Queen Jane Approximately: the painful meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Who is or was Queen Jane?  Joan Baez?  Lady Jane Grey?  Jane Seymour?   Someone else?  Anyone?  Or is it that Queen Jane is a variation on “Mary Jane”, one of the infinite number of slang words for marijuana?

Or was Queen Jane “a man,” as Dylan once said.

We don’t know and won’t know, and certainly some of the attempts to turn Queen Jane into an actual person are highly fanciful.

But for me all the evidence suggests she is another of the people from the Billion Dollar Bash.  One of the freaks, the far-out people, the talentless crew who hang out together thinking that just by being they is something special.  As if dressing in odd clothes is an equivalent to expressing interesting ideas in a coherent manner.

I reach this view in particular taking into account what Dylan had written immediately before Queen Jane.  Here’s the list in as close to the correct chronological order as we can get it…

I’m not trying to suggest this sequence of songs are all related to each other, for clearly they are not.  Desolation Row stands out from the rest; they really were selling postcards of the hanging.   And “Window” and “4th street” clearly form a pairing of absolute disgust at the people around.

But consider the rest in this little group: Tombstone Blues, Highway 61 Revisited, Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues and Queen Jane Approximately; they are all about the strange, weird and odd people, the people of dreams or drug-inspired hallucinations, or just the images that populate those very strange dreams after you ate cheese just before going to bed.

The one thing that makes Queen Jane different from the other songs is that it seems to be about the odd balls circling around the queen bee; the woman who owns the house, or has the dope, or is the rich kid rich enough never to worry about the house being trashed, or maybe the woman who remains totally cool and unattached while all hell is breaking loose.

It is a totally different song from “One of us must know” which appeared as the A side of the single.  On that song lines such as “Your voice was all that I heard” stand out, plaintive, painful, full of loss.  This earlier collection of songs including Queen Jane have nothing personal about them at all.  It is a song of “when you’ve sorted out your mess, come back and say hi.”

In this regard there is a connection to the songs of disdain, but only a slight connection, for with songs such as Rolling Stone and 4th Street, there is no “come and see me again”.  Far from it in fact.

Thus for me what Dylan is saying here is that he’s had enough of all these fakes and phonies; this is his exit line.  The difference between Queen Jane and Million Dollar Bash is that here is he still offering a connection between himself and the freak show.  In the later song he is just laughing at them.

This is then the half way world.  Dylan has moved out of the freak show, and is putting his head back in for one second to say, “when you come out, come and find me”. No further explanations are needed, you don’t have to speak about it beyond that, just come and see me sometime – when you are sorted.

Musically the song is very simple.  Three lines over a descending bass followed by the repeated chorus line, “Won’t you come and see me Queen Jane” with, in musical terms, a plagal cadence.  Interestingly it is one of only a handful of Dylan compositions with its structure analysed on Wikipedia – interesting because it really is such a simple song that there isn’t much analysis to do.  (Wiki refuses to allow any mention of Untold Dylan on the grounds that this site is not prestigious enough to warrant inclusion, so our commentaries remain beyond the bounds of Wiki’s world.  That’s fair enough – it’s their show, but sometimes when they do such simple analyses, I do wonder).

But where Wiki is at one with other commentators is in stating that the recording has the guitars out of tune with each other and the two keyboard instruments.  That’s true, but the difference is only slight, and nothing remotely as upsetting as the mistake by the bass player on the original version of Visions of Johanna.  Indeed this lack of perfection in the tuning, seems to reflect the subject matter.  Queen Jane is stuck inside a jingle jangle morning, afternoon, evening and night.  That’s the problem, and the music does seem to reflect that.

Lyrically, the song has a strong sense of the singer knowing that this mad and crazy world of the sweet pretty things will come to an end

When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations

and in this sense the song is so much more gentle than that aggressive opening of Rolling Stone where there only finger pointing, sneering, and no suggesting that matters can ever be resolved in the future.  While the object of the sneers in Rolling Stone is stuck and the singer is simply pointing and saying “How does it feel”, here he is opening the door.  “Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?” is not now, but at some suitable time in the future.

But we should be in no mistake – by this time, Queen Jane will be in a desperate state.  Everything that was owed has to be returned (as the peddler demands in Visions), and even her own children won’t like her at this time.

Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you
And the smell of their roses does not remain
And all of your children start to resent you

We have the impression that Queen Jane has money, and uses the money to buy friendship – but of course that friendship is full of sycophancy.  So Jane becomes sick of all this repetition and in the end she just craves the time when there will be no one trying to tell her what to do, and making demands or playing their part.

Then we have the final moment: all you want is to sit with someone you can trust, in silence.  That is a moment that cannot be bought.  It has to be earned.

So this is quite a rarity for Dylan – a song that offers a way back in for one of the sweet pretty things who is no longer sweet or pretty.  A friend or lover who has totally lost her way.  There’s no blame – just the notion that she’s got to sort the mess out for herself, and when she truly has done that, when she’s hit the bottom, that endlessly repeating descending bass line will end and we will rock gently on that cadence.    At that moment she’s welcome to come round and sit with the singer in contemplative silence.

At least that is what the lyrics say.  As for the performance on the albums, opinions vary.  Some find it careless (particularly the out of synch playing between guitars and piano, and of course the lack of tuning) while one commentary I found described this song as “stately”, “along with the arrangement that allows Dylan’s piano to lend its added gravitas.”

This review found, “a band playing to its strengths and creating a lovely backing track, a slower tempo to match the album’s more mature viewpoints.”

Maybe, but for me the lack of synchronisation within the band, both in rhythm and tuning suggests the fact that although the offer of a further meeting is there, rocking gently over a stable bass line, the present is still a mess and a muddle and is still descending.

As such the whole notion of the song is a challenge – how do you portray a mess and a muddle musically?  How do you say to someone who is addicted to dope or alcohol, come and see me when you are clean?  How do you say to someone who cannot get over a love affair, “come round when you have stopped feeling sorry for yourself”?

What do you do to help a friend whose only salvation is to help herself, but who right now seem incapable of helping herself?  Do you just say “when you are back together come and see me”? or do you say, “you have to do it yourself, but here’s the first step.”

I’d go for the latter, but I suspect I am now taking the issue of the song too personally.  But let me offer one final thought.

Call up a full set of the lyrics on the official Dylan site and just read them.  And then try and get that accompaniment playing in your head as you read the words.  And on top of that consider the point about a friend whose only salvation is to save herself, but who can’t see how to do it.

Unnerving isn’t it?

All the songs reviewed on this site in alphabetical order

Dylan songs in chronological order


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3 Responses to Queen Jane Approximately: the painful meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Daniel Phillips says:

    It’s not that complicated! “Jane” is APPROXIMATELY “Joan” Baez (The
    QUEEN of folk singers!) Case closed!

  2. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/507/Queen-Jane-Approximately (Additional Information)

  3. Judy Serne says:

    My brother and I were recently discussing whether it was Jane Fonda, who at the time was traveling around visiting troops in Vietnam.

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