Two things in particular make Tell Tale Signs a god-send for the Dylan analyst. One is that it shows how tightly interconnected Dylan’s last three albums are, not only musically but also lyrically: text fragments and themes float between them as if they were part of the same triple album. The other is that it gives an opportunity to study the process that so many musicians who have worked with him have mentioned: that songs can change radically from one session to the next or even between takes. The three versions of “Can’t Wait” are particularly revealing in this respect.
The story in brief
Here’s how I imagine the story behind the song [for the record: when I refer to the narrator as "Dylan", it is in the sense outlined in "Dylan the postmodernist"; when I refer to him as "I", it's because that's how the narrator refers to himself, not because of any attempt on my part to assume the protatgonist's part in the story – of course not]:
Dylan has had an affair (extra-marital? “I’ve been drinking / drinking forbidden juices”…) with a woman and fallen deeply in love with her. But he can’t have her (either because she’s out of reach, too good to get, doesn’t want him, or because she belongs to someone else), and he goes through a deep depression, but he gradually gets over it, gets a grip of himself, becomes more rational about it. In the process, it is shown how depression turns to frustration and frustration breeds anger.
The album version takes place somewhere at the beginning of this last stage, the original versions in the middle of the whole process. The album version is a song about longing for something outside — you, people, places, love — whereas the original was a song about a longing inside — for the internal power and presence of you and love.
The original is a love song — a song about love, about the pain of love and about the longing for death as a last desperate way out of it.
The later version is not a love song but a loss song — a song about the pain of loss, and about death as the logical consequence of this loss.
The differences between the versions is condensed in three sets of lyric changes, relating to the State of Mind of the Love Sick, The Object of Veneration, and The Way Out.
For simplicity’s sake, I mostly treat the two outtake versions as one. The complete lyrics to all the versions can be found at dylanchords.info.
State of Mind of the Love Sick: “That’s how it is” — ok, fine, but how exactly?
One line is used in all three versions, but in three different ways, representing three stages of the desperate man’s relation to the world: “That’s how it is, when …”
The first time it’s about the realization that I can’t get a grip on the world:
I can’t say if I want the pain to end or not
Well, the blindness overtaking me
is beating like a drum
I don’t know where it starts
or where it’s coming from
That’s how it is
when I try to concentrate
That’s how it is when I try to concentrate: there’s pain.
And the pain is so sweet or so all-encompassing that I can’t do without it, because without it, I’ll be losing myself. But it also makes me senseless, unaware of up and down, blind and deaf from the pounding of drums or hearts; and the more I try to grasp it, focus on it, concentrate on it, the more it disappears. I don’t know where it comes from — could be from the outside, could be from within.
The lack of concentration stems from desperate pain, and it leads nowhere.
In version #2 we find the lines that ended up being used in “Sugar Baby” on “Love and Theft”:
being close to her is where I don’t belong
Well, my back is to the sun
because the light is too intense
I can see what everybody
in the world is up against
That’s how it is
when things disintegrate.
I’m cut off from community, but with a heightened sense of reality. That combination can drive a man insane and make the world fall apart.
Where do I belong?
Can I be there?
Can I be anywhere else?
No, because I belong with her.
Can I be with her?
Pain is the path to realization. I can see the world, the reality that I desire and in which I desire (the desire is no longer just a pain within), but I can’t get there, and things fall apart.
Concentration is no longer the problem — disintegration is: I do get a grip on the world, only to realize that it’s falling apart.
The third version is yet another take on the question “how is it when…” Here, I realize that it’s not the world that is falling apart after all, it’s me, and I don’t give a damn:
It doesn’t matter anymore where I go,
I just go
If I ever saw you comin’
I don’t know what I might do
I’d like to think I could control myself,
but it isn’t true
That’s how it is
when things disintegrate
The sense of being cut off from what I want, the incongruity between desire and reality, is still there. This time, there not just disorientation clouding everything or disconnection from everything, but the realization that there may be an outcome to the mess, an active element, but it’s potentially violent. I will probably not be able to control myself.
Interestingly, the next album in Dylan’s recent “trilogy”, “Love and Theft” could be seen as a theme album about tenderness turning violent: just about every song has a moment of a threatening mayhem in the midst of loving bliss. (Cf. “A Day Above Ground Is a Good Day”). On “Can’t Wait” we have the same thing within the song’s own development.
