Guard

I like to think of Bob Dylan, as  a guard, a sentinel, a sentry of sorts. I’ve always anticipated each album release as a chance to see how Dylan looks at our world. His mind’s eye matters to me. What he watches over, what matters to him enough to write and sing about is what he guards for those of us who have followed him for years.

If you glance at some of his album covers over the years, he looks like a guard, watching and looking out for us. As in The Times They Are a Changin:

That downward stare emanates disdain, scorn for what he sees, but it’s a look of contemplation, too, as if what’s worse is what the world is forcing him to think about.

And here he is again on the cover of Highway 61, sitting as if in his rock star throne, just dying to ask “How does it feel?” to just about anyone who approaches:

And is it any surprise that on an album with “Changing Of The Guards” that Dylan would be seen standing in a doorway on the lookout for who or what knows what:

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Maybe admitting anything is hard. Burden it with admitting your life is hard, or that you think in general life is hard, then add admitting to someone life is hard without them.  Not so hard, well, maybe it’s something hard to admit to one’s self, especially when you’re alone and that person is nowhere near you:

I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

Just to survive such admission might be dangerous, what if I can’t go on? I may need the “strength to face that world outside.”  It’s a sad song, “Life is Hard,” days are barren, hearts are locked away.

Be on guard for what you may admit to when you’re forced to face the world on your own, like a rolling stone:

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Dylan takes awhile to sing the title line in “Changing of the Guards,” 8 verses out of 9, to be exact. Only one word rhymes, with “guards,” because it only appears once, and that word is “cards”:

Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

Such a rhyme is done with the flick of  wrist, a magician’s card trick, as the words don’t look like they should rhyme–unlike words like “cough” and “dough,” or even better in this context, “card” and “ward,” which look they should rhyme.
Things that look like they don’t but do. Maybe that prepares us for that last verse, the ninth:
Peace will come
With tranquillity and splendor on the wheels of fire
But will bring us no reward when her false idols fall
And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating
Between the King and the Queen of Swords

A live version from 78, the year the album was released.
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You love someone but he/she sends you no regards, sends someone out to have you barred  . . . now that’s pretty hard to deal with. In “Temporary Like Achilles,” things get harder and harder for the would be lover, while the words that rhyme with hard keep piling up.  “heart” and “hard” have a kind of assonance, and the heart being referred to is questioned as being made of stone,  solid rock even.  The “guard” rhyme with “hard” helps phrase the deepest question, puts it back on the object of the devotion:
Just what do you think you have to guard?
You know I want your lovin’
Honey, but you’re so hard
If nothing else gets her (assuming gender)  to let down her guard this might, but if the guard is actually someone like Achilles, well this is going to get even harder:
Achilles is in your alleyway
He don’t want me here, he does brag
He’s pointing to the sky
And he’s hungry, like a man in drag
How come you get someone like him to be your guard?
You know I want your lovin’
Honey, but you’re so hard
Now Achilles is rock solid hard, all brawn, but he once did dress in drag, ordered to by his mother to make him avoid going to war. But he was hungry for battle, his nature was to be a warrior. Capture Achilles in that moment of his myth and make him your guard? Well that’s bound to be temporary.  Maybe there’s hope in breaking down or losing that guard altogether after all.
Back to the myth: here is a painting from Greek Mythology Link of the moment when Odysseus discovers Achilles’ disguise:

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The beginning of this blog post depicts Dylan as a guard, a sentry, and the internal rhyme with “guard” makes a similar association:

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

But he’s not speaking of a guard in the sense of a sentinel or sentry; the guard here is his resistance, his ability to stay on guard, but the image of his guard standing hard creates the image of a guard, his guard is kept up hard like a person standing guard, this in the face of “abstract threats” made him believe he “had something to protect” which is what guards do.  This is terrific wordplay, stretching the meaning of “guard” to multi-meanings, or two at least, and ignited, by the rhyme word “hard.”

Here’s Bob performing this excellent song in Glasgow, 1995. Listen for the crowd chiming in on the chorus.

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In the last verse of “George Jackson,” Dylan rhymes “yard” with “guards,” the last words of lines 2 and 4:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards
Lord, Lord
They cut George Jackson down
Lord, Lord
They laid him in the ground

This is the rhyming pattern in the song; each 2nd and 4th lines end in a rhyme.  Otherwise, the rhyming is limited to the “down”/”ground” one that ends each verse.

In the “yard”/”guard” rhyme Dylan does was one of his “either one or the other” a la “Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord . . .” binary in “Gotta Serve Somebody.” This one has teeth though; indeed the world as “one big prison yard” and we as either prisoners or guards is convincing, as is the way Joan Baez sings the song:

Meant

There’s a moment in his 1965 press conference in San Francisco when Dylan says, “It doesn’t mean anything.” It’s an  exceptional moment from an interview that’s typically evasive, amusing, giddy, and glib, the usual fodder from early Dylan interviews, but I think it’s candid and truthful.  He understands and wants to express the meaninglessness.

To some extent, the cannon of Dylan is really an attempt to figure out what things mean. Songs like “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Things Have Changed” and “Brownsville Girl” address the searching for meaning directly.  In others, there’s a straining to know what things mean, or worse, meant. What something or even someone used to mean is a harder question even than what something or someone means. His love songs are painful because they address what someone meant to the speaker, something that can never have the same meaning again. Other songs are amusing and deep because the search for meaning in them holds up a mirror to the absurdity of searching for any meaning at all.

Come with me on this journey to find out what meaning “meant” as a rhyming word can have in Dylan’s songs.

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In “Life Is Hard” “meant” rhymes with “went” and the meaning known is what two things used to mean but not what they mean now; those two things are the will and the way:

The evening winds are still
I’ve lost the way and will
Can’t tell you where they went
I just know what they meant
I’m always on my guard
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

The will and the way are lost, but not their meaning from the past. The past is tied to being near someone who used to give him a way and a will, perhaps. Such nearness is essential. We underestimate the value of nearness; in this song, such nearness is essential; it’s echoed in the bridge, four times:
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me

The songs celebrates nearness, in a sense, for what happens without it.
One of my favorite songs is “The Nearness of You.” It helps me value and celebrate nearness. Here’s Sarah Vaughn singing it  in 1949, a song originally sung by Gladys Swarthout for the film Romance in the Dark (1938) and written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington:
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The clever “sent to me”/”meant to be” rhyme in the third verse of “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Alter,”
Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery,
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery,
Got the message this morning, the one that was sent to me
About the madness of becomin’ what one was never meant to be.
signals a theme to come. The phrase “never meant to be” has resonance in the following verses where Claudette is “slandered and humiliated,” having the power one night only to not having the power to keep it the next day, and the best never meant to be or meant to be fate: Claudette “respectably married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires.”
What you were not meant to be as a kind of madness has depth and insight, but how do we know what we were meant to be in a world where so much is misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted: “shyness for aloofness,” “silence for snobbery”?
Dylan sings the song with energy, animation, rage even, like he means it: