Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

There is a story that seems widely accepted that Dylan, far from staying up all night in the Chelsea motel writing Sad Eyed for Sara, as he later said in song, he sat up all night (six hours is the oft mentioned time) in the recording studio with his band playing cards and sleeping and waiting for Dylan to emerge with a completed song – which he described as the greatest song he’d ever written.

To put this in perspective, the twelve songs Dylan composed prior to Sad Eyed were, in order,

Dylan, as we know from other instances, had a tendency to get very excited about some of his compositions, and try and push through an immediate public performance of a newly completed song (sometimes being held back in the early days by those around him – notable Joan Baez on at least one occasion).

But although he rushed to record the song straight after writing it, and gave it the unique position of being the only song on one side of Blonde, Dylan never performed it.  He did indeed speak some three years later in less than glowing terms about the song, and I have admit that both then and now, for me, it doesn’t live up to this notion of greatness.  Compare and contrast for a moment with Visions of Johanna and Desolation Row two of the songs written in the previous 12 months.  In one every line brings out a feeling of a half seen image glimpsed through the mist, in the other we have the most powerful commentary on the failure of the American system ever expressed in popular song.

But with Sad Eyed, I have always had a feeling of an set of images that conjure up … nothing.  

The idea of adjectives, similies and metaphors is to make the statement more vivid, more enduring, more intriguing, and to develop the concept in a way that goes beyond simple description and logic.

Here we may note not just that that Sad Eyed has been said by Dylan in song to be about or for his wife, but also note that “Lowlands” is (as many have said) sounds like his wife’s surname Lownds.

But consider

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?

This for me (and of course I speak personally) does not generate a set of vivid concepts, neither surreal or real, neither literal nor metaphorical.  A mercury mouth?   Eyes like smoke?   No, it is not that there is nothing there, but rather it is ok occasionally good but not brilliant.

There is a hint of interest glimmering behind “prayers like rhymes and your silver cross and your voice like chimes” – the notion that the recitation of well-known prayers in church turns them into words ultimately as meaningless but as comforting as nursery rhymes.  But where does that take us?

The same, for me, applies to the “streetcar visions which you place on the grass”.

I am not looking for a literal explanation of things like “warehouse eyes” but I want a sense of something, and ideally I want to be transported to another realm and given new insights, and I don’t get it.   And I am not helped at all by the slow plodding melody and repeating descending bass, used so often before.  There is of course nothing wrong with a descending bass but it needs something with it to develop our interest.

Musically the structure is fine – it is just that in such a long song in the end it all becomes a bit plodding.  Dylan may have been excited by it on Day 1, but after a dozen or two plays on the album (and the knowledge that once you have heard it on the LP, that’s it, all you can do is play it again or change the record), I certainly didn’t need it again.

The chord sequence too is ok, but on its own is unstimulating

D   A   G/Em7   A7

E   A   G/Em7   A7

G   F#m   Em7/A7   D

D   Em7   A/Em   A7

That little shimmy between two chords in the third bar (with the song unusually for Dylan being in 6/8 – the same time signature that he used for Sara – although Sara is a waltz, this is certainly not) is again interesting, but…

As the percussionist Kenny Buttrey is quoted as saying, Dylan told the band, ‘We’ll do a verse and a chorus, then I’ll play my harmonica thing. Then we’ll do another verse and chorus and I’ll play some more harmonica, and we’ll see how it goes from there.’

Kenny continued… “If you notice that record, that thing after like the second chorus starts building and building like crazy, and everybody’s just peaking it up ’cause we thought, Man, this is it…This is gonna be the last chorus and we’ve gotta put everything into it we can. And he played another harmonica solo and went back down to another verse and the dynamics had to drop back down to a verse kind of feel…After about ten minutes of this thing we’re cracking up at each other, at what we were doing. I mean, we peaked five minutes ago. Where do we go from here?”

Comments from musicians working in the studio (especially after they have been kept hanging around for hours waiting for the maestro to come up with the goods) are not always utterly representative of the music that is finally recorded, (I know, I’ve been there) but here I think once you have read those views you can go back and hear exactly what he means.

All of these images could indeed go somewhere – but we need a clue to hold them all together.  And by this I most certainly don’t mean that I want Dylan to spell it out.  

“Tell ol’ Bill” which ever since the day I first heard it, has been my all time favourite Dylan song, doesn’t tell us what’s what, but it sets out the geography and gives us images that half hang together so we are endlessly puzzling to put them together. But here, we don’t get that.

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace
And your basement clothes and your hollow face
Who among them can think he could outguess you?

Of course many have linked the metal references to the fact that his wife’s father was a scrap metal dealer.  “Sheet metal memories of Cannery Row” does it again.  But even knowing that, I ask “so what?”  What does this reference give us?  What new image opens up at this point?  Where does it take us.  What new emotions do we embrace?

The same occurs with the line about “your magazine husband who one day just had to go” and the fact that Sara’s first husband was a magazine photographer.  I am sure that is what the reference is all about, but just writing references to real life does not make the line poetic.

In a sense it seems to me, (I say this with humility because I know Dylan could create more in three seconds of song than I can in a lifetime), that Bob Dylan was trying to do a Dylan Thomas, but not getting quite how to do it.  Compare…

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

with Dylan’s lines.   In fact there is no comparison.  And again, compare,

With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns


It is a winter’s tale 
That the snow blind twilight ferries over the lakes
And floating fields from the farm in the cup of the vales
gliding windless through the hand folded flakes
The pale breath of cattle at the stealthy sail

With a nifty bit of maneuvering it is perfectly possible to sing that to Sad Eyed, and whether you choose such an odd thing to do or not, for me the latter (from Dylan Thomas’ A Winter’s Tale) works at every line – a “snow blind twilight” hovers at the edge of meaning to give me an image which Dylan appears to be reaching for but which fades away with matchbook songs and gypsy hymns.

If we reduce this to individual lines we might compare Thomas’

And the duck pond glass

And Dylan’s

your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs

For me Bob Dylan is just not very evocative of anything whereas Dylan Thomas in five words transports me to a new world.

I won’t go on and on with this, because if you have been listening to Sad Eyed since it was released on Blonde on Blonde you’ll know every nuance and each image will have a meaning.  And I guess lines like

Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide

To show you the dead angels that they used to hide

need the slow plod of Sad Eyed, but for me the slow plod is just a slow plod and nothing more, and that is not enough.

Perhaps the problem is that basically, as others have said, the song is a list of the attributes of the Sad Eyed Lady, and lists don’t normally work as poetry or lyrics.   Yes I know “Hard Rain” contains lists, but the images around the lists instantly mean something or are so evocative that we are peeking around the corners wanting to know more.  Here we just have the list and the unanswered question (“who do they think could bury you?”) is unanswerable because we can’t understand why it is there.  It is what Michael Gray described as “unconnected chippings.”

Indeed comparing Hard Rain with Sad Eyed is interesting because the whole essence of Hard Rain is excitement, buoyancy and fight in the face of the horrors, while here it is just plod, plod, plod.

My negative view is perhaps fractionally redeemed by Dylan’s own comment three years later when talking to Rolling Stone  editor, Jann Wenner, “I just sat down at a table and started writing…And I just got carried away with the whole thing…I just started writing and I couldn’t stop. After a period of time, I forgot what it was all about, and I started trying to get back to the beginning [laughs].”

And it isn’t just me who feels the plod-plod-plod approach.  Andy Gill said it has “as much funeral procession as wedding march”. Gill is particularly helpful in noting how different this song is from what he called the “jokey nihilism” of much of the album.  Here, Dylan (he notes) was serious.  And that was the problem, because in terms of love songs, straight devotion and seriousness this was not something that Dylan was practiced at.

If you look at the list of what he had written in the dozen songs noted above, there is a series of masterpieces here, covering that jokey nihilism, social commentary, reflection at a distance through the mists and fog, and of course the masterpieces of disdain.  Great works of art all round, but not a devoted love song among them.

In fact the disdain and lost love songs outnumber the love songs by about 20 to one in this period, and really all we have in terms of deep devotion are

and even a genius of Dylan’s standing needs more sketches than two short songs to pull off an 11 minute tribute to his new wife.

What links Live Minus Zero and She Belongs to me is that they are short pieces with bounce and energy.  What separates them is that the former is enigmatic and the second direct.  What is needed is a lot more playing around with the love idea to get used to this approach.

So my point is that even the greatest artist needs sketches before he/she creates the masterpiece, and in this case there were no sketches – the two previous love songs (and I am discounting songs like I wanna be your lover which is a knock about piece, not a love song) are short and each very different from the other.

This is why I think Dylan was misled by his instant belief in the song – he felt he was successful, I am guessing, because he had not written a large love song before, and now he had done it.  But achievement in writing does not guarantee artistic success.  Indeed if we look back we see so many “lost love” songs in Dylan’s catalogue already, and can understand where his natural lyrical drive took him – to the falling apart, to ideas like “Sooner or Later”, and “All I really want to do”, not the coming together.

Remember the year leading up to this composition, included

Mystery, sorrow, goodbye and repulsion.   That was the essence of the previous year’s writing.  This year of course he could turn to something else, but not with a 14 minute venture straight off and no preparation.

I don’t go as far as Clinton Heylin and call this “possibly the most pretentious set of lyrics ever penned”, for the notion that Dylan (an immensely skilled writer if ever there was one) was trying to reach a new level of writing and performance seems fair enough.  It was just he was reaching too high, too soon (to coin a phrase).

Heylin’s quote from the 3 December 1965 press conference where Dylan talked about writing a symphony also feels a bit pretentious and the result does not give me the feeling Dylan really knew what the journey would involve or where it might end up.  And ultimately it was not Dylan’s journey.  Dylan’s greatness comes from the development of the songs about the partially known, of which Visions and Tell ol’ Bill are perfect examples from different parts of his life.  It doesn’t come from epic love songs.

Michael Gray, who I quoted earlier, changed his mind much later and said, “Whatever the shortcomings of the lyric, the recording itself, capturing at its absolute peak Dylan’s incomparable capacity for intensity of communication, is a masterpiece if ever there was one.”

Professor Wilfrid Mellers, who I’ve mentioned in other reviews, and whom I was honoured to meet and discuss Dylan with many many years ago, totally disagreed with me in seeing a fundamental difference in artistic merit between Sad Eyed and Tambourine Man, saying that “It’s impossible to tell… whether the Lady is a creature of dream or nightmare; but she’s beyond good and evil as the cant phrase has it, only in the sense that the simple, hypnotic, even corny waltz tune contains… both fulfilment and regret.”

And yes, I can see where this is going, and yes he was the professor, and I’m the humble writer.  When I stand back and hear fragments in my head, I can see what Professor Mellers meant.  But when I play the record it doesn’t work either in considering detailed lines or the whole piece.  It just doesn’t.

Dylan hasn’t ever played the song in a concert, as far as I know, although apparently it was rehearsed during the Rolling Thunder Review tour, and I think, maybe that says something else about where Dylan went to (certainly within 3 years) in thinking about this song.

And I find myself fascinated that whereas I can share with most other people who have dedicated some of their lives to writing about Dylan’s songs an absolute love of Visions of Johanna, here I find myself on the other side of not just the fence but of the whole field.  I’m fascinated that Tom Waits (who is described on Wiki as being known for “portraits of grotesque, often seedy characters and places”) and whom I have always thought has a natural affinity with much of Dylan’s other work of the period said, “This song can make you leave home, work on the railroad or marry a Gypsy.”   I’m still stuck with the fact if I ever play it I am left thinking, “Bugger, I meant to put the other side of the album on.”

