One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later). Is it Dylan’s hatred of women or just a failed affair?

By Tony Attwood

This review updated 3 August 2018 with the addition of videos and further commentary.  In particular the one brilliant revisited version of the song from 1978 – one of the great, great, great moments from the Never Ending Tour.

First, a confession.  When I bought Blonde on Blonde on its release, I ran through the songs and then settled down to play tracks three and four of side one, over and over and over again.  I can still remember my mother asking ironically if this new LP only had two tracks on it.

Over the decades since then Visions of Johanna (track 3) has become recognised as an absolute masterpiece.  But One of Us Must Know (track 4) has more or less vanished although Dylan thought it was a single of merit, as it was the first single to be released from the album – and in those days singles were important.  It reached number 33 in the UK charts – but it failed totally to make much impact in the US.

Also in his commentaries on the time Bob has said that he did see it as a single and that is why he took so long to record it (19 takes across nine hours of recording time).  But as a single it breaks the rule of what singles were supposed to be about (love, lost love and dance).

Of course rules are there to be broken, and break the rule this song did, because this is a song which reduces the woman to less than a full person: “you just happened to be there”.  You can’t get much more dismissive than that.  “I hate you because…” is meek and mild compared with “You just happened to be there” because in the former the woman has a fulsome personality, she is a real live being having an impact, and the recipient doesn’t like it.

In “Sooner or Later” she’s just in the way, like a fox caught in the headlights on a country lane.  She is reduced to nothing.

This is indeed “She’s Your Lover Now” now fully thought through and resolved

You never had to be faithful, I didn’t want you to grieve
Oh, why was it so hard for you, if you didn’t want to be with me, just to leave?
Now you stand here while your finger’s goin’ up my sleeve
An’ you, just what do you do anyway? 
Ain’t there nothin’ you can say?
She’ll be standin’ on the bar soon
With a fish head an’ a harpoon
An’ a fake beard plastered on her brow
You’d better do somethin’ quick, she’s your lover now

But it is not, to my mind, misogyny, as Heylin suggests that phrase is.  It is not a hatred of all women – it is the dismissal of a single person as being of no consequence.  The recording of “She’s your lover now” is here.

However I can see the temptation to see the song this way, for it does come hard on the heels of “4th Street” and “Crawl out your window” both songs of utter disdain.

And yet there is so much to commend One of Us Must Know.  It is, like Visions, a story, a history, a recollection.  This time there are only two characters – the singer and the person to whom he sings. But the atmospheric connection with the characters is as strong as in Visions.

And ultimately a perfect version of the song emerged.  There is but this one recording of it.  Try it, and then again, and again.

I couldn’t see when it started snowing
Your voice was all that I heard

How atmospheric do you want your music to be, for goodness sake!

One of Us Must Know is the ultimate song of farewell, self justification and (to a small degree) apology.   And anyone who has been left by another whom they so deeply loved must feel this song inside out and from heart and soul.

I didn’t mean to treat you so bad
You shouldn’t take it so personal
I didn’t mean to make you so sad
You just happened to be there, that’s all

Here’s the 15th take of the song from the recording session.

Imagine the person you really, utterly love, saying that to you.  And Dylan’s explanation of the misunderstanding – that he didn’t realise that the woman was expecting to be with Dylan forever more – is well, just, unbearable too.  You’ll know it if you have ever felt it.

When I saw you say “goodbye” to your friend and smile
I thought that it was well understood
That you’d be comin’ back in a little while
I didn’t know that you were sayin’ “goodbye” for good

This is a “Simple Twist of Fate” approach to life – that we are blown by the winds of chance and happen to be wherever we are taken.  Although Dylan does say that he tried to push against those winds.

Sooner or later, one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you

The couple have not communicated properly, Dylan justifies himself and, as the whole second verse shows, as it builds to that ultimate put down…

I didn’t realize how young you were.

We also have the interesting line …

That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really from the farm

Are we back to Maggie’s Farm?  Who knows, but if you are interested in relation to what that actually stands for.  (See my review of that song for comments)

And I told you, as you clawed out my eyes
That I never really meant to do you any harm

And then the music – there it is that descending chord sequence again in the last two lines of each verse before that long held sub-dominant chord, resolving to the dominant, taking us to the chorus.

