Bob Dylan: Abandoned Love – Relationship and Spiritual Process

It was only recently that I became aware of Bob Dylan‘s Abandoned Love. Recorded in 1975, the song was neither published on the 1976 album Desire nor on any of the subsequent ones. Only 10 years after recording, Abandoned Love was released in 1985 on the compilation album Biograph, next to some of Dylan’s best known hits (including Blowin’ in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, The Times They Are A’Changing – 53 songs altogether on 3 CDs).

The song describes a failed relationship and the classical conflict between head and heart: My head tells me it’s time to make a change … my heart is telling me I love you still …

Many fans have been touched by this surprise release – one can relate to the pain of separation. The song has been interpreted in biographical terms. After all, Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lownds fell apart during that time, even if divorce only came in 1977. By the way, Sara was present in the studio when Abandoned Love was recorded. During that same session, Dylan also recorded the Desire album versions of Sara, which might well be his most personal song, and Isis, which he once introduced as “a song about marriage”, and which I regard as a song about an initiation process.

Abandoned Love captured me the first time of listening. I think the fascination comes from my impression that the song also works on a spiritual level. I see it as describing a stage in an initiation process: severing earthly ties. I feel this shines through the song, musically and lyrically. Scarlet Rivera‘s violin plays her part, though not as dominantly as in Hurricane and One More Cup of Coffee.

Bob Dylan, Abandoned Love, featuring Scarlet Rivera – violin, Rob Stoner – bass guitar and backing vocalist, and Howard Wyeth – drums and piano

Deceived by the Inner Clown

"I wear the ball and chain"
Pixabay: Peggy_Marco
Pixabay: Peggy_Marco

I can hear the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
Oh, something’s a-telling me I wear the ball and chain

The story starts with self-awareness: the clown may be the ego, which keeps specifying new desires and goals, without ever being satisfied. Thus it keeps distracting attention from the essential. The seeker was led astray and feels his state of captivity.

My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost
He’s always off somewhere when I need him most
The Spanish moon is rising on the hill
But my heart is a-tellin’ me I love ya still

The moon is sometimes associated with the soul. The moon reflects sunlight, just like the soul can reflect impulses from the spirit, and pass them on indirectly. The moon rises – maybe the immortal soul starts to awaken? The hill as an image of inner elevation? The heart, however, is still caught up in old ties – a partner, or maybe, more abstractly, any worldly desires?

The Immortal Soul Starts to Awaken

I come back to the town from the flaming moon
I see you in the streets, I begin to swoon
I love to see you dress before the mirror
Won’t you let me in your room one time ’fore I finally disappear?

Now the moon is in flames – the impulses from the soul intensify. But the seeker cannot remain in an elevated state; he gets confronted with reality. Worldly temptations put him under a spell. One more time he wants to enjoy what the world has to offer, while being well aware that a definite farewell is on the cards.

Everybody’s wearing a disguise
To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes
But me, I can’t cover what I am
Wherever the children go I’ll follow them

This verse, to me, extends well beyond the level of a failed relationship. Why should he, while suffering the pain of separation, worry about how other people conceal their innermost being? At this stage of his journey, sincerity and self-awareness are key. This is also reflected in Isis, as well as All Along the Watchtower, which also happens to feature a clown (joker), and contains these lines:

But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late

Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower

The reference to the children may remind us of Jesus‘ request to become like children.

I march in the parade of liberty
But as long as I love you I’m not free
How long must I suffer such abuse
Won’t you let me see you smile one time before I turn you loose?

He is drawn towards freedom, but still in chains. Where does that feeling of “abuse” come from – a rather strong term in an unhappy relationship, considering love is still present? Maybe it is not the personality, not the earthly aspect, but the soul that feels abused for being forced to live in the world of opposites.

The Turning Point: Farewell and Letting Go

I’ve given up the game, I’ve got to leave
The pot of gold is only make-believe
The treasure can’t be found by men who search
Whose gods are dead and whose queens are in the church

Now a turning point has been reached, he needs to create more room within for the impulses of the soul. The invisible treasure can’t be found by worldly means. The reference to gold may remind us of the illusionary nature of the world on the one hand, and true alchemy on the other hand.

We sat in an empty theater and we kissed
I asked ya please to cross me off-a your list
My head tells me it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange

Under the influence of the soul, old joys appear increasingly strange. For me, the variation in the last line of this verse does not appear at this moment by chance, but rather as the result of an inner process. I’ve heard cover versions where artists came up with this line earlier in the song.

The Ego / Earthly Aspects have to let go of the Throne

One more time at midnight, near the wall
Take off your heavy makeup and your shawl
Won’t you descend from the throne, from where you sit?
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it

The ego is now fully unmasked and exposed. What the world has to offer becomes far less attractive once the “makeup and shawl” are removed. There is a captivating scene near the end of Gustav Meyrink‘s The Angel of the West Window in which the hero fights “Lady World”, who appears to offer all the joys in the world, but upon closer inspection radiates rot and decay.

The ego, the inner clown now has to surrender reign over the human. The throne may be located behind the frontal bone. But there still is a voice which wants to dive into worldly temptations one last time.

Interestingly. Bob Dylan has not played this gem at any of his over 3,800 concerts. There is, however, one live recording, dated July 1975, from a show by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Joe Kivak describes in Encounters with Bob Dylan how Dylan performed Abandoned Love there, a song no one in the knowledgeable crowd knew, with everyone hanging on Dylan’s every word. Kivak called it “the strongest performance I have ever heard”.

Bob Dylan, Abandoned Love, Greenwich Village, July 3rd, 1975

Abandoned Love was covered for example by George Harrison, the Everly Brothers, Willie Nile as well as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Bob Dylan’s Love Songs

Examples of other love songs by Bob Dylan that are open to a spiritual perspective:

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