Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bob Dylan: Love Minus Zero/No Limit

SONG Love Minus Zero/No Limit



APPEARS ON Bringing It All Back Home (1965); At Budokan (1979); The Concert For Bangla Desh (2005, DVD only)

I've been pondering the meaning of this song for more than thirty years. LMZ/NL is one of my favorite Dylan songs (and therefore one of my favorite songs), although a precise interpretation has long eluded me. But, writing about a song uncovers meaning. Even the act of copying lyrics has an effect: I grasp much more from typing them instead of cutting and pasting.

For example, the meaning of this aphorism closing the second verse--
She knows there's no success like failure,
And that failure's no success at all
--perplexed me. Was Dylan being deliberately enigmatic, laughing up his sleeve as fans sought a profundity where none existed? Then I wrote it down and Dylan's point suddenly became clear: Since we learn more from our failures, they are more important than our successes ("there's no success like failure"). Thus, failure is nothing like success ("no success at all"). Dylan sets up the lyric nicely with an account of banal conversations and speculations irrelevant to what actually happens.

Dylan often deals in punch lines. LMZ/NL typifies this propensity, where the imagery of each verse sets up a clearly stated conclusion. Thus in the first verse, love's elemental nature renders mere store-bought valentines as an inadequate expression. In the surreal third verse, iconic figures ("madams," "horsemen," "pawns," and crumbling "statues") intermingle and destroy each other while love watches bemused ("My love winks"), not judging because it's all small stuff anyway.

In the climactic fourth verse, the banker's nieces' ideal of "perfection" (the "gifts of wise men") echoes the Nativity story. Compared to love, though, religion is a relatively earthly matter subject to corruption (hence the financial imagery). Love in all its forms -- romantic, platonic, brotherly -- is Dylan's higher power. We can see this by the way he invokes love's strength in the face of everything from the quotidian ("dime stores and bus stations") to the mystical ("ceremonies of the horsemen").

All which leads to the doozy of the finale:
The wind howls like a hammer,
The night blows cold and rainy,
My love she's like some raven,
At my window with a broken wing.
The power of love notwithstanding, human indifference can break it. The elements suddenly turn dangerous, reducing love to a futile exercise of battering at the window separating it from an unresponsive lover. And so, love can in the end fall victim to the banalities of human nature. Which is why we must strive to be "true, like ice, like fire" lest we lose love's great capacity to heal, bind, and reveal.
My love she speaks like silence,
Without ideals or violence,
She doesn't have to say she's faithful,
Yet she's true, like ice, like fire.
People carry roses,
Make promises by the hour,
My love she laughs like the flowers,
Valentines can't buy her.
In dime stores and bus stations,
People talk of situations,
Read books, repeat quotations,
Draw conclusions on the wall.
Some speak of the future,
My love she speaks softly,
She knows there's no success like failure,
And that failure's no success at all.

The cloak and dagger dangles,
Madams light the candles,
In ceremonies of the horsemen,
Even the pawn must hold a grudge.
Statues made of match sticks,
Crumble into one another,
My love winks, she does not bother,
She knows too much to argue or to judge.

The bridge at midnight trembles,
The country doctor rambles,
Banker's nieces seek perfection,
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.
The wind howls like a hammer,
The night blows cold and rainy,
My love she's like some raven,
At my window with a broken wing.

Newport, 1965:

From the Concert for Bangla Desh, with George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Leon Russell:

A gorgeous version from 1994:


  1. It's a gorgeous song & one I've liked or years as well. "Bringing It All Back Home" is great.

  2. It's one of those songs that, through the years, I've found myself humming or at random times. The title is said to be a fraction.

    The songs from "Bringing It All Back Home" read like a Dylan's Greatest Hits album:

    Subterranean Homesick Blues
    She Belongs To Me
    Maggie's Farm
    Love Minus Zero/No Limit
    Outlaw Blues
    On The Road Again
    Bob Dylan's 115th Dream

    Mr. Tambourine Man
    Gates of Eden
    It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
    It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

    How would you like to this on your resume?

  3. Excellent analysis and a very well written piece!

    LMZ is truly a gem of a song, with Dylan's beautiful and complex lyrics here at the rarefied level of pure timeless poetry. It's a very Cohen-esque song actually, and there's no higher praise!

    I also fully agree when you speak about how far more rewarding and informative typing out the lyric is, rather than just cutting and pasting. I used to do that with lots of my favourite tracks back in my younger days. That darned internet has made it too easy nowadays though!

    There's a beautiful intimate performance of this song from "Don't Look Now" (filmed during the legendary 65 UK tour) where a sundry entourage in a hotel room - including Donovan - gather around Bob, all of them rapt in silent awe as the song unfolds. It's probably still available on YT and would really be worth adding to the other excellent performances you posted.

    Just a heads up on a few typos;
    - therefor one of my favorite songs
    - love's elemental nature of love
    - Valentines can't by her.


  4. Thanks for catching and noting the typos. They are fixed!

  5. I agree with finding a lyrics meanings by typing them. I love the lines "She knows there's no success like failure,
    And that failure's no success at all". Truly inspiring.

  6. my favourite Dylan song - and one that exemplifies his true poetry... Nobel prize justified...