Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word: Part IX: I sit and watch the children play

Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word (1965) – the final part

by Jochen Markhorst

Part IX: I sit and watch the children play

 The follow-up to “As Tears Go By” is a failure. Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” is pretty atrocious, and the performer herself is the first to agree wholeheartedly: “A total disaster. All I remember about that session was how dreary I sounded.” Despite Faithfull’s sudden popularity and her closeness to the Stones, the single doesn’t even make it to the bottom of the charts; it’s really a rather gruesome version. Like a real Lady, by the way, she blames the debacle entirely on herself:

“I did my best to blame Andrew and Decca for “Blowing in the Wind” but it was my own doing entirely. Poor Andrew, it wasn’t his fault at all. Somebody must have said to him, “Why don’t you just let Marianne do the sort of thing she’d like to do?” I can just see it. And, of course, I worshipped Bob Dylan. Andrew went against his better judgement and it was a fiasco.”

Fortunately, she recovers immediately after this flop – the three following singles (Jackie DeShannon’s “Come And Stay With Me”, the Tennessee Williams-inspired “This Little Bird” and the charmingly aged “Summer Nights”) all make the Top 10. But “As Tears Go By” is and remains her signature song.

It is a beautiful song, of course. And remarkably, the first song written by Jagger and Richards. In her memoirs (Faithfull, An Autobiography, 1994), Faithfull already tells the urban legend-like story of manager Andrew Loog Oldham locking the Glimmer Twins in the kitchen with the order that they may not come out again until they have written a song, and sixteen years later Keith Richards indeed confirms that story in his life story, in Life (2010):

“The famous day when Andrew locked us in a kitchen up in Willesden and said, “Come out with a song”–that did happen. Why Andrew put Mick and me together as songwriters and not Mick and Brian, or me and Brian, I don’t know. It turned out that Brian couldn’t write songs, but Andrew didn’t know that then. I guess it’s because Mick and I were hanging out together at the time. Andrew puts it this way: “I worked on the assumption that if Mick could write postcards to Chrissie Shrimpton, and Keith could play a guitar, then they could write songs.” We spent the whole night in that goddamn kitchen.”

La Faithfull “was never that crazy about” the song but is still amazed that two twenty-year-old boys could create such lyrics, “about a woman looking back nostalgically on her life”.

When Faithfull for days hangs around in Dylan’s crowded hotel suite at the beginning of May ’65, The Beatles have gone straight to number one with “Ticket To Ride”, Donovan’s “Catch The Wind” and The Stones’ “The Last Time” are at six and seven, and her biggest hit “Come And Stay With Me” is still high on the charts. It’s her third single and her LP has just been out for three weeks, but “As Tears Go By” already is the Marianne Faithfull song, and she can’t escape it in the hotel suite either. Not to her displeasure, by the way, as her cheerful, witty recollection of it shows:

“At one point Baez, whom I worshipped, picked up a guitar and began to sing “As Tears Go By.” I’ve never heard it sound better, even by whatsisname. It quite blew me away. Very unlike my version! “As Tears Go By” as a folk song (it sounded like one of her records). When sung like that, the meaning is flopped: instead of being a subjective thought, the words become beautiful artefacts. Which is what folk interpreters do as a rule.”

“Never Better” is a gallant overstatement, and its beauty is partly due to Faithfull’s and Baez’s surprisingly beautiful, spontaneous singing together, but still, it’s true: it’s a mesmerising minute in which Mrs. Baez’s Olympic talent is reaffirmed once again.

Of more musical historical interest is La Baez’s action of just before or just after this moment. From the seating arrangement and the clothing of the ladies, we can deduce that this is the playtime in which Baez saves “Love Is A Four-Letter Word” from the dustbin of Dylan’s overflowing creativity. The Joan Baez Appreciation Society doesn’t have too many rabid Dylan fans, but even the Baez bashers will have to give her credit for this: without her, this song of the outer category would have sunk into the Waters of Oblivion.

After that hotel room scene in May ’65 at the Savoy Hotel in London, it takes quite a long time before the song really comes to the surface. The film is released two years later, in May 1967, including that one minute with that one verse that Baez sings and the ensuing discussion about whether or not to finish the song. Baez’s promise (“If you finish it, I’ll sing it on a record”) is not an empty promise, but it does take almost another two years for it to be fulfilled – Baez’s recording takes place in September ’68, the Dylan debut album Any Day Now hits American shops in December, Europe’s in January ’69. The single “Love Is A Four-Letter Word” b/w “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is released in March 1969. Assuming that Dylan first plays the song to Baez in November 1964, at her home in Carmel Valley, there are over four years between conception and birth.

The single has limited success; the top position is #86, the album reaches #30. But the song has a long run; it becomes one of Baez’s signature songs, audiences keep asking for it, it is selected for compilation albums, is on her live album From Every Stage (1975, with five Dylan songs, including her interpretation of “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts”) and she continues to play the song well into the twenty-first century (in November 2018, during her Fare Thee Well Tour, it is the opening song in Portland, for example).

Strangely enough, not too many artists are venturing into a cover. Perhaps the song is too attached to Baez; comparable to the reluctance of artists to cover “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or, for example, “Waterloo Sunset” or “Like A Rolling Stone” – songs of which the definitive version already exists, and which are almost impossible to separate from the original. The title itself inspires – usually saltless – paraphrases (“Hate Is A Four-Letter Word”, for instance, and “Love Is More Than A Four-Letter Word”), but real covers… no, hardly any. About four or five. One stands out.

Joy Of Cooking is a relatively unknown hippie band from California in the late 60s, early 70s, that released three nice records with dated sounding, but definitely attractive music. No Dylan songs. Although… “Don’t The Moon Look Fat And Lonesome” from 1972 is a pleasantly rocking song that opens with the words “Don’t the moon fat and lonesome, shining through the trees”; almost literally the opening of “It Takes A Lot To Laugh”.

But in 2007, the beautiful, noteworthy cover of “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” surfaces on a collection of unreleased recordings 1968-1972 (Back To Your Heart). Superb Westcoast harmonies in a The Mamas & The Papas-like vocals arrangement.

Seems like only yesterday. 




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:


122 outstandingly wonderful covers of Bob Dylan songs

Beautiful Obscurity: the songs considered so far



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