“Fourth Time Around” The meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

This is the fourth track on side 3 of Blonde on Blonde, and although the song is very different in nature from what has gone before, we are still in the zone of turning the concept of rock songs upside down.  For here, not only do we a song in ¾ time making it sound like a fast waltz, we also have yet another re-working of the way chords in rock and pop can be used.

In F major, the chords you would expect to hear the most are F, B flat and C, but in fact what we get is F, A minor and G minor.   A minor and G minor are completely normal and acceptable chords for this key – but to use them to the exclusion of the other chords we might accept is once more very unusual.

I can’t say that Dylan actually planned side three of Blonde on Blonde to be a side of chordal experiments, but there is the issue of the names of song.   If you play the five songs that make up the third side of the album you will feel the difference; this is Dylan throughout experimenting in a new area of writing.

The song is completely strophic – which is to say it is verse, verse, verse, verse, verse – with no interludes, and as everyone has noted before, the song is very similar to Norwegian Wood, written primarily by John Lennon for the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album the year before.

There is another issue that Dylan is exploring on this third side of Blonde on Blonde, and that is the exploration of the situation of the singer.  By no means confined to this album alone, but it is particularly strong on this side.  Just as in Achilles we have the investigation into the little boy lost concept also explored in Johanna, here we find it again.

The theme is once more the interactions of three people.   In Johanna it is Johanna, Louise and little boy left, in Achilles, it is the man, the woman and the guard.  Now in 4th time we have the singer, the woman and “you” to whom the song is sung.

The big contrast with Achilles is that there the young man is the outsider desperately wanting in.  Here there is a couple who have an almighty row, and the singer walks out.   There is also a complete contrast in philosophy with the line

Everybody must give something back For something they get

That is the woman’s claim here, while Dylan’s reply at the end is don’t lean on me and I won’t loean on you.  Everyone can be independent and still have a relationship.

Maybe he’s right, maybe not.  Complex things these relationships.  But it doesn’t matter.  Dylan is constantly exploring three sided relationships, always with a certain lack of clarity.  Not always the mist that pervades Johanna, but still a certain uncertainty.

Certainly the opening of Fourth Time is as viscous it can get without someone slamming the door and walking out…

“When she said Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies I cried she was deaf.”

You don’t get nastier than that.

As to Fourth time vs Norwegian Wood, “4th Time Around” has been seen as playful, a homage, satirical, or a warning to John Lennon that whatever Lennon does, Dylan can do it far, far better

Lennon is reported as expressing a range of opinions on the issue of the two songs, in various interviews, and who knows what he really thought in the end.  Some report that the end of “4th Time Around” (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine.”) really worried Lennon.

But then, creative artists can be temperamental buggers at the best of times.

There is one other interpretation.  Heylin appears to see the song as being about a love affair between two wheelchair users.  But then Heylin is never anything but opinionated and weird.

If we work through the song verse by verse we can see where we are going…

Verse one is sums up with her view

“Don’t forget Everybody must give something back For something they get”

Verse 2 has her saying don’t try to be clever

In Verse 3 he’s thrown out, goes out, and then sees a picture of the girl he is reporting the story to – in a wheelchair.  He asks his ex-lover for an explanation, she screams at him so much that she has a fit and collapses.  He responds by searching through her posessions.

He then puts something in his shoe and goes round to the new woman’s house and says, let’s be equal and not depend on each other.

So, knowing this is a response or a parody to Norwegian Wood do we take this as a serious story, or a writer having a laugh with another songwriters expense?

Maybe one way to resolve this is to go back to Norwegian Wood.  That is a very very simple story.  She invites him round and tries to seduce him.   He turns her down, wakes to find that she has gone, and then we have that enigmatic ending

So I lit a fire, Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

It is a cleverly enigmatic ending, The first reaction is that he’s saying, “hey life’s good, I crash out in her smart flat, and she leaves me to have the place to myself… she’ll be back in the evening.”

Or… he sets fire to the house and the wood burns.   The latter seems unlikely of course, but just the thought of it as a possibility has always brought a smile to my face.  Double meanings were never really Lennon’s style, at least nothing that went anything beyond “A Spaniard in the Works”.  But it’s still amusing.

For me (and as always I have to say, this is just my interpretation, a mix of what I thought way back in 1966 and what I feel about the song all these years later, is that Dylan saw the Beatles song as a simple piece with a point of interest – what with it being in triple time, instead of the normal 4/4 and a funny end.   So Dylan said, ok, let’s now turn this into a surrealist version.

In this view I think Dylan was also saying, “I produce all the crazy creatures who populate my songs – you just have the “sweet pretty things” that I have already made fun of in Tombstone Blues.”     You write about the middle class sweeties, I write about the grit.

