Shakespeare in the Alley

Show Two - Radical solitude in "just like a woman"



This show focuses extensively on "Just Like a Woman," continuing the idea of our fear of loneliness which is the fear of what the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett calls "radical solitude" in his book Man and People.


Welcome back, folks, to this look at Dylan’s poetics.  So glad you came around.  Last week’s show ended with a look at “To Ramona.”  It’s a song which portrays the need for each of us to face our own radical solitude, to quit escaping freedom by finding our identity and purpose through some one or some thing else.  Here’s a verse to remind you where we left off:


I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
By worthless foam from the mouth.
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin' and returnin'
On back to the South.
You've been fooled into thinking
That the finishin' end is at hand.
Yet there's no one to beat you,
No one t' defeat you,
'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.


This week’s show continues this idea with a song which is more complex.  It explores the same theme as “To Ramona” but instead of a speaker who addresses some one who is fleeing from freedom, who is not facing that radical solitude in which each of us exists, the speaker is the one who flees—only to realize that, as the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

It is one of Dylan’s most famous love songs,  first released on the sublime and egotistical 1966 album, Blonde on BlondeSublime because it contains so many incredible songs such as “Visions of Johanna” -- and egotistical because it was issued as a two record set in a double folding record album with nothing appearing outside the cellophane wrapping except, on the spine in tiny letters the words “Bob Dylan” and  “Blonde on Blonde”  The two sides of the fold out double album cover provided a huge photo of Dylan in a suede jacket which would later be referred to in “American Pie” as a coat he “borrowed from James Dean.”
The album’s title creates an anagram of Dylan’s first name.  It was first issued with the male spelling of the word, b-l-o-n-d, and quickly recalled so the female spelling with the ‘e’ at the end added.   Yes, the album is filled with female figures: Sweet Marie, the Queen of Spades, Ruthie, Queen Mary, and many females that we only know because of various accouterments:  her leopard-skin pillbox hat, her scarf covering her  mouth,  her yellow railroad.  One side, the last of four in the double record set, is taken up completely by that haunting and indecipherable sad-eyed lady of the lowlands.  But let’s get to the love song in question: “Just Like a Woman.”


Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
Ev'rybody knows
That Baby's got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.


Here the speaker does not address the woman, as in “To Ramona,” but speaks of an unnamed woman.  The focus is on the speaker and his loneliness “inside the rain.”  He has found that Baby’s new clothes are somewhat like the Emperor’s new clothes and that she "takes just like a woman/But . . . breaks just like a little girl."  

"Just Like a Woman” is one of  Dylan's finest poems on the failure of human relationships because of  illusions we bring with us.   We can see those illusions falling away in the first verse, like ribbons and bows which fall from her curls.  The rain/pain identification in the opening lines sets up the paradox on which the song centers: that one escapes from psychological pain by withdrawing inside the pain only to achieve a numbness, not a relief from pain.  At the same time the lines evoke the isolation of the one who feels pain, knowing no one else can feel it.  The rather enigmatic construction "inside the rain" illustrates another of Dylan's poetic techniques, agrammaticalness and condensation of phrase. The phrase could read as a condensation of "outside in the rain" but more accurately to describe its effect is to say that it has no meaning insofar as the physical world is concerned; it functions solely as a psychological metaphor.

Let’s listen to that first verse one more time:

Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
Ev'rybody knows
That Baby's got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.


The plot is simple, and typical in Dylan: boy gets girl, or rather man gets woman, only to find that she is not the answer to his prayers (as ‘50s love songs so often portray the other as in “You Are My Special Angel.”  (WEB NOTE:  Put this on the web site as audio file if possible)  So he leaves.  
The song follows a tried and true formula: it begins in the middle; the façade which makes her look like a woman has begun to break, her ribbons and bows have fallen from her curls, but the pretense is still being maintained.   The opening lines illustrate Dylan's feel for the metaphoric power of language and of the non-visual nature of much of his imagery.  He does not present these lines to evoke visual images nor indeed to evoke any of the senses.  The images function on a level where emotion and intellect are inseparable, for one does not respond with the physical senses.  Dylan's materials are not the sights and sounds of the world but the emotions which he evokes by words: by their connotations and associations.  This is one reason Dylan’s poetry is so filled with allusion.  His poetry is not that of the imagists who make us see red wheelbarrows in the rain or pedals on a wet black bow.  Dylan's art is in the interface between emotion and language.  And in both emotion and language he achieves universality through specificity. The use of all-inclusive terms in the song (nobody, everybody), these function to suggest this universality.

