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.
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.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
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