“Sweetheart like you”: deep meanings or general observations inside Dylan’s song?

By Tony Attwood

The more I have worked on this series of reviews of Dylan’s songs, the more I have reached the conclusion that while Dylan does often write about ideas and issues that concern him, and while he does sometimes write about real live people, he also often writes about fictional characters, without their story having some moral or deeper meaning.

It is curious that while with novelists we don’t generally assume that they are always writing with a message (rather we expect them to be telling a tale for enjoyment) with song writers – or maybe it is just with Dylan – many people expect there always to be a deeper reference.  A meaning that we have to tease out.

This song is one that I think simply sets a scene.

Now I appreciate that the All Music review, made the point regarding this song that “there is — as always is the case with Dylan — more going on under the surface. The song can be enjoyed as a simple pop story, but digging deeper results in a rewarding listening experience.”

And that I agree with, but I don’t think that automatically means that the song is expressing Dylan’s view of things.

The All Music review particularly focuses on the second verse.

You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you
She wanted a whole man, not just a half
She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh
In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear
It’s done with a flick of the wrist
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

In reference to this work the critic says, “the listener is roped in by the song, trying to figure out who these people are and what kind of game the narrator is playing,” and describes the writing as an “effortless play between the vernacular, musical, and the profound. The song should be ranked among the songwriter’s best, with an amazingly soulful vocal performance (listen to him stretch out the phrasing of “do-ing” during the refrains) and some of his most classic lines, including an inversion of Samuel Johnson’s aphorism — “They say that patriotism is the last refuge/To which a scoundrel clings” — and this variation of a Eugene O’Neill line (from The Emperor Jones):

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king
There’s only one step down from here, baby
It’s called the land of permanent bliss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

The original line from Emperor Jones is

“For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks.”

In the film that accompanies the song the woman is a cleaning lady who stands and watches the band perform the song – and that is in essence what Dylan has done.  Transformed the famous saying into another context.

Now from that point the “dump like this” can be the room that she’s cleaning, or it can be the USA, or perhaps the whole world.  Indeed in a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan said that with regards the album it could have been called “Surviving in a Ruthless World,” but was told he’d made a load of albums starting with the letter S so he changed the album to Infidels.  And he then added, “I don’t know what it means, or anything.”  [The “S” thing I guess is about Slow Train Coming, Shot of Love and Saved.]

Of course it is possible that Dylan was just being playful – as he so often seems to be when asked about meanings in songs – but there is a certain ring of truth to the notion that Infidels wasn’t chosen for any clear or deep meaning.

So we can go on looking for meanings for the “dump like this” and wondering who the boss is, but given that Dylan said he didn’t really have a clear view of what the title of the album meant, I wonder if this is the right approach.

I can’t see why it is not enough to have the song work as a simple observation of how things are – and then if one wants to see the situation as a metaphor for something else, that is fine.  But if that is how it is, the metaphors and meanings are the listeners’ metaphors and meanings, not Dylan’s.

So of course you might find references to Virgin Mary, Satan or all sorts of other things in this song.  You can find a real significance in the “many mansions” and see it as a reference to John 14:2 “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” but all Dylan is doing is opening a door to possibility.  There is no definitive answer.

Thus for me finding some deep meaning that Dylan wanted us all to get is both silly, and not what the composer intended, any more than HG Wells in writing “The War of the Worlds” wanted to warn us about a possible invasion from China and so used Mars as a metaphor.  It was just a story.  This is just a scene.

Thus the line “Got to play your harp until your lips bleed,” can be seen as having some deep meaning in relation to harps that angels play, or to the fact that Dylan then plays the harmonica, or it could mean “you gotta do what you gotta do” or  it could just be another image without specific meaning.  After all, not every line in every picture means something.

And as I have said before, what really prompts me in this direction is that when Dylan wants to be clear about meaning he most certainly is clear, as with the very strong religious message from the albums “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved”.

But other times Dylan describes scenes, settings, moods and feelings.  I suspect many of us have met people who we perceive as having talent and ability, and yet they are doing mundane jobs.  So it could also be a song that just describes the fact that some people never get what they deserve, and some situations seem intractable.

Following this line of thinking, this is not a case of worrying about when a situation might be resolved.  It might never be resolved, because it just is how it is.    Indeed I quoted the Roy Harper line “everything’s just everything because everything just is” when reviewing “It’s alright Ma” and somehow it comes back to me now.  The world is just muddled and a mess, and although some of us can affect our own lives a little, a lot of the time it can seem as if situations are intractable and unresolvable.

Some people can change their lives and in doing so affect the lives of others, but many, many people who could, don’t. And anyway, most can’t.   And I think that is what Dylan is observing in lines such as

You know you can make a name for yourself
You can hear them tires squeal
You could be known as the most beautiful woman
Who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal

That’s just how it goes sometimes.