Which if true is also why he has the girl screaming “till her face got so red Then she fell on the floor” – it is all big time drama and the freak show with Dylan.   We are, after all, hardly any distance from Desolation Row.  But for the Beatles, life remains all sweetness.

Also I’d add the parody of “I want to be your lover baby” with that rhyming of “hers” with “yours”.   If I’d been a highly sensitive artist and had written some of the Beatles early music I would not only be very rich, I’d have taken offence,.

So for this reason I don’t think 4th Time has gone anything (or at least anything directly) to do with Dyolan’s real life, with Edie Sedgwick, or anyone else, any more than lines like

Well, the undertaker in his midnight suit
Says to the masked man, “Ain’t you cute!”
Well, the mask man he gets up on the shelf
And he says, “You ain’t so bad yourself”

are about real people.  Dylan sees the world during this period as a freak show, and that’s what he is describing here.

So I don’t have much sympathy for the notion that “4th time around” is about the fourth time Dylan and Edie sleep together.  It could be, of course I don’t know, but on the balance of probabilities I just don’t think so.   Dylan plays with words, just as on this side of the album he is playing with chords.   And besides I think he denied it in one interview.

Against me is the report that Edie had a car crash and was in a wheelchair and had crutches for a while – that I admit points things in the other direction.

My point is that this is a painting of a freak show – no need to take each issue too seriously.  And I think 4th Time relates to “I want to be your lover” – he really is making a bit of a point to the Beatles about the gap between the world they paint, and the world he paints.

As a final thought about Dylan’s song and the Beatles song, compare the openings

I once had a girl, Or should I say she once had me


When she said “Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies”, I cried she was deaf

And then compare the endings

So I lit a fire, Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?


And I, I never took much, I never asked for your crutch, Now don’t ask for mine

Utterly different words, utterly different worlds.

Index to all the songs analysed


  1. With Dylan it is always a guessing game in symbolic language.
    In this song, you have to find why the woman is so angry and why she wont let him in.

    “And I tried to make sense
    Out of that picture of you in your wheelchair
    That leaned up against . . .

    Her Jamaican rum
    And when she did come, I asked her for some
    She said, “No, dear” ”

    So I have a simple question for you readers.
    What do you think the crutch symbolizes???

    The first woman would not give him or let him keep his crutch.
    Therefor he left for another woman, who did not care (in the beginning).
    (I have given the answer , you just have to find the word) 🙂

  2. I have always wondered about this ” crutch” could be “crotch!” I have followed Bob, from the beginning, yes I am that old! At first in my young teen years, thought it was may be an, American term. Now, I think it could be support, don’t ask for it, you may or may not get it. I really don’t know for sure, its enigmatic, like a lot of Dylans stuff.

  3. I love this song and got drawn to it through the Norweigan Wood comparisons. The beauty of Dylan is that every time you listen to his songs you can create a different interpretation. The line that I’ve recently changed my opinion with is;

    ‘And when I was through
    I filled up my shoe and brought it to you’

    As mentioned in the article above my interpretation was similar to;

    He then puts something in his shoe and goes round to the new woman’s house and says, let’s be equal and not depend on each other.

    This still stands but I think the thing he actually puts in the shoe is himself. He’s simply putting his shoes on and walking to her. Simple actions described through beautiful words and imagery. Similar to ‘She worked on my face, until breaking my eyes’ wonderfully describing her making him cry.

    Love it

  4. Dylan is quoted in a book I have saying he played 4th time around for the beatles in 65 and they then released Norweigan Wood before he could put it out. Thats why he wasn’t worried about being sued over the similar song structure, he wrote it first.

  5. It’s about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s uncompleted 4th term as President (i.e. “4th Time Around”). Hence the “pictures of you in your wheelchair” — Roosevelt used a wheelchair for most of his adult life, but did not like to be photographed in it. The woman who screams until her face turns so red and falls on the floor represents Herbert Hoover — who insisted that market exchange was the only way to distribute goods (i.e. “everybody must give something back for something they get”), could not tolerate Roosevelt’s New Deal policies (“don’t waste your words, they’re just lies”), and was “deaf” to the suffering of the people during the Depression.

  6. McCartney said Norwegian Wood definitely ends with John burning down the girl’s apartment for leaving him alone (an issue with him — his mom and dad did it to him, and Yoko Ono told me the key to their bond was “a fear of being alone.”). Norwegian wood was cheap pine paneling hipster girls often had in their flats–John was sneering at them, the rich snob.

  7. Hi, I thought I would put together some of my thoughts based on the song as a response to Norwegian Wood idea and going into each of the verses. Probably dead wrong or already out there but thought I would share my thoughts.