The All Music review of the song includes an interesting insight saying that the song is from the form of writing that suggests, “if it sounds good, and/or evokes some response, there is no need to explain any further,” and the moment I read that I felt myself drawn totally towards that as an explanation for what the song is.  Indeed it is a phrase that explains much of Dylan’s writing.

And if that is the point then my position is simple.  It evokes a response.  I want to turn it off.  That’s my response.

Bob Johnston is quoted as saying,”Blonde On Blonde was 20 years ahead of its time and it was the culmination of all we did,” and yes I agree to that.  But for me Sad Eyed remains an experiment within that package, that didn’t quite work.  Everyone has experiments that don’t work.  But for many writers – in fact I suspect most writers – these experiments are carefully tucked away in a bottom drawer, either to be thrown away by the writer’s children, after his or her death, or else mulled over and ultimately described as, “Dylan on an off day.”

You can understand, I hope, why having reviewed most of Blonde long, long ago, I only tackle this song now.  If you disagree, of course that’s fine.  In the end it’s just my view.

All the songs reviewed on this site

Dylan’s songs in chronological order


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19 Responses to Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Henrik says:

    Listen with your H E A R T, my friend..the mind cannot understand
    Art must be felt

  2. Bill says:

    As you’ve pointed out you the song was written as a tribute to his new wife. So there is imagery and meanings far beyond what we’ll ever “get”. I say leave it alone. You’ll never figure it out. It’s a beautiful song ….Simply enjoy it…

  3. Joe G says:

    The Chelsea Hotel – not motel.

  4. Jeff says:

    You really know how to kill something lovely.

  5. Alan Thomson says:

    To me it seems in part to be about humanity itself suffering ‘ now you stand with your thief’ and is a piece of art like the mona lisa. The mona lisa of Dylans art when he was painting his masterpiece . The short fragment we get of it in Renaldo is beautiful.

  6. Raph says:

    It is simply a song to Sara, describing her beauty in his eyes and asking her to marry him. It is a marriage proposal but he does include also a warning to Sara to stop her allegiance to the Grossmans (“The Thief” also mentionned in All along the watchtower), instead of the fact that Sally Grossman introduced them, he demands she stops siding with them in his then current feud with Albert Grossman and CBS. (Now you stand with your thief you’re on his parole) – he means PAYROLL and smart politician he uses a sound-alike as he does often (subterranean homesick blues illustrates that technique abundantly).
    His warning is who will marry a best-time-passed former Playboy bunny with a 6 yr old child ? Yes they all want to kiss her (and more) but no one will marry her, except of course him, because he is absolutely crazy about her, a beautiful eastern european JAP he can bring to his parents, even though annoyed by the hoodlum’s child in her arms, (Mary), “the dancing child” mentioned in I want You, whom he will adopt and love and foster as his – later pleading with her (You’re a big girl now) to keep their relationship alive in spite of the divorce. She did.

    Bob’s lyrics are beautiful simple and clear, as he says. Just listen.

  7. james says:

    Well I enjoyed reading your thoughts despite having a different take on the song. Overall, it is one of my favorite Dylan songs. Blonde On Blonde has a timeless feel. Maybe it is from hindsight, but when I listen to the last song it seems impossibly sad. It swells in climax after climax as a sort of swan song. A farewell to the Dylan who had been on an epoch rocket ride that was drawing to an end. The best songs on this album seem written by a 24 year old who almost could step outside of his life and times.
    A couple of lyrics that opened up for me and I’ll leave it. “Mercury mouth in the missionary times” makes me think of her as someone who is spontaneous and unpredictable while others are dogmatic and zealous. Sort of how he called his music to be “thin wild mercury”. Also, “my warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums” contrasts his standard, pedantic nature as a man with his decidedly more exotic qualities as an artist. It also ties into his piss-take on the origins of Rock and Roll at the Music Cares speech this year.

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    James thanks for that. I’m still not happy with mercury, but your comment about warehouse eyes etc is very illuminating. I think you are right, I’m changing my mind.

