Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? The very (very) nasty side of Dylan

by Jochen Markhorst

I tried to write another Mr Tambourine Man. It’s the only song I tried to write “another one”.

(Dylan, Sing Out! October 1968)

On July 30 1965, Dylan records “From A Buick 6” in New York, fairly quickly. It is done within an hour. Two false starts, the fifth take is only the second full version and immediately good enough for Highway 61 Revisited. He spends the remaining studio time on “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and that goes less smoothly. The last attempt is take 17, which accidentally ends up on the A side of the first pressing of “Positively Fourth Street”. That intro, the first bars … no doubt: “Like A Rolling Stone Part II”. And the rest does not escape the comparison either. Bloomfield plays an extract from his part on that global hit, the little trick with which each verse builds up the tension to the (comparable) chorus, the harmonica … boy, did we hear this one before. Only Al Kooper’s jingle-jangling on the celesta (it is not a xylophone, as many critics think on hearing it) adds a – successful – novelty to the mercury sound.

Great recording, no question, but Dylan does hear the similarities too, and that is a sensitive issue. He has already dropped the masterful “Farewell Angelina” because it smells too much of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, later he will dump the beautiful “Up To Me”, because that song is too similar to “Shelter From The Storm”.

He holds on to “Can You Please Crawl”, though. More than two months later, on October 5, he takes another run-in, tries a slower approach, but soon gives up. Seven weeks later, November 30, is the last attempt.

Immediately at the first take, a false start, it already appears that Dylan has removed the most important stumbling point. The Rolling Stone intro has been replaced by an al niente, a “to nothing”, where the band falls silent for a moment and only drummer Bobby Gregg plays, counting on a cymbal. The find is so successful that it is also used after every chorus and it becomes one of the strongholds of the song at all.

This version is quickly established. During the last recording session it hardly changes, only organist Garth Hudson is still looking for a definitive part. The faltering rehearsals and the breakdown are due to the very unusual chord scheme of the couplet. The esteemed gentlemen musicians have to stay focused on this front, but the final version of the song itself has been found. The initially disturbing similarities have largely evaporated – partly because colour-determining musicians such as Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield are now not playing, of course (Al Kooper remembers that he also plays this session with The Hawks, but the organ part sounds like Hudson, the piano plays way too skilled for Kooper’s keyboard qualities and is perhaps Paul Griffin, but more likely Richard Manuel and that guitar really is Robbie Robertson).

It is released as a single, and Dylan has expectations. In No Direction Home, Shelton tells the story of how Dylan throws the Doormat on Duty, Phil Ochs, out of the car because Ochs is not too enthusiastic about the hit potential of the single.

But Ochs is right. In the US, Can You Please Crawl barely hits the charts (number 58 in the Billboard is the highest position), in Canada it remains stuck at 42, and in Europe the song only scores in England, but that is about it: it is listed five weeks, topping out at 17. The covers of the song do not score anywhere either. In the Netherlands, not even national sweetheart Patricia Paay (in 1975) can succeed with her refined version, which is quite beautiful thanks to none other than Steve Harley – who in his glory year (“Come Up And See Me”) finds time to produce the entire debut album from his sister-in-law.

Indeed: the lack of hit potential cannot be ignored anymore.

Still, it really is a fine, genuine Dylan song. Nick Hornby in his witty, autobiographical book 31 Songs devotes Chapter 8 to Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”

Already in the third line, he boldly confesses: “I am not a big Dylan fan.” He cherishes, obviously, like everyone who loves music, the three mid-60s albums plus Blood On The Tracks. But standing in front of his record collection, he finds, to his own surprise, that he has more than twenty CDs from the master (more than from any other artist), he must admit that he has knowledge of many more pointless Dylan facts then about facts from the life of, say, Shakespeare and Hornby comes up with the highly quotable oneliner “there is a density and a gravity to a Dylan song that you can’t find anywhere else.”

But a fan, no.

The awarding of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” as one of the 31 Songs is not entirely pure, the successful British author nuances. The attraction of this song lies mainly in the fact that you haven’t heard it a zillion times, so one can experience approximately what an impression “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Visions Of Johanna” must have made on the witnesses from the first hour. Dylan is at an artistic peak here, with that crisp, clear organ sound, unmistakably Dylan, but it’s not such a well-known song – similar to The Beatles’ “Rain”.

It’s true. Dylan never plays the song, mainly due to the flop; it does not appear on an album and the single barely sells. Only in 1985, when the successful Biograph box is released, “Can You Please Crawl” reaches a larger audience – twenty years after the recording.

Hornby’s “density and gravity that you can’t find anywhere else” certainly suggests a hermetic text here. The You seems to be the same lady as the Miss Lonely from “Like A Rolling Stone”, and is being tackled more ruthlessly here.

The narrator registers that she is trapped in an unhealthy relationship, a relationship in which she is physically and mentally abused. She allows herself to be bullied by a vengeful, unloving egomaniac, who through his presence alone manages to turn her room into a burial vault and who radiates aggression, with his “fist full of nails”.

Halfway through the first verse, the suspicion comes up: Dylan paints a self-portrait of his own black side. All the testimonies of intimates from the mid-sixties make a point of Dylan’s nasty side, his habit of verbally insulting less gifted guests to the bone, surrounded by a few loyal disciples such as Phil Ochs and especially Bob Neuwirth:

“I would see him consciously be that cruel, man, I didn’t understand the game they played, that constant insane sort of sadistic put down game.”

