What was it you wanted? (Oh Mercy)

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.


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12 Responses to What was it you wanted? (Oh Mercy)

  1. test says:

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  3. gert says:

    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. Bjorn Ahlblad says:

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

  5. Mr. Echo says:

    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. Hannes Schmid, Switzerland says:

    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. doug says:

    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. NotSoFast says:

    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. EllenJ says:

    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. Raymond Bakker says:

    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. Babette says:

    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. John says:

    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?”

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