By Tony Attwood
Most reviews of Bob Dylan’s unfinished song (at least in terms of a recording that Dylan was ready to release) “She’s your lover now”, see it as an absolute masterpiece, perhaps the greatest Dylan song never to be formally released (other than as an incomplete song on the outtake albums). You can hear it on Spotify.
It came during a period of high songwriting activity, with the latter part of 1965 giving us
- Like a Rolling Stone
- Tombstone Blues
- Desolation Row
- Can you please crawl out your window?
- Positively Fourth Street
- Highway 61 Revisited
- Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues
- Queen Jane Approximately
- Ballad of a thin man
- I wanna be your lover
- Visions of Johanna
And then in the early part of 1966
- Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
- Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland
- Fourth Time Around
- Leopard skin pill-box hat
- She’s your lover now
- One of us must know (sooner or later)
Some reference works suggest that “One of us must know” came before “She’s your lover now” but as I’ll explain I can’t see how this can be so since a key element of the music in “She’s your lover now” turns up as the verse ending in “One of us must know”. With “One of us” complete, I can’t imagine that Dylan would then have taken a part of that song and incorporated in another song. Rather, with “She’s your lover now” proving troublesome, he took the one particularly interesting and novel musical element from the song (the verse ending) and used as to end the verses of “One of us must know”
Coming back to “Lover” all these years later, it is hard to escape that it is part “Like a Rolling Stone” with extra bounce, part “Can you please crawl out your window” going a trifle easier on the disdain, and a lot of Sooner or Later, but without the compassion that we find in
I didn’t mean to treat you so bad
You shouldn’t take it so personal
I didn’t mean to make you so sad
You just happened to be there, that’s all
But what the song doesn’t have at all, in the recording that is released, is the musical tightness of any of the other successful songs. In fact it is positively loose, to the point of losing its integrity as a song in parts. One can appreciate very much where Dylan was wanting to go, and agree at once that had he got there, it would have been one of the great songs, but it just wouldn’t work out for him.
And with the timetable set out by the demands of the record company and recording studio, rather than the artistic integrity of the musician, it was left for all time. What should have happened is that Dylan should have had more control, fewer gigs to play, fewer demands from the record contract, and all the time he needed to walk away, do something else, and come back. But he didn’t. He controlled what he could – changing the musicians, even recording it as a voice and guitar only piece, but that was as far as he could take it.
Thus the song never made the cut of Blonde on Blonde and we are left with an outtake. According to reports from those who know such things, 19 takes of the song under the title “Just a little glass of water” were tried during a 12 hour period on the afternoon and evening of 21st January 1966, and the early hours of the 22nd.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the chord progression of the main body of the song is identical to Like a Rolling Stone. Now of course chord progressions can be used many times over, but one needs something different above and below the progression to make the song work. “Lover” does have the bounce but the wandering style of the singing doesn’t really give us a differentiation, and the over long lines don’t have that magnificent “Didn’t you?” hook of Rolling Stone.
Nor does the song have the incredible start that Rolling Stone has. Of course you can’t write “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime” each time you want to write a new song, any more than you can come up with multiples of “Their selling postcards of the hanging” (probably one of the most powerful opening lines of all time), but to me (and as ever, it’s just me)…
The pawnbroker roared
Also, so, so did the landlord
The scene was so crazy, wasn’t it?
doesn’t cut it as a set of lyrics to start such a monumental piece. Indeed “Wasn’t it?” sounds very much like a cut back to Rolling Stone and its “didn’t you?” But “didn’t you adds to the meaning. “Wasn’t it?” is just “wasn’t it?”
Furthermore, what Rolling Stone and Desolation Row each do at the start is set the scene without making us ponder and consider. We are hit by the power of each, and yes indeed we want to know more, but the image of where the song is, is clear.
In Rolling Stone the image is of the girl strutting along a New York street in her finest, dropping her odd coins into the hands of the junkies and the beggars on the sidewalk. Likewise, when I first heard Desolation Row, I didn’t know that the scene Dylan described was real, or even that it was a racist scene, but I was caught at once by the horror that such a thing might happen.
So instantly in each case I imagined the scene on first hearing, and that is what brilliant songs of this type always do. They give us the powerful, powerful, overwhelming opening image.
