“Fourth Time Around” The meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

This is the fourth track on side 3 of Blonde on Blonde, and although the song is very different in nature from what has gone before, we are still in the zone of turning the concept of rock songs upside down.  For here, not only do we a song in ¾ time making it sound like a fast waltz, we also have yet another re-working of the way chords in rock and pop can be used.

In F major, the chords you would expect to hear the most are F, B flat and C, but in fact what we get is F, A minor and G minor.   A minor and G minor are completely normal and acceptable chords for this key – but to use them to the exclusion of the other chords we might accept is once more very unusual.

I can’t say that Dylan actually planned side three of Blonde on Blonde to be a side of chordal experiments, but there is the issue of the names of song.   If you play the five songs that make up the third side of the album you will feel the difference; this is Dylan throughout experimenting in a new area of writing.

The song is completely strophic – which is to say it is verse, verse, verse, verse, verse – with no interludes, and as everyone has noted before, the song is very similar to Norwegian Wood, written primarily by John Lennon for the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album the year before.

There is another issue that Dylan is exploring on this third side of Blonde on Blonde, and that is the exploration of the situation of the singer.  By no means confined to this album alone, but it is particularly strong on this side.  Just as in Achilles we have the investigation into the little boy lost concept also explored in Johanna, here we find it again.

The theme is once more the interactions of three people.   In Johanna it is Johanna, Louise and little boy left, in Achilles, it is the man, the woman and the guard.  Now in 4th time we have the singer, the woman and “you” to whom the song is sung.

The big contrast with Achilles is that there the young man is the outsider desperately wanting in.  Here there is a couple who have an almighty row, and the singer walks out.   There is also a complete contrast in philosophy with the line

Everybody must give something back For something they get

That is the woman’s claim here, while Dylan’s reply at the end is don’t lean on me and I won’t loean on you.  Everyone can be independent and still have a relationship.

Maybe he’s right, maybe not.  Complex things these relationships.  But it doesn’t matter.  Dylan is constantly exploring three sided relationships, always with a certain lack of clarity.  Not always the mist that pervades Johanna, but still a certain uncertainty.

Certainly the opening of Fourth Time is as viscous it can get without someone slamming the door and walking out…

“When she said Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies I cried she was deaf.”

You don’t get nastier than that.

As to Fourth time vs Norwegian Wood, “4th Time Around” has been seen as playful, a homage, satirical, or a warning to John Lennon that whatever Lennon does, Dylan can do it far, far better

Lennon is reported as expressing a range of opinions on the issue of the two songs, in various interviews, and who knows what he really thought in the end.  Some report that the end of “4th Time Around” (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine.”) really worried Lennon.

But then, creative artists can be temperamental buggers at the best of times.

There is one other interpretation.  Heylin appears to see the song as being about a love affair between two wheelchair users.  But then Heylin is never anything but opinionated and weird.

If we work through the song verse by verse we can see where we are going…

Verse one is sums up with her view

“Don’t forget Everybody must give something back For something they get”

Verse 2 has her saying don’t try to be clever

In Verse 3 he’s thrown out, goes out, and then sees a picture of the girl he is reporting the story to – in a wheelchair.  He asks his ex-lover for an explanation, she screams at him so much that she has a fit and collapses.  He responds by searching through her posessions.

He then puts something in his shoe and goes round to the new woman’s house and says, let’s be equal and not depend on each other.

So, knowing this is a response or a parody to Norwegian Wood do we take this as a serious story, or a writer having a laugh with another songwriters expense?

Maybe one way to resolve this is to go back to Norwegian Wood.  That is a very very simple story.  She invites him round and tries to seduce him.   He turns her down, wakes to find that she has gone, and then we have that enigmatic ending

So I lit a fire, Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

It is a cleverly enigmatic ending, The first reaction is that he’s saying, “hey life’s good, I crash out in her smart flat, and she leaves me to have the place to myself… she’ll be back in the evening.”

Or… he sets fire to the house and the wood burns.   The latter seems unlikely of course, but just the thought of it as a possibility has always brought a smile to my face.  Double meanings were never really Lennon’s style, at least nothing that went anything beyond “A Spaniard in the Works”.  But it’s still amusing.

For me (and as always I have to say, this is just my interpretation, a mix of what I thought way back in 1966 and what I feel about the song all these years later, is that Dylan saw the Beatles song as a simple piece with a point of interest – what with it being in triple time, instead of the normal 4/4 and a funny end.   So Dylan said, ok, let’s now turn this into a surrealist version.

In this view I think Dylan was also saying, “I produce all the crazy creatures who populate my songs – you just have the “sweet pretty things” that I have already made fun of in Tombstone Blues.”     You write about the middle class sweeties, I write about the grit.

Which if true is also why he has the girl screaming “till her face got so red Then she fell on the floor” – it is all big time drama and the freak show with Dylan.   We are, after all, hardly any distance from Desolation Row.  But for the Beatles, life remains all sweetness.

Also I’d add the parody of “I want to be your lover baby” with that rhyming of “hers” with “yours”.   If I’d been a highly sensitive artist and had written some of the Beatles early music I would not only be very rich, I’d have taken offence,.

So for this reason I don’t think 4th Time has gone anything (or at least anything directly) to do with Dyolan’s real life, with Edie Sedgwick, or anyone else, any more than lines like

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

are about real people.  Dylan sees the world during this period as a freak show, and that’s what he is describing here.

So I don’t have much sympathy for the notion that “4th time around” is about the fourth time Dylan and Edie sleep together.  It could be, of course I don’t know, but on the balance of probabilities I just don’t think so.   Dylan plays with words, just as on this side of the album he is playing with chords.   And besides I think he denied it in one interview.

Against me is the report that Edie had a car crash and was in a wheelchair and had crutches for a while – that I admit points things in the other direction.

My point is that this is a painting of a freak show – no need to take each issue too seriously.  And I think 4th Time relates to “I want to be your lover” – he really is making a bit of a point to the Beatles about the gap between the world they paint, and the world he paints.

As a final thought about Dylan’s song and the Beatles song, compare the openings

I once had a girl, Or should I say she once had me


When she said “Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies”, I cried she was deaf

And then compare the endings

So I lit a fire, Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?


And I, I never took much, I never asked for your crutch, Now don’t ask for mine

Utterly different words, utterly different worlds.

Index to all the songs analysed

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