(Michael Bloomfield in Larry Sloman’s On The Road With Bob Dylan, 1975)

“If Dylan got drunk enough, he’d select a target from among the assembled singer/songwriters, and then pick that person apart like a cat toying with a wounded mouse. Making fun of a person’s lyrics, attire, or lack of humor was the gist of his verbal barrage. Dylan was so accomplished at this nasty little game, that if he desired, he could push his victim to the brink of fisticuffs.”

(Al Kooper in Backstage Passes And Backstabbing Bastards, 1998)

When he was on his “telling it like it is” truth mission, he could be cruel. Though I was never on the receiving end of one of his tirades, I did witness a few. The power he was given and the changes it entailed made him lash out unreasonably, but I believe he was trying to find a balance within himself when everything was off-kilter.

(Suze Rotole in A Freewheelin’ Time, 2008)

Although, according to Marianne Faithfull, Bobby Neuwirth was the worst, the really diabolical of the two:

“He was affable but as forbidding, if not more so, than Dylan. Dylan had a reputation for demolishing people, but when people told these stories it was really Neuwirth they meant. Neuwirth and Dylan did such a swift verbal pas de deux that people tended to confuse them. But the most biting commentary and crushing put-downs came from Neuwirth. And when Neuwirth got drunk he could be deadly. I never saw Dylan’s malicious side, nor the lethal wit that has often been ascribed to him. I never thought of him as amusingly cruel the way I thought of John Lennon. Dylan was simply the mercurial, bemused center of the storm, vulnerable and almost waiflike.”

(Marianne Faithfull in An Autobiography, 1994)

… bearing all a very close resemblance to the male protagonist from “Can You Please Crawl”, with which this song fits in with the other sketches “of what goes on around here sometimes, tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening” as Dylan says in the liner notes on Bringing It All Back Home.

This protagonist can erupt in a “businesslike anger”, is surrounded by slavish bloodhounds and can break through any armour to expose it, to expose his victim to the public.

Biographically, the confusing amorous stuff in the unhealthy triangle Dylan – Edie Sedgwick – Bobby Neuwirth fits in with the fatal atmosphere of the lyrics. The narrator does not really offer a warm shoulder like in “Queen Jane Approximately” this time, but she is grandly allowed to come and see him. He does not offer any further hope. The narrator and the male protagonist both adhere to the religion of the little tin women, both see women as toys, and if she leaves him, where would she flee? Towards more darkness, apparently: come on out, the dark is beginning.

Hardly any successful covers, unsurprisingly. A decisive quality factor of the song is indeed the crisp, clear organ sound Nick Hornby appreciates so much – even though it is not small fry, the colleagues attempting an interpretation.

A few live recordings of Jimi Hendrix float around in cyberspace, unfortunately of inferior sound quality, but apart from that: Hendrix does, by far, not reach the level of the original, nor the standard of his unsurpassed “All Along The Watchtower”. The tempo is too high (and fluctuates annoyingly), affecting the vocals – messy and chaotic, all in all.

Despite his impending death, Dr. Wilko Johnson, the guitarist of Dr. Feelgood, takes all the time. He invites The Who’s Roger Daltrey to sing, and produces an energetic but somewhat too ordinary rock song (on his farewell album Going Back Home, 2014). To his surprise, Johnson lives to see the release of the album; only after the recordings it turns out that he has an operable form of gland cancer, he survives the major operation and declares to be free of cancer in October 2014.

However, most covers, such as those from the hypeband Transvision Vamp and from the Westcoast group Colorblind James Experience, have too little fire.

Most charming is a band from Brooklyn, The Hold Steady, contributing to the soundtrack of the Dylan film I’m Not There (2007). A skillfull Springsteen imitation front to back, but what the heck; it is better to steal something well than to re-invent something badly, as the Bard himself learned on the way.

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  1. A fascinating appreciation of a song that I have loved since I bought the single at a department store in suburban Toronto – raucous and vicious, the song has never lost its fascination for me. Thank you very much for putting the song in its context. Now I can’t wait to find out how the great Wilco Johnson (and the Hold Steady!) navigate this one.

  2. Thanks for saving me knocking my head against a wall trying to figure out who The Hold Steady sounded like. I probably would have got there eventually.

  3. Good analysis. The song never charged as a rock song because Dylan sucked as a rock musician. He did well when the studio band had chops. He had zero rock chops except for some pathetic attempts as a teenager. You gotta put in your 10,000 hours in hot sweaty clubs banging your guitar until you learn the back beat groove to play rock. Dylan was folk artist with 4 years experience. His best songs became rock anthems in the hands of others. By the mid-70’s Dylan was developing an amazing groove that he’s perfected. 1966 not so much.

  4. ‘The narrator and the male protagonist both adhere to the religion of the little tin women, both see women as toys, and if she leaves him, where would she flee? Towards more darkness, apparently: come on out, the dark is beginning.’

    Projection I guess…

  5. Surely the song was very unusual and about a subject not talked about or even acknowledged, an abusive relationship. Definitely not a party song. No surprise that it did not become a hit.

  6. Neuwirth passed away a couple of months ago…was Dylan’s sunglassed road manager for a time.

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