  9. Pete Shanks says:

    I dont agree, but thanks for a stimulating piece. To my mind, Sad-Eyed Lady is not really a song in the conventional sense of the word, it’s a piece of performed music in which the lyrics are mere pointers to a feeling, an oceanic swell of love that is mixed with contempt and acceptance and a whole gamut of emotions. It’s an extraordinary event, and probably impossible to perform live. Of course the recent release of the outtakes has finally disproved the claim that it was a one-take wonder (though it was still pretty close) but in a way it’s the other, gentler side of “She’s Your Lover Now” — and if Buttrey at al. had played on that, I’m betting it too would have made the album. Personally, I and my close friends used to put it on repeat while playing bridge all night in college; sometimes we wouldn’t hear it at all, sometimes particular lines would emerge from the wash of sound. I never bothered to parse the lyric in detail, I preferred to feel rather than think, and young as I was I believe that was the right approach. I just think it’s beautiful.

  10. Bev says:

    Hi Tony – was prompted to read your review of Sad Eyes because I heard Baez sing it (on her 75th birthday as celebrated by our local public radio-folk station) and she made it tolerable. Your argument is cogent. I wonder if it simply expresses that Dylan is “bonkers” over this woman and just can’t figure out what draws him, nor what a committed relationship might be. I’m projecting of course. Bev Freeman

  11. mel kinder says:

    After a second reading of your comments on “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and subsequent comments by some very sharp fans, I must say I am with you. I try not to dwell on this piece. Why should we when we have “Visions of Johanna” and so much more. One of these days . . . hope to write about “Visions”

  12. Kieran says:

    This song bores me. It sounds fake-Dylan, all the mumbo-jumbo collage image lines, as if he wanted something LARGE to finish the album, and it had to be LARGER than Desolation Row, which is a thing of beauty…

  13. Kieran says:

    Actually you said it better here, but I couldn’t find this in my haste to write my above post 🙂

    “But with Sad Eyed, I have always had a feeling of an set of images that conjure up … nothing.”

  14. Krishan says:

    I recently got reeeeally into Dylan, and it was this song that got that momentum to start rolling. I’m 20 years old. As it happened I first listened to this song sometime after midnight, and I forget why but I think the title sparked my interest. I proceeded to listen to it over and over again for the rest of the night, probably to 2 or 3AM, in my completely dark living room, tired.

    This song majors in poetic treble, if that makes any sense. It focuses on such a particular feeling, to such an intricate extent, and keeps going with it. It’s like one big long tangent, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just different. It’s less substantial than his other songs, I will agree, but there’s something very special going on with this song that you’re not seeing. It’s also a very imagery – based song, and it’s done extremely well (not in all lines but in pointed areas, including the chorus).

    I don’t really agree with most things you said, and found your views disappointing, at least for someone who would take the time to write an interpretation of this song. But it was still interesting. I don’t know how I feel about this whole community dedicated to interpreting the art, that kind of behavior at it’s best doesn’t sit right with me and at it’s worst becomes ridiculous and reductive. But Dylan’s work feels like the thick, thick, textured piece of pie, filled with so many intricate flavors, that I feel like it will take me a lifetime to digest fully. So the only benefit has been getting me to think about his songs a bit more thoroughly, as well as some of the fascinating background info you supplied.

    What it appears to me you are doing is the old tear down of something an artist tries thats different than the rest of his stuff. This song is weak in some areas that most of his other great stuff is not, but extremely strong in others. And you simply refuse to or don’t see that, which is fine, but it boggles my mind why you’d feel the need to review this song.

  15. Alan says:

    Hi Tony!
    I disagree with your analysis so much that I decided to write my very first comment on your website 😀

    I used to feel like it’s just a bunch of hazy metaphors that fail to create images in my mind, unlike Desolation Row and Visions of Johanna, for example.
    It took me 4 years before finally making sense of it and before thinking of it as the greatest love song ever written. That being said, I completely understand your current view on the song as it is similar to my original view of it. I write you my interpretation hoping that it might plant a seed in your mind.

