Dylan’s “Just like a woman” as you have never known it before.

By Jochen Markhorst

On 17 March 2014, L’Wren Scott baffles her loved ones. The fashion designer of Hollywood stars and the Very Rich, but best known as the life partner of Mick Jagger, commits suicide. The funeral ceremony will take place a week later in Los Angeles, and eight weeks later a memorial service will follow in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan.

The speakers keep it understated, stylish and conventional; Jaggers grandchildren read a psalm (Psalm 23 of course, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”), the regular backing vocalist of The Stones, Lisa Fischer, sings “Amazing Grace”, a niece of the deceased contributes a little, slightly evangelically tinted verse (“Eternal Voyage” by Susan Noyes Anderson, who afterwards, not very stylishly, sells her fifteen minutes of fame via Twitter and Facebook).

Jagger’s son James chooses the indestructible “She Walks In Beauty” by Lord Byron, Dave Stewart accompanies the singing Bernard Fowler on guitar with the classic “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and also Shakespeare’s biggest hit “Sonnet 18” (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) passes by.

Safe, appropriate choices, with little room for improvement. But L’Wren’s most loved one, the shocked Mick Jagger himself, surprises. Granted, an proper Stones song might be hard to find, but the Glimmer Twin does choose very unconventionally: through the church echoes a sober performance of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”.

Surprising, as it is not a very kind song. The meeting was closed to member of the public and journalists, so whether Jagger may have adapted the text here and there, we do not know, but even then it seems an unfortunate choice. Although…

The opening line may have already provided Mick with an aha moment. The words get a completely new charge, but yes, indeed: nobody feels any pain offers in this context roughly the same consolation as the famous tune of M*A*S*H, the controversial “Suicide Is Painless” (lyrics written by the 15-year-old Mike Altman, whose father, director Robert Altman, told him to write the ‘stupidest song ever’).

Baby’s got new clothes is a line to L’Wren’s passion and profession, the subsequent observation suddenly gets an autumnal symbolism. And the exclamations I just can’t stay in here, I just don’t fit and when we meet again … well, sung at the memorial service for a suicide victim they of course take on a radically different and much heavier meaning, but still, they are striking and touching .

Queen Mary is, we now understand in this Catholic Church at this gathering, the Heavenly Queen Mary, who for centuries has extended her arms mercifully and full of grace to dying heroines. The Gretchen of Faust rises dying to the Mother of God, in her last seconds Schillers Jeanne d’Arc sees how the Blessed Virgin is already winking at her, and now Jagger finds a similar reconciliation for his heroine; “Queen Mary, she’s my friend. Yes, I think I’ll go see her again. “

The middle-eight, the bridge, also fits perfectly with the life story of the awkward adoptive child Laura Bambrough from a Mormon family in Utah who transforms into the fashion queen L’Wren Scott in the center of the world, but does not feel at home . Only the chorus – there Jagger probably fits in a few other words. And the amphetamine will also have been deleted.

Remarkable, all in all, and on closer consideration not all that much misplaced. But originally, in “Just Like A Woman”, both scholars and amateur researchers agree, some lady gets demoted quite heartlessly. Without thanks for services rendered and with another hit after she’s down.

Those same exegetes have been bombarding each other for more than half a century with mostly very plausible, but always superfluous, theories about the identity of the woman who is oh so feminine, but turns out to be a little girl after a break.

The unfortunate debutante Edie Sedgwick is the most popular candidate, thanks to the drug references and especially her appearance; the woman Sedgwick has indeed a somewhat childlike personality. But yes, with the line “I was hungry and it was your world” the Joan Baez faction has a strong argument – Baez actually has introduced Dylan into her (folk) world and it is also true that she, in love and all, rather chilly gets pushed aside a few months before Dylan writes this song.

On a side note: nobody seems to notice that Dylan writes Baby with a capital letter both times, so not baby as a caress, but Baby, like a nickname. Not too important, but it is a remarkable minor issue; Dylan sings the praise of dozens and dozens of babies over the years but only four of them get a capital B (also Baby Blue, the Angel Baby from “Tough Mama” and Sugar Baby). It could be a second jab at “Baby” Jane Holzer, the filthy rich socialite from the Andy Warhol entourage, whom he also in “Queen Jane Approximately” seems to target.