The Object of Veneration: From “Getting to you” to “Controlling the Thing“
The second motion goes from love as an inner condition which has lost its direction, to love as a thing which has been lost. One couplet sums up this difference and perhaps the whole development of the song. In the early version, in one of the most naked vocals ever (which is what made me write this in the first place), Dylan sings,
Skies are grey
Life is short,
and I think of her a lot.
Just like that. Three facts are stated. They stand there side by side without any causal or dependency relationship between them, like a haiku. There’s sorrow and pain. It’s going to end, somehow, sooner or later. Meanwhile, I think of her. A lot.
I think of her a lot. I do.
Compared to the emotional turmoil of the surrounding verses, this is like a sudden glimpse of sanity or calm in the hurricane’s eye.
Later, it goes:
Skies are grey
I’m looking for anything that will bring a happy glow
The elements are the same: The skies are still gray; there is the quest for happiness (which here replaces death as a way to end the sadness – a reasonable exchange); and there is the focus. But where this used to be a directionless whirlwind of thought about her, it now has a direction: there’s this thing I’m looking for that might end it. Cause and effect.
Love. That’s the thing. It is no longer a feeling or a condition, but a thing, and most of the song is spent wondering where it is and how to get it back:
I’ve tried to recover the sweet love that we knew
Well your loveliness has wounded me,
I’m reeling from the blow
I wish I knew what it was
that keeps me loving you so
I left my life with you
somewhere back there along the line
Love has moved from the inside to the outside, and so has the main line of action. I am now standing outside the gate, wondering how to get to the inside. What is earlier best seen as metaphorical, internal landscapes becomes more concrete. In the bridge, the “rolling through stormy weather” is first placed next to a distressed state of mind, later next to a hypothetical travelogue of love:
I’m torn and I’m tattered
I’ve been rolling through the stormy weather
My heart’s been shattered
But I’m holding all the parts of it together.
Later, love itself comes as a curse from the outside:
I’m doomed to love you.
I’ve been rolling through stormy weather
I’m thinkin’ of you
and all the places we could roam together.
The Way Out: Can’t wait — but for what?
This leaves one phrase to be discussed: the title line. In itself, it can be used both in the literal sense and as an idiomatic expression, meaning “looking forward to”, as in “I can’t wait to see that movie”. The song explores both these options, as well as the undecidedness about what to wait for.
The song starts with a statement which in isolation might have sounded like “I’m so excited – I just can’t wait!” The effect is the same as in “Summer Days” off “Love and Theft”: it may sound nice, but the point is that those nice days are gone.
After the initial “Can’t wait for you to change your mind”, there is no indication in the early versions that there is anything in particular that is being waited for: it’s the waiting itself that is unbearble. All the themes that fall under the “That’s how it is” heading are part of this. There is nothing worth waiting for, and that makes the waiting a directionless pain.
In the version on Time out of Mind, on the other hand, there is a development. The first verse is really just about the outer circumstances and a man trying to find his way around and within them. The wait is that of a hunter or a guard, patiently posted, people going up and down and here I am.
In the second verse, love is introduced, as a thing which can wound and bind, be lostt and — perhaps — recovered. There’s the awareness of inside and outside, with me
… breathin’ hard
standin’ at the gate –
and the concluding
I don’t know
how much longer I can wait
would probably continue “… before I break in”.
In this perspective, the lines “I wish I knew what it was / that keeps me loving you so” get their natural continuation: “… so that I could cut it off (one way or the other)”.
This potential for violence is made explicit in the third verse with the “I’d like to think I could control myself” lines.
In general, this version is about balance: walking the line, thinking straight, holding oneself back, where the earlier attention was to holding the parts of the shattered heart together. In the earlier versions, balance isn’t an issue — it’s not “I” who is thinking of walking the line, keeping the balance act — it’s “you” who will hopefully step out on the thin, uncertain line, take the risk.
The End of Time
The last verse is about death in both versions, but even when the same words are used, the statements are radically different.
My hands are cold,
the end of time has just begun.
It’s mighty funny:
the end of time has just begun.
