By Tony Attwood
Updated July 2018 with a stunning performance by Bruce Springsteen, take 1 from the original recording session, the second live performance, the slower versions and some reflections five years on from the original review.
In a 1966 interview Dylan said, “It’s not just pretty words to a tune or putting tunes to words… [It’s] the words and the music [together]—I can hear the sound of what I want to say.”
And certainly from the off we can see that the words are not “pretty”. They give us the most extraordinary cast of characters. Indeed in saying this I begin to wonder why no one seems to have put together a review of characters that he has invented. Sometimes, as in “Visions” the characters have names, (Louise and Johanna) sometimes they have descriptions (“Little Boy Lost” in Visions). This vast array of characters in “I want you” have no names, just descriptions.
Of course there has been a lot of speculation about the dancing child being Brian Jones, with whom Dylan had spent some time the previous year, what with “Time is on my side” being the Stones first USA hit, and the fact that both guys were friendly with Nico.
But who knows? Here’s take one from the recording sessions
What is so strange is that it is the tune that is pretty. It, and the accompaniment, is bubblegum – at least in the way played on the original version. There’s the snare drum to start us off, and endlessly repeated riff on the highly restrained lead guitar – which just to make sure we get it plays the opening line no less than six times in each verse, and then another three in the chorus. (It is almost as if Dylan is saying, via that guitar, “have you got it yet?”)
In the second ever live performance the bounce is still there, but there is something quite different in the voice, and the “I want you” is almost weighed down with the whole drag of it all.
And then there is the organ part in the middle 8 (“How all my fathers, they’ve gone down”). You can only describe it as “dum de dum de dum de dum” (accent the dums on the first beat of each bar, with de being a quaver after the dotted crotchet). And then a quick run upwards introducing each chorus.
And just to make it even more odd in its total oddness, the song fades out as it came in, with the harmonica over the chorus.
So what on earth can we make of this song that sounds so pop and bubblegum and has this really strange set of lyrics? All I can suggest is that this is the statement of the oddity of our condition, our society, our world, while all the time our minds try to tell us it is all normal, life goes on, love goes on. Indeed there is an old theme here – when you are in love, when it takes you over so totally that you cannot see anything but that love, then you ignore the appalling reality of the world that we live in.
We get more of this when we hear the slowed down version from Dylan
The hungry, the starving; the violence, the drug created destruction, the abuse of children, the destruction of the planet, the climate change deniers, the sheer enormity of death, disease and destruction… And all the time we fall in and out of love. Does it make sense? Of course not. It’s insane.
I can take this meaning from no more than the first three lines. The insanity of the world says I should not focus on love…
The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
And it goes on, line after line of surreal craziness…
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
These images symbolise nothing any more than a line on a Jackson Pollock painting symbolises anything. It just is. And amidst all this…
I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you
Here’s an even softer version – the quality of the recording is not so good but it’s enough to make the point.
And off we go again
The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep
And the saviors who are fast asleep, they wait for you
And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinkin’ from my broken cup
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you
We live amidst this chaos. It is so all pervading that like the wind on a windy day, in the end it doesn’t affect us any more.
Yet even in this freaky universe it gets weirder…
Well, I return to the Queen of Spades
And talk with my chambermaid
She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her
She is good to me
And there’s nothing she doesn’t see
She knows where I’d like to be
But it doesn’t matter
Sense? Meaning? Maybe there is none. I’m just in love – the world is crazy but I don’t care any more because I am in love. There is nothing beyond that love. Nothing at all.
But if there is some sense, maybe Mr Springsteen got very close to it. And please do stay with this…. give it a chance, you may well find it really worthwhile.
A second review of this song was published on the site, for reasons that I can’t remember and certainly won’t become clear at this time. It is here – and quite a few people commented.
What else is on the site?
Untold Dylan contains a review of every Dylan musical composition of which we can find a copy (around 500) and over 300 other articles on Dylan, his work and the impact of his work.
You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.