Officially released nearly 10 years after the studio recording, this song of doomed love marks a transition between Blood on the Tracks, released in January 1975, and Desire, which came out exactly a year later in January 1976. “Abandoned Love” demonstrates traits from both projects. The only known performance of the song was July 3, 1975 in The Bitter End cafe on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village with Dylan alone on guitar. Dylan’s visits to the Bitter End in the summer of 1975 sparked the idea for the live Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour and instigated the Desire studio album. Lyrically, “Abandoned Love” fits Blood on the Tracks; musically, it’s all Desire. The lone studio take is recorded July 31, 1975 with the Desire band: Howie Wyeth’s flat tom tom sound on the drums, Rob Stoner’s busy bass lines and high, lonesome, bluegrass harmonies, and Scarlet Rivera’s spooky, gypsy violin, which is the hallmark of the Desire sound.
The theme of “doomed love” hangs over all of Blood on the Tracks and is embedded here too. It’s a song of abandoned love, after all. The first line he sings in the studio version – “My heart is telling me / I love ya still” – shows that Dylan’s head and heart are in conflict. Both the heart and the head are cited throughout the song. I should leave. I really need to leave. This is wrong. I have to go. But I really don’t want to go. I want to stay with you. I should go. Okay, okay, one more time. Then I’m leaving.
Dylan cites the lessons he learned in a painting class as the inspiration for Blood on the Tracks’ “Tangled Up in Blue.” “Tangled” was an attempt to capture the past, present, and future at the same time in a song as in a painting. (We’ll explore “Tangled Up in Blue” in a later post.) In this same time period, Joni Mitchell related a conversation she had about art with Dylan, which revealed his painterly instincts. He asked her if she had to paint something in the room, what would she choose. He said that he would try to capture a coffee cup, which had been abandoned on the table. “Abandoned Love” affirms Dylan’s painterly gestures in song with images such as “I can see the turning of the key”; “The Spanish moon is rising on the hill”; “I come back to the town from the flaming moon”; “I love to see you dress before the mirror”; “We sat in an empty theater and we kissed”; “One more time at midnight, near the wall.”
As mentioned above, the sole time that Dylan performed “Abandoned Love”, the bootleg recording reveals a giddy crowd who are out of their mind with excitement that they are hearing Dylan in a folk club in the Village.
At the time of the bootleg recording, Dylan’s folk club days from the early 60s are behind and have grown into Paul Bunyan-type tall tales and urban legend. Now, here he is, in front of them, alone with a guitar singing a BRAND NEW SONG. The giddiness carries over to the response to the song – the required whoops and such – and especially in the full-bellied response to the laugh lines – “But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange.”
“Abandoned Love” is quite an achievement: the playfulness of the laugh lines, the regret, the conflict, the poetics of the images. Even though the affair depicted in the song is over and the love is abandoned, the heart wins one more time in the song during the last verse. Desire prevails. “Abandoned Love” is left off of the album and not released until the 1985 box set Biograph. Perhaps it was too close to the themes of Blood on the Tracks. Maybe Dylan thinks that he has already said what he needed to say in that album and that he wants to try something else with this one. He only performs the song once publicly. He does one take in the studio. He abandons the song and moves on. Though the key feeling from “Abandoned Love” is not forgotten when it’s time to name the new album: Desire.