Need a woman: prepared by Dylan, transmuted by Cooder, as Bob enters his post-Christian world

By Tony Attwood

Musically the fun in this song comes with the changing rhythms and line lengths, but for me that is really what it is – a bit of fun playing about with rhythms and line lengths.  The melody is fine without being stunning, and certainly is not revolutionary.

In terms of the lyrics however there is much to consider because this song appears to mark the cross over period between Dylan who breached fundamental fire and brimstone, you are either for Him or against Him type Christianity, and a more reflective, “I don’t really know if I can do this ‘obedience to the Lord’ stuff” Dylan.

The song evolved in March/April 1981 for Shot of Love and was then seemingly dropped when the final running list was put together for the LP.  If we had had CDs in those days presumably the extra time available would have meant it would have been included in the final version; but then we are all controlled by the technology we use.

So instead it appears that Dylan then played around with the lyrics some more before ultimately handing the song over to Ry Cooder, with whom several members of Dylan’s recording band were then working.  Cooder then used it on his album The Slide Area.  (Dylan’s version appeared on the Bootleg Series Vols 1-3).

It then seems Ry Cooder re-wrote some of the words himself (he says with Dylan’s approval) in order to round up the song into a story.   Which is slightly odd because most of Dylan’s work doesn’t have a story in it at all – indeed rock n roll and the blues as musical forms are generally much more situation based than storyline based.  If you want a story, try Roy Orbison’s classics, not the music that so influenced Dylan across the years.

Anyway the whole reporting of the re-writing of the lyrics is muddled, and I am not at all sure if unmuddling it actually tells us too much – we know Dylan has often modified his own work – sometimes once or twice, sometimes repeatedly so it is not unusual.  Sometimes it just seems like bits of tinkering, sometimes the results are profound – that’s how it goes.

But what does make the Dylan version/s so interesting are lines like

Searching for the truth the way God designed it
The truth is I might drown before I find it

which is a million light years and then some from the assertiveness of the earlier vision of holy reality that Dylan offered.   In the original view if you have not fully adopted the way of the Lord by the time you die, you are condemned to eternal torment and I guess in this scenario the Dylan now emerging, and I, might bump into each other as condemned souls in the afterlife.

Thus where once he was certain, and indeed preaching, he is now utterly unsure.

Now, one of the most pertinent criticisms of Dylan’s period as a follower of the Lord is that although Dylan preached from the stage and wrote new songs for fundamentalists to cherish, it does not appear (from such information as is available – and I admit that information is not necessarily accurate) that he changed his life to following the modest and moderate lifestyle that accompanies the church’s vision of what a Christian is and does.

And now he says he wants

Someone who can see me as I am
Somebody who just don’t give a damn

That surely is not what a full-on believer says.  I might say, “I’m really sorry about my behaviour but that is just how I am, and I don’t really feel like changing any more, can you live with that?” but the true follower of the Lord surely has to say, “I will change to meet the commandments of the Lord and His prophets.”

And then we have that interesting final verse which surely expresses Dylan’s doubt about exactly what this whole religious business is about…

Well, if you believe in something long enough
You just naturally come to think it’s true
There ain’t no wall you can’t cross over, ain’t no fire you can’t walk through
Well, believing is all right, just don’t let the wrong people know what it’s all about
They might put the evil eye on you, use their hidden powers to try to turn you out

Surely there is an absolute fundamental difference between believing in the literal truth of the Bible (and quoting it in your songs) and admitting that such beliefs take on a journey of their own once inside your head.

What I think Dylan is saying, and I think it is one of his more clear and careful expositions, is quite profound and it comes in those last two lines.

Well, believing is all right, just don’t let the wrong people know what it’s all about
They might put the evil eye on you, use their hidden powers to try to turn you out

I don’t suggest Dylan is saying “keep the word of the Lord secret” but rather, if you go out and tell everyone what you believe in (as Dylan most certainly did with no holds barred) then the media and others will turn on you which can be embarrassing if you change your mind, or develop your beliefs over time.

Now if you are a full-on committed Christian you have no choice – you have to spread the word; that is the command.  But if you are more inward looking, reflective, with your own personal views of right and wrong, your own sense of justice, you do have a choice. You can speak out occasionally, or you can keep your own counsel, sharing your innermost thoughts perhaps with your close friends, but no more.

In short, I find this a perfect cross-over statement from Dylan – the move from the commitment shown in the previous albums and a more spiritual and reflective Dylan.

And that would be that, if it were not for the Ry Cooder business.

Below is a link to Cooder’s version and underneath that I have printed the lyrics in Dylan’s original in normal text, and the lyrics from Cooder in italics just to show the difference.

Cooder does some funny things from the off.   Needing to turn the somewhat enigmatic opening line about the trenches and making it overtly clear that the singer has a cold, to me at least, is just rather boring and dull.

The final verse which Cooder has added is ok, but really not that particularly exciting.  The notion that the woman and the singer are going to forge a life experiencing the new and challenging the old is not exactly revolutionary, so I am not sure it needs the image of the desperadoes, the name of the car (just to make it half rhyme) nor the fact that they might be arrested as a result of the new truths they find (so bring your cheque book).

It reminds me of Rik Mayell in the Young Ones preaching about how wild and experimental he is.  While Dylan would tell the woman “Things should start to get interestin’ right about now” I would imagine Mayell’s character shouting “Look at me babe I’m wild” (although I don’t have access to the scripts or recordings so I can’t give you chapter and verse).

It just seems to be trying to hard.

Anyway, here’s Dylan’s original set of lyrics, or at least as original as any set of lyrics is in the muddled history of the song, and in italics what Cooder sings.

It’s been raining in the trenches all day long, dripping down to my clothes
My patience is wearing thin, got a fire inside my nose
Searching for the truth the way God designed it
The truth is I might drown before I find it

It’s been raining in my mouth all day dripping down to my clothes
My patience it is wearing thin got a fire inside my nose
Searching for the truth the way God designed it
The truth is I might drown before I find it

Well I need a woman, yes I do
Need a woman, yes I do
Someone who can see me as I am
Somebody who just don’t give a damn
And I want you to be that woman every night
Be that woman

Well, I need a woman yes, I do
Need a woman yes, I do
Someone who can see me as I am
Give the kind of love that don’t have to be condemned
And I want you to be that woman treat me right
Be that woman every night

I’ve had my eyes on you baby for about five long years
You probably don’t know me at all, but I have seen your laughter and tears
Now you don’t frighten me, my heart is jumping
And you look like it wouldn’t hurt you none to have a man
who could give ya something

I’ve had my eyes on you, baby for about five long years
You probably don’t know me at all I’ve seen your laughter and I’ve seen your tears
Now you don’t frighten me I ain’t no defendant
And you look like it wouldn’t hurt you none to have a man
of understanding

Well I need a woman, oh don’t I
Need a woman, bring it home safe at last
Seen you turn the corner, seen your boot heels spark
Seen you in the daylight, and watched you in the dark
And I want you to be that woman, all right
Be that woman every night

Well, I need a woman Oh, don’t I
Need a woman bring it home safe at last
I’ve seen you standing on the corner seen you sitting down in the park
Been watching you in the sunshine walking with you in the dark
And I want you to be that woman treat me right
Be that woman every night

Well, if you believe in something long enough
You just naturally come to think it’s true
There ain’t no wall you can’t cross over, ain’t no fire you can’t walk through
Well, believing is all right, just don’t let the wrong people know what it’s all about
They might put the evil eye on you, use their hidden powers to try to turn you out

Well, if you believe in something long enough
You just naturally come to think it’s true
There ain’t no wall you can’t crossover ain’t no fire you can’t walk through
Well, believing is all right just don’t let the wrong people know what it’s all about
They might put the evil eye on you use their hidden powers to try to turn you out

Well I need a woman, just to be my queen
Need a woman, know what I mean?

Riding out with me at midnight like two Spanish desperadoes
Gazing down upon the futile world in her Cadillac Eldorado
We will penetrate the storm in search of truth that has not been tested
But she better bring along her checkbook just in case we get arrested
And I want you to be that woman

Well, I need a woman Yes, I do
Need a woman Yes, I do

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there.

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