“I want you”: the meaning of the music and the lyrics in Dylan’s song

I Want You” was recorded in 1966, and issued as a single with Tom Thumb’s Blues on the B side.  

Reports suggest that the imagery that is at the heart of the song suggests that Dylan was experimenting with something far more than just a set of words.

One analysis (Andy Gill) says that the characters are “too numerous to inhabit the song’s three minutes comfortably”, and that is where I depart from the traditional interpretations which look primarily at the lyrics.

These theories of interpretation are what we always find, theories trying to explain Dylan just by the words.  But lyrics don’t have to mean anything.  Or, alternatively, some of them can mean something but others are just words that fit – and there is nothing wrong with that.

But what we have here is something that gives the clue – for we have, an accompanying band of musicians, who know exactly what to do.  They are not falling over themselves try to get their little bit in.  No, they are controlled, practiced and following the script.

And that starts us on a promising journey.  Yes the “Chinese suit” child could be Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones as some theorists suggest (because “Time is on my side” was the Stones first hit in the US), but such a view still just considers the lyrics, and ignores the music.

But what we have here is a perfect example of the reason why I started this web site – to consider the lyrics and the music together, and to decant whatever meaning I could find from the two together – the recording in its totality, as Dylan presented it to us.

In the case of “I want you” the music has a very obvious descending bass emphasised by the organ’s two note dotted rhythm at the start of each bar from verse two onwards.  (If you don’t see what I mean, and I know I haven’t put it very clearly, listen to verse two, and hear how the organ plays two notes at the start of each line, just as Dylan starts to sing the line.)

What we get in this song is that descending bass, (emphasised by the organ from verse two on), going down one note in the scale with each line.  I’ve written these bass notes for verse one to illustrate this point…

The guilty undertaker sighs (F)
The lonesome organ grinder cries (E)
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you (D, C)
The cracked bells and washed-out horns (B flat)
Blow into my face with scorn (C)
But it’s not that way I wasn’t born(D)
To lose you (C)

I want you, I want you  (F, E)
I want you, so bad (D, C)
Honey, I want you (F)

What is most unusual here is that the song stays almost the same all the way through, line after line.  It does change at the end of line three, but lines four, five and six are again very similar melodically.

And that. combined with the chords changing under the melody, gives us the feeling of progression, especially as when in verse two onwards the organ emphasises the descent.

The question then is, is this just a musical trick – a way of making the song work, or does it have any meaning beyond that?

The Brian Jones notion – the seeing of the guilty undertaker as a real person, the lonesome organ grinder another and and so on, forces us to look for meanings in these images.  But…

But try it this way instead.  Think of these images as passing shadows in a street that is tilting, rather gently downhill.  Maybe you are heading down the hill, and they are in the doorways, or maybe you are in the doorway and they drift by as ghosts, it doesn’t matter.  It is the image of the downhill and the movement that counts.

Keep that vision until in verse one when we get to the cracked bells, where there is a certain resistance.  The melody rises a trifle, although the descending bass descends one more step.  That gives us a tension – like an elastic band being pulled to its final point.  But then in response to the rising melody, the bass takes a step up from B flat to C to D, before finally falling back a little – but by no means all the way, to C – the resting point, the half way house, of a song in F, as this is.   We’ve fallen, bounced back, and are now in balance.

Put another way, the song is a song of slipping downwards, for the first half, and then a resistance, and insistence on not falling eternally down, but of coming back a little to the midpoint.

And why – because these ghosts that pass by in the night are the images of a brain besotted by love and desire – that moment in life when nothing else matters, when rationality slips away and when one would give up anything and everything to have this person.  It is total madness.  It is love.

So in verse one all these crazy images, the guilty undertaker, the lonesome organ grinder, the silver saxophones, the cracked bells, the washed-out horns, they are scornful of his love, but he fights back, stands up and says “No I want this love!” and he gets the music back into the middle balance, ready to fight again.

So the unreason, the emotional turmoil starts again, the drunken politician, the mothers, the sleeping saviours, and the singer… they wait for the descent to stop, he waits for them to stop his hopeless love, (the broken cup) and instead he wants to stand up and open the gate to his love.   And once more we have descended and come back up into balance.

