Sign Language: the meaning behind the music and lyrics in Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

Sign Language was the first song Dylan wrote and completed after the collaboration with Levy that gave us Desire (there is at least one other song, but it is neither complete nor recorded, and I’m ignoring these as I work through Dylan’s songs year by year).

With this look at “Sign Language” we come to the end of 1975; there was one more song in 1976, and then by and large Dylan stopped writing.  Until Street Legal came along.

And for me 1975, such a remarkable year on songwriting for Dylan, ends with an enigma.  Quite what Dylan was doing with this song I have to admit I really have no idea.

It’s on YouTube as a duet with Clapton (if you play this one, don’t click off at the end, as there is a nice duet between the two playing “Don’t think twice” – and then it moves on to other collaborative ventures).  It is not one of the great highlights of Dylan’s performing career but still, worth watching and hearing if you haven’t seen it before.

And there is a second video of the song, this time with Clapton playing it without Dylan being involved.

I am actually not sure Dylan really finished this song; rather I think he was wondering what he could do after the supreme heights that he climbed with Levy in the final collaborations of Desire.

By which I mean, what are we to make of “You speak to me in sign language, I’m eating a sandwich in a small cafe at a quarter to three”.

If we compare this with the opening of the last song written with Levy, we have…

Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and my cape
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape.

There is comparison in the sense that Levy took the world around the central character and turned it into a way of setting the song quickly.  Dylan was, perhaps, attempting to do the same, but the level is so prosaic (what is there that is interesting about eating a sandwich?) that (for me) it doesn’t work.

And perhaps Dylan felt this, which is why in effect the song writing stopped.  Levy was away on other projects, the album was going to be released at the start of the next year, and so that was that.  Have a break from writing until some new ideas came along, as they surely would.  And indeed did.

The melody and chord sequence are pretty ordinary – musically Dylan seems as diminished in creating the melody, rhythm and chords as he is lyrically – we get a regular chord sequence of G, D, C, Em, C, G and that’s it.  It’s ok, but a song of this nature needs one of the three elements (lyrics, chords, melody) to explore upon us, or at least grip us by the throat and wave us around a bit.  Here’s the version that the excellent Dylan Chords web site gives us.

G             D   C        Em
 You speak to me   in sign language
                D                   Em
As I'm eatin' a sandwich in a small cafe
C                G
 At a quarter to three.

Some of it I must admit I simply don’t get

'Twas there by the bakery, surrounded by fakery
Tell her my story, still I'm still there
Does she know I still care?

No, sorry, I have thought abut it, but really, “bakery fakery”.  It doesn’t work for me at an emotional level.  And it doesn’t work for me at an intellectual level.  And if the idea is that he is talking about refined cakes with cream and all the twirly whirly bits, well, I don’t know…

But there is of course the reference to Link Wray

Link Wray was playin' on a jukebox I was payin'
For the words I was sayin' so misunderstood
He didn't do me no good.

Link Wray was the absolute musicians’ musician.  Iggy Pop Neil Young,  Jimmy Page all cited him as a major influence.  Pete Townshend said, “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I never would have picked up a guitar.”

According to Wiki  “Rumble”, was banned in New York and Boston for fear it would incite teenage gang violence.  Maybe that’s why everyone liked it.

But what is so extraordinary is that “Rumble” is an instrumental.  If you don’t know it and want to understand more about the musical influences on Dylan (not to mention everyone else) it is here – and as you listen, just remember that this instrumental was banned).  Oh and don’t get bored after 30 seconds and think, “yeah I get this, I’ve heard this before”… just give it a chance.


If you want to know why all these great men of rock music can still revere Link Wray you should listen not just to this but other recordings of his music.  And if you are British like me, you might care to let the recording run, to hear the original version of Apache.  If you are old enough, that might make you recognise where it all came from.

When Wray died in 2005, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen both performed “Rumble” on stage in tribute.

So there we are – an end to a year, an era has gone by, and one that has left us an album with some sublime moments, but finished on what is for me a curious downbeat.

But despite this ending, it was nevertheless one hell of a year.  You might not agree with my choice but how about this collection just from one year in the composer’s life…

For anyone else, that would be the highlights of a lifetime.  For Dylan it was the highlights of one year.

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1 Response to Sign Language: the meaning behind the music and lyrics in Dylan’s song

  1. Dan says:

    He’s saying “he’s” surrounded by fakery not the bakery

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