I Wanna Be Your Lover: behold the multitude of supporting cast members

by Jochen Markhorst

“I Wanna Be Your Lover” is officially released only twenty years after the recording date, on the collection box Biograph (1985). Part of the charm of that box is the accompanying booklet with the liner notes from Cameron Crowe, which incorporates an extensive and fascinating interview with Dylan. The fifty-three songs are also commented separately, often with an addition by the master himself, and that is just as fascinating.

The short commentary on “I Wanna Be Your Lover” opens with a somewhat embarrassing error by the Rolling Stone editor. “A tip of the hat to the only song recorded by both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones – Lennon and McCartney’s I Want To Be Your Man.”

Apart from the annoying misspelling (it’s “I Wanna Be Your Man”): three-quarters of the participants of any given pub quiz in any friendly little country town would effortlessly rattle off four, five, six songs that were recorded by both The Beatles and The Stones. “Money”, “Carol”, “Memphis, Tennessee”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Little Queenie”, and if the pub quiz compiler likes trick questions, you can continue for a while with songs that the men recorded together “Dandelion”, “We Love You”, “All You Need Is Love”).

After that faux pas follows an intriguing remark from the master himself: “I always thought it was a good song, but it just never made it onto an album.”

Given the recording date (October ’65), the song was passed over for Blonde On Blonde, and that is quite understandable. Musically it would have been an enrichment – for example after Sad-Eyed Lady, to crush the descended, breathless awe with one cruel, disrespectful blow (much like the Beatles do with “Her Majesty” after the monumental “The End” on Abbey Road).

But the lyrics and the structure are both a carbon copy of “I Want You”, and that is probably why Dylan did not even bring the song to Nashville for the recordings of Blonde On Blonde. Which is a real shame, of course – how would “I Wanna Be Your Lover” have sounded with the thin wild mercury sound, what would a Charlie McCoy and a Kenny Buttrey have done to the song?

The similarities with the lyrics of “I Want You” cannot be ignored. Both songs have a – by Dylan’s standards – unusually simplistic chorus, in which the desire for an adored is expressed with little eloquence. And in both songs, that silly chorus is surrounded by a hallucinating Hieronymus Bosch-like multitude of colourful supporting actors, partly performing in both songs. The undertaker has a guest role both times, the midnight suit is patched into a Chinese suit and rhymes with cute both times, the rainman returns in “Stuck Inside Of Mobile”, just like Mona by the way, and yet another judge (after “She’s Your Lover Now” and “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way”) tends to overkill.

Dylan must have acknowledged, all in all, that he is plagiarizing himself, that the lyrics were written with the Dylan-o-Matic at full capacity.

Blonde On Blonde thus escapes a black frayed edge. Although an ongoing story is not told here, almost all evoked images and actors do have a sinister charge. In these years, a rain man most likely indicates the man who supplies the marijuana, but he also symbolizes Evil or the Devil with the Illuminati, just as rain, in Ezekiel for example, is the punishment of a furious God.

The judge is, as is usually the case with Dylan, harsh, Mona does not get a bail and disappears behind collapsing walls, while the rainman turns into a werewolf. The funeral director dressed in black sees the masked man coming back to life, Jumpin’ Judy is an old acquaintance from many pre-war prison songs, Rasputin, the possessed monk, mysteriously dies and the tragic Phaedra is having a hard time too.

There is really no correlation between all those shreds, which was not the intention, either. The song does indeed originate from that little refrain, meant to be a parody, with which a playful Dylan at a lazy moment in some studio corner mocks that Beatles / Stones song. With a recognizable Dylan touch: the rhyme king manages to rhyme hers with yours (“yerrs”). That again inspires Lennon to a wink back – two years later he writes the ironically titled “Yer Blues” with the famous verse feel so suicidal just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones.

With superior bravado, Dylan cobbles together the surrealistic couplets around it, that same day in October 1965, presumably ignited by an urge to ridicule (“look here, this is how you do it”), rather than by the burning artistic ambition to poetically express an own reality.

The aftermath supports this option; Dylan immediately rejects the song. In the run-up to Blonde On Blonde, he is struggling more seriously with rejected songs like “She’s Your Lover Now” (sixteen takes) and “I’ll Keep It With Mine” (which he also tries to record in Nashville after the unsatisfactory takes in New York, tackling it ten times), but “I Wanna Be Your Lover” never gets any attention again – until 1985, when Dylan curiously declares to really appreciate the song. If so, why does he never play it?

Partly due to that heartless abandonment, the song remains a neglected cuckoo; it is rarely covered. The best-known cover is the one on the I’m Not There soundtrack and is quite beautiful. Yo La Tengo has been a favourite of pop journalists and music critics for twenty-five years, but the band does not really break through although fortunately they continue to make beautiful records.

In between, they have also shown respect for the Minnesota bard since 1989; almost every year a Dylan cover, usually a successful one, is released. The band from Hoboken, New Jersey produces even two covers for the soundtrack to the Dylan film; a beautiful languid, dreamy “Fourth Time Around” and an exciting restoration of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. A lot of love has been put into it. Yo La Tengo reproduces the sound of the early Rolling Stones (including Brian Jones licks and Mick Jagger’s snarling stabs), copies an Al Kooper organ and has a harmonica honking along; smashing, all of it.

Very different, but just as attractive is the country-rock approach by the hairy quartet Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint on their widely acclaimed but unjustly unsuccessful Dylan tribute album Lo And Behold (1972). More melodic than the original, with contagious monkeying around in the background during the choruses, evoking Rainy Day Women.

An extension of Coulson cum suis is Peter Keane’s country rock (on Milton Street, 2002), with rockabilly accents and here and there even half a yodel – also very nice, actually.

A version by The Beatles will probably not emerge. The Stones is still a possibility, though.

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  1. The song is on the B-side of the Dylan TMQ vinyl bootleg that was released in 1971.

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