“What Was It You Wanted” (1989)

There aren’t many Dylan song titles that are questions.  “Can You Crawl Through My Window”, “Where Are You Tonight”, and “Who Killed Davey Moore” come to my mind.  Oh Mercy has two song titles that are questions (so does Street Legal) and so I am attentive to how the question might be answered in the song.  A song like “Blowin in the Wind” has as its title an answer.  The song consists of a series of questions.  “What Was It You Wanted” does the same, but the question is never answered, which is about as satisfying as the nebulous “The answer my friend is blowin in the wind.”

But the song is unsatisfying only if you’re looking for or in need of an answer.  The questions are enough to convey the central message in the song–it’s all about the singer knowing that something was wanted, that if there was any love at all in the relationship key to the song it was all about taking, not giving:

What was it you wanted
When you were kissing my cheek?

Did somebody tell you
That you could get it from me

Why do you want it
Who are you anyway?

Do you want it for free
It’s all about wanting, again, not giving, or not wanting to give.
Not wanting in anyway is the rhyme structure of this tightly constructed 8 line per verse (7 of them) song.  Every 2nd and 4th lines rhyme, as do the 6th and 8th.
On “Oh Mercy” Dylan was back asking questions, digging deep, and writing poetry.  Perhaps after too many years of absence the Muse had returned, asking Bob, “What was it you wanted”? But now she was willing to give.
Here’s the original studio recording . . . such ambiance.

 

 

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“Wedding Song” (1973)

I know a few people who have chosen this song for their wedding song.  And but for a few lines that might be too specific with his relationship with Sara Lowndes it can work for any couple.  The tone is of a dirge though, (“Dirge” precedes it by three songs on the album); there are happier and more upbeat sounding tunes on this recording.

And the rhymes are mostly perfect and the structure is rigidly patterned, 8 verses with 4 lines each and a consistent abab couplet rhyming throughout.

The best rhymes are earth/worth, bend/again, and goes on/gone.  But I like what Dylan does with the opening verse rhyme see/me and how it unites with the homonym “see” with “me” in the last verse.

The 6th verse announces a departure from protest songs,

It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large
Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge
’Cause I love you more than all of that with a love that doesn’t bend
And if there is eternity I’d love you there again

though he would pick up that finger-pointing purpose again, despite not wanting to “remake that world at large” (a great way to put that personal protest by the way) two years later on Desire with “Hurricane.”

The women in Bob’s life let some of his best poetry and rhyming surface.

Here’s a live video of the song from 1974 in Seattle:

 

“Watching The River Flow” (1971)

Christopher Ricks includes this song under the vice of sloth in his Dylan’s Vision of Sin.  Yes, I see where the singer is, just sitting and watching while the river does a great deal more with its flowing.  But I think such a view is the kind we associate with Hamlet who we often think doesn’t do much than contemplate why he can’t murder his uncle, yet he is full of action during the play, what with inserting passages for the “Mousetrap” play, having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, jumping on pirate ships, etc., but our image of Hamlet is either sitting on some precipice contemplating suicide or holding a skull and ruminating about the past.

The singer in “Watching” is also active.  In the first verse he walks to and fro beneath the moon.  In verse two, he shares that the day before he saw someone on the street “who just couldn’t help but cry.” That same day it was someone who was “really shook” that he saw (yes, could be the same person). These are not the experiences of someone who always wants to be stuck on a bank of sand.  He also was in an “all-night cafe.”

Now there is the commitment to watching the river flow as long as it does flow:

But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

But he’s done other kinds of wishing earlier in the song, like pining to the be in the city, desiring to fly, and wanting to read a book.
The rhyming in this song is active, too, but at first it does not appear so, sticking to an abcbdefe scheme.  However, the pattern breaks in the next to last verse (the last really a refrain with the title repeated four times).  The pattern changes to aabaccdc:
People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you wanna stop and read a book
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
That was really shook
But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow
And I think it does so to have the song’s major theme surface, and that is how active escapism or the need for it can be.  This verse breaks the pattern; we all need to break patterns especially ones that reduce us.  Or maybe we need to break the heaviness that weighs on our minds sometimes.  Just ask Hamlet about that one.
This is an upbeat live version from I’m not sure when, but it sure makes you want to get up and dance, not watch a river flow or read a book: