It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry. Bob Dylan works out the Phantom Engineer

By Tony Attwood

This is one of the songs that I reviewed twice.   Once in the version below which I wrote very early in the history of the site, and once much later 

I’m not trying to suggest this original review (or indeed any review here) is of earth shattering importance, but I found it interesting to look at the two contrasting thoughts.

In this case I have left the original review in blue and added some thoughts and extra ideas plus a couple of recordings of the song at the end in black.

“I want to be your lover baby, I don’t want to be your boss”

“I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul”

Dylan returns to the theme of being asked to give up too much of himself that he explored in “Don’t think twice” with “It take’s a lot to laugh”, known originally as Phantom Engineer. The relationship is over, the singer has shrugged, said his goodbyes and is travelling away.

The harshness of the goodbye in “It Ain’t me Babe” in which he tells the woman that she is looking for “a lover for your life”, is not here. He has simply got up, walked away, and hitched a ride on the overnight train.

He knows the woman is chasing him – these are the songs of Dylan rejecting women who want him in ways that he can’t oblige – but this time he doesn’t worry – because he admits from the off how good the girl looks when she’s by his side.

But then, in later reflection (musically separated from the rest of the song by the instrumental break) the final verse says that maybe, just maybe he is having regrets. The beautiful sunsets have given way to the winter’s cold and he comes out with those final lines…

Well, I wanna be your lover, baby,
I don’t wanna be your boss.
Don’t say I never warned you
When your train gets lost.

The train, jogging along, is the metaphor for these comings and goings of relationships. As for the music, that jogs along too. One chord suffices for the first two lines, followed by a descending bass (the exact contrary of the lead song of the album “Like a Rolling Stone” recorded on the same day as “It takes a lot to laugh”) ending up on the dominant, and then one chord again. It is a simple bounce along, with a rise in emotion every third line.  Thus despite all musical connections it is the contrast of Rolling Stone and Desolation Row.

Why then does it work so well? How come what appears to be a throw away little song with nothing much to say (when compared with Rolling Stone and Desolation Row) can shine out across the years?

First there is the fact that Dylan worked on it for days and days, hours and hours, changing individual lines, and eventually even the title.  It is also the simplicity of the music which contrasts with the complexity of the lyrics – we can see the singer getting onto the night train and just going and going, looking out of the window across the landscape in a semi-dream state as the music moves with the train. Every now and then (the third line) a frown passes his face and a contradicting image rises up, but then it goes.

“I want to be your lover baby I don’t want to be your boss”. Relationships reduced to the simplicity or complexity of a train ride. It can go either way – off to the country, or back home. It’s up to you.

And what now, all these years later, when I sit here with this song having been part of my life since about the age of 18?

Now I can appreciate the work the Dylan put in to each and every line that he so carefully crafted, and all those different versions that were played through until Dylan got that absolute final version that he wanted.

The Cutting Edge CD has a really interesting alternative version – oh, I do love the piano part in this.  Much more honky tonk – and oh, doesn’t Bob sound so certain and secure about the whole thing?

And we also have a live version which I also love; here Dylan has revisited an old friend, he has not desire to change the song, just to give a more reflective version just a few years later.

Between 1965 and 2005 Bob performed the song 160 times (according to the official site) although Wikipedia would have us believe “Dylan played the album version of the song live for the first time as part of his set in the August 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.”

Either way I think it deserved more.


What else is on the site?

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains links to reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


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