This opening image can of course just be a feeling (“You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend”) but out of that clarity of feeling the image of the man berating the woman is clear.
And it is not that Dylan wasn’t familiar with this territory. I have mentioned elsewhere that some of Dylan’s attempts at love songs have faltered a little because he wrote comparatively fewer love songs than anything else, and when he suddenly came to write one it seems sometimes that the lack of practice tells.
But here, writing about the fall out from an affair, chronicling the interactions of the man, his past lover and her new lover, with the singer talking to one then the other, we are on Dylan’s home soil. Yes it is an incredibly complicated thing to do within the confines of popular music formats, but Dylan is the master of that.
And the song that Heylin, the ex-poet laureate, myself and goodness knows how many other people have ranked as Dylan’s sublime and supreme achievement (Visions of Johanna), does this to perfection with Johanna, Louise and Little Boy Lost paraded in front of his microscope and long distance lens for us to get the full picture of who is who and what is what.
So why not here? Why could Dylan not make the recording he wanted? I think the opening lines, as well as being not up to the extraordinary standards set in Desolation Row etc, are also not up to the standard of “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.” It is simply too graphic, while at the same time too unfamiliar, and in short, as a bit of poetry that even after one line leaves us begging for more, it doesn’t work.
In Visions, Desolation Row and Rolling Stone, we have different openers, but they drag us forward. Visions (rather oddly given the song’s name) has an opening shrouded in mist. But we take to it at once because most of us have been there – lying awake at night hearing the sounds we don’t want to hear, when all we want beyond everything else is to fall asleep and be peaceful.
The pawnbroker roared
Also, so, so did the landlord
The scene was so crazy, wasn’t it?
Both were so glad
To watch me destroy what I had
Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?
The links with Rolling Stone in these opening lines above are so clear – overwhelmingly so with the rhetorical questions.
Why didn’t you just leave me if you didn’t want to stay?
Why’d you have to treat me so bad?
Did it have to be that way?
This is the part of the song where we have the music from Sooner or Later, and the lyrics too were recycled for that song or shortly after into that song, depending on which chronology you accept. The opening line of Sooner or Later (“I didn’t mean to treat you so bad”) is just a simple reverse of the second line of “Lover” but the innocuous and unimportant, “Did it have to be that way” suddenly becomes much more important, and in songwriting terms much more successful…
When I saw you say “goodbye” to your friend and smile
I thought that it was well understood
That you’d be comin’ back in a little while
I didn’t know that you were sayin’ “goodbye” for good
Again the image is clear, whereas in “Lover” it is very confused. Yes, Dylan can of course do “confused” very well indeed, as in “Visions,” but there the mists shade out a real world that we can recognise (I personally, am always transported back to the grotty room I rented in my first year away from home as a student in Brighton – Dylan captures that perfectly, and I have heard many other people talk of the image they see in those opening lines).
So with this song we have problems for although the notion of one person forgetting to say something and then expecting the other to remember what it was, is interesting, intriguing and probably reminds us of someone we know, but musically it really doesn’t work.
Likewise the image of the iron chain hits us suddenly, out of context, in a way that nothing is out of context in Visions, Rolling Stone, Desolation Row or One of us must know.
In short, for me, there is no connectivity with the song, the images are, just images. The felony room suddenly appears, as does the friend in the cowboy hat – and I am left with the feeling that Dylan was trying to do an abstract piece, but somehow the wrong bits of reality keep breaking through.
As an image a line like “Yes, you, you just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach?” is indeed evocative and interesting, but where does it fit in with everything else? Dylan can do songs where strange characters appear out of nowhere, and where in a strange way everything grows into some sort of nightmarish sense – but there is an art to that, and here the art seems to slip.
The notion, “why must everybody bow” thrown in after “And her postcards of Billy the Kid” looks and feels like it was written just to rhyme with “You’re her lover now.” And when line start to sound as if they are only there to rhyme, then normally you know the poet was in trouble.
Even the last “lost” verse (Now your eyes cry wolf…) doesn’t appear to resolve anything much – at least not much for me.
As reviewer Ron Chester points out in a long overview of the song, most of the lyric changes through various versions of the song are, “minor corrections to a word here and there, but often with the result of making the lyrics more concise, or more direct.”
I’d agree with that, which means that in effect Dylan did believe he had a complete workable song here, ready to roll. He wasn’t trying to restructure it in the revisions, just make minor amends. “Other changes may have been made to produce a better rhythm while singing the song,” and yes, maybe, but…
What I think was going on was that Dylan realised he had evolved a whole new song form in the songs of disdain, and he wanted to get another song from that genre that he had developed. But what he found in this song was that it made its own demands on the composer, and couldn’t be created as easily or as readily as he suspected was possible.
And when we see “Why’d you wanna hurt me so bad?” mutate into “Why’d you have to treat me so bad?” it makes me think that this was more and more a set of stepping stones into “Sooner or Later.”
Indeed I am not at all sure that Dylan had a full grasp of where this was going. In the last verse the first version we get, “My voice is really warm”, which later becomes”Her voice is really warm”. One word changed, but a whole difference in meaning. That doesn’t seem like a completely resolved atmosphere, let alone story.
Now to say that Dylan didn’t have a full grasp of where this was going is not to criticise Dylan’s songwriting skills, and if you have read much of the rest of this site, you’ll know how highly I rate Dylan. But rather it is to say that he was playing, exploring, experimenting like all artists have done, trying to find a way to take an unfinished work to completion. But it just wouldn’t happen, and I think this is because it was a lot less near completion than Dylan felt when doing the recordings.
This unresolved song is, of course, superior to most of the work that most songwriters could produce, but it is not at the level that Dylan was operating at around this time. And so it was left. I think he knew what he wanted to say, he knew what the song was to be, but he couldn’t quite get it there. An experience that every artist has, and why quite often for lovers of visual art, poking around in the basement of galleries looking at the sketches of the artist exhibited above, can often be as rewarding as seeing the main exhibition.
Chester asks the question many have asked before and since, “How could such a great song have remained in obscurity for so long? Dylan spent nine hours in the studio perfecting the song, but scrapped it in the end, not releasing it for another twenty-five years. What’s going on here?”
Dylan is by no means the only artist who has set aside works that subsequent critics feel are extremely worthy while presenting to the outside world works that are thought to be of less value. Such a situation arises from the fact that the artist, and only the artist, knows (in an emotional, not a logical sense) where the work should have been, and what it should have become. So although it might seem to be on the road to being a masterpiece, or even (as many feel with Blind Willie McTell) already a masterpiece, the artist disagrees, knowing it could have been more. He might then abandon it (as with She’s Your Lover Now) knowing that he is not realising the vision, and it is slipping further away than ever, or because he feels that there is just a little spot more to do. Either way he stops. And then events move on.
Chester adds, “Could it be that the recording session was a sufficiently cathartic experience that it had at least temporarily relieved Dylan of some of the pain of this relationship? Perhaps he had gotten it all out, at least for the time being. And perhaps he decided it was just too personal and too revealing to be put onto the album.”
Possibly, and just as possibly, it was so painful he couldn’t put any more effort into it. Or maybe he didn’t think it was worth it. Without his own analysis, we can’t say. All I can offer is the notion that the song has potential, but is, I think, further from being finished than Dylan, working to a schedule to get an album produced, fully appreciated at the time.
Now that may sound ludicrously pompous, but my point is that Dylan has himself on occasion admitted his judgement isn’t always right, and the fact is that as anyone who has seen Dylan perform many times knows, sometimes his ability to judge what makes good music isn’t right.
On the other hand I recall hearing Dylan doing Desolation Row as a dance song on one tour, and it was an incredible, amazing, unexpected experience. Who could have imagined it other than Dylan? But I can also remember a number of occasions where Dylan performed and almost every song sounded like every other song.
In the end I hear this song as a step too far. He had done surreal, he had done vindictive, he had done lost love, he had done disdain, and here he brought them all together and tried to make new new song using a hammer to nail all the elements together. And it didn’t work.
I’m pretty much out on my own not valuing this as a masterpiece, but when you look at the list of the rest of the songs he wrote during 1966 it doesn’t seem too much of a loss. At least not to me. And after all, we did get One of us must know, instead.