What was it you wanted? Bob Dylan’s song and a version by Willie Nelson

What was it you wanted

Reviewed and analysed by Tony Attwood

A slow introduction, and from line one we go; a song in a minor key packed with minor chords, revealing once more the lost and bemused individual.

If you want a classic moment of Dylan in this period look no further than this dislocated individual, out of touch with the reality of the person to whom he is speaking, a person who is as out of touch with the real world as he is.

If you want a line here it is: “What was it you wanted when you were kissing my cheek?”  The old certainties, he says, are long, long since gone.

In this song two people cannot communicate, there is nothing here the singer can be certain about.  He can’t even be sure that he is now with the same person as he had with him last time.  Think mist, misunderstanding, two people by-passing each other, just missing each other, nothing is clear…and just in case we still haven’t got it, there are echoes of the harmonica at the end of each verse.  Who has ever used echoes on a harmonica before in this way?

Come to that are there any other songs around which have a “B” section (the “middle 8”) which is based totally around the minor fifth.  As that section starts with “Whatever you wanted” we are waiting for a relief from the relentless minor chord, but it just doesn’t come.  In the end the return to the verse structure (on the album in the somewhat unlikely key for blues musicians of C sharp minor) gives some relief.  And the fact that it does tells us just how misty the whole production has got.

The total lack of communication (symbolised in a way by that haunting harmonica echo) is over powering.  “What was it you wanted?   Tell me again so I’ll know” – how many times does the man need to be told?

But no matter how much he fails to listen, to hear, to understand, he keeps asking and asking asking…

What was it you wanted
You can tell me, I’m back
We can start it all over
Get it back on the track
You got my attention
Go ahead, speak…

But of course the speaking never comes

Was there somebody looking
When you give me that kiss
Someone there in the shadows
Someone that I might have missed?

In the end it is a dream, a dream where reality comes in and out.  The sort of dream where you say, when describing the piece, I was chasing this bus, I don’t know why, I was just chasing.

It is not surprising to discover the “Series of Dreams” was written for this album, and then for some reason dropped.  As always we don’t know the reason – but artistically we can see at once.  For “Dreams” although on the same subject, just doesn’t fit.  By making the album overtly about dreams the images and the message would have been lost because although these may be dreams they are oh so much more.

Are you the same person
That was here before?
Is it something important?
Maybe not
What was it you wanted?
Tell me again I forgot

The fog and smoke never clears, nothing gets sorted, everything inside the singer is a muddle, he can make no sense.  This is so much more than a dream, and how pleased I am that we have this album with “Series of Dreams”.  How impossible it would have been to disentangle the message have that songs been there.

And so we reach the end…

Is the scenery changing
Am I getting it wrong
Is the whole thing going backwards
Are they playing our song?
Where were you when it started
Do you want it for free
What was it you wanted
Are you talking to me?

The end line of the last verse is perfect.  Isolation is total.  There is nothing.

Dylan has played this just 22 times on stage, and I can’t find anyone who has put up a recording of any of these.  But there is an interesting version by Willie Nelson on line so here that is…

Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these.  We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email Tony@schools.co.uk

What else is on the site

1: 500+ reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

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

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.



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  3. The song is fantastic. In the performance of Willie Nelson it is even fabulous. You can find it on his cd ‘Across the Borderline’ 1993. That time I was studying and Always went back home late in the evening. This song was Always on a particulair station. It made the trip home very easy 😉

  4. Thanks for this write up. Really enjoyed reading this-very accurate (I think) and enlightening analysis on your part.

  5. There is an interpretation of the song (by Australian journalist Imre Salusinszky, I think) that identifies the narrator of the song as Jesus Christ addressing Judas. “Was there somebody looking/When you give me that kiss/Someone there in the shadows/Someone that I might have missed?” for example would refer to Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss, while the Roman soldiers were hiding in the shadows, ready to arrest Jesus.

  6. I´m surprised how far everyone is looking. This song is clearly adressed to the listener,so far he is a dylansuperfan,critic or a journalist who wants to have an interview. Poeple who want something from him all the time. He is talking about this song also in chronicles vol.1 in that way. It makes total sense. Are you want to be the artist? Are you talking to me?

  7. I always interpreted the song as sung about a lover/girlfriend. And now that I’ve experienced something similar, I’m pretty sure that’s it.

  8. You can also look at this song from the other way around — as Hannes & Doug say. The way I’ve always heard it was not that the speaker is out of touch, but the person he’s talking to is. I can see this song directed to a groupie or a one-night stand or an infatuated fan.

  9. I underwent chemo rehab at a nursing home not long ago. My roommate suffered from Alheizer’s disease. His wife would come and visit with him several times a week. For an hour or so she would sit with the man she’d loved all her life. He almost knew who she was. Almost. I wonder if Bob Dylan knew someone like that?

