Nick Tosches writes in his book Where Dead Voices Gather:
“Some people are so cool, so lie-down hip, that they can steal the right breezes simply by breathing…inhale one vision, exhale another. To steal consciously is the way of art and of craft. To steal through breath is the way of wisdom and of art that transcends.”
Recorded during the Shot of Love sessions, but only released as a single B-side and not on the album, “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” eventually found a home on the Biograph box set in 1985 and later included on the CD version of Shot of Love. When Dylan was asked about the song by Cameron Crowe for Biograph, he was somewhat indifferent:
“I listened back to the song and I felt it was too rushed. I felt that we’d lost the original riff to the point where it was non-existent…It wasn’t really the way I wanted to play it. Danny Kootch played on this and maybe Ringo Starr. I can’t remember.”
Bob sounds blasé about the whole experience. He can’t even remember if the most famous drummer in rock ‘n roll history played on the track! The only thing about the song that Dylan seems interested in is the original riff in the song. Where did that riff come from? Listen to “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” by Sonny Boy Williamson II:
The connection between the two songs is especially strong as Dylan performed a cover of “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” as the opening song for his highly anticipated debut on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1984, only a few years after the composition of “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”:
When novelist Jonathan Lethem asked him in a 2006 Rolling Stone interview about playing “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” on Letterman, Dylan hilariously replied, “I played that?!” You sure did, Bob! And you play it as if the stage is on fire around you. The performance is cooking with so much energy, and Dylan knows it’s hot because right before he and the band enter into the last solo he yells, “OH” slight pause for breath “YEAH”! Dylan is definitely the skinniest Kool-Aid Man to break down a wall during a rock ‘n roll performance.
The same energy is on display during “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” There are several guitars wailing throughout, a piano, an organ, maybe a sax mixed in too, and backup singers bringing big energy during the choruses. Dylan said that the song was “too rushed” and the band had lost its way, but he is incorrect. The performance of “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” is thunder booming over the mountains, echoing throughout the countryside.
“The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” is a perfect example of the process described by Tosches at the beginning of the post. Dylan has taken a song about gossip and a trip to the beauty shop and transformed it into a contemplation on the end of the world. Looking at the lyrics of “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” each line within a verse, each verse within the entire song is laden with doom. It also contains Dylan’s particular turns of phrases (e.g., “Tonight you got the power to take it / tomorrow you won’t have the power to keep it”) and outrageous rhyming (e.g., “nauseated” with “deteriorated,” “humiliated” with “obligated,” “temperature” with “furniture”). The song shares its theme of worldwide depravity with “Angelina,” another song recorded during Shot of Love which we explored in a previous blog post. The transformation of “Don’t Start Me Talkin’’’ to “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” illustrates Dylan inhaling one vision and exhaling another, in Tosches’s words, rising into transcendence.
We see the themes of the song set immediately in the first verse:
Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement
Heard the last moan of a boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent
Felt around for the light switch, felt around for her face
Been treated like a farm animal on a wild goose chase
Dylan combines striking images of prayer with destruction and needless slaughter and then immediately shifts to a domestic setting, bringing the same sense of doom faced by humanity to a relationship. Dylan is offsetting the global with the domestic. He talks of seeking salvation through prayer even when the depravity of the world is so far gone that one is “treated like a farm animal.” The desperation is evident. Is anyone even listening to this prayer?
Dylan talks about a character named “Claudette” in the song. Dylan’s reflections on Claudette continues the theme of mixing the sacred with the profane. Claudette is introduced in third verse:
Don’t know what I can say about Claudette
That wouldn’t come back to haunt me
Finally had to give her up
’Bout the time she began to want me
These words live in the bedroom politics of “Don’t Start Me Talkin,’” the ways of love that so many people understand, yet remain mysterious. Dylan immediately counters those relationship thoughts with: “But I know God has mercy on them / Who are slandered and humiliated.” Instantly, we are back in the realm of the sacred, considering God’s grace in terms of the depravities of human existence. Just as we are coming to terms with God’s actions, we promptly return to the world of the profane: “I’d a-done anything for that woman / If she didn’t make me feel so obligated.”
The apocalypse dominates the start of the final verse of the song: “Cities on fire / Phones out of order / They’re killing nuns and soldiers / There’s fighting on the border.” These are truly gruesome images, a citizenship in chaos, lives in disruption, and the mutual slaughter of the innocent and the wicked. A Biblical plague has descended on creation. As we are still considering the depravity of the world, Dylan asks the last question any of us are considering: “What can I say about Claudette?” It’s startling to be jostled from cataclysm back to the talk of old girlfriends. Sure, let’s do it, Bob! About Claudette, the narrator says that he “Ain’t seen her since January / She could be respectfully married / Or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires.” Dylan presents us with the range of possibilities for Claudette at the same time using the boldest of rhymes of “January” and “Buenos Aires.” This entire verse is a master at work. No one else is mixing these types of images together in one verse: horror, love, and gallows humor.
Finally, let’s talk about the chorus of “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”:
West of Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar
I see the turning of the page
Curtain rising on a new age
See the groom still waiting at the altar
Dylan is contending with the pivot point of his current moment. He uses three separate clichés – “the turning of the page,” a “curtain rising,” and “new age” – to tell us that things are deviating from the previous course. Dylan decides to provide us with a geography lesson to describe where this alteration is occurring utilizing powerful landmarks of the ancient world. The Jordan River is a symbol of great power in the Jewish and Christian religions, since, according to Wikipedia, “the Israelites crossed [over the Jordan River] into the Promised Land and that Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist in it.” Countless gospel songs talk about the River of Jordan, either crossing over it or becoming cleansed by it, and Dylan probably knows every one of those songs.
The other boundary that Dylan marks in the chorus is the Rock of Gibraltar. While the Rock is a large unmistakable feature of the natural world and represents the transition point between the Mediterranean Ocean and the Atlantic, it was also a powerful image of the ancient world. The Rock was one of the two traditional Pillars of Hercules in Antiquity. The Greeks, the Phoenicians, and the Romans all held that it marked the limit to the known world. It also serves as the western border in “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.”
Dylan’s geography lesson isn’t precise. He can’t tell us exactly where the end of the world will come, but “the turning of the page” will happen somewhere in an area that even the ancients knew not to travel beyond. Something is coming, and it’s going to start in the old world, and it’s going to travel and spread around the globe. What is causing this catalog of visions, which include catastrophe, lost love, religious signifiers? The groom’s still waiting at the altar. He knows the wedding is over. The bride won’t be appearing. He has been jilted by his love, and yet he won’t abandon his position.
This is Dylan telling us of his own faith. An altar is the place where the groom meets the bride to commence their union before God. But the altar also represents a place of sacrifice to prove one’s faith and devotion to God. In the song, Dylan sees the signs of depravity all around him. It’s chipping away at his rock, his steadfast belief in humanity and, ultimately, God. The bride has left the church never to return, but the groom remains despite all evidence that she will never return. But the question must be asked: how long will the groom wait at the altar? In other words, how long will Dylan’s faith hold? That’s the question of the song. He knows that his faith is wavering and, eventually, the groom will force himself to step down from the altar.
“The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” is a song of apocalypse, degradation, loss of love, and clinging to faith when everything around you is telling you to drop it, all within the most rocking of a rock ‘n roll song. The boldness of the writing shows why it is among the best of Dylan’s work.
Photo by: Scott Bunn