Definitively Van Gough: Bob Dylan, definitely not finished

by Tony Attwood

We’ve got four titles circulating for this song

  • Definitively Van Gough,
  • Definitely Van Gough
  • Spuriously Seventeen Windows.
  • Positively Van Gough

The suggestion in some quarters is that this is a song Dylan had been working on it for some time before it was recorded in the Denver hotel room at 3am, rather than it being one of those spur of the moment events where a song simply comes pouring out.  The reason behind this is train of thought is the sophistication of the rhymes which it is argued, are hard to create as one goes along.  I’m not too sure of this argument.

On the other hand there are numerous changes in the chord structure which suggest that although there has been some working out of the lyrics of the song thus far, much of the music remains uncertain.  As ever it is Eyolf Østrem who unravels this pointing out that the position of the capo is moved early on, as part of what he classifies as six “takes” of the song.

  1. Capo 2nd fret, first verse only. Breaks off and moves the capo to the 4th fret.
  2. Capo 4th fret. The most complete version. Breaks off at the beginning of the fifth verse.
  3. Change of rhythm, from triple to duple time. Parts of fifth verse only.
  4. Capo 2nd fret again. Mostly working out the “lead guitar part” (“Very funky. Ah, it’s not very funky, it’s very sweet”)…   Contains the whole fifth verse. Breaks off after a long stretch with C-Csus4 doodling (“Oh, this is a great part here”)
  5. “This is the part about Camilla. This is all about Camilla.” First half of the sixth verse.
  6. More fooling around with the “lead guitar part”. Also back in triple time, mostly, and back in the fifth verse again. (Could this actually be “Take 4”?)

I think overall the most likely scenario for me is that some of the words are written in a notebook with lots of crossings out, and Dylan has a clear idea of  the music – but he is still experimenting with it, and/or has forgotten a few of his earlier decisions about the way in which the chords will change.

For example line five in verse one (“She’d say that especially when it was raining”) has the accompaniment of F and C.   In verse two line five “Have you ever seen his naked calf bleed?” has the accompaniment Am and Em.  Each gives a very different effect.

Such chord changes continue through the piece – and of course this might be exactly what Dylan intended, but if so it is an extremely unusual approach for him.  Normally he has a chord sequence and sticks to it.  He might extend the number of lines (as for example in the last verse of “Visions of Johanna”) but the changing of the chord sequence is rare.  In fact I am struggling to think of an example.

What also makes it seem more immediate and less polished is the fact that the images created fall over each other without really having a clear story.  Again “Visions” doesn’t have a complete story, but a set of, well, “visions”.  However those visions and images seem much more polished and coherent than here.  So if the lyrics have been evolving for a while, I suspect there was still quite a way to go with the music and the lyrics.

This is not to say that the lyrics are second rate – not at all.  It is more that judging from what else Dylan was doing around this time – it seems likely that the song could be worked on further before completion, and that what we had here was the equivalent to an early sketch.

It also seems that the song was written after Blonde on Blonde had been completed and so could be considered the start of the next album, following the themes and styles evolving through “Bringing it all back home”, “Highway 61” and “Blonde” itself, except of course that events got in the way and that didn’t happen.

Certainly such evidence as there is, is that Dylan was still in the habit of sitting up into the early hours, or maybe all night, playing with the ideas of songs.  Thus suggesting that this was by no means an isolated experiment in the creation of new music.

The actor Rosemary Garrett who was at one of these occasions spoke of the ideas for the images within the song already have been created and are then woven together with the music being added to fit these ideas and that seems a reasonable report, although with the caveat that the images were still open to change.

As you may have noticed, if you are a regular reader, I am regularly criticised for not hearing the songs correctly when there is no official version provided so rather than me try and put the lyrics together I am drawing from other sources

When I’d ask why the painting was deadly
Nobody could pick up my sign
‘Cept for the cook, she was always friendly
But she’d only ask, “What’s on your mind?”
She’d say that especially when it was raining
I’d say “Oh, I don’t know”
But then she’d press and I’d say, “You see that painting?
Do you think it’s been done by Van Gogh?”

The cook she said call her Maria
She’d always point for the same boy to come forth
Saying, “He trades cattle, it’s his own idea
And he also makes trips to the North
Have you ever seen his naked calf bleed?”
I’d say, “Oh no, why does it show?”
And she’d whisper in my ear that he’s a half-breed
And I’d say, “Fine, but can he paint like Van Gogh?”

I can’t remember his name he never gave it
But I always figured he could go home
Til when he’d gave me his card and said, “Save it”
I could see by his eyes he was alone
But it was sad how his four leaf clover
Drawn on his calling card showed
That it was given back to him a-many times over
And it most definitely was not done by Van Gogh

It was either she or the maid just to please me
Though I sensed she could not understand
And she made a thing out of saying “Go easy”
He’s a straight but very crooked straight man
And I’d say “does the girl in the calendar doubt it
And by the way is that Marilyn Monroe?”
And she’d just get salty and say, “what do you want to know about it?”
And I’d say, “I was just wondering if she ever sat for Van Gough.”


It was either her or the straight man who introduced me
To Jeanette, Camilla’s friend
Who later falsely accused me
Of stealing her locket and pen
When I said I don’t have your locket
She said “you steal pictures of everybody’s mother, I know,”
And I said there’s no locket or picture of any mother I would pocket
Unless its been done by Van Gough

There is a further verse that is incomplete – the tape stops.

Thank you to Lloyd Cox

What else is on the site

1: Over 480 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken 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 produced 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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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. I’ve always felt one of the reasons Dylan never bothered to record this song properly is because it sounded too similar to 4th Time Around. (At least, to my ears it does.) I wish he had, though. It’s one of my favorites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *