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.


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:
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:
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1 Comment

  1. This site was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something that helped me.
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