Dylan: the lyrics and the music – Can you please crawl out your window


By Tony Attwood

As far as the official Dylan site shows, this song was played lived just once (1 October 1965) and appeared first as a single and then 20 years later on Biograph.

It has always felt to me as one of the most, if not the most, awkward of Dylan songs – a song for which the overwhelming emotion seems to be nastiness.   And not necessarily wanting to focus on that, I have just had a look around to see if I could find some new insights into the piece.   Hence a search on the computer for “Meaning of please crawl out your window” on Google, only to find my review on this site (published in 2013 and I notice twice updated thereafter) comes out on top.   That may not be what happens on your computer of course, but it does suggest other people struggle as much as I did to explain this song.

And I’m mentioning this point because the re-write of this song gives us a perfect example of just how the music can change the meaning of song.   Here is the version that really generates a reflective song that says, just get away from this guy’s influence…  As you can see it is take 17 – which is a very high number of takes for a musician who at the time was famed for getting each song down in one or two takes.

And now below we have the single version

Now the history of the development of the song is covered excellently by Jochen in his review, but here I want to touch a little more on the musical difference between these two versions.

Jochen points out that Dylan’s concern was that the initial version sounded too much like “Like a Rolling Stone” and so needs redevelopment, and that is what it gets.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the music in the original version because it seems in keeping with the notion of a person who on the surface can seem a very decent individual, but who underneath is controlling and nasty.  But there had at the time been talk of several Dylan songs sounding too much like earlier compositions, and so I guess Dylan’s desire to be traveling in all directions at once was a dominant factor here.  And of course, by now he was officially the man in charge, so what he says goes.  The music changes.

What we get with the final, released version, is music that is very much in keeping with the horrible edginess of a relationship in which one person wants to control another.  Here’s the opening, just in case you can’t call it to mind immediately:

He sits in your room, his tomb, with a fist full of tacks
Preoccupied with his vengeance
Cursing the dead that can’t answer him back
I’m sure that he has no intentions
Of looking your way, unless it’s to say
That he needs you to test his inventions

And all that is before we get to the most troubling title line, “Can you please crawl out your window?”

But if we listen to the Cutting Edge version, the music is gentle, almost serene.  There is a twinkly side to it as well, an effect delivered by the celesta – a keyboard instrument which is played like a piano but in which the mechanism is that of the glockenspiel.  (I just wonder how they came to use that instrument – they are not that common – did the studio just happen to have one lying around?  It seems such an unlikely instrument.)

And the point is that the celesta gives a twinkly sound which is not related to the lyrics, and as a result the whole atmosphere of the song loses its edge.

Thus lines such as “Use your arms and legs it won’t ruin you” which are really quite insulting if taken on their own, have far less meaning and impact.   As for lines such as
“With his businesslike anger and his bloodhounds that kneel, If he needs a third eye he just grows it” – the contrast between the music in this version and the lyrics, is so profound that all we can do is focus on one or the other, or take in the whole sound and feel very uneasy.

So what we have is a situation in which the melody and lyrics have not changed but the accompaniment has changed between the two versions.  And yet as a result the entire meaning of the song has changed.

Of course with the Cutting Edge version we can still focus on the lyrics and find them pretty disturbing throughout, from the childishness of ,”He just needs you to talk or to hand him his chalk Or pick it up after he throws it” through to the horrors of deceit, control, appalling associates, and denigration of women all of which are packed into four lines

While his genocide fools and his friends rearrange
Their religion of the little tin women
That backs up their views but your face is so bruised
Come on out the dark is beginning

And in that regard that version works because of the contrast: it says that behind the doors of normality the most appalling crimes are taking place by people whose one desire is to control.

What happens in the version released as a single is that the very unusual and unexpected chord sequence becomes more emphasized and the accompaniment is now much more in tune with the words.  So we have a straight image of the awfulness of the attitude that is portrayed here, but with less emphasis on the fact that it is covered up by the veil of normality.

In effect, the normality of the original musical accompaniment stops us from focusing so much on the horrors within the meaning of the lyrics.   And thus, it is for me a perfect example of just how important is the way the music is written.  It can change our entire perception of what the words mean.

By giving us the released version of the song Dylan made the lyrics and music portray the same message, and clearly it was a message that many in the record buying public did not want.  It was too much edginess all at once.  Too brutal, too honest, and possibly for some, far too close to home.   We were not yet ready for the pop song as a portrayal of control and abusiveness.   Love, lost love and dance: that is what pop deals with.

Or so we are told.

The lyrics and the music series…

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