One of the interesting aspects of some commentators attempts to put deep meaning into every Dylan song (instead of treating some of them simply as observations, or as abstracts) is that mostly they tend only to give certain lines this treatment.  I haven’t read any commentary that suggests that the opening

Well, the pressure’s down, the boss ain’t here
He gone North, he ain’t around
They say that vanity got the best of him
But he sure left here after sundown

is anything other than just a bit of general scene setting.  It wasn’t a particular boss, a particular place in the North.    Which means that it is the commentator who decides when the lines are supposed to have deeper significance and meaning.  And I guess in the end that is what we argue about.

Musically Dylan weaves a really interesting melody above a slightly unconventional chord structure.  If you play the song in C you get the opening chords of

C Am Am G F

And if you play the guitar or keyboards you’ll know that ending a phrase on F when playing in C is not at all common.  It leaves us waiting.  The line is not resolved (that is to say the is no full stop) as there would be with the line ending on the chord of C.  And there is no cliff hanger ready to be resolved, which is how it would feel if it ended on G.   Ending on F leads us to feel we are ready to slip back – which is exactly what the words of the opening lines (the pressure’s down, the boss ain’t here) tell us.

Interestingly, and in keeping with the mood, the Middle 8 does something similar, ending on D minor.  It is an interesting technique and not one that Dylan uses very often at all.

To wrap this up there are two videos of the song.  One with the cleaning lady looking on, and the other which is part of the rehearsal run through, during the course of which the song changes.

 

Postscript:

Considering this song so many years after I first heard it has been a really interesting day-long project.  Not least this is because the day is Christmas Eve (a day on which I am less likely to be disturbed by events – not least because I had a big night out with friends yesterday and have family celebrations for Christmas Day tomorrow, so it is a day I spent on my own).  It really has been something of an unusual day, listening in the morning, doing some background reading through the day, and writing it all up in the evening.

A Christmas Eve to remember I think.  Thank you for reading.

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

 

 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to “Sweetheart like you”: deep meanings or general observations inside Dylan’s song?

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan is quite consistent when it comes to establishing scenes with an existential atmosphere as in ‘Sweetheart LikeYou’.

    The cleaning lady in the accompanying video is just another Cinderella sweeping up after the show on Desolation Row:

    “What’s sweetheart like you doin’ in a desolate
    place like this?”

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    As Attwood suggests, and I’ve been noting,
    the fragmented image is the thing, not the message, in modernist and postmodernist song lyrics which draw in the listener to participate in what the song is about: with poststructuralism /deconstructionism linguistics having had their day, black and white interpretations have given way to Noah’s great rainbow; there’s a crack in
    everything and that is how the light gets in.

    So in ‘Sweetheart Like You”, there is the image of
    (a la broken cup, cracked bells, washed-out horns elsewhere)the broken glass – perhaps of Cinderella’s slipper, the troublesome glass ceiling in the office tower, along with the reassuring fireproof floor and the permanent bliss of certain death. The listener gets to put the fragments together how s/he wants to come up with a comment on the present economic/political situation of women, for example, but that glass is opaque, not crystal clear. Nor does Dylan intend it to be.
    The answer is blowing in the wind, and as William Blake (and Captain Beefheart in his vortexial lyrics)have observed the wind and dust
    blow back as well as forward.

    ie, Is the cleaning woman in the video, meant to sumbolize Dylan’s feminine side?

    ‘Sweatheart Like You’ is ‘Desolation Row Revisied’.

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    *symbolize

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    *Revisited

  5. Tom Emlyn says:

    Absolutely love this song, for some reason it really sticks with me.
    A feeling of wasted potential emanates from the lyrics.
    Street Legal also starts with an S, haha.
    The cleaning lady is actually Bob’s mum!

    Merry Christmas, thanks for all the reviews.

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    Missing to an extent from Heydin’s and Attwood’s examination of Dylan lyrics is the influence of literature as he mixes traditional songs with the style and content of poetry, plays, fairy tales, and novels, into a renewed chaotic mixture that takes into account technological history and the effects of different forms of art, both old and new, like oil painting, black and white silent films, and the
    more recent flashing of neon signs, movies that talk, and multichanneled television, each medium back and forth influencing the other; even as the train whistle yet competes with the squeal of rubber tires.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    ie, “You know, news of you has come down the line/
    Even before you came in the door.”
    (Dylan: Sweetheart Like You)

  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    How does it feel to crawl across cut glass; do you wanna make a deal?
    Is ‘cut glass’ the real thing or a substitute for a diamond? Is it being more broadly associated with an ordeal like walking on burning coal? Has the sweetheart been dumped?
    The words are not being carelessly thrown about, but are deliberately left somewhat ambiguous with holes left in the narrative for the listener
    to fill in lest the songwriter become perceived as conventionally moralistic and didactic.
    Generally speaking, religious scripture depicts a world corrupted by evil; Romantic transcendentalist poems depict the surrounding environment pervaded by goodness; the Existentialist writers by meaninglessness.
    It is for each individual to choose among the
    many philosophical mansions therein, with their
    many different points of view, Dylan appears to be suggesting in “Sweetheart Like You”; the future
    sure only in the final going down of the sun.