All of it true and not true, as usual with Dylan. The poet Dylan is not a reporter. He connects fiction with memories, is a poetic realist who, from his everyday impressions and personal musings, knows how to grasp universal values, how to transcend the individual experience, how to paint a condition humaine. Driven by little more than the desire to write a song. Paul McCartney expresses this drive in a pleasantly sober manner in his Conversations with Paul du Noyer (2015): “When I write, I’m just writing a song, but I think themes do come up. You can’t help it. Whatever’s important to you finds its way in.”

And that is in accordance with what Dylan reports about it in the AARP interview in 2015: “An idea comes from out of nowhere, and it’s usually the key to the whole song. It’s the idea that matters. The idea is floating around long before me. It’s like electricity was around long before Edison harnessed it.”

In “Just Like A Woman” we then see the poetic representation of the palette of emotions a person is assailed by, when scratching the wound of a freshly broken relationship. Here too, the poet attaches nagging memories to observations and fantasies to settle his bills, with a few sharp edges. Some couleur locale is created by the choice of words and imagery that characterizes Dylan’s lyricism during this period. He did not use a word like amphetamine before and he will not use it later – perhaps because he hears that the great Otis Redding is trying to cover “Just Like A Woman”, but can not overcome that word. Just like the use of rain as a metaphor for marijuana use is also very trendy with potheads and hipsters like The Beatles, Donovan and The Stones. Dylan’s veil might be a bit more blurry, but anyway: after the rain in Tom Thumb and “Desolation Row”, in Visions and in Memphis Blues, after the Rainy Day Women who call out everyone to be stoned and the rainman with his wand in “I Wanna Be Your Lover” Dylan apparently thinks: it’s time to quit. On later records, in later songs the rain is just wet and cold again.

Apart from the famous thin wild mercury sound, the extremely magnetic melody lifts the song into the highest regions of Dylan’s catalog. “Just Like A Woman” is just as distinctive in that respect as “Mr. Tambourine Man”; the music comes from Dylan himself, is not a derivative of an older folksong or something.

The attraction is enormous. Musicians and artists from all corners of the musical universe record countless covers, and the many instrumental covers are a testimony to the strength of the melody. Except for a single jazz version (a lyrical sax like the one from David ‘Fathead’ Newman still has some power of expression), they do not work. Without the lyrics, “Just Like A Woman” is amputated.

But with the sung versions there is an exceptional amount of suffering also. Other masterpieces from Dylan’s oeuvre often have enough power to stay upright in the performance of less gifted colleagues, but sometimes, as with “Like A Rolling Stone” and as with this diamond, there is more to it.

Even big names overstretch themselves: The Byrds can not do any better than a stale and matt version, which they rightly reject (the outtake can be found on part four of the 1990 Box Set, Final Approach). For Grandmaster Jimmy LaFave, this is one of the rare occasions that his distinctive, usually so enriching phrasing continues to rub, although he keeps on trying for ten long minutes (various live attempts, among others at the Woody Fest 2009). Nina Simone rarely does anything wrong, but this time her singing art is artificial (arrangement and production are sublime, though). Rod Stewart loses himself in mannerisms and overproduction, and, incredibly, that is also the case with Richie Havens.

The late Rory Gallagher still has some entertainment value because he is drunk on the stage again, makes a mess of the lyrics and of the chord scheme, shouts semi-embarrassed “Sorry Bob”, only to forget the lyrics again, but: the guitar playing of the Irish prodigy can not be ruined with ten bottles of whiskey (live in Bonn, 1992).

Not many sufficient grades. Joe Cocker deepens both the melancholy and the drama in the song, stands firm on the other fronts and has great musicians on his debut album from 1969. The live version with The Grease Band, Seattle ’69, is also stunning. Much more subdued, but just as melancholic and nicely dry produced is the contribution of outsider Eric Bibb to the tribute album Blues On Blonde On Blonde (2003).

Blood-curdling intense are the three well-known recordings of “Just Like A Woman” by Jeff Buckley, that pop up in the years after his early death. The bootleg Live At Sin-é from 2001 is chilling, and the outtakes of his only official album Grace are at least as beautiful (among others on the posthumous release You And I, 2016).

