

Many Dylan fans will remember the video:

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Dylan hasn’t rhymed “glass” in over three decades.  When he last did it was in reference to that snake that he mysteriously does not name at the end of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals“:

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He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake . . .

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The “glass“/”grass” last rhyme of the song is the last time Dylan will be responsible for the rhyming–he leaves us to come up with “snake” from the rhyme with “lake.”  Clever.  We have to name him from the sound Dylan gives us, but he won’t say it/sing it . . . a rather snake in the grass move, if you ask me.  The -s sound helps, too, though; can you hear the snake slithering with all those s’s?  We may not be able to see him, disappearing and all by that tree, but we can hear him and we can identify him so ingrained as he is into our psyche.  Just  a little help, Dylan seems to be saying, is all we need to point out the snake though we can’t see it.

For those of you who don’t like snakes in the grass, don’t watch this video:

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Dylan is brilliant at using the s sound, and I think he knows it.  His voice sounds like a hive of angry bees with some of his best moments with s stressed.  Highlights for me are, “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press,” “Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives/I don’t know how it all got started/ I don’t know what they do with their lives,” and “You shouldn’t let others get their kicks for you!”  One ways those memorable lyrics work is because of Dylan’s mastery of the s.

In “On a Night Like This,” “glass doesn’t rhyme with “kiss,” but Dylan emphasizes the s alliteration so effectively it’s as if the verse is right out of Chaucer:

Let the four winds blow
Around this old cabin door
If I’m not too far off
I think we did this once before
There’s more frost on the window glass
With each new tender kiss
But it sure feels right
On a night like this

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Dylan’s uses, unrhymed, the word “fiberglass” in “Dirge” calling our time the “age of fiberglass“:

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There are those who worship loneliness, I’m not one of them
In this age of fiberglass I’m searching for a gem
The crystal ball up on the wall hasn’t shown me nothing yet
I’ve paid the price of solitude, but at least I’m out of debt

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According to the OED, the word was first used in publication in 1937.  In that year, American Dystuff Reporter stated, “There are many types of Fiberglas fibers. They vary in diameter according to their use.”  46 years later, fiberglass would define our age–maybe that’s something to write a dirge about.

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The song titles on John Wesley Harding have six “I”‘s in them, two in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”  And that first person perspective is part of the impact the song makes, especially at the end when “glass” appears.  The song is an account of a dream involving participation in an execution.  The speaker’s reaction to the dream, the culpability felt from being responsible for someone’s death, is profound, and it is captured immediately upon his return from sleep:

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I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death
Oh, I awoke in anger
So alone and terrified
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried

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The reaction of the “I” in the song is accentuated by the “I” sound that appears ten times in eight lines.  The personal response to the dream arguably is dramatized more than the dream, with the figure left caught in a freeze-frame leaning against glass (Robert Shelton asks, “What is ‘the glass‘ he touches before crying? A window, a telescope, or a mirror?) “glass” is left unrhymed, not peculiarly so as a pattern is present.  The odd numbered lines do not have rhyming end words.  Anger, loneliness, and terror combine to cause bowing and crying.  “glass” plays a memorable role in the “I”‘s distraught condition.   In all of Dylan’s “dream” songs this may be the one with the most emotion with the touch of glass the only support for a grieving man. In all, the response seems to be more about the “I” than St. Augustine’s, a self that has died, a self that was once “alive with fiery breath,” a self seen through a “looking-glass” of a dream, a self no longer.

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I Pity the Poor Immigrant” reminds me of Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” in its escalating threat that oppression unabated can result in violent responses.  “glass,” rhyming with “pass” helps provide the moment in “I Pity” at the end of the song when the violence erupts:

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I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass

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Visions shattered are like dreams deferred.  What happens when dreams are deferred?  Hughes gives several answers in the form of rhetorical questions:

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What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

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In 2007, actor Danny Glover read Hughes’ poem for Voices from Voices of a People’s History of the United States:

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glass” rhymes with “grass” in the first verse of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”  Sun-glassed-eyed gentleman of the Zimmermans (isn’t this song really Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lownds, like Juliet is the star-crossed daughter of the Capulets?), would next rhyme “glass” and “grass” in reference to a snake in “Man Gave Names to All The Animals.”  I won’t touch the irony (is it irony?) of that, because I’d rather aim at how Bob’s uses glass for description:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
With your pockets well protected at last
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass
Who among them do they think could carry you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Since the smoothness of her face is identified by silk (smooth as), what role does glass play in comparing her face to it?  I think it’s fragility or preciousness.  Either would be challenging to carry, who among them willing to carry something so fragile or precious.  The extended rhyme that’s so melodic in this moment is “place on the grass” with  “face like glass.”  I like more what “place” and “face” unite–a face can become a place if the face is of someone so cherished.

There are worse ways to spend 11:20 minutes of your time:

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The first time Dylan uses the word “glass” is in “Outlaw Blues“:

I got my dark sunglasses
I got for good luck my black tooth
I got my dark sunglasses
I’m carryin’ for good luck my black tooth
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’
I just might tell you the truth

No rhyme here, just the word repeated, as is “tooth,” a black one.  Dylan tells us why he has the black tooth–for good luck.  It would take him 47 years later in Tempest‘s “Early Roman Kings” to tell us why he wears sunglasses, “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes.”  Mystery solved!

I think it’s because he knows just how damn cool he looks in them.  Take your pick:
Image
Interesting though that he only appears on two studio album covers wearing shades:
Infidels:
And on the album cover drawing for Blood on the Tracks:
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3 Comments

  1. mike rater

     /  December 5, 2012

    Are you talking about that song and dance man I saw a few weeks ago?

    Reply
  2. That would indeed be him. Did your eyes get glassy?

    Reply
  3. Kenny

     /  December 7, 2012

    WHOA! Sounds like a complex description of my favorite scotch, in a glass!

    Reply

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