The Times We Knew: Bob Dylan and his Forgetful Heart

Forgetful Heart
Forgetful Heart

The only song on Together Through Life I didn’t mention in my first response to it is also the one which currently has me most interested. It deserves more than to be forgotten, so I’ll eschew the album review today and go for an investigation of Dylan’s ‘Forgetful Heart.

Together Through Life is, by Dylan’s own admission, a romantic record. Its front cover features a couple in a clinch. Its first line is ‘Well, I love you, pretty baby’. The album constantly reverts to romantic connection as consolation: “this dream of you […] keeps me living on.” By this measure, ‘Forgetful Heart’ the darkest song on the record, the lament of a lover who rails against romantic amnesia; he is without even the memory of love, bereft of the last vestige of romance. “Without you it’s so hard to live,” Dylan sighs, in one of the finest vocal performances on the album.

It’s no coincidence, then, that in terms of its production ‘Forgetful Heart’ is closest to the Time Out of Mind style: in this song, the dark is not just getting there but here already. But where in that song Dylan’s nerves were numb to the sadness and pain, here they are acutely alive to it. “Can’t take much more,” he admits plainly, a frank admission that the loneliness of this amnesia can’t be shrugged away. The absence of what once was is now missed. “We loved with all the love that life can give,” he sings, following with, “Without you it’s so hard to live.” Life and love here have a more complicated relationship than first implied: life can give love, but, once given, love can take life away. This kind of symbiotic relationship is at the heart of the song.

To whom, after all, is ‘Forgetful Heart’ addressed? Clearly its appeal to the second person is the conventional form of the love song – the singer sings to their beloved. Yet the opening line makes it clear that the forgetful heart is the addressed party. The forgetful heart has lots its power of recall, not the lover, and is now “content to let the days go by.” We might guess that the remiss organ in question belongs to the lover, but remember ‘Not Dark Yet’, in which the singer’s soul has soul has turned into steel. Dylan is singing to own his forgetful heart; the relationship to which he refers is both wider and more narrow than any particular partner, and Dylan can now feel the pain of his inability to care.

Dylan and his heart laughed and a had a good time, but now the heart has forgotten how to feel. Where does this leave Dylan, too, except unable to feel? “The times we knew: Who will remember better than you?” That is, if the heart can’t remember too well then what hope the head? True to form, the forgetful heart is “like a walking shadow” in his brain (is love, then, now just a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?). Elsewhere on Together Through Life, Dylan quotes Hamlet almost verbatim (“I’m gonna pluck off your beard and blow it in your face”, in ‘It’s All Good’); here he nods a wink at it: “Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house.” Shut away, solitary, with only “the sound of pain” for company, and bereft of the capacity for further communion, for Dylan “the door is closed forever more.” The Houston Chronicle sees in that line the influence of the lyric’s co-writer, Robert Hunter, but its wry kiss-off, “if indeed there ever was a door,” is surely quintessential Dylan.

It also, of course, weaves directly into the album’s theme: that there may well be no hope, but that’s no reason to act like it. There has been a suggestion in this parish that Dylan is over-rated, but it seems to me that his late career revival, the marketing and pseudery aside, has been exactly that. Even the most literate of songwriters write songs which expound upon a theme. Few bother to write a song which could conceivably be addressed to three separate audiences, and still few can mask that ambition so effectively that the song seems simple at first glance. Still less likely is a song which threads backward and forwards in time, remains unified whilst achieving ambivalence, and manages to be allusive without feeling forced. ‘Forgetful Heart’ is absolutely what eruke at Gardener Is Gone thinks it is: a very subtle piece of songwriting.

7 thoughts on “The Times We Knew: Bob Dylan and his Forgetful Heart

  1. I was just this very morning thinking that “if indeed there ever was a door” could not have been written/sung by anyone but Dylan!
    Thank you for your gracious mention of my comments on my blog, but thank you more for your thoughtful and lovely examination of the album. You spoke so clearly for my feeling that there are blooms to be found throughout these tracks if only close and tender attention is paid.
    Best wishes to you, and thanks again. I’m happy to have “found” your site.

    eruke (Nina Goss)

  2. Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post, and concurred with that my unilateral assignment of provenance! I’ve enjoyed reading the posts over at your blog, so you’re more than welcome for the hat-tip.

    I think you’re right that the album repays tender attention: I’m revising my opinion of it upwards with every listen, and I think it requires a more careful approach that Modern Times or “Love and Theft”, which announced their intentions with much more fanfare. Together Through Life feels quieter, for sure, but I am beginning to think it is a quiet confidence.

  3. Forgetful Heart is not sung to anyone. It is song of thinking that man who remembers what is in his mind that his heart has either forgot or never really could remember. That it is about another person other than himself I find difficult to believe. Bob is asking his heart the questions here.

  4. Pablo, I agree completely – but of course if we’re talking figuratively that means he’s singing the song to his heart! It’s a nice little twist on the usual form of the lovelorn ballad.

  5. Before all the esoteric meanings, could this song simply and sadly be about a love of Dylan’s who has succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease, leaving him without any hope of reconciliation? (The door has closed forevermore….) The words and minor keys seem to ache with finality.
    I’m going through something similar in my own life, and every word rings true.

  6. and every word rings true.

    And glows like burning coal?

    That interpretation works very well. (Though if Alzheimer’s, where does ‘if indeed there ever was a door’ come into it?) It’s a strength of Dylan’s writing that it can support specific readings like this. Thanks for your insight.

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