The first is a premonition of death: this is it. In an earlier verse, all feeling was swallowed up by the pain. Now, senses are awakened, only to find that what one is reawakened to, is the end. The new version takes a step back and looks at this with wry sarcasm: it’s mighty funny. Yes, isn’t it ironic, as Alanis says, but that is something one can’t see when one is in the middle of it.
“Can’t Wait” and the Blood on the Tracks effect
If there is one area where Dylan shines, it’s in the ability to transform a heart-wrenching expression of desperation over an unfulfilled personal relation into a detatched, poetic report of how a desperate man deals with the world. Many have held that this is what he did it on “Idiot Wind” and other of the Blood on the Tracks songs: that the revised lyrics removed the most personal element from the texts — moving from “I’m sad” in the original versions to “You’re stupid” or “this sucks” in the new ones — and that this made the songs less powerful.
I’m not sure if I agree with this: the final version of Blood on the Tracks has tremendous songs, which goes to show that hiding one’s feelings does not necessarily make a lesser song, just as baring them does not guarantee greatness.
Be that as it may, my first impression was that this was exactly the case with “Can’t wait”. The earlier versions are breathtaking in their emotionality and intensity. The version that was released on Time Out Of Mind, on the other hand, has some great lines, but I never quite warmed to it. At first, I blamed this on the “Blood on the Tracks effect”.
But I have changed my mind: this is not a cop-out — Dylan is not hiding his true feelings — he is displaying his feelings at a different stage in the process. I just find it much more rewarding to listen to the earlier stage.
I have no clear answer as to why this is so. The eleven years of familiarity with the Time Out Of Mind version may be part of it — hearing the song anew is refreshing.
Also, if the dominating emotion in the earlier versions is sadness and in the later frustration, the former lends itself more easily to a “likeable” performance than the latter.
This is so, not because people are the sadists that Dylan implicilty chastized when he told Mary Travers in an interview: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to [...] people enjoying [listening to] that type of pain”, but because there’s a difference between experiencing pain, experiencing someone else’s pain, and experience someone’s communicated expression of experienced pain. Pain may not be enjoyable — neither one’s own nor someone else’s — but artistic expressions of pain are: they are not painful in themselves, neither for the listener nor (necessarily) for the artist.
When painful songs can be so enjoyable, it’s because they are like emotional candy: anyone who has ever sighed in grief (and who know enough about the cultural codes of orchestral music to recognize the gesture) can relate to the “sighing” descending seconds in baroque music, and anyone who is asked:
Did you ever lay awake at night,
your face turned to the wall?
will have to answer: “Yes I did — I know how you feel!” There’s no fuss, no intellectual filter, no web of metaphors to entangle, just basic human emotion seen from the outside. It is art’s equivalent to the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salt.
That the emotions are simple, basic, does not mean that it’s simple to produce them, or that works that are based in these emotions are worth less than those presenting more complex ones. One might even say that since it is so simple to add some sugar to a cake to make simple tastes happy, it takes skill and courage to use the sugar in less blunt ways. That’s what Dylan — the pâtissier of rock ‘n’ roll — does, here and on Blood on the Tracks.
It’s more complicated with the Time out of Mind version. The semi-self-conscious detatchment from the world and from oneself, the mixture of cool and warm which may snap at any point; the love-based violence — these are more complex emotions, not kids’ stuff.
The later version is filled with cliches and commonplaces: “my heart can’t go on beating without you”, “some on their way up, / some on their way down”, “Night or day”, “rollin’ through stormy weather”, “Oh honey, you’re still the one”, etc. Add to this the way love is moved from inside to outside, and one may easily suspect that we are witnessing a de-emotionalization of the song.
That’s probably why I didn’t like the song when this was the only version we had. Seeing where it comes from, however, and how it fits into the larger picture of the Time triptych, it seems more as if all these detatched words and cliches have been put in there, not to hide the true feelings, but as a poetic representation of how it is that one hides one’s feelings; the protective measures one takes when the pain of love is so remote as to be manageable but not remote enough to have lost its power.
I’m aware that this doesn’t really have a conclusion — yet. If you have something to say to influence that conclusion — or any other part of the text for that matter — don’t hesitate to use the comment field below. This is after all the interactive blaha blaha web 2.0.