We then have what is known in musical circles as the “middle 8” – the eight bar section that comes after two verses, and which sets a different angle on proceedings.   The singer’s father and grandfather had none of this love nonsense.  They have what in Britain we would call Victorian Values – the way of seeing the world without emotion, a way that dominated the era of Queen Victoria in the 19th century.  (My apologies, I don’t know the American expression for this – perhaps you could enlighten me).

But the women, oh they know the meaning of love, and how they suffered under Victorian values where men kept the stiff upper lip and said nothing of their feelings, because a man did not show emotions.

So the singer goes and talks to the women he knows, and in this descent he holds his own, he is able to use their insights, as they can see right through him – and that’s ok, because it doesn’t matter, once more the verse ends in balance.

So finally the singer faces the world in which he finds himself in love, and he faces down the problems expressed once more in that descending bass line.  And this time as the line rises, the singer finally fights back.  “I did it, though, because he lied, Because he took you for a ride, And because time was on his side”

And at that moment he reaches the high point – he’s acted, and he had to act because time was on his side – time for the singer is running out. If he doesn’t act now all will be lost and he never have his love.

But he gets her, as the quick fade out shows. It is over and done.

I am not saying that Dylan mechanically plotted this movement of image and bass line.  Few songwriters work in such a way.  They play with words, play with lines and just know when it works, although normally can’t explain why.  Why this melody, why this chord change, why this lyric?  Because it works.

And as a melody, bass line and lyric entwined, this works as a battle to deal with the insanity of that deep, overwhelming love, the conquers all.

I must admit when I first heard the song it was a part of the album that I didn’t really care for, there was so much more therein to listen to.  It wasn’t until maybe six months later when I was with a few guys and we were playing the song and trying to make it work at different speeds in different styles that I suddenly realised the importance of the bass line and near repeating melody.

For me, trying to make each phrase equal a particular person doesn’t work at all.  As so often with Dylan the meaning is in the music and the lyrics together.  Apart they don’t work.

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13 Responses to “I want you”: the meaning of the music and the lyrics in Dylan’s song

  1. Joe Judge says:

    There’s an old book, “How does a Poem Mean?”. One might ask, “How does Dylan Mean?” Let’s say, the clown in the Chinese suit IS Brian Jones. Do we understand a poem, or Dylan only when we pin down a specific reference? But then, if we successfully create this dictionary of one-to-one correspondence of Dylanspeak vs. English (rain = x, window = y, blood = y, etc.) what have we accomplished? Is it necessary? Can’t we simply enjoy the surreal imagery per se? Or, if we only enjoy the imagery per se, ( are we not truly understanding a poem? ( I’m thinking now of Wallace Stevens, for example. I don’t know exactly what his “Blackbird” was, I just enjoy the series of images. The mystery adds to “Thirteen Ways”, intrigues. Dylan’s poetry is similar. )

  2. Joe Judge says:

    Below is a link to a very old essay, “How Does a Poem Mean”. It can offer an approach to Dylan as well as poetry in general. The author, John Ciardi, like Dylan, was critical of message hunting (“plowmen” who “dig earth”), and instead advises that “What the poem is, is inseparable from its own performance of itself.” Probably doubly true when the poem is set to music. Still, I think the study of Dylanology does help illuminate the various songs and adds to the experience… Not to mention that it’s a fun pastime!

    http://www.csun.edu/~krowlands/Content/Academic_Resources/Poetry_Instruction/ciardi.pdf

