“Only in Dreams”
Back when this song first came into my life, my mother had a habit of saying, “If a guy really wants you, he’ll let you know.” I refused to believe this. The awkward person (me) seduces the flawless person (never mind who) in a dream, a protected place outside of space and time. The refrain — “only in dreams” — is frustrated and sad.
She’s in your bones.
If we could devote our entire waking life to this dream, maybe it would actually happen, or so I always felt while listening to the song. If we give up, so the argument goes, we’ll have no chance. We forget that it is not our job to make love happen. But we have limitless energy to convince this person that they should be ours. Surely that is enough to make them ours.
Your pretty toenails.
The unrequited, the dreamer, is unable to really see that the woman is a person, not a mirage. From this distance, this faraway distance, shut out from the other person’s life, we think we can fill our mind with enough thoughts to bridge the distance from us to them. But those thoughts are a fiction, and they leave no room for flaws, for inner ugliness, for mistakes and vagaries. To lust is to idealize. To lust is to see a depiction of a physically perfect man in art and think how much it looks like him. To lust is to see his face in the faces of others, shutting the others out without actually seeing them, much less knowing them.
To love is to dismiss dreams, to laugh at them.
To dream is to summon up things you don’t have and stitch them together with the things you do. Of course it’s easier to have what you want while lying down, paralyzed, directing the desired in the dark.
“Tangled Up in Blue”
Time: one of the most seductive elements of love. I choose this obvious Dylan song because it’s arguably a thesis statement that Dylan has kept returning to and probably will for the rest of his career. Plenty of time passed between the time Dylan met the woman who “never escaped” his mind, and the time they “split up on the docks.” The song isn’t narrated in chronological order because the chronology doesn’t matter so much as the scope. There is a rare moment in which he addresses the woman as “you,” and many more moments in which he less passionately refers to her as “she,” the distant object of a tired but dogged affection.
But this story never quite satisfied him. He has jostled the point of view of “Blue” and the lyrics themselves dozens of times over the years (something he does with many other songs). He adjusts the perspective to fit his current thinking on the situation. “I” becomes “he,” “she” becomes “you,” and sometimes “I” even becomes “you.”
“We always did feel the same; we just saw it from a different point of view.” That’s the point of the song — but is it even? The song had to end, so it ended there, in a characteristically cavalier way. But it was an ending he couldn’t seem to accept. Nor can I. “I’ve got to get to her somehow,” he says, hurriedly, in the last verse. Did he ever? My guess is no. That instead, he wrote dozens more songs about her.
“Cold Irons Bound,” recorded more than thirty years later, could very well be about the same person. I like to pretend that it is. “My love for her has taken such a long time to die.” There are refrains like this all over his lyrics. In “Can’t Wait,” from the same album, he says, “I left my life with you somewhere back along the line.” In “Long and Wasted Years,” released last year, a similar sentiment: “It’s been awhile since we walked down that long, long aisle.” If you wanted to, you could say he never got over this woman, that she has been the inspiration for many of his songs. Who’s to say? But the privilege of the music fan is that we’re allowed to think whatever we want.
In any case, history: if you’ve acquired these many thoughts about someone, let alone had experiences with them (if only there wasn’t a difference between the two), you are not likely to give them up.
This dear Canadian treasure has too many songs about love to count, but I’ll limit it to one: “Fearless,” from the band’s underappreciated first album. Matthew Good’s relationships tend to be depicted as comets: beautiful blasts of cosmic energy that seem to die out as quickly as they appear. “Fearless” is about trying to simply have a moment with the fearless woman in question. “I have been polite for too long,” he says. “Why should I be anymore?” He’s finally declaring his love. “Better now than never,” he reasons. “Better loud than clever.” He seems to know it won’t end well, that it has no future, but he doesn’t care.
In the chorus he asks, “If you lay me down in concrete fields / Will I dream of grass and opera?” It’s the realism poking through the naivety of the verse. He wonders if getting what he wants will only make him want something else: the perfect dream turning into a complicated reality.
Then back to heroic declarations, because again, who cares how this will end? If we cared, we wouldn’t dare ever do anything with anyone:
In the end there will be fire and brimstone
And no one will be there to answer the telephone
You are the only one I’ll miss
You are the only answer at a time like this
Surely this — devotion — trumps everything. Surely. But has he shown his devotion, or just stated it? You are the only one I’ll miss. I think that’s proof enough.
“Tougher Than The Rest”
In this deceptively happy song from Tunnel of Love, Bruce is through with his stormy Hollywood marriage and eyeing the woman who would eventually become the love of his life. There is a chivalrous air to the song, but it’s a bit ironic. The refrain is that he’s “tougher than the rest.” “Tougher”? From whence comes this toughness? What’s its value? He’s just blown through a marriage as fast as the typical celebrity, yet he’s declaring himself to be “tougher than the rest”?
He’s not in Hollywood anymore, though, and, “Round here, baby, I learned you get what you can get.” Being from the next town over from “round here,” his future wife no doubt appreciates this starkly realist sentiment. He doesn’t promise anything except that he will stick around, which made me realize, maybe for the first time, that this is a valuable trait. He is not “handsome” (well, actually, he is), he is not “good-looking” (um), he is not “sweet-talking” (true). But he is “tough.”
But how are we to believe this? His promise that he’s “tougher than the rest” is made with trepidation and sadness in his voice. He’s not actually sure, but he wants to be, and all he asks of the other person is that she be “rough enough for love.” How romantic. And yet — here they are, decades later. Dreams die in the end. Reality endures. But only if you’re “rough enough.”
“I Used to Love Him”
Lauryn Hill feat. Mary J. Blige
In characteristic teenage fashion, I used to sing this song as if I actually believed its message: I used to love him. But I still did. Love him, that is. So I kept listening to the song in the hopes that it would somehow exorcise the feeling. The song is about youthful love, stupid love, blind love. “He was the ocean and I was the sand.” Yes. “He stole my heart like a thief in the night / Dulled my senses and blurred my sight.” That too.
“You stole my heart” always sounds, in Hollywood iterations, like a good thing. How wonderful. Like, “You captivated me.” As if the person whose heart was stolen was reluctant to give it away, or at least unwitting, as the theft occurred. But to me, listening to that song on some uncharacteristically blustery summer afternoon, “stole” sounded like the crime that it was technically characterized as. This person was a good-for-nothing crook, a liar. But then, I think he was unwitting when he did the stealing. He didn’t know he was stealing anything. Presenting himself to another, just existing, he did not expect another person to be so consumed by him.
The waiting game again: thinking that time, magic, or some action would allow that person to give up their heart to a desperate thief. “Stuck and frustrated, I waited, debated / For something to happen that just wasn’t fated.”
For something to happen that just wasn’t fated. How I envied these grown women for knowing when something “wasn’t fated.” I had put in the time. I had done everything (short of declaring my love; that was a teenage taboo). “But now I don’t!” I would sing. And I would go to sleep, and when I woke up the next morning, I wouldn’t. But by the time the sun was high in the sky, I would.