            Because the speaker is the central player in the dramatic action, "Just Like a Woman" is a more complex poem than “To Ramona.”   In verse one the speaker is standing "inside the rain" and Baby is pictured looking very much like the famous emperor with no clothes from the children's story.   Dylan draws his allusions from all aspects of our culture, from Plato and the Bible to TV and fairy tales.  Just as he compares Miss Lonely to a fairy tale princess by opening “Like a Rolling Stone” with the words “Once upon a time…”, so in this song he likens the speaker to the naïve child who sees that the emperor has no clothes. The child’s lack of inhibition allows him to see what nobody else will admit.  And the speaker’s new state of awareness allows him to see the truth as well: "Everybody knows/Baby’s got new clothes,/But lately I see her ribbons and her bows/Have fallen from her curls."   As verse two opens the speaker chooses to turn away from Baby to Queen Mary, a foil for the rejected Baby who breaks like a little girl.   Baby, wrapped in pretense, stands in contrast to Mary’s royalty :

Queen Mary, she's my friend
Yes, I believe I'll go see her again
Nobody has to guess
That Baby can't be blessed
Till she sees finally that she's like all the rest
With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls.
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.


Baby, if she is to be blessed, has to come to the same realization as Ramona and the speaker in this song: that “finally she’s like all the rest.” (WEB NOTE:  on “finally sees”.)  We are all subject to that “radical solitude” which Ortega speaks of, that state of being which cannot be filled by someone else for us.  But it is the speaker who realizes this in the song, not Baby.  The speaker feels isolated, alone in his pain, though still finding friendship in Queen Mary.  (Yes, there is a possible drug reference here.  More on that later.)  And from the ‘now’ indicated by the present tense throughout the first two verses,  he looks back to the beginning of the relationship, as we hear in the break:


It was raining from the first
And I was dying there of thirst
So I came in here
And your long-time curse hurts
But what's worse
Is this pain in here
I can't stay in here
Ain't it clear that
I just can’t fit,
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit…


And thus Dylan brings us back to the present as the speaker reaches the realization that one cannot escape that condition of radical solitude by escaping into a relationship.  We can’t find ourselves in someone else. He tells us that he has sought to escape the pain of loneliness through a relationship, he has escaped into the intimacy of  this  relationship.  Now he finds that the pain inside the relationship is worse than the loneliness on the outside.  He “just can’t fit.”  As always, the attempt to conform is rejected and the lonesome drifter goes on his way.  Let’s listen to the last verse:

It’s interesting, ironic almost,  that this song about not fitting fits into the standard song pattern so neatly: the A A B A pattern is common in popular music, indeed common in music in general.  It’s a basic formula: (1) state a musical theme, A, (2) repeat the theme to establish the pattern, B, (3) alter it for variety (the “break”), B, and (4) return to the original theme to provide a sense of completion, A.  Dylan is not simply following convention out of habit, however.  Indeed, he is generally credited with having broken most of the conventions which bound popular songs before 1962.  Richard Goldstein wrote in 1974 (in New York Magazine),

            [ Dylan] lengthened the lyric line, which had been locked into gospel brevity.  He
demolished the old a-b-a song structure and instituted a free-verse stanza which left endless possibilities for melodic innovation.  Before the Beatles, he invented the rock album as a unit of expression, in which the artist sought to create a unified mood through his songs.  Finally, he broke the ironclad three-minute rule by writing songs which went on as long as they had to, sometimes lasting twenty minutes.

Dylan uses convention effectively because of his mastery of the basic forms and their purpose.  "Just Like a Woman" demonstrates Dylan's use of basic forms for artistic purposes.  The break  which follows the first two verses  serves not only as a musical variation but as a transition in the poem from present to future via the past.  The first two verses describe the present, as the verb tenses reveal:  “Nobody feels any pain” and “Queen Mary, she is my friend.”   Having begun in the present, the poet reviews the past, explaining how this situation arose in the interlude, by its nature a digression.  The break  provides the beginning of the tale, shifting to the past tense.  Let’s hear it again along with the final verse  which returns us to the present and a look at the future:

It was raining from the first
And I was dying there of thirst
So I came in here
And your long-time curse hurts
But what's worse
Is this pain in here
I can't stay in here
Ain't it clear that

    I just can't fit
Yes, I believe it's time for us to quit
When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don't let on that you knew me when
I was hungry and it was your world.
Ah, you fake just like a woman, yes, you do
You make love just like a woman, yes, you do
Then you ache just like a woman
But you break just like a little girl.


The break helps explain that enigmatic opening phrase, "inside the rain."  The speaker has come "in here" because he "was dying there of thirst."  It is not that Baby has changed, for "It was raining from the first"; it is only that in the past when he was lonely and thirsty, he had imagined that being inside would be better, he had believed that a "True Love" would end his pain.  He found, however, that the numbness “in here" is not preferable to the thirsty pain of his former lonely existence out there.   Let’s listen to the whole song again, this time from a live performance.

Isn’t that a powerful and honest portrayal of the brokenness of human relationships, of the illusions that drive