Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word – Part IV: Tennessee

by Jochen Markhorst


Part IV: Tennessee

 For years, the Wikipedia entry on the song states quite firmly: “The title line Love is just a four-letter word derives from a line in the Tennessee Williams play Camino Real”, but in 2020 it is deleted. Increased insight, presumably. Although completely deleting it may have been a bit too radical; of course it is certainly possible that Dylan derived the phrase from the play – so a formulation like “perhaps Dylan was inspired by…” would have appeased even the stricter academic. In any case, Kilroy’s monologue is Dylanesque:

ESMERALDA: You’re being sarcastic?

KILROY: Nope. Just realistic. All of you gypsies’ daughters have hearts of stone, and I’m not whistling Dixie! But just the night before a man dies, he says, ‘Pretty please – will you let me lift your veil?’ – while the Streetcleaners wait for him right outside the door! – Because to be warm for a little longer is life. And love? – that’s a four-letter word which I sometimes no better than one you see printed on fences by kids playing hooky from school -well – what’s the use of complaining? You gypsies’ daughters have ears that only catch sounds like the snap of a gold cigarette case! Or, pretty please, Baby – we’re going to Acapulco!

Very Dylanesque even. Gypsies’ daughters (“Spanish Harlem Incident”), hearts of stone (“Property Of Jesus”), whistlin’ Dixie (“Man Of Peace”), lift your veil (“Golden Loom”), streetcleaner (“Desolation Row”)… by cutting and pasting from Dylan’s oeuvre, one could reconstruct almost the entire monologue. With “Goin’ To Acapulco” as an encore. And Camino Real contains a multitude of colourful side characters who all seem to move from this Royal Road to Desolation Row later on: the Gypsy, the Baron, Casanova, Don Quixote, Lord Byron and Esmeralda all fit right in, of course, among those birds of paradise over there.

But the Wikipedia editor has probably figured out by now that the phrase is not an isolated one and is used more often. Which makes it a bit more difficult to pinpoint Dylan’s source. The chance that the cinephile Dylan picked it up from the successful film adaptation of Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is at least as big, or bigger actually. The film in which none other than Paul Newman says: “You don’t know what love means. To you it’s another four-letter word,” in the dramatic climax, the final argument with his father. The dialogue echoes in more pop highlights, by the way: “You can’t buy love!” shouts Brick/Newman after Big Daddy’s retort, and from Big Daddy’s line “I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?” is also just a small step to Andrea Bocelli’s dramatic “Vivere”, to Eels’ wonderful “Friendly Ghost” (If you’re scared to die, you better not be scared to live) and, for that matter, to Dylan’s “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” (‘stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die).


Tennessee Williams is a frequent occurrence in Dylan’s oeuvre. Dylan is an outspoken admirer anyway; both in writing, in Chronicles;

“… the wondrous truth of his plays. On paper they always seemed kind of stiff. You had to see them live onstage to get the full freak effect. I’d met Williams once in the early ’60s, and he looked like the genius that he was.”

… and orally, in Theme Time Hour (season 1, Tennessee episode: “one of my favourite playwrights”), in which he quotes Big Daddy’s entire mendacity-monologue with such conviction and passion, that one might well conclude that Cat On A Hot Tin Roof indeed is under Dylan’s skin. Including the love is just a four-letter word quote, that is.

And in Dylan’s songs, as is well known, a Tennessee Williams fragment flares up from time to time. In “Things Have Changed” we hear Blanche DuBois’ “don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through,” from A Streetcar Named Desire, of course, the title that also gets a nod in “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” (“They’re taking a street car named Desire”), and who knows – maybe Dylan was thinking of that too when he came up with the title for Desire.

The love is mutual, as it turns out when Follies Of God is published in 2015. In the autumn of 1982, young aspiring playwright James Grissom writes a letter to his idol Tennessee Williams. His timing is good. The old writer may feel his end is near (Williams dies in February 1983), and may want to take stock of his life; he invites the young Grissom over. Williams talks for hours and days, on walks, at the kitchen table and in the study, and Grissom takes notes. After Williams’s death, the accidental biographer, at the request of the elderly writer, visits all the women of his life, all the old actresses, interviewing them in detail about their experiences with Tennessee Williams. The whole results in a wonderful, justly acclaimed portrait of one of America’s greatest playwrights: Follies Of God.

Grissom publishes parts of it on his blog, and for Dylan fans, his annotation with Tennessee’s comments on Dylan is intriguing. Williams remembers 1970, one of several low points in his life, when he slipped into depression, feared insanity and was committed to an institution. Two songs offer him solace, salvation even. “Let It Be” is one.

“The other song that got me along was “Lay Lady Lay,” by Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan speaks to me. I think we’re on similar paths–of reinvention, of discovery, of telling a story, of trying to matter. I love women, and Dylan is loving–fully and beautifully–some woman in this song. She may become a character for me, still. I thought so then, and I hope so now. There is such a lovely yearning in Dylan’s songs, in his voice, in the construction of his lyrics. For me–for this writer–yearning is walking, crawling, perhaps, towards some understanding, and I can listen to him, and I can lose myself in the journey he has constructed, and I can be saved.”

Touching, poetic words from the then 71-year-old nestor – and miles away from the man who wrote love is just a four-letter word.

To be continued. Next up: Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word part V: Are you going away with no word of farewell?


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?

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