By Tony Attwood
From as early as 1963 Dylan was highly engaged in writing “lost love” songs with an extra edge.
“Lost Love” was defined by the English academic Professor Keith Swanwick of London University Institute of Education as one of the three fundamental sources of pop lyrics – the other two being “love” and “dance”. (Keith, I should add, was a major influence on my work in this field, and my tutor for my research degree at the Institute. Sadly at the moment I can’t find the book of his in which this point was made – but it was one of his earliest works, and I guess it was published some time around 1975).
Dylan’s take on “lost love” however was different not just from mainstream pop (which largely consisted of the songs of unhappiness and desperation unified in phrases like “my baby left me”) but also from the blues (Dylan’s music of origin) which often sees women as unreliable lovers who will pack up and go when things go wrong.
But Dylan does not generalise in the way of a misogynist, nor does he always lay blame; for example “It ain’t me babe” simply notes what the woman wants, and says he can’t fulfil those needs and wishes. And indeed Dylan is often more interested in the symbolic imagery of the break up than any pain can bring (see for example “One too many mornings”, “Tangled up in Blue”.)
But he can be vicious. In fact if I could find a word that in Newspeak would be “doubleplusvicious” I’d use that to describe his writing at times.
Consider “Rolling Stone” (“once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”). Consider “4th street” (“You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend”). Consider “Crawl out your window” (“How can you say he will haunt you?
You can go back to him any time you want to.”)
I could go on, but the point is clear. There was a time when this anger occupied Dylan’s writing. Just look at the dates of the writing of these songs (they are of course approximate)
- June 1965: Please crawl out your window
- June 1965: Positively 4th Street
- July/August 1965: Like a rolling stone
- March 1966: Just like a woman
Clearly by the time of “Just like a woman” there is a softening – although some of the underlying negative views against the woman as expressed in the earlier songs is still there.
There are yet again stories that the song is about Edie Sedgwick (see Please crawl out for more on this). But I really doubt this – as I’ll try to explain below.
Other says it was Joan Baez, but such commentaries are generally little more than assertions. True the line about amphetamines could be about Sedgwick, who died of drug abuse, but such a line has nothing to do with Baez. The suggestion that the “please don’t let on that you knew me when…” line is about Baez is possible – at the start she was more famous than Dylan, but it seems an awful stretch of reality to get there when the rest of the song is taken into account.
I would also reject the notion that it is an attack on women in general. If this is the case, I’d compare this song with the utterly different, “Does your mother know” from Abba.
I can see what you want
But you seem pretty young to be searching for that kind of fun
So maybe I’m not the one
That’s not sexist, and neither is it about a particular young woman. It is just a view of how some teenage girls try to grow up too quickly. If Dylan is commenting on the generality of women he’s still only commenting on women who appear to be hard and strong, but underneath are soft. That’s true of men too.
Listening to the piece again after all these years, it is noticeable that just as with “I want you” we have the drums played with brushes kicking the song off. We have a chord structure (not an exact sequence but the way chords are used) which is similar to “Rolling Stone” and we have a descending chord line which is similar to that used in Rolling Stone. Compare…
“Now you don’t talk so loud, now you don’t seem so proud”
“But lately I see her ribbons and her bows”
Dylan is talking not perhaps so much lost love but lost friendship. The music is much more gentle than Rolling Stone and so are the lyrics.
To me, the young woman being sung about has tried to make herself into the vision of older women of the type that she sees on TV and in the movies. She thinks she’s one of them, but she’s not – she’s just part of the crowd, (“Till she sees finally that she’s like all the rest” – another line using the descending sequence in the “Rolling Stone” style).
The middle 8 (starting with the one “out of key” chord (III as a major chord) suggests that my theory above is at best incomplete…
And your long-time curse hurts
But what’s worse
Is this pain in here
I can’t stay in here
Ain’t it clear
Dylan is saying that he is in pain, but because of what? A relationship? Maybe, but there’s no proof. Maybe she wanted to go out with Dylan, but Dylan said no, so she got angry and upset – and in reality that was the last thing he wanted to happen.
I still find that generality is the key to the song, even when we get to
When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry and it was your world
All in all, I hear it as a song about an imagined young woman growing up too fast, a woman who knew Dylan and his music, as so many of us did when we were teenagers, wanted to be older, have freedom, get on the move, get out there are do things, and indeed wanted to know Dylan. If you consider the imaginary woman to be a little older than Dylan, then it all makes sense. She grew up before him, but never quite lost the little girl worries, concerns, emotions. Not everyone has that experience, but many do.
Dylan has overtaken them all – through his writing as much as his experiences, he has gone further, faster, and he feels he is more mature than those who grew up around him.
And let’s not forget how gentle this song is compared with “Rolling Stone”, “Window” and the rest. Dylan has matured a little faster than the woman, and has matured enough to recognise that he was there with the woman at one time, but has moved on. There’s no need for the fierceness of “now you don’t talk so loud” any more. According to Dylan, it’s there for all to see.
Pull all this together and you have an attack on the pretentiousness of youth. It was there in “It ain’t me babe” with the young woman setting out her list of demands, with the strutting fallen woman in “Rolling Stone” with the woman saying “I can’t go back to him” in “Window” with the self-centred individual at the heart of “4th street”, and on and on. This is not a hatred of women, it is a hatred of pretentiousness.