But, sooner or later, one of us must know
You just did what you’re supposed to do
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you

Play this song, and then listen to “Rolling Stone”.  Listen to those opening rocking chords before Dylan sings, then listen to “You used to laugh about everybody that was hanging out” – it is the same chordal pattern, the same resolution.   And finally that famous descending bass line “He’s not selling any alibies, as you look into the vacuum of his eyes”.

There is the same feeling in the voice, the same use of the harmonica.    One of us must know is “Rolling Stone” again, but with just the start of an apology for the hurt caused.  Less vicious, but still not accepting any responsibility whatsoever.  The pain is there, but Dylan just shrugs.

Try it – the chorus of One of Us Know, the chorus of Rolling Stone.

So is this why One of Us Must Know is not regarded highly?  Rolling Stone is simply better and (in passing) much nastier than One of Us Must Know.   Maybe that’s it.  But surely there is room in this universe for two masterpieces on the same subject.

If, as a result of this little resume just a handful of readers turn back to One of Us Must Know, then I have done my job.  It is a masterpiece.  But oh, the pain.  But if it is too much, try an instrumental version.

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  1. This is a song of deep apology, without a trace of vindictiveness (unlike it’s stylistic first cousin: She’s Your Lover Now). It’s an intimate love song – of losing love and regretting it. It’s expressively sensual, particularly the elongated words at the end of each verse: “goooood”, “werrrrre”, “harrrrrm”, which are sung in a low tone for what seems an eternity. Perhaps the most sophisticated quatrain a pop song has ever contained is this:

    When you whispered in my ear
    And asked me if I was living with you or her
    I didn’t realize just what I did hear
    I didn’t realize how young you were

    It’s a one-of-a-kind creation, so unlike any other song it’s in a class all of its own.

  2. I went back after several years of not listening to Dylan regularly, but Sooner or Later started going thru my mind like an echo, I had to play it (and Visions of Johanna) again, and at my age now of 65 vs when I first heard it as a teenager and also played the same tracks repeatedly, I am more blown away then ever. In fact, it goes for just about all his music. I enjoyed reading your comments and will look up others. Thanks. I do agree these songs are masterpieces as I now realize how they get to you emotionally in such a strong unconscious way. That is why they live on; they will be relevant for as long as humans are around.

  3. This song is the reason I love Bob Dylan. The greatest example of his insight into the human condition.

  4. Oh my goodness, I played tracks 3 & 4 over & over too!! They’re my favs. I also love 12 a lot, & SOMETIMES 14 (Sad eyed lady…gotta be in the mood for it – it’s a long one) Still my fav record is Highway 61 Revisited though. I was born in ’74 so all of my “new” Dylan findings were well beyond their years of being NEW, but they’re always exciting to me. This one in particular grew on me, then my love for #3 then became my love for 3 AND 4. That’s kind of how I grow to love my Dylan songs though… it takes me a couple listens, then I fall in love with ’em.
    I know this is an old thread, but I like reading others opinions about the music I love too- Dylan’s music is timeless anyway though.

  5. I always thought “When you whispered in my ear
    And asked me if I was living with you or her
    I didn’t realize just what I did hear
    I didn’t realize how young you were” was “I didn’t realize how IN LOVE you were…”
    I think I like the latter. It makes it all the more sad.

  6. It’s not about a failed affair with a woman, it’s a farewell shrug to the folk scene described in the form of a lover. The two women mentioned living with him in the song are the folk scene and the emerging rock scene.

  7. Just reread One of Us Must Know, and Luke is correct the interpretation that Dylan is talking to his fans from the folk years. I alway saw the song about a rejected but this alternate interpretation fits just as well.

  8. Saying goodbye for good – Bobby holds that note on “good” for so long. Beautiful.

  9. it was all worth the 25 Takes to arrive at a final piano master stroke by Paul Griffin to thread this whole sound saga into its complex conclusion.

  10. You know, I’ve always thought that “you just happened to be there, that’s all,” is probably just the simple truth. He would get the perceived subtext, the hardness of it, but anyone who has “been with” more than ten others in the course of two years, soon or later, must know what he means.

  11. I love this song. In later years I wondered if it was partly about his break up with Suze when he first started appearing on Joan Baez concerts and also when he wouldn’t let Joan appear on stage during his 65 tour. Just a thought of mine.

  12. How it’s possible to hear YOUNG as “in love” has to take the prize for Misheard Words

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