Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word (1965): 1 – Anything goes

by Jochen Markhorst


Part I: Anything Goes

In February 1981, a touchingly young Elvis Costello performs on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, the second time Costello is on American television. He plays two songs (beautiful renditions of “New Lace Sleeves” and “Watch Your Step”) and in between has a rather extensive, relaxed and light-hearted conversation with Tom Snyder. For all his corniness, Snyder has a disarming charm and Costello is correspondingly charming and talkative. Towards the end of the interview, the presenter asks, “Who are your heroes? Do you have songwriters that are heroes to you?” The young Brit struggles with the question:

“Not ‘heroes’, that’s a really… I remember when they did a program called Heroes Of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Well, that’s a contradiction of terms, as far as I am concerned. I’ve got a lot a people I admire, some current people, and some people you might not expect. I admire people like Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart as lyricists, and I really like Hank Williams.”

Tom Snyder doesn’t seem too surprised. But he may have a déjà-vu. Sixteen years ago, he saw and heard a predecessor of Costello’s with a predecessor of his say virtually the same thing:

Dylan: I started writing songs after I heard Hank Williams.
Crane: Hank Williams? Did he really inspire you?
Dylan: Yeah.
Crane: “Cold Cold Heart”? “Jambalaya?” Things like that?
Dylan: Yeah. Cole Porter.
Crane: Cole Porter??
Dylan: Yeah.
Crane: Now you’re putting me on!
Dylan: No. [audience laughter].
Crane: Yeah, you are!
Dylan: No, I’m not!

Dylan is a guest of the bad boy of late-night television, Les Crane. It is 17 February 1965, one year after Crane caused a stir by interviewing the openly gay Randy Wicker, six months after he welcomed the Rolling Stones for their American television debut, and one and a half months after Malcolm X was a guest. It is a special broadcast, of which unfortunately only the audio tape has survived. Dylan is the chief guest, opening with two songs, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “It’s Alright, Ma”, accompanied – unusually – by a guitarist (Bruce Langhorne, Mr. Tambourine Man himself), and then remains on stage for the rest of the broadcast. The conversation with Crane is light-hearted and not too serious, with Crane soon believing that Dylan is only talking nonsense. Both he and the studio audience think that Dylan is making a funny joke when he tells that he has written a song called “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Dylan recorded the song a month before, the single will be in the shops in three weeks).

Just as funny, apparently, is Dylan’s revelation that Hank Williams and Cole Porter inspired him to become a songwriter. It is 1965, Dylan has already shaken off his folk feathers, appears for the first time not in jeans and that eternal suede jacket, but in a suit (no sunglasses yet), and the other performances, of “I Don’t Believe You” and “It Ain’t Me Babe”, already sound suspiciously like rock ‘n’ roll. In short, Dylan is cool. And Hank Williams and Cole Porter are totally uncool, so undoubtedly, that was another tongue-in-cheek wisecrack from this New Yorker hipcat.

By now we know that Dylan’s love and admiration for both Hank Williams and Cole Porter, and the American Songbook at all, are deep and sincere. He admires the veracity of the former, and the latter’s linguistic virtuosity and poetic frivolity, freakish rhymes and wild enjambments as in “Anything Goes”:

Why, nobody will oppose!
When every night
The set that's smart
Is intruding in nudist parties in studios
Anything goes

… which on paper, through its layout, conceals the frenzied rhyming:

Why, nobody will oppose!
When every night The set that's smart Is in-
truding in nudist parties in
Anything goes

Delightful rampages, which Dylan will try to emulate in these mercurial years. Like in “I Want You”, for example;

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

The throwaway (or rather, lost classic) “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” doesn’t show such excesses, but “Anything Goes” seems to have given a push all the same:

But now, God knows
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose,
Anything goes


When Porter writes his song, in 1934, the term four-letter word has only existed for about ten years, and it quickly made its way into the vocabulary of newspapers in particular. To avoid, of course, having to quote profane language like fuck, cunt and shit. Humorous, ironic use of the term, for instance to refer to work or golf, is obvious, and thus flourishes. Dylan’s use is nevertheless still quite fresh; the possibility of understanding the song’s title and recurring refrain line as love is just fuck, gives a perhaps somewhat banal, but still an extra layer to the pun.

In terms of rhyme finds, the song may not have much to offer, but technically the lyrics are every bit as ambitious as a Cole Porter song. More ambitious even; the nine stanza lines are actually ten-line stanzas in the recital, with the rhyme scheme abab-cccc-dd, thanks to Porter-like enjambment:

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Café
With a friend of a friend of mine
She sat with a baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
A phrase in connection first with she I heard
That love is just a four letter word

… where the last two lines are actually three lines:

A phrase in connection first with she
I heard
That love is just a four letter word

That shift, to preserve that special rhyme scheme abab-cccc-dd, can be applied to each of the six known stanzas. It does, in passing, explain the grammatical peculiarity “with she” – the poet Dylan insists on having the fourth “C” in his rhyme scheme. Very special; unique in the art of song, and you won’t find this structure in world literature either. At most in a single Medieval Christian hymn, and Thomas Hardy’s “A Sheep Fair” comes close, but that’s about it.

The four C’s are of course a deterrent for the ambitious poet. It soon turns into whining or droning, and it does require quite some elocution to avoid that. If it works out well, this succession of identical rhymes can have a comic effect, as in Porter’s “Anything Goes”;

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today
And black's white today
And day's night today
When most guys today
That women prize today
Are just silly gigolos

Or else a reinforcing effect. Italian poets from the thirteenth century were rather fond of the ottava rima and chose the rhyme scheme abab-cccc mainly to suggest a kind of “repetition is the power of the message”. Because of the repetitive rhyme, the message – for instance, that the lady in question is so beautiful – gains in persuasiveness. That seems to come close to what Dylan achieves in “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word”, as, for example, in the third verse:

Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more
Absurd than that love is just a four letter word

… in which the helpless confusion of the protagonist is indeed reinforced by the accumulation of similar rhyming sounds.

None of this sheds any light on why Dylan rejects the song so unlovingly and why – to Joan Baez in Dont Look Back – he talks about the song in such a downright hostile and condescending way.

To be continued. Next up: Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word part II: Can ya dig this?


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:


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  1. The traditional following song is featured in the Thomas Hardy-based movie “Far From The Madding Crowd”:

    On the banks of Alan water
    When the winter snow fell fast
    There I saw the miller’s daughter
    Chilling blew the blast

    ‘Tis not unlike the following song:

    If you go when the the snowflakes fall
    When the rivers freeze, and summer ends
    Please see for me she’s wearing a coat so warm
    To keep her from the howling wind

  2. *corrections:
    ….Allan water –
    … the traditional song influences Thomas Hardy’s novel and the movie based thereon “Far From The Madding Crowd”

  3. Fairest of them all
    For his bride a soldier sought her
    And a winning tongue had he
    (On The Banks Of Allan Water ~ traditional/Lewis)

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