By Tony Attwood
Updated 2 May 2017
Dylan has a history of writing about the intellectually, socially and metaphorically lost, and when he does so he can be utterly vicious. The person to whom “Like a Rolling Stone” is sung is one such example. “Little Boy Lost” within Visions of Johanna is perhaps another.
Positively 4th Street contains another perfect example. The pretentious, the inward-looking, the self-centred – they all come in for an attack from Dylan when he’s in this mood. Indeed in coming to “Can you please crawl out your window” after a long absence, or indeed for the first time, it is worth considering Positively 4th Street as an introduction to this song, not least because Positively is quoted as an annex to Window.
This is the land of the night creatures to which Dylan has referred so many times, and to which he was still referring with Soon After Midnight from Tempest. By then he had lost his disgust at the creatures of the night, and was indeed quite happy to exist alongside them, but each song is just offering a different perspective on the notion of “Come on out the dark is just beginning”.
Some have suggested that the song may be about Edie Sedwgick, an actress and fashion model who starred in a number of Andy Warhol films. After moving away from the Warhol environment she got to know Bob Dylan, but moved on after Dylan married Sara Lownds.
There’s no evidence this interpretation is true, and as always, Dylan won’t say. Perhaps the best we can do is to think that the Sedwgick situation was at the back of Dylan’s mind when he wrote the song.
And so to the song itself…
In musical terms this has one of the most unusual chord structures of any of Dylan’s songs, not because the chords are unusual, but because of the way that they are used. There are more chords invoked than normal, but it is the order of the chords and the resultant cadences are unexpected. While Positively Fourth Street moves smoothly between the chords changing chords at the start of each bar, here the mood is utterly jerky. The singer in Positively knows exactly what he means, and where he is. He is brimming with self-confidence. He can slash and burn (metaphorically) with impunity. In “Window” there is all the viciousness of the attack but none of the certainty. The singer, the accuser, is more jittery, more nervous. We can’t imagine the singer of Positively saying “please” even in a sarcastic way. In “Window” the word is even in the title.
Just as with Visions of Johanna, with the opening, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet,” so here the opening line sets the scene utterly. There can be no doubt what sort of world we are in, in either case. (But let me add, before I start quoting lines from the song that in the quotations from the song that follow, I have diverted from the text given on Dylan’s official site. Of course I bow to their superior knowledge, but in this case it is just so obvious that what Dylan sings (at least on the UK version of the single) is not what they have produced and so it seems ludicrous to use their version rather than what one can hear).
He sits in your room, his tomb, with a fist full of tacks (chords I V)
Preoccupied with his vengeance (II, I)
Cursing the dead that cannot throw him back (I, III, IV, V)
You know that he has no intentions (II, IV)
Of looking your way, unless it’s to say (V)
That he needs you to test his inventions (II, IV)
That fourth line ending (repeated in the sixth line) concluding on the sub-dominant leaves us hanging. This is not a recognised cadence in classical music structure, nor is it used in pop, rock, blues or jazz. As far as I know Dylan only uses it here, in this song. To repeat: we are utterly left hanging. Yes, he could use the structure II, IV, V in one line – and that would complete the cadence, but by holding the dominant over to the next line, we are in limbo. In fact we ourselves are hanging half way out of the window. There really is no other way to express it.
The chorus however is more conventional using I, IV, V throughout.
Hey come crawl out your window
Use your hands and legs it won’t ruin you
How can you say he will haunt you?
You can go back to him any time you want to
So the message is clear. From the lyrics the singer is obviously saying, “he’s useless, and you are being stupid by moaning about him. Pick yourself up, start living, and stop this whining. You can do what you want. Come on out and play in the dark.” A fairly common theme for most western males at some time in their lives I’d suggest.
So just as with Visions of Johanna, with the opening “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet,” here the opening line sets the scene utterly. There can be no doubt what sort of world we are in, in either case. And just as the melody and accompaniment of “Visions” gives us that sense of mist and rooftops at night from the first line, so the bounce of “Window”, the two bar musical intro to each verse, the cutting guitar that precedes Dylan’s voice – all of this gives us edge, edge and more edge. It as if the rhythm of the piece itself plus the sheer force of Dylan’s singing is throwing daggers at the woman and man in the story.
But in the second verse the plot twists further, because there is the element of “he just wants you as a poodle – you are nothing to him”.
He just needs you to talk or to hand him his chalk
Or pick it up after he throws it
Nothing can be more denigrating to a woman. And thus the chorus becomes even more hurtful. It is not “walk away from him” it is much more. It is “stop seeing the world in this crazy manner. Wake up for God’s sake”.
The story continues in the same vein – but there is a couplet in the next verse that is extraordinary even by Dylan’s standards.
While his genocide fools and his friends rearrange
Their religion of the little tin women
A religion of the little tin women? (Actually I thought, before seeing the lyrics in print, that Dylan sang “perverted women”, but “little tin women” is much more challenging). It is as if the men are playing with the women in the same way that old colonels re-run famous battles with tin soldiers. This is not a line one hears quoted much when people quote Dylan, but really it should be. It is a truly remarkable line with layer upon layer of meaning, secondary meaning, tertiary meaning… well you get my point.
And then if that is not enough we get “Come on out the dark is beginning” Not “the night is just beginning” but “the dark”. “The night” would imply nothing other than a party. “The dark” is something much more. Indeed I wonder if Dylan himself might have written “The Dark” – the end of civilisation, the end of the world as we know it, or just The Night, with all the creatures of The Night on show. If this is about Warhol then Dylan might be saying, “If this is what we now call Art, then this is the end. Welcome to the Darkness.”
And so we come to the end. The end that made me burst out laughing the first time I heard it. A repeat of the opening of Positively, mixed with a part of this song’s title.
You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend if you won’t come out your window
It is a line that confirms the thesis. You are no friend of mine if you don’t pick yourself up.
According to the reports we have, Dylan recorded this song multiple times and seemingly never quite got it to be what he wanted it to be. It was played just once live, in 1965, but brought back to Dylan’s audience by being included in Biograph.
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