Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word: Part II: Can ya dig this?

by Jochen Markhorst

Part II: Can ya dig this?

Youth is blessed with perception, but still lacks reflection. Which is amply demonstrated by the infamous, embarrassing dialogue between young Dylan and young Baez in Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography (1972). At least, the dialogue as Baez remembers it during the long interview with Scaduto:

“He teased about songs, I got him in some songs, but not the radical ones. It was like “Four Letter Word.” I remember he’d just written it all out on paper, and he said, “Hey, can ya dig this?” I read it off, he hadn’t finished the last verse yet. He said, “Bet ya can’t guess what’s gonna happen,” and I said, “Sure I can, you’re gonna go back to the girl’s house and fuck her.” And he said, “You bitch, how’d you figure that out?” And I said, “‘Cause that’s what you always do.” It didn’t take any genius on my part.”

Baez is 31 when she tells this to Scaduto, reproducing an intimate moment of two 24-year-olds, but neither the reproduction nor the original transcends the painful bleating of the transparent 16-year-old adolescent who tries to mask her insecurity with acted worldly wisdom. “Go back to the girl’s house and fuck her ’cause that’s what you always do”? Neither Dylan’s biography, as far as we know, nor Dylan’s oeuvre gives cause for this misplaced triumphalism and banality. In fact: in Dylan’s troubled-relationship songs, the narrator usually drops off quietly, closing the door to never come back, let alone for a last sexual intercourse (“One Too Many Mornings”, “Mama You Been On My Mind”, “Boots Of Spanish Leather”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe”) and similarly, the songs Dylan writes after “Four-Letter Word” have this scenario more often than not.

In 1987, when she publishes her own autobiography And A Voice To Sing With, Baez is 46. The youthful perception has already been filtered through adult reflection, and now she recounts the same memory a little less deliriously. Still somewhat smug, but at least with a thimbleful of modesty:

“I was always flattered when he would share one of his bizarre images with me, or ask me what a line in a song meant. If I guessed right, he would say, ‘How the fuck did you know?’
Once, at his request and for his amusement, I told him my interpretation of a whole song. He seemed impressed.”

Moreover, Mrs. Baez’s disqualification in Scaduto’s book is particularly inappropriate for a song with the beauty, elegance and melancholy of “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word”. Perhaps she is guided by the most vulgar of the interpretative possibilities of the ambiguous title, by the variant love is just fuck. Possibly. “Fuck” is a four-letter word which, as her memoirs attest, is pretty much at the front of her vocabulary anyway.

The song seems to be a rise-and-fall report of a brief love affair that has left its mark on the narrator. A linear report, chronological with time jumps, like Dylan rarely writes in these mercurial years, balancing on the edge of epic and lyric. Although a story is told in which even a plot can be discerned, the dominant feature is the lyricism, the emotions that the words express – similar to off-category songs like “Visions Of Johanna” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” – although in those songs, a story is mainly suggested rather than actually told.

“Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word”, in any case, already opens with a classic “It all started when…”:

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Café
With a friend of a friend of mine

… the conventional opening of a novella, with neatly sequenced when-what-where-who, an intriguing setting (the Gypsy Café) and a fine, rhythmic introduction of the antagonist, the friend of a friend of mine. And, as befits a Dylan in top form, successful borrowing, in this case I left my mind behind from Dinah Washington’s frivolous, irresistible “New Blowtop Blues” (1952);

When someone turned the lights on me it like to drove me blind
I woke up this morning in Bellevue but I've left my mind behind

… the song from which Dylan perhaps also borrows for “Tombstone Blues” (I’m a gal who blew a fuse, I’ve got those blowtop blues – there aren’t that many songs that make blues rhyme with fuse), and the song with the superb clincher

Well I got high last night, 
   and I took my man to his wife's front door
Yes I got juiced last night 
   and I took my man to his wife's front door
Oh but she was a forty-five-packin' mama, 
   and I ain't goin' to try that no more


It is the B-side of Dinah’s “Trouble In Mind”, by the way – another word combination that will return with Dylan.

Not too far-fetched; Dinah Washington is on a marble pedestal with Dylan. In Theme Time Radio Hour, she appears no less than ten times (even more than George Jones). “Dinah was one of the greatest of the jazz singers,” he says in Episode 30, Thanksgiving Leftovers, introducing “Teach Me Tonight”, “and her throaty sass soulful vocal dips, and end of the lyric growls make this version an invitation that’s almost impossible to resist.” The DJ seems to effortlessly quote half of the song lyrics from memory, as with “Blow Top Blues” (as “New Blowtop Blues” is registered here) and he announces the song with the words he also borrowed for “Four-Letter Word”: “Dinah Washington. Leaving her mind behind, Blow Top Blues” (Season 3, Episode Madness).

After the technically perfect and the, in terms of content, conventional opening lines, the deepening of the antagonist follows, still following a classic narrative structure:

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

… in which the Dylanologists who are so eager to interpret biographically are presented with an unmistakable link to the life of the man named Dylan; it is in this period that Dylan meets his future wife Sara, who does indeed have a little daughter at the time (Maria, who is about two and a half years old when Dylan meets her). The image that emerges of the lady’s character is also in line with descriptions of Sara’s personality in autobiographies of bystanders such as Joan Baez, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson: untouchable, independent, stable.

Still, to appreciate the poetic beauty and narrative power of the words that’s irrelevant, of course. This is the first part of the text with that droning repetition of the “C”, of the fourfold accumulation of the same rhyme, which here has the force of a postponed climax – reinforced by likewise droning, unaltered musical accompaniment under these four lines. More or less in the same way that Rossini likes to use the Trugschluss, the “false ending” in arias, in order to increase the listener’s tension towards the liberating climax.

And, as with Rossini, at Dylan the listener is also rewarded for his patience – I heard that love is just a four-letter word is a wonderful climax – “ya really can’t guess what’s gonna happen.”

To be continued. Next up: Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word part III: Good and evil are but four-letter words, too


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:


What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.   And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

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  • The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
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  1. Excellent writing, I liked it a lot. You have mastered it.
    Strange to think Joan discussing a song about Sara just as Dylan cheated on her with the subject of that song. I never thought of that.

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