    When she said, “Don’t waste your words, they’re just lies”
    I cried she was deaf
    Lennon saying that what Dylan writes about never actually happens. Dylan saying that Lennon just doesn’t understand the meaning of the lyrics. I take it that Lennon is the She in this song.
    And she worked on my face until breaking my eyes
    And saying “What else you got left?”
    Lennon keeps arguing the point.
    It was then that I got up to leave
    But she said, “Don’t forget
    Everybody must give something back
    For something they get”
    This didn’t actually happen at the time, it’s a Shakespearean type prophesy that Dylan believes Lennon is warning him of what will come to pass.
    I stood there and hummed, I tapped on her drum
    Dylan plays a song on Lennon’s guitar
    I asked her how come
    And she buttoned her boot, and straightened her suit
    And she said, “Don’t be cute”
    Alluding to the fact that the Beatles wear uniforms and Dylan is asking a question like – “if the music is all that matters how come you dress up?”. Lennon is responding that he (Dylan) knows it’s more than music that makes you popular.
    So I forced my hands in my pockets
    And felt with my thumbs
    And gallantly handed her my very last piece of gum
    Dylan thankful for the advice, thinks about all his songs, finds one and plays it for Lennon.
    She threw me outside, I stood in the dirt
    Where everyone walked
    Dylan leaves, the Beatles are still famous but he is on the streets.
    And, when finding out I’d forgotten my shirt
    I went back and knocked
    Dylan then realises that his song has been stolen and he has been ripped off. He had been above it artistically but forgetting his shirt / realises he has to make a living off his music.
    I waited in the hallway, she went to get it
    And I tried to make sense
    Out of that picture of you in your wheelchair
    That leaned up against
    Her Jamaican rum, and when she did come
    I asked her for some
    He goes back to Lennon and calls him up on stealing his song. While he’s there he sees a picture of Lennon in a wheelchair from Help.
    She said, “No, dear”, I said, “Your words are not clear
    You’d better spit out your gum”
    Dylan making fun of the Liverpudlian accent and how they say Oh Dear. Dylan says that when Lennon tries to copy him (Dylan) it doesn’t make any sense because it’s not his (Lennon’s) true words. The Gum refers to Dylans words which he offered out of his pocket a few verses back.
    She screamed till her face got so red
    Then she fell on the floor
    And, I covered her up and then went and looked through her drawer
    Lennon shouts at Dylan. When he’s finished Dylan thinks through the Beatles catalogue of music.
    And when I was through, I filled up my shoe
    And brought it to you
    And you, you took me in, you loved me then
    You never wasted time
    Dylan then takes ideas from the Beatles about writing popular music and becomes popular. I’m in two minds if this is written truthfully or sarcastically. You never wasted time seems sarcastic to me.
    And I, I never took much, I never asked for your crutch
    Now don’t ask for mine.
    Dylan saying that whatever ideas musically or otherwise he used from them it wasn’t the essence of their songs and Lennon should do the same.

  8. The song has so many layers. One layer is sex, with the singer mostly taking and the woman mostly giving – “Everybody must give something back for something they get.” Like “Norwegian Wood,” the man and woman have a sexual encounter. The singer doesn’t care about her; he only wants sex, never giving back. So, she kicks him out, half-naked, and he realizes that he’s “forgotten my shirt” and goes back to knock on the door. She gets his shirt, then he notices the “Jamaican rum” and wants some, to stay inside with her and maybe pursue sex again (“when she did come, I asked her for some”). She buttons up her clothes (which had been off during their previous sexual encounter). He watches her dressing, puts his hands in his pockets and “felt with my thumbs.” Now, what is he feeling with his thumbs, in his pocket? Gum? I don’t think so. He is up to something else. What does he “gallantly hand her”? Maybe he takes it out, leading to another sexual encounter. Her words aren’t clear during the sexual play, and he tells her to “spit out your gum” which may be a euphemism. It’s not gum. He’s so cavalier about sex with her, he really doesn’t care. So she screams in a fit (maybe an orgasm) and falls to the floor, tired and helpless. He throws the cover over her naked body. He’s a real creep, right, so he looks through her drawer, probably to steal money from her before abandoning her for good. That’s where he puts on his shoes and walks to his other lover’s house.

  9. Setting all the possable meanings aside. For me, the possability of it as a counter Norwegian Wood/things aren’t always just great, at least makes sense title wise. Because as the saying goes “3rd time’s the charm”, but everything doesn’t stop at the third time when everything is charmful, does it?? So Dylan here would in that case be singing about what happens the 4th time, 5th time etc.

  10. CC Ever since I set up Untold Dylan about 12 years ago we have had comments like this, and I really don’t understand them. Why make such a statement, but not explain your point of view? Now I find I don’t want to know what inaccuracy you have spotted, but rather why you posted that comment without explanation.

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