  10. Now that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, there’s even
    more reason to try and fathom some of his lyrics.
    It must be applauded that “What was it you wanted?” is highlighted here, as this is
    surely among the most intriguing songtexts he has written. I believe it deals with the
    ‘condition humain’, where really getting through to other people – even your partner –
    by communicating, seems virtually impossible in the end. This has been noted before by other writers and philosophers as well. But this monologue rendition is almost horrifying in its relentlessness and desperation.
    Dylan & his artistry is in fact a package-deal, although some may find a specific cover
    more appealing than the original. I didn’t know about Willie Nelson’s rendition, but
    will surely try to find it and listen to it.
    My favourite cover of the song is the one by Chris Smither, on his 1995 album, “Up
    on the Lowdown”. His lisping rendition may be even less intelligible than Dylan’s,
    but it certainly has its own particular charm, with its sparse and haunting arrange-
    ment. (The CD booklet features the text, though, an unusual but nice touch).
    The song that strikes me most on this album, however, is “I am the Ride”.
    The lyrics, in my view, are up there with Dylan’s best. Whoever writes such lyrics has
    made his mark in life and in the world; he deserves, if not a monument, than surely
    the acknowledgement of a great composer of words.
    Therefore it is so important that the Nobel Committee has issued this prize, thereby
    including lyrics in the greater family of the literature.

  11. I have a guess:
    There is a plot.
    He has been betrayed.
    He is innocent – he did not understand, what the person wanted from him.
    The person, whom he thought he knew is a total different person.
    He has to rewind the tape and rethink the whole series of events.

    Who are his enemies: The journalists from the gossip magazines.
    Might it be a honney-trap/love trap the journalists has set up for him.
    Did they want a picture , which could be misunderstood?

    From another song : Restless farewell
    “And the dirt of gossip blows into my face
    And the dust of rumors covers me”

    Could the gossip magazines really be so cruel: No doubt. That is the world the celebrities has to face.

    Here Bob Dylan ask the journalist: What is that you want?

  12. One of Dylan’s best…..A vision. A dream. Haunted. Lost. Disoriented. Is there somebody there? Or, as he sung in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” — “Oh, my god! Am I here all alone?”

  13. Great commentary. Given Dylan’s Christian conversion earlier, and the reference to a kiss on the cheek, the poem may be a reflection on Judas’ infamous betrayal. The dream/nightmare quality, the uncertainty of conditions and causes, of culpability so starkly presented, are why we go back to Dylan time after time.

  14. Stan and Mr. Echo that is exactly what I have always thought about this song. I don’t know whether it is from Dylan’s Christian period, but it can be read to describe beautifully what Jesus was thinking as Judas kissed him on the cheek. So gorgeously rendered by Willie in one of his best performances.

  15. I too have always been struck by the clarity of the image of Jesus and Judas in the garden of Gethsemane that this song’s lyrics project on to my mind. I realise this is a Christian-centric imagining. But given Dylan’s migration from a mostly cultural Jewishness to a fairly intense evangelical Christianness, I think it’s an apt positioning of this song. However, what I find even more intriguing is that the version of this encounter as told in the 4 official gospels of the New Testament Bible has been disputed. Rather than a treacherous act by Judas, it has been claimed that it was in fact a strategic ploy carried out by Judas at the behest of Jesus. The purpose being to prepare the necessary conditions for the fulfillment of the Messianic mission. Therein lies the essence of Dylan’s ambiguous and ambivalent portrayal of that mysterious encounter in the gardens of Gethsemane, I think

  16. The harmonica is there in ‘ I want you’ and also in ‘ what was it you wanted’ . Coincidence? Nothing is coincidence with Dylan.

  17. Was there somebody looking
    When you give me that kiss
    Someone there in the shadows
    Someone that I might have missed?

    If a man says this to a girl, he probably means: her mother, standing in the shadows, who looks at everything she does.

    See also the Rolling Stones song ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?’

  18. I think this song starts by injecting in one of the most famous New Testament scenes into the rhetorical form of one of the most influential Jewish poems, then restages it as if it were a lover telling their beloved to figure out what they want (shades of Song of Songs), then recasts that as a forgetful old man, then recasts it as a challenge to a fight. Jesus via Job via Solomon via Granpa Simpson via Travis Bickle.

    The incident? Everyone has picked up on the Judas kiss, with people in the shadows, I think correctly.

    The poetics? I think the line “Where were you when it started” paraphrases the climax of Job, ch 38 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” Indeed, much of the form of the lyric follows Job in this cascade of an alternating pattern of question followed by almost sarcastic chiding. (Worth reading that chapter to grok the form.)

    If that is so, then I think many of the lines resolve themselves in surprisingly evangelical lines: this is the forgetful God asking the hearer whether they want grace (“do you want it for free”) and if so to make up their mind and communicate (“Are you talking to me”, which is the Taxi Driver line de Niro repeats incessantly in many different emphases.)

    (In a sense, this song is the reverse angle of Malik’s movie Tree of Life, which also starts from the same verse in Job 38.)

  19. You just tell me what you want
    I’m gonna play your game
    (Bob Dylan: Lock Your Door ~ Zachary Townesmith)

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