“I wanna be your lover”: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

Recorded October 1965  Review by Tony Attwood

Published on disc 3, Biograph, there is also at least one bootleg version of the song available.  I’m using the Biograph version for this review.

This song is one of the Dylan compositions that emerged during studio work in preparation for the an album – in this case Blonde on Blonde.  Such information as we have from those involved is that one session produced a new arrangement of “Can you Please Crawl out Your Window” and “I Wanna be your lover,” plus “Jet Pilot”. along with “Medicine Sunday”, which apparently later became “Temporary Like Achilles”.

This is a song very much of a style that Bob Dylan favoured at this time – the surreal characters some of whom are references to myths, some to actual people, the racing rhythm, the restriction of the whole piece to just three chords and hardly any melody, the band at full pelt…  

Yes, as soon as you hear it on Biograph you think, “Well the sweet pretty things are in bed now of course…”   It is “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” Mark II.  Even the first two words are the same.  And it was written in the same year.

It also has the twist of having a laugh at the Beatles rather dull composition, “I wanna be your man”.  The lyrics of the Beatles song are truly ordinary…

I wanna be your lover baby
I wanna be your man
I wanna be your lover baby
I wanna be your man
Love you like no other baby
Like no other can
Love you like no other baby
Like no other can

I wanna be your man, I wanna be your man
I wanna be your man, I wanna be your man

Tell me that you love me baby
Let me understand
Tell me that you love me baby
I wanna be your man
I wanna be your lover baby
I wanna be your man
I wanna be your lover baby
I wanna be your man

And so on.

So giving them a twist and a kick and leading those lyrics screaming into some other place with multiple references that Lennon and McCartney would probably never get anyway, seems a good idea which can still be appreciated all these years later.  Adding the surreal looks like fun, and then as a final twist rhyming hers with yerrs (yours) gives it all a nice kick.

And it is a good reminder too that although the Beatles produced some fine tunes, they also produced some rubbish.

What this song does is says, OK, you can have the very simple notion of “I wanna be your lover baby” as the basis for a song, but you don’t have to consider the audience to be a bunch of morons.  What you can do instead is acknowledge that the feeling of desperate and urgent want of a new partner produces all sorts of images and levels of need, and one very good way to express this is not through the mindless repetition of a couple of lines, but some extraordinary invented or mythical characters who flit in and out of vision as the song progresses.

And so off we go…

Well, the rainman comes with his magic wand
And the judge says, “Mona can’t have no bond”
And the walls collide, Mona cries
And the rainman leaves in the wolfman’s disguise

I’m not going to try and explain all the references in this song — not least because I don’t know what “Mona can’t have no bond” means.  But if it is a reference to anything, I guess it is a reference to something from the USA, and being English, there is every chance I have missed it.

However I can take a pitch at the rainman.  The Rainman is a mythical creature in the world of the arts.  The artist (be it musician, dancer, painter whatever) who wants fame from his/her art more than the pleasure and great satisfaction of creating the art itself, offers his soul to the devil via the Rainman who acts as an intermediary.

I wanna be your lover, baby, I wanna be your man
I wanna be your lover, baby
I don’t wanna be hers, I wanna be yours

Well, the undertaker in his midnight suit
Says to the masked man, “Ain’t you cute!”
Well, the masked man he gets up on the shelf
And he says, “You ain’t so bad yourself”

But although I can offer some insights there is no more sense here overall than there is in a painting by Ernst or Dali.  But what this piece and Tom Thumb scream out is the fact that sense doesn’t have to be part of the game – because love, desire, lust are not sensible, logical aspects of human kind.  That is why this song, and even more so, Tom Thumb, work so well.

I have no idea what Dylan is saying in relation to the undertaker and the masked man, but it really doesn’t matter.  The characters continue to pour out of the lyrics…

Well, jumpin’ Judy can’t go no higher
She had bullets in her eyes, and they fire
Rasputin he’s so dignified
He touched the back of her head an’ he died

Jumpin’ Judy however I do know.  Jumpin’ Judy is a character from a song recorded by John and Alan Lomax in 1933 when they visited prison farms in the South of the USA, believing they might find songs that went back to the time of slavery.

They didn’t find such songs, but found new songs, sung by the prisoners, of which what became one of the most famous was Jumpin Judy.  They recorded this at Parchman Farm in the Mississippi Delta.  You may well have heard the Georgie Fame or John Mayall singing a version of “Parchman Farm” itself – another song that arose in these recording sessions.

Moving on…

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (1869 – 1916) was the Russian mystic who inveigled himself with Russian royalty, particularly Tsar Nicolas II – to no great benefit to the Russian people.

Then we come to “Phaedra with her looking glass”.  I wonder, should we worry about individual references like – or indeed like Rasputin in the previous verse or Jumpin Judy?   I’ve no idea really if Dylan meant them other than as characters – and in the end I think there is no need for there to be a deeper reference.  But just in case you want to know…

Phaedra was married to Theseus, but fell in love with Theseus’ son Hippolytus.  Meanwhile Hippolytus rejected Aphrodite in order to remain faithful to Artemis.  So annoyed was Aphrodite at his rejection that he made Phaedra fall in love with him.  (The Greek myths can sometimes make Dylan’s surreal period songs seem quite obvious and straightforward!)

Well, Phaedra with her looking glass
Stretchin’ out upon the grass
She gets all messed up and she faints –
That’s ’cause she’s so obvious and you ain’t

Yes its fun, it’s knockabout, its surreal, its three chords, and no real attempt at a melody.

And why not?  It’s a damn sight more interesting than “I wanna be your man”.

Index to the songs

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3 Responses to “I wanna be your lover”: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. I think I can help with the American courtroom reference.

    Bond is like bail — money you can pay to leave jail and guarantee your return for your trial. I think the difference is that bond is a payment of only a portion of the amount set for bail that is paid to a third party bondsman, who then pays the full bail amount — and will track you down if you fail to show up to court.

    Whatever the details, when Mona is told she can’t have a bond, it means she must stay in prison until her trial. Hence her feeling that walls are closing in on her.

  2. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/281/I-Wanna-Be-Your-Lover (Additional Information)

  3. Carl Ewens says:

    The song is about illicit sex. In the first verse the Rain Man is most likely a reference to the film ‘Rainmaker’ starring Burt Reynolds as a con-man who is actually claiming he can make it rain in drought ridden areas. He’s actually after a girl played by Katherine Hepburn in the film.
    Mona is a spurious character who the Rain Man is claiming to be able to release from jail. He has no luck as he’s just a reprobate, hence he sneaks off in a ‘wolf’s’ or finally a ‘wolf-man’s’ disguise.
    In the second verse the illicit relationship is between two men, the creepy undertaker in his ‘midnight suit’ and the ‘masked man’ although Dylan sings ‘madman’ not masked man! Either way these are two dark characters, creepy, crazy or criminal, and their fancying each other is hilariously described!
    The third verse presents another lust-filled character, this time from an old blues song, Jumpin’ Judy, with the term ‘jump’ itself a reference to sex. Rasputin of course, was a monk (albeit a mad one), and Dylan’s joke is that if a supposed holy person even touched Jumpin’ Judy, she’s so sexy it’d kill him!
    Finally there’s the verse about is a great picture of some greek goddess so overcome with her own beauty, such a hottie, that she faints from her own tempestuous desires. Dylan’s closing witticism is that ‘she’s so obvious, but you ain’t!’ – the moral of the story being that maybe sometimes it’s better to be a bit more subtle about those sexual desires, have a bit of self control. From Dylan’s point of view however the song is really about a total lack of self-control, something that may well have characterised a pop star’s life back in the sixties!

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