Here’s a clip from Minnesotan singer-songwriter who has had some success over the years after being born on this very day, May 24th 1941; Bob Dylan. It’s his “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, a feature from his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, and one of his greatest love songs. It may be one of the greatest love songs written by anyone.
In this particular instance, the song was performed, and captured for posterity in D.A Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back. The film documented Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK, as well as Dylan’s rising fame that began to have an impact outside of his folk fanbase. This sequence was filmed in a hotel room with a very engaged audience looking on, knowing perhaps that they were witnessing a historically significant artist during an important phase in his development.
This performance of the song would be noted especially for the presence of Donovan Leitch, an artist who had been touted at the time as something of a British counterpart to Dylan. And it’s clear that the song, along with “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, was performed as a way of showing up the competition by raising the bar. You can see that it worked just by Donovan’s reaction, realizing that he’ll have to work that much harder from that point on.
But, Dylan himself was at something of an artistic crossroads by this time. And if it looks as though he’s bating Donovan (which to be honest, looks pretty evident), Dylan is raising the bar for himself, too, and at a crucial point in his career.
The song remains to be a shining gem in a body of work characterized by shining gems, written during an extremely fertile period for Bob Dylan as a songwriter. It’s a song of idealized womanhood, full of contradictory statements, yet with the emotional undercurrents of a man who is in love, and who has all of the words in the world at his disposal to express it, pulling in English Romantic poetry influences and Biblical imagery.
Yet ultimately despite the arsenal of language demonstrated in the song, the narrator finds himself unable to express his feeling to the degree he really wants to. His love is still unreachable. So, the language itself becomes a stumbling block to putting across his emotions. The failure to express through language even at this level, and the fact that the title is more mathematical than it is literary, becomes the song’s success – no success like failure, and failure being no success at all, indeed. It’s a powerful statement about the elusive and ineffable nature of love, and a titanic document in the history of love songs from a guy who was still in his mid-20s when he wrote it.
Another thing that marks this song for me is that it was among the last he’d record, and subsequently perform, that was still outside of what would become what would be known as the Bob Dylan goes electric period. That stage of his career was working up steam by this time even if he’d only reveal it to its fullest extent the next year, also famously documented on film while he was on tour in the UK. But, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” was designed as an acoustic song, even if on record he’s joined by a full band.
It would be played live by Dylan through out his career for decades after it was recorded, after he’d embraced rock music and arrangement, and when he’d left his folk-Messiah mantle behind him. He’d reposition a number of his songs with various tempos and styles over the years. But, this one he pretty much left alone every time, very often performing it acoustically and solo, unadorned.
It spoke for itself.
For more information about the Don’t Look Back film, read this piece which references D.A Pennabaker talking about Bob Dylan and Donovan.
For those of you who haven’t yet, do check out BobDylan.com.
And of course, happy birthday to Bob Dylan!