  9. Kieran says:

    It’s a beautiful song, one of his greatest from the 80’s, a decade where he wrote more great songs than anybody. And he sings it with just enough fire and hurt ain his voice, a really expressive performance. It’s impossible to say what he really means sometimes, but the songs integrity is never in question, and he found a perfect set of lines for this one.

    There was also an allegation of sexism – “a woman like you should be at home, that’s where you belong, taking care of somebody nice who don’t know how to do you wrong.”

    That’s not sexism, it tenderness, and care for the woman, who’s obviously fallen on hard times, and it’s romance.

    I love the way the hook line is one of the oldest cliches in the book, but he turns it in to many things, the many times he sings it…

  10. Joe Nowlan says:

    Terrific song and great to read this analysis and the comments.

    One question I’ve always had: who plays the excellent guitar solo on this — the one that closes out the song? Knopfler? He’d my guess but Mick Taylor also plays on a cut or two on the album, (Infidels).

  11. Ed McEowen says:

    What it means to me:
    Dylan became close to the Church and Christian convention prior to the period when this song was written. Though it seems sacrilegious to the max, the woman is Jesus the Christ. I think Dylan is expressing his disillusionment (if not disgust) with Christian religion as it is in the modern age. He loves the woman, but can’t understand why she’s involved with those who do not appreciate her and who, in fact, diminish and defile her. Of course, this is all easily dismissed and Dylan will never be questioned on it, but still . . .

  12. Ed McEowen says:

    By the way, the King James Version of the Bible says: “In my Father’s house are many mansions . . .”

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    That the Sweetheart is Jesus Christ in Pilate’s Bar wearing a leopard-skin pillbox hat instead of a crown of thorns causes one to pause and wonder what He must look like under something like that, and how one might crack the ice, given the circumstances:

    “By the way, that’s a cute hat/
    And that smile’s so hard to resist”.

  14. Larry Fyffe says:

    The two quoted lines are from the lyrics of “Sweetheart Like You” and certainly puts Ed’s above interpretation in a bit of doubt I would think.

  15. Larry Fyffe says:

    There should be no T at the end of my Email address….it needs to be gotten rid of!

  16. Larry Fyffe says:

    Test

  17. TonyAttwood says:

    Larry – don’t worry about the email address – they are not published, but just occasionally used by me if I want to reply personally to a correspondent, and of course to validate that the person writing is real.

  18. Larry Fyffe says:

    As Mr. Attwood points out it is an exercise in futility to attempt to come up with a deep and unified universal meaning to all of Dylan’s lyrics.
    TS Eliot fragmented the organic unity of the optimistic Transcendental Romantics, but the art of the Modernists yet contain a central focus, the
    chaos and alienation wrought by industrial society, ie the broken cup, the poem, contains a moralistic message or parable to digest.
    But then the Black Beast of Post Modernism raises its ugly ‘deconstrucuionist’ head. Under the hammer of the poststructuralists, words are rendered relatively meaningless in the same way that Existentialists like Nietzsche put the orthodox God out on the cross to die.
    If the deconstructionists want to play, Dylan is quite prepared to take them on and beat them at their own game. ‘Sweet Heart Like You’ is a piece of deconstructionist art where there’s lots of wiggle room for the listener, but no matter which way s/he puts the broken cup back together, there’s always a piece left over. Why? Because the unifying presence of the songwriter “has gone North for a while.” The postmodernists try to kill off the author of a written work, and so Dylan obliges them by saying he’s going, and it’s left up to listeners to fill in the holes. But he’s not really gone yet.
    For example, you can suggest that the Sweet Heart is a transgenderd Christ if you’d like, but one is then stuck in an absurdist theatre with Him wearing a leopard-skin pillbox hat in Pilate’s Pub instead of a crown of thorns; Dylan tries out a pick-up line in spite of the dire circumstances:

    “By the way, that’s a cute hat/
    And that smile’s so hard to resist”
    (Dylan: Sweet Heart Like You)

    They say that tradition is the last refuge to which an artistic scoundral clings, but mockery including self-parody and the likes of it are just handy-dandy. Dylan is inspired by his own creative activities.
    “Sweet Heart Like You” is another masterpiece.

  19. Larry Fyffe says:

    Mr. Attwood:
    This technopeasant accidently messed up the E-mail address and couldn’t fix it by himself….but things are fine now.

