Previously in this series: She Belongs To Me (1965): I – No colours anymore
by Jochen Markhorst
II Images which have got to come out
Those liner notes on Bringing It All Back Home should be a goldmine for the key-seeking Dylanologist, but most exegetes prefer to ignore them. After all, the most honest lines in them, I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening, do demythologise Dylan’s poetry quite a bit. To the dissatisfaction of the puzzling Dylanologist with crypto-analytic ambition, it is a fairly unambiguous art statement from a thoroughbred Impressionist.
Although there is no uncontroversial definition of “impressionism”, we do agree on its essence: the artistic expression of an impressionist is a notion, an impression of a moment. “Volatility” is another characteristic, and Renoir’s paintings, for example, illustrate this perfectly; paintings with the vagueness and ephemerality of a photograph taken from a passing car. Paintings that capture a blurred impression of a moment – seems like a freeze-out, as Dylan initially will call “Visions Of Johanna”, written shortly after “She Belongs To Me”.
In any case, “a nonunderstanding sketch of what is happening here”, the somewhat more cumbersome way of saying “impression”, does indeed seem to be an adequate choice of words to describe his own poetry, certainly that of these mid-sixties.
What the poet does perceive, which event does provide the impressions, the poet discloses right at the beginning of those revealing liner notes: “i’m standing here watching the parade”. Which is, added to the “sketch confession”, rather consistent with the observation that songs like “Just Like A Woman”, “Visions Of Johanna”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Farewell Angelina”, to name but a few, are collage songs, sketchy images of the parade that goes on around here sometimes.
Such a vision clashes with the vision of interpreters who are so eager to explain that the lyrics are in fact one coded narrative, telling one life fact or event from the life of the human Dylan. And then – for example – argue that Louise in “Visions Of Johanna” is “actually” his wife Sara, and Johanna is “actually” the absent Joan Baez. One-dimensional, superficial interpretations generally, which are, in fact, repeatedly refuted by the poet himself – whatever that may be worth.
Most emotionally at that eruption from the stage in England, in the Royal Albert Hall, 27 May 1966: “I’m sick of people asking what does it mean. It means nothing!” And equally convincing in calm interviews, such as in the captivating SongTalk interview with Paul Zollo (April 1991), when the interviewer wants a reaction to another high point of the mercury years, to “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, and then specifically to that one verse I stand here looking at your yellow railroad in the ruins of your balcony. That’s just true, Dylan says at first, “Every single letter in that line. It’s all true. On a literal and on an escapist level,” to come back to it a little later:
“So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you. You don’t have to observe. It hits you. Like “yellow railroad” could have been a blinding day when the sun was so bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind. These aren’t contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out. You know, if it’s in there it’s got to come out.”
… words of a full-blooded Impressionist. Spoken a quarter of a century after those liner notes from Bringing It All Back Home – at the very least, these code-crackers and key seekers could consider taking the words of the artist himself just a tiny bit seriously. And if not, the words the poet spoke, again a quarter of a century hereafter, at the Nobel Prize speech 2017:
“I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.”
It is not that difficult, after all, to take the sobering self-analysis of the poet a bit seriously; both the characterization “sketched observations of fleeting impressions” and the self-analysis “images which are just in there and have got to come out” fit wonderfully well on most of his lyrics.
The same could apply for the tremendous number 2 of Bringing It All Back Home, for “She Belongs To Me”. The communis opinio seems to be that Dylan sings Joan Baez here. Gray, Shelton, Heylin… they all feed the thought that is being expressed even more widely on fan forums: Dylan once gave Baez an “Egyptian ring” (whatever that may be) and therefore this song must be about her.
It is, apart from rather thin evidence, a somewhat ludicrous statement. Not only does such a sentimental “interpretation” trivialise the lyrics, it is also difficult to keep the statement upright if you do take it seriously and put the other lines of text next to it. The opening, to begin with:
She’s got everything she needs She’s an artist, she don’t look back She can take the dark out of the nighttime And paint the daytime black
The only words that could apply to Baez here are “she” and “artist”. As for the rest, for the narrative content of the verse lines: it is quite difficult to maintain that they have any relationship with the Queen of Folk. As a certified fighter for the Righteous Cause, Baez is constantly protesting, is at the forefront of demonstrations and protest meetings and lends herself at least once a week to the dernier cri du coeur. No, she is not really a lady who got everything she needs.
Equally inappropriate is the qualification she don’t look back. Three-quarters of Baez’s repertoire consists of reinterpretations of ancient songs, by now she has already written memoirs twice and she is by no means a progressive, avant-garde artist – one of her few good self-written songs is “Diamonds And Rust”, which is reflecting and looking back all the way.
Finally, the paint it black lines can at best be interpreted as a far-fetched, ironic reversal on Baez. Whatever else one may think of her, she is undeniably an angelic appearance with an ethereal, vibrating soprano – more of a light-bringer than an eclipse. Dylan himself would agree on that, as can be deduced from his autobiography Chronicles; “She had the fire,” he says, and “a voice that drove out bad spirits.” The opposite, in short, of a creature that darkens the daylight.
On the other hand, already the title is an ironic reversal, as the second verse shows;
You will start out standing Proud to steal her anything she sees But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole Down upon your knees
… this storyteller cannot claim with a straight face that she belongs to me – on the contrary, he is the slavish part of this dubious relationship, allows himself to be forced to his knees and also reduces himself figuratively by fulfilling her immoral desires, to steal anything she sees.
The contrast hereto, the dominant, unassailable opponent, is bluntly painted in the next verse.
To be continued. Next up: She Belongs To Me part III: Walking in darkness
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan. It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.
We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers. Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics. If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a note saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with around 8000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down