All I really want to do: the meaning of the music and the words

By Tony Attwood

I have to admit that there are some early Dylan songs which I bought upon release and played to death, and now haven’t listened to for years.  This is one of them.

So I came back with some trepidation to it – not least because it was never one of my absolute favourite Dylan songs, and I didn’t particularly care for the Byrds version of it either.

Thus you might imagine my complete surprise when, on responding to a request to review the song, I did my usual trawl to find unusual recordings of the song on line and found one that really knocked me out.

The link is below – and what really engages me in this is the enthusiasm and drive – it just pushes the song forward at a rare old pace, no hanging around extending certain syllables for no particular purpose.

It may well be that this version has appeared on one of the bootleg albums, and I just haven’t realised because I skipped the song, having heard it too often.  If so sorry about that, but all the pleasure is mine now, on finding this version today.

Anyway, the song was written and produced in 1964, and the above recording comes from maybe a year later, so Dylan had had time to play with the piece and find new ways to do it.

It’s incredibly simple in concept – I just want to be friends – and that simplicity is emphasised by the multiple rhymes within the song.   Besides, probably by the time people were hearing this version, they already knew what the Byrds were doing with it.

The playfulness is so perfect however, not just because I have not heard this before now, but because I always thought the song was of itself a bit of a parody with all those rhymes – a laugh at moon/June (or as one of my t-shirts says, “wouldn’t poetry be difficult if violets were orange”).

(Actually that doesn’t work if the doggerel “Roses are red violets are blue” isn’t famous where you live.  Everyone in the UK will know it I am sure).

But the overall point is that Dylan is pushing boundaries here.  Here’s done “Times they are a changing”, on an album in which virtually every song except the title song is about things NOT changing, but staying the same often with disastrous consequences.  Now he’s saying I just want to be your friend, and enjoying himself so much that I immediately got the idea that this was not all he wants to do.  (If you know what I mean – but hell, I was about 15 at the time, so my interpretation was warped by what was happening to me).

As for the Byrds version, I hardly played it at all (it was on the radio all the time, and I remember seeing them mime in badly on Top of the Pops) but I did like “I’ll probably feel a whole lot better” which I recall being on the B side.

Which shows what I know – in the UK the song was a great hit for the Byrds and for Cher, and for a 15 year old living in rural Dorset (a county on the south coast of England) where the number of girls who might actually understand what any of this was about (not that I did anyway) was limited, it gave an insight into a world of mystique.  A world where as a guy you actually might be able to turn down one girl and be sure there is another in waiting.  (Certainly not my experience aged 15).

So when Dylan sang “Deny, defy or crucify you” I just thought “wow – can you do that to a woman?”  Fortunately I never tried to find out.  I am, at heart, quite a nice guy really.

But looking at the lyrics now, what Dylan is saying he doesn’t want to do it fairly awful

No, and I ain’t lookin’ to fight with you
Frighten you or tighten you
Drag you down or drain you down
Chain you down or bring you down

I ain’t lookin’ to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you, categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you

I don’t want to straight-face you
Race or chase you, track or trace you
Or disgrace you or displace you
Or define you or confine you

I suppose I wasn’t really au fait with the appalling way men can treat women – an only child, living in Dorset, trying to write his own songs, and desperately interested in dance (which like being in the theatre at that time had all the associations of being gay in a world where it was still actually illegal – while knowing I certainly wasn’t gay – I just never let on that I love dance, unless I was on the dance floor) – I was so removed from the real world.

But I was fascinated by the ending…

I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me

That gave me pause for thought.  I’m an individual, she’s an individual, let us do our own thing.  Revolutionary in a country where in church women still promised to honour and obey when they got married.

And all this before I have mentioned the music.  One outcome of my life at the time was that I might possibly become a classical musician, and so with that sort of training I knew at once that hey – this was a song in 12/8, which means four groups of three quavers in a bar.  You can beat in fours to the song, but when you do that you are beating the first quaver in the bar.  The whole song revolves around that lilting feeling of 123 123 123 123.

That adds to the fun and humour – although this 12 beats to a bar approach doesn’t have to be lilting.  Times they are a changing uses the same approach, except in Times each of the three beats is fairly equal.  Here it is different…

The beats work like this with each of these two lines being a complete bar of 12/8 and each of the three beats separated by a /

I ain’t / lookin’ for you to / feel like / me /
See like / me or / be like / me

Counting the numbers it goes

12     3

I     aint

Two quaver beats on the 1.

That’s all getting technical so I will stop – but take it from me, the fun comes from that lilting 1 2 3, and that was very unusual in a popular song.   (Not uncommon in Ireland, but certainly uncommon in the music I was hearing on the BBC).

All the songs on the site


  1. Dylan, here, is exposing, and pushing back on, the conventions and contrivances of male-female relationships and what they’re supposed to be. It’s as if he’s saying, “cool it” on pushing the relationship to a “romance” or sex, we’re not there yet, we may never be, we’re just getting to know each other. Right now, all I want to do is be friends and enjoy each other in a lighter, freer, easier way.

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