Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands: at long last I know why I never got it

By Tony Attwood

Updated 7 August 2018.

If you battle through this review (which I have not touched since I first wrote it in December 2015) you’ll see there is a lot in this song I just don’t like – or you might prefer to say I just don’t get.

I never knew why until I read Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady”. The sound of 3am captured as never before.  And indeed until I heard that song.  If you are a great fan of Sad Eyed I would refer you first to that article, for within that is the explanation of why this is so lost upon me.

I may well write more on the topic anon, but for now you have the choice of two reviews.


 

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

with

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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52 Responses to Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands: at long last I know why I never got it

  1. Lisa says:

    Sandra, For me you said it best.

  2. John Campbell says:

    love these comments here. thank you.

    for me I love Dylan’s pause after he sings about her silhouette (v2). that is women’s asset, the irrefutable fact of the universe; we just love them.

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