  3. Steve says:

    You have not scratched the surface of the meaning of the song. Let me postulate. The key phrase is “All my fathers they’ve gone down. True love, they’ve been without it. And all their daughters put me down, because I don’t think about it.” How can a man have more than one father? impossible…unless his mother is a prostitute. Why does Dylan say so early in the song “I wasn’t born to lose you.” Is he talking about his mother? When your mother is a prostitute, you see all the men who frequent her and any one of them can be the father. All the drunken sailors “they wait for you” are waiting their turn to see…his mother. He opens the gate for them and they interrupt him drinking from his broken cup. He resents these men seeing his mother because he loves his mother and does not want to share her. And why does Dylan say “all their daughters put me down.” Aren’t his fathers’ daughters his sisters? Answer: Not if he does not know who his father is. Dylan in this song is also clearly in love with a prostitute. Is it his mother? Or has he fallen in love with another prostitute, continuing the cycle he was born into just as he does in “House of the Rising Sun” a la “I’m going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain.” Clearly Dylan resents the child of the prostitute he loves, who had a baby from a multiplicity of father’s ust as his mother had him. He takes refuge in his Queen of Spades” , his black chambermaid, who allows him to think of his unattainable love while he is with her and does not get upset. This song speaks to me in one simple compelling story line that is a tour de force of unrequited love for a boy who had to share his mother’s love with a bunch of drunken sailors and who himself can not attain the love of the woman he desires so he resorts to his chambermaid. This may all sound far fetched, but I have heard this song so many times from both Dylan and Sophie Hawkins that the message to me now is as unavoidable (involuntarily) as it is cogent. God spoke to us through Dylan. Dylan was only a messenger. God is mysterious. He reveals himself in unusual ways and voices and symbols. Dylan did not whitewash the message. He delivered it unvarnished as it entered him. He was a conduit. Jesus spike in sometimes. mysterious parables. So does Dylan. Broaden your horizons. Expand your interpretations. You will hear him loud and clear.

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Steve: you said in passing “God is mysterious”

    Why is He? And come to that where? The book of Genesis and the Revelation of John are both very clear in their detailed descriptions.

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    The prostitute interpretation is a great and humourous spoof on why one should not force an over-interpretation onto Dylan lyrics with the slightest of supporting evidence from those lyrics….one give-away being the ignoringof the fact thhat we all have fathers, grandfathers, greatgrandfathers, etc. and possibly daughters, granddaughters, etc. But the point that too many songs of Dylan’s are twisted into being about Jesus is a good one.

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    Do you want to know what is really happening here, Mr. Jones?

    The fragmented and seemingly meaninglessness of the lyrics of ‘I Want You’ with broken images(cracked bells, washed-out horns, broken cup)is deliberate on the part of Dylan.

    There is more than love-producing madness going on here.
    The wholeness of the organic vision of the Universe, governed by the One Spirit, as depicted by the Romantics, for example by Hegel, is torn asunder, to reflect the modern militaristic industrial state, along with its destructivenes, its chaos, its nihilism and collapse of moral order, and with this the alienation-induced anxity of the isolated individual.

    Modern and Postmodern art forms replace those of earlier times though Dylan is still influenced by the optimistic sentiments expressed by the Romantic transcendentalists like Whitman and the darker visions of madness induced by love expressed by Romantic Gothics like Poe.

    So also in “Desolation Row”, there is fragmented, mosaic imagery…. of Cinderella, Cain, Abel, the Good Samaritan, Orphelia, Robin Hood, and so on, now representing a mishmash but brought out from a time when society was considered to be governed by a caring central authority in heaven, if not on earth.
    Music, yes, extremely important, but the lyrics are not merely afterthoughts on the part of Dylan.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    *(sp) Ophelia

  8. Larry Fyffe says:

    That Dylan struggles in the captain’s tower with the likes of anxiety-driven TS Eliot (and Arthur Rimbaud)is reflected in the choice of less dark imagery by Dylan:

    ” A washed-out smallpox cracks her face”
    (Eliot: Rhapsody On A Windy Night?

  9. bill says:

    Steve, I like your interpretation of this song. I think yours is as good or better than any I’ve read.

  10. Larry Fyffe says:

    A ‘ cogent’ interpretation it is not however; so many content-unsupported things-too many- are read into the lyrics in order to fit into a narrative that is just too individualisticly conceived.
    The ‘prostitute’ interpretation does not lend itself to a wide-spread ‘ah, yes, I can see that’ conclusion based on the face of the lyrics, that’s for sure.

  11. Larry Fyffe says:

    The prostitute supposition seems more a spoof on the postmodern attempt to ignore the writer of the song lyrics under examination because in the works of Dylan neither he nor his dramatic personna narrator ever comes close to depicting his mother a prostitute let alone desiring to have sex with her; such Fruedian Surrealsm fits some of Jim Morrison’s lyrics, but certainly not Dylan’s.

  12. Larry Fyffe says:

    *Freudian…..as in Doors’ ‘The End’

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    And Hawkins certainly disagrees with any such prostitute interpretation as she seductively sings, ‘Darling, I want you’, the added address ‘darling’ indicating a desired lover rather than any type of yearnings for her mother who is supposedly entertaining a bunch of drunken sailors.

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