“I’m your teenage prayer”. What are Bob Dylan and the guys playing at?

By Tony Attwood

I have often talked with friends about the fact that none of us knows what goes on in the parts of the world around us which are out of our normal vision.  You might have an idea of what an orchestral rehearsal is like, or what a crime scene investigation is like, from seeing something on TV, but this is undoubtedly sanitised and not what it is really like.  Not least because you don’t see the bits in-between the action.

But everywhere people who share an enthusiasm get together to do whatever it is they enjoy doing, and they don’t bother to tell the rest of the world about it – or if they do, they never tell the true story because in effect you have to be there to appreciate it.

I have taken friends and family to football (“soccer”) matches in stadia large and small and despite having seen it on TV they are bemused, amazed, overwhelmed at the noise, passion, anger, laughter, regulations, language, tribal rituals etc.

I have seen people who have never been to a jive dancing club come in and just stand at the door with their mouths open.  They might have watched “Strictly” (a very popular BBC TV dance programme) but nothing prepares them for what we do.  The way we get up close, know what each other is doing, and then nonchalantly say “thanks” and move on to another partner…

If you have never been out in the open sea in a yacht, if you’ve never been on a big political protest march or rally, if you’ve never worked in the theatre, if you’ve never collected money for a charity… you just can’t imagine what it is really like.

There are many such examples that could be given, but I will stop here because I can now get to my point about this song.  If you have never played in a band that is not specifically rehearsing for a live performance, but instead is just kicking ideas around and having fun, you won’t know what it is like, and may well find it hard to understand why the guys spent so many hours larking about with silly songs like “I’m your teenage prayer”.

Why would Bob write down all these lyrics, and evolve this tune and set of three different chord sequences JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT?

It’s a bit like me going jiving several nights a week.  I’ve no thought of being a professional dancer, I am way too old anyway, but I am there because I meet my friends and because it is fun.  And likewise, in my years playing in unsuccessful semi-pro bands we had evenings where we played around like this, just because we could and because it was fun.   Some of our friends were in the pub, some were playing football (soccer), some were chatting up members of the opposite sex.  One guy spent his time putting together radios from spare parts.  Just because it was fun.

So when I read the comment that, “If the song or these sessions were really just a goof, these guys wouldn’t have kept trying to build a tune instead of enjoying the laugh,” I have to disagree profoundly.

Think of it, perhaps, like an alternative to spending an evening with friends down the pub or in a bar.  People do it for the friendship, for the chatter, to get out of the house, to pass the time, but not because it is going to lead somewhere.  They do it because this is their life.

So it is here.  It is for itself, not because it is going somewhere.

This song is based around three commonplace chord sequences from 1950s doo-wap.  The verse starts out with

C, Am, F, G

an absolute classic progression.

Then the first change

C, C7, F, D7

And then the middle 8 (bridge)

F, D7, C, C7, F, D7, G…

These are classic moves which anyone familiar with 1950s music would know and be able to play without even thinking – no rehearsing necessary.  You hear the first change and then you know, as a musician, exactly where it is going.

There is a real glory to be had by playing along on such occasions, seeing where the music goes, and… larking about, which is what happens here, as Richard Manuel (I believe) throws in his own very dubious sounding extra lines with their highly improper suggestions of an older man approaching a very much younger woman.

That of course is not funny, although it was a lot less not funny (if you see what I mean) when it was recorded.  But the joke (if you find it amusing) is entirely in the way the lines are spoken by the second voice.  What is being suggested by the second voice is unacceptable.  What is suggested by Dylan’s singing is that he’s a wannabe kid at the small town club, up on stage, hoping that the local girls will find him attractive.

As the haiku that was created around it says

I’m your teenage prayer,
Just the kind of boyfriend that
You always wanted.

That’s Dylan’s version. The second voice subverts it all and becomes what we would have called in my youth the sound of “a dirty old man”.  (I’m not sure if the meaning of that phrase translates into American, but its the best I can do).

Normally of course such larking around is never recorded and never kept but this is a fun record of Dylan at this time having fun with his musician pals.

Take a look and when it’s cloudy all the time
All you gotta do is say you’re mine
I come runnin’ anywhere
Take a look at me baby
I’m your teenage prayer

Take a look at me baby
I’m your teenage dream
Take a look at me baby
I’m your teenage dream
(Yes and I’m a dream)

There is nothing here but the guys passing the time of day, but its good that they captured what they did and how they did it.  Like having a chance to watch a great actor in early rehearsals, this is a most valuable artefact.

What is on the site

1: Over 390 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



  1. Some context might help. “I’m Your Teenage Prayer” is an answer to this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQwrSH3yXYM

    I think this is one of Dylan’s most hilarious moments. This band knows they sound like drunken losers, they know this song wouldn’t be getting them anywhere with the ladies, and that’s very much the joke. Underneath is a potentially earnest song, but Dylan isn’t invested in that. Instead he is serving that earnestness to his backup singer as a comic foil, allowing him to play up sounding like a creep, and to meddle with the words in any way he can. They are making fun of their own song as they write it. “I’m a teenage pear!”

    This long-awaited Columbia release is essential of course, yet it has frustrations. The tracks are not arranged in their recorded order. When you experience the fabulous 4-disc bootleg “A Tree With Roots,” there is a logical flow to events. First the folksy covers at Dylan’s house, then a session or two of drunken wildness, then they pick themselves up and start getting serious on the songwriting– banging out the classics that made the sessions legendary.

    This release’s other big mistake is that it cuts the first minute from “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg.” The bootleggers have it in full, so why would Columbia cut it? Dylan is doing a straightforward rendition of “See You, Alligator,” his backup replaces the word with Allen Ginsberg, and Dylan BUSTS UP, without dropping the song. He rolls with it, and morphs it into something else. That informs the mood for “Teenage Prayer,” which shows up just a few tracks later. They are having fun, sponteneously mucking around. And that kind of fun doesn’t make it into recorded music very often. I think the zany songs are a treasure.

  2. I always thought the Richard Manuel’s lines (or RR?) tried to imitate an adolescent high in testosterone, a horny teenager. I find this song very funny.

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