Love is just a four-letter wordPart III: Good and evil are but four-letter words, too

Previously in this series…


by Jochen Markhorst

Part III: Good and evil are but four-letter words, too

The eleven poems that make up the liner notes to Another Side Of Bob Dylan, “Some Other Kind Of Songs” (1964) are presumably serious sketches and outlines for the literary side-paths that the songwriter Dylan is considering, in those months. A novel, a play, a book of poetry… rumours, Dylan’s daydreams spoken aloud and half-announcements make publishing houses circle the stern of fishing boat Dylan like gulls. Understandable; those liner notes do indeed contain literary gems and promising leads.

The first poem, for example, “Baby’s Black” (the poems are untitled, but have been given titles for convenience on fan sites and in reviews), is pure Beat Poetry and announces, with the wisdom of hindsight, the rhythmic, sound-oriented barrage of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”;

baby black’s
been had
ain’t bad
chicken shacked
dressed in black
silver monkey
on her back
mammy ma
juiced pa

“For françoise hardy”, the second poem, has the evocative power of an early twentieth-century impressionist poem, Rimbaudesque metaphors (old men clothed in curly mustaches) and the mature, lyrical power of Seurat’s masterpiece Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte;

at the seine’s edge
a giant shadow
of notre dame
seeks t’ grab my foot
sorbonne students
whirl by on thin bicycles
swirlin’ lifelike colors of leather spin
the breeze yawns food

And those are just two examples from the first two poems. Each of the eleven poems has its own magical appeal, enchanting rhythmic, sound-focused finds or provides special aha moments. The ending of Poem 5, “The Jumping”, for example:

just go ahead out there
right out there
do what you say
you’re gonna do
an’ who knows
someone might even
a song
about you

… that will echo on this Another Side Of Bob Dylan in “To Ramona”:

Just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you

The long (18 stanzas, over 1200 words), layered and semi-epic “The Jumping” is another quasi-autobiographical gem, in which the reader is taken along inside the mind of a keenly observing, extremely receptive and widely associative stroller through the Lower East Side, from Manhattan Bridge via Orchard Street to East 14th Street. A half-hour walk in 285 lines of verse and a wealth of quotable, aphoristic musings, with an underlying suspense and pure, impressionistic lyricism.

One of those quotable, aphoristic musings is stanza XIII:

i talk t’ people every day
involved in some scene
good an’ evil are but words
invented by those
that are trapped in scenes

… which also touches scriptwriter Todd Haynes, who – slightly paraphrasing – makes it return in I’m Not There, in the “Jude” sequence, the sequence in which the Dylan-like protagonist is played by Cate Blanchett:

Good and evil were invented
by people trapped in scenes.

… the after-party scene in the sterile, white setting in which the swaggering, half-hallucinating, amphetamine-laden Jude verbally humiliates the Edie Sedgwick-like co-star, and which also inspires the rudderless Jude just before that, when “Edie” has already left, to ponder “I tell you, love and sex are two things that really hang people up”.

References to “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” are not directly inserted by Haynes, but this set of plot, quotes and the triangle setting seems at least to have been inspired by the suggested plot of the second verse:

Outside a rambling storefront window
Cats meowed to the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut, too
To you I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

As far as the narrative is concerned, a key couplet. The poet still follows the structure of a classical novella; after the exposition, the first stanza, the development of the catastrophe now follows, as it should.

This second verse opens cinematically, mirroring the opening words of “One Too Many Mornings” (Down the street the dogs are barkin’ / And the day is a-gettin’ dark), with a camera zooming in from outside through a bedroom or bathroom window. The camera stays with the male protagonist, who is hiding. The suggestion is that he and a friend of a friend of mine have just been almost caught by her husband, the father of her child. Hiding, he hears them arguing, and during that argument she apparently speaks that one-liner that continues to haunt him, the chorus line and title: love is just a four-letter word.

Biographical interpreters can rub their hands a second time: when the man behind the poet first meets his Sara, she is still married to Hans Lownds – and in Howard Sounes’ biography Down The Highway (2001), Peter, Hans’ son from a previous marriage, states: “Bob was the reason (she left Hans).” Perhaps even after a quarrel in which a certain four-letter word fell, but history does not tell.

Unfortunately for those biographical interpreters, the third verse opens with I said goodbye, and the rest of the lyrics make it clear that the relationship with the friend of a friend of mine was a profound, but also a short, transient phase in the protagonist’s love life. That does put a stop to the childish tendency of those biographical interpreters to see Dylan’s lyrics as encrypted reports of his life; after “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” Dylan stayed with Sara for years. At best, the lyrics offer a mosaic of poetic impressions of various life experiences, embellished with fiction – like all great works of art, in fact.

Darryl Holter:


To be continued. Next up: Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word part IV: Tennessee


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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