All covers are exceeded by the veteran who is at least allowed to stand in the shadow of Dylan, by Van Morrison. The correctness of his interpretation can be disputed – to Morrison, the narrator is the suffering object, the pained soul – but there is no question about the intensity of his presentation and the power of the ebb-and-flow arrangement; Van The Man comes and goes like the tidal wave over that water planet in Interstellar. Dylan apostle and Morrison fan Greil Marcus disagrees radically with the Belfast Cowboy. In When That Rough God Goes Riding, his reasonably nuanced declaration of love to Van Morrison, Marcus makes mince meat from Van’s version: “It’s an affront”, “perverse”, “phony”, “melodramatic” … cultural pope Greil I, also the authority that stated that Street Legal is ‘dead air’, gallops in the wrong direction once again.

Of the hundreds of cover versions, this live recording from 1971 (The Inner Mystic: Recorded Live At Pacific High Studios, Califonia) is one of the very few that at least comes close to Dylan’s majestic masterpiece.

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6 Responses to Dylan’s “Just like a woman” as you have never known it before.

  1. Kieran says:

    A wonderful read, Jochen, been enjoying your commentaries on the songs. The ideas in your blog are both logical and original, and you write in an engaging way that makes me feel at home reading them – and want to read more!

    Cheers…

  2. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Thank you Kieran. That is most kind. And encouraging.
    Groeten uit Utrecht,
    Jochen

  3. Rob Geurtsen says:

    Jochen,

    what a great piece on a great song. Your writing here is worth the inclusion in a future anthology… Gefeliciteerd, puur leesgenot.

  4. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Thank you for your kind compliments, Rob, very nice of you. As it turns out, this piece happens to be included in a (Dutch) book: “Blonde On Blonde – Dylans kwikzilveren meesterwerk”. And, by chance, this week another collection will be released: “Blood On The Tracks – Dylan’s Meesterstuk In Blauw”.
    Groeten uit Utrecht,
    Jochen

  5. Kiwipoet says:

    Thanks Jochen for this insight into this problematic song. My wife, who is pretty tolerant of my Dylan affliction, hates this song above all others, especially for that last line ‘breaks just like a little girl…’ For her, and other feminists, the song is anti-women, contemptuous and misogynistic.
    I don’t see it that way. The song is a kind of confession, a confession of vulnerability (‘please don’t let on that you knew me when/I was hungry and it was your world’). Also the attacks on women we get in those sixties songs like Just Like a Woman and Like a Rolling Stone, have more to do with Existentialist notions of what if means to live in bad faith than misogyny. These songs deal with the issue of what it means to live an authentic existence, rather than be false to oneself and live an inauthentic existence (‘with your fog, your amphetamines and your pearls…’.)
    I don’t know of any writer on Dylan who has explored Existential philosophy in Dylan’s songs, but it makes more sense than concluding that Dylan has an underlying hostility to women. Note a previous post here: Bob Dylan and the Not So Idealization of Women.

  6. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Thanks kiwipoet.
    I’d hate to disagree with your wife, obviously, but in this case you might consider casually sending her attention to two sources. One is Dylan himself:

    “This is a very broad song. A line like, ‘Breaks just like a little girl’ is a metaphor. It’s like a lot of bluesbased songs. Someone may be talking about a woman, but they’re not really talking about a woman at all. You can say a lot if you use metaphors.”
    After another pause, he adds: “It’s a city song. It’s like looking at something extremely powerful, say the shadow of a church or something like that. I don’t think in lateral [sic] terms as a writer.”
    (from the Robert Hilburn interview, Amsterdam 2003)

    The other may interest you too, as it is written by two professors in Philosophy: “Just Like a Woman: Dylan, Authenticity, and the Second Sex” by Kevin Krein and Abigail Levin. To be found in the anthology Bob Dylan and Philosophy (ed. by Peter Vernezze, Carl Porter), in which they are trying to prove that songs like “Just Like A Woman” and “Like A Rolling Stone” in fact give expression to Dylan’s Critique of Urban Materialism:

    And, while she acts, in many ways, like a woman—taking, making love, aching, and faking—when it comes to real strength, she is lacking, just like a little girl. Finally, the song’s contrast between the trappings of this brand of consumerist womanhood and the fragility of girlhood (“But she breaks just like a little girl”) suggests that while possessions mask weakness, they don’t provide maturity, depth, or strength.

    Existentialist notions can be found in the next paragraph, “Dylan and Existentialism: I Shall Be Free”, which tries to compare Dylan to Sartre. Your wife might especially be interested, and find some confirmation, in the fourth paragraph, “Dylan’s Interaction With Feminism”.

    Groeten uit Utrecht,
    Jochen

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