Great Songs # 6: Bob Dylan – Love Minus Zero

In 1965  a wave of change was coming over culture. Whilst the Greenwich Village folk scene had been a beacon of credible Woody Guthrie-alikes using their stringed weapons to kill fascism, in retrospect there seems to be something naive, almost juvenile, about the New York hipster set putting the world to rights from coffee shops. Equally, across the pond, the mop-top beat, smiles and highly worn guitars ideal now looks embryonic compared with what was to follow. By 1965, then, The Beatles had started to leave their infancy, as, crucially, had Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan

In the preceding three years, Dylan had been the darling of Greenwich Village and the scene had expanded across the western world – or at least permeated Britain to create a folk scene here too – standing against Vietnam and for, well, that is always quite unclear to me, but never mind. Whilst no doubt a protest singer of sorts, Bob Dylan had always had a way with the subject of love through his early period. From the sweet, protective spine of ‘Girl from the North Country’ through to the it’s-not-me-actually-it’s-you bitterness of ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ up to the longing and heart-wrenching ‘Mama, You Been on My Mind’, Dylan was, firstly, a competent enough poet to tackle the range of emotions that go with love and, secondly, an accomplished enough songwriter to create harmonic and melodic backdrops suitable for this fine, polymorphic lyrical content.

Many rock historians will try to find ‘moments’ where Dylan did this and Dylan did that, but really it was all a lovely, flowing movement – a graduation never happened as such (and rarely ever does, contrary to many historians’ creation of such events), but, simply, Dylan was an artist in progress and evolution and thus used many facets of his past, present and perceived future to shape his songs into themes. Hence why so many gems appear throughout his canon and why themes re-occur throughout his life’s work.

‘Love Minus Zero’

‘Love Minus Zero’, then, must be taken for what it was: a beautiful, poetic and complex love song written whilst Dylan was going through his career, using past skills he had picked up alongside his feelings of where he was at that moment, shining a torch toward where he felt he was going.

Many love songs hold resonance and it’s clear that the idea of love and relationships are the most explored themes in popular music, but very few songs convey emotion in the way that ‘Love Minus Zero’ does. Dylan’s poetry is unmatched by any other pop lyricist and his turn of phrase and the angles from which one can read the songs are both varied and awesome. Equally, his way with melodic counterpoint and his song construction in general are spellbinding. It is little wonder then that when Bob Dylan tackles pop’s most overused theme, he nails it with force 10 precision, both artfully and artistically, and manages to to turn the ‘love song’ upside down, creating new and exciting possibilities.

Got to love a grainy video still…

It is hard to have a favourite Bob Dylan song. In fact, it’s impossible, but if I were to try to compile a top ten, this would have to be in there. Whether it be for stanzas such as:

In the 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

or whether it be for the simplicity of a song that uses basic major chords with the odd minor to convey the jubilation and very slightly marauding aspects of love, this is undeniably a great song and one that never ages, even at nearly 50 years old.

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