    I won’t go through every single line, but lets begin with the chorus:
    “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
    Should I leave them by your gate
    Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”

    Bob wants to know if she wants him too and just needs time, or if she doesn’t want him at all, so that he can know whether to move on or wait for her.
    It’s ‘warehouse eyes’ because he stores all these things he notices about her, in his or through his eyes:
    mercury mouth, silver cross, sheets like metal, basement clothes, childhood flames – should I wait for you with all these things stored in my warehouse eyes, or should I leave them at your gate and leave you too forever? (It’s him asking her, “Do you want me or not? But if you do want me then I’ll wait for you)

    I’m sure you’ve heard of the “Show, don’t tell” advice. Same thing applies to expressing love. Don’t tell you love someone, show that you love them.
    How to show you love someone? Perhaps showing you notice and remember all the things nobody else does. I’d be very moved if anyone would care about or remember even just one thing about me, nevermind writing a 11 minute song.

    So, now that we’ve got the chorus down which is the lyrical backbone of the song, lets move on to some of the metaphors.

    Mercury mouth – mercury slips away at contact. Perhaps she pulls away after every kiss or after every attempt to be kissed, which makes him full of doubt

    Silver cross – there are pictures of Sara Lownds wearing a silver cross, meaning she is or was religious, I guess.

    Pockets well protected at last – maybe she kept getting used, betrayed, and now she doesn’t trust anyone and keeps her hands in her pockets so people can’t steal from her anymore.

    Streetcar visions which you place on the grass – a car’s headlights can only look the way the front of the car is positioned towards. She doesn’t look left or right, only ahead. Maybe it’s a metaphor for her looking ahead and never behind where her past is. “She’s an artist, she don’t look back” sounds familiar, right?
    Or maybe it’s a metaphor for her looking at the ground all the time, like some insecure or shy people stereotypically are imagined to do.

    Sheets like metal – a metaphor for depression? Depression is different for everyone, but a lot of depressed people can’t get out of bed and spend hours or their whole day there after waking up. It’s so hard to get out of bed it feels like sheets are as heavy as metal.

    Your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace – maybe meaning she is unlucky, she feels she’s not good enough and often fails. She keeps setting up dreams, but she keeps losing because she doesn’t have the cards she needs to win. I’m unsure.

    Your childhood flames on your midnight rug – Perhaps childhood flames means ambitions that she still has as an adult. Or it means childhood trauma that keeps haunting her at night while lying on the rug. It’s obviously dark at midnight, and flames can be seen better in the dark. We all start thinking about our past and memories at one point in our life when we go to bed at night. The memories are always there but they stick out better at dark when everything but their flames have died out.

    These are just a few of my interpretations of some of the metaphors.
    About the questions like “who among them do they think could bury you?”
    Perhaps he means the kings of Tyrus, farmers or the businessmen.
    Also, “They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm”, maybe it’s the same farm from One Of Us Must Know, “And then you told me later, as I apologized
    That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really from the farm”.
    I really don’t know, just food for thought.

    Anyhow, I hope what I wrote makes sense, English isn’t my native language.
    The most important part is the chorus, if you make sense of that then you can begin making sense of the rest of the song and every single metaphor.

    I wish you all the best, Tony, and I’ll end this with appreciation for one of his best lines ever in terms of imagery:
    “With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
    into your eyes where the moonlight swims.”

  16. Bruce says:

    All very interesting. Quite a lot to ponder about one song. Here’s just a little tidbit: “Mercury mouth in the missionary times” has always evoked for me endless talk (and arguing and bullshit) about the “mission:” Civil Rights, Vietnam, Freedom, etc.

  17. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)

  18. Alan Weberman says:

    Is it America? Is it New York City?

  19. J.S. says:

    This song is about isolation and sadness caused by doing things perfectly, perfection, idealism, doing what’s right instead of taking the easy way out, not compromising in any way, etc. Not a lot of wo/men have what it takes to be like that but those who have what it takes usually end up being hated, envied, desired — they end up in the lowlands.

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