  20. Ed McEowen says:

    Golly, I did say “what it means to me.” I presume that is allowed, even if it does put my interpretation into a classification I was blissfully unaware of. When I heard Dylan say cute hat, I really did think of the crown of thorns and do not follow why it has to relate to an old Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat. Yes, it seems absurd, but so what? We’re talking Dylan. The first kiss – Judas’ kiss on the Mount of Olives. News of you has come down the line – well, you know. Larry, Tony, your ideas are good; your understanding and expression excel. I bow to you both.

  21. Larry Fyffe says:

    Self-interpretation is what it is about, but surely some lines must be quoted from the song and shown to support the view taken; then another
    listener might indeed come to the very same conclusion or at least see how it’s been arrived at. Otherwise,'”this is what the song means to me” gives licence to say almost anything including that Jesus liked to dress up in drag….maybe so…. but I haven’t been given any evidence to convince me that is what the song might be suggesting.

  22. Larry Fyffe says:

    Ed, don’t get me wrong…that Sweetheart be Jesus is a great idea, but just seems a bridge too far….Now if you had conjectured that she’s Mary Magdelene whom the narrator talks to and compares to another Mary, the queen of heaven-“you remind me of her”- my mother who “used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child”-, you’d not be crossing the bridge before you come up to it.
    Bob’s narrator personna, who is actually Jesus Bogart, then discards the Queen so he can focus on speaking to to Magdelena, mesmerizing her with parables about many mansions as they dance the Durango Fantastic.

  23. Ed McEowen says:

    In songs like this, Dylan’s intentions will never be known. He speaks as if in a dream. Unity is not required; reaching conclusions is a fool’s errand. As for myself, I readily admit to being that fool, one who has mined the song for his own benefit. I find symbols which clearly, to me only – apparently, allude to the Christ in a bold, outrageous, pioneering way. Bob Dylan is great because his songs open doors in the listener’s mind. We don’t agree on this song, but we don’t need to.

  24. Larry Fyffe says:

    Exactly, the cup is brioken; but it’s not the meaning(s) of the song we disagree on, it’s that there is no evidence put forth by the listener from Dylan’s surrealistic lyrics to support the Dylan/Jesus interpretation…..indeed, I believe it might be quite easily done way out there on Highway 61…but is one expected to just accept a ‘me only’ diagnosis without being entitled to at least some detailed explanation for the benefit of us other Dr. Freuds as to how such conclusions are arrived at?

  25. Larry Fyffe says:

    *sp) broken

  26. Monica Collins says:

    I’ve heard a couple of references about the song being sexist. I’ve always had a different take on the song, ever since I first came across the album many years ago. Before I start, let me say that I am a female, someone who’s been an adult for as long as ‘Infedels’ has been around.

    To me, the song has always seemed to be about a woman’s who’s maybe ‘slumming’. Some woman from the upper East Side maybe, hanging out in a ‘dive bar’. Just about every reference that he uses to describe her seems to talk about someone who’s priviliged, like Kathy Hilton maybe, Paris’ mother, rich. Maybe the rich woman is seeing someone on the side, and she and the man are trying to avoid the cameras. Something along those lines. She would be someone in the papers whose known well enough for the ‘dive bar’ people to know of her. The ‘be at home’ part could reference someone who doesn’t have to work, someone who ‘stands by her man’, that being her job in life. Him talking about the boss not being there is just the bartender making idle chit-chat to the customer. He then turns to her and talks about her not really belonging there.

    Since the video is not telling a story, but is instead showing the band playing, the cleaning woman could be a representation, a capsulation, a metaphor for the gist of the story. Or maybe, since they seem to be in some kind of club, she is just someone who is there and merely stopped to listen, and nothing more than that.

    Anyway, like I said, that’s my take on it.

  27. Monica Collins says:

    Sorry, I have maybe 4-5 errors in my write-up.

  28. Monica Collins says:

    I guess that my previous two comments from earlier today got removed. Pity.

    For the last few weeks, I have been posting ‘A Dylan a Day’ on Twitter and Facebook. I mostly post covers, because I wanted to show how others have taken his songs and interpreted them. I do have a couple of his versions, like this one. I was surprised by Rod Stewart’s version of this, however I didn’t think that he had ‘weariness’ in his voice.

  29. TonyAttwood says:

    No Monica, nothing was removed.

    A couple of things to remember. First the site is run from England, and so time scales are different and editing happens at different times. (Actually it will be different again February when it is edited from Australia). Second, the editing and publishing is done by me, and work and time with friends, plus my other hobby of football, can get in the way. But I do clear the commentaries most days, and only exclude those that are either irrelevant or abusive.

  30. Monica Collins says:

    Sorry, Mr. Attword. I had entered in my comments at work. When I got home, I pulled up this page and my entries were not showing. A bit later, after I added that last comment, they then showed up; however, I could not retract or edit the comment. Sorry about that. And I will keep the time difference in mind next time :-).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *