I Want You: the King of Rhyme seeks the outrageous enjambements

by Jochen Markhorst

We are a nation of undertakers,” a cockily content Dutch Prime Minister Den Uyl speaks in the 1970s to a group of undoubtedly bewildered American entrepreneurs. Had Dylan been there, he most likely would have applied for a residence permit on the spot. Graveyards, gravestones, death, funeral directors … they colour more than hundred, more than fifteen percent, of all his songs – enough to assume a morbid fascination, anyway.

The undertaker comes along in four songs and especially the one from “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, which in itself is already a Stones pastiche, seems to have evolved into the Brian Jones-like figure from the latest verse: Well, the undertaker in his midnight suit / Says to the masked man, “Ain’t you cute!”

A vicious Dylan turns the suit into a Chinese suit, in which Brian Jones indeed does parade around, he takes his flute (which the multi-instrumentalist plays among others on “Ruby Tuesday”) and voilá: the dancing child has a face and a name. And to rule out any confusion, Dylan underlines with a reference to the Stones hit “Time Is On My Side” (“because time was on his side”).

As a result of this bullying, of this Brian Jones-harassment, it becomes tempting to look for the identity of the so badly wanted lady in the overlapping circles of both gentlemen: Edie Sedgwick and Nico then are candidates, and Sara also sat between them at a table once. Such an assignment, however, would degrade the preceding couplets to stuffing – if Dylan really wants to sing Edie, Sara or Nico, then we would have recognized her in the words before. However, she cannot be found therein – nor any other lady, actually.

More conclusive is the interpretation that the poet finds the images here to articulate a transcending, not tied to one person, theme: the sweet torment of a strong desire. A cinematic opening, in which a suffering young person sits in a jazz café, lonely, languishing, at closing time, and the tired band plays a final, melancholic ballad. Ben Webster’s “Stormy Weather”, something like that. The bridge and the second and third couplet have no epic ambitions; this is where the linguistic pleasure of the word artist dominates, the enjoyment of a poet milking an ingenious rhyme scheme.

That rhyme scheme is unusual: aaab cccb. Unusual, though not unique. The nineteenth-century English poet Swinburne, whose spirit seems to float over more than one Blonde On Blonde song, also occasionally uses this schedule (“Before Dawn”, for example), Robert Louis Stevenson, Longfellow, Ira Gershwin … and after Dylan the more ambitious pop poets sometimes venture into it. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is the best known:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way  

Not too long ago Dylan himself is inspired by the binding corset of this strict form, in “Tombstone Blues”. Therein, his rhyme mastery manifests itself mainly in the b of aaab cccb: nervous rhymes with commerce, boys in with poison and sick in with chicken.

In “I Want You”, the King of Rhyme seeks the challenge in the a‘s and c‘s and finds outrageous enjambements to rhyme – which are indeed only to be heard; on paper, in the published lyrics, the rhyme hides unobtrusively behind its gates. Immediately in the first verse, for example:

The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you

… the reader reads, but the listener hears:

The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I s-
-hould refuse you

The enjambement is the style figure that Dylan milks further; in almost every verse he hides one or two rhyme finds. In the continuation of this first verse again:

The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you

… which is cccb in sung form:

The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way I wasn’t born
to lose you

… en passant, the poet serves the successful rhyme of the b, from refuse you – to lose you. And thus, the couplets are not seven-line, but actually eight-line.

Even more elegantly, the Bard models the second verse around this refined frame:

The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep
And the saviors who are fast asleep,
they wait for you
And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinkin’ from my broken cup
And ask me to Open up
the gate for you

… with not only the successful enjambement between broken cup and open up, but also the perfect rhyme of the b: they wait for you / the gate for you.

It also marks the point at which Dylan’s fondness of gates (or/and doors), begins to stand out. On Blonde On Blonde alone there are three ladies behind the gate (the Sad-Eyed Lady and Sweet Marie too, and likewise the worshiper from “Temporary Like Achilles” is excluded).

Dylan will not let it go, neither as a metaphor nor in a literal sense. In his songs, gates keep opening and closing, shutting out protagonists and symbolizing insurmountables. “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, “Golden Loom”, “When He Returns”, and in “Can’t Wait” he is once again waiting at the gate – to name just a few examples.

And in the twenty-first century, Dylan the Metalworker puts on his welding glasses and, after all those paper gates and doorways, constructs real, tangible, physical gates made from scrap and metal objects.

Still, in 1966 we are not there yet; for the time being the gates are solely literary objects. His rhyme and reason mastery the poet demonstrates often enough after Blonde On Blonde, but it will take until Street Legal (1978) before so much language fun, ingenuity and play with classical poetry come together again (like in “No Time To Think”).

The card metaphor, the Queen Of Spades in this case, also comes by every few years and will mainly have been chosen here to add a pinch of mystery, just as Dylan also frequently portrays the character of the failing politician without further deepening. However, those little-telling verses have the same attractive punch line: closing the overflowing, inscrutable and baroque flood of words with the simplistic chorus contributes greatly to the irresistibility of the song. It certainly does the job. The verses run like a charm and the catchy chorus is very user-friendly – Dylan rarely writes a chorus so poppy, ready-made for a Top Of The Pops audience.

Underneath this pop quality is a country song in a semi-country arrangement. Charlie McCoy usually plays the muffled staccato accompaniment of the second guitar for Johnny Cash, the acoustic country guitar sounds familiar too, as well as the soothing bass and the cheerful guitar lick – and especially the rolling lick of sixteenths with which Nashville Cat Wayne Moss repeatedly, seemingly casually introduces the chorus is astonishing: “The first time he came up with that, my jaw dropped — not only for the lick but for the effortlessness he played it with,” says Al Kooper.

For the record, Kooper should also have distinguished the restrained, but oh so mood-determining, driven drum work by that other Nashville studio musician, Kenny Buttrey, but he is forgiven. “I Want You” is the last recorded song for Blonde On Blonde, there in Nashville, with the stress of time and a waiting plane in Kooper’s neck; according to the organist, Dylan kept postponing the recording of Kooper’s favourite song just to tease him.

At three o’clock in the morning, after Dylan has wasted some more time with provocative directionless blues noise, the master finds that Kooper has suffered enough and at seven o’clock in the morning of 10 March 1966 the fifth, definitive take is on the tape.

The hit potential is obvious and of course Columbia decides to release it as a single. It does quite well (top 20 scores on both sides of the ocean) and is still a favourite in fan circles to this day – though mainly because of the B-side, the beautiful live version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. However, it will not be the hit from Blonde On Blonde. That shall be, bizarrely, the chaotic and unconventional “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35” (which even reaches place 2 in the Billboard Hot 100).

Covers abound in every corner of the music industry. Moaning French girls, ambitious entertainers, serious folk singers and jazz combos, Italian, French, German, Swedish and Dutch translations … the song has a universal appeal, apparently. The interpretations differ accordingly.

Bruce Springsteen honours his idol live in 1975 with a compelling torch version, the endearing Mexican star Ximena Sariñana captivates with a very neat, intimate and loving version on the Amnesty project Chimes Of Freedom (2012).

and James Blunt (2005) perhaps does sing a bit too theatrically every now and then, but he does score bonus points with his beautifully constructed, supercooled arrangement.

Moaning Mrs Caroline Doctorow also scores those points (2003), plus the bonus, for the loose but driving up-tempo beat and, very stylish, the choice to have a sort of Serge Gainsbourg come along at the end.

Despite all the genuine love, the craftsmanship and the respect, even the most beautiful covers rarely come close to the original. Dylan is at a creative high point in February 1966, the mix of musicians at Studio A in Nashville is a golden flash in the pan and the thin wild mercury sound provides the song with a shine that is unmatched. Any attempt to equal the beauty is, in short, a bold undertaking and does require some exceptional undertaker.

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1 Response to I Want You: the King of Rhyme seeks the outrageous enjambements

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Oh, who among them do they think could bury you ….
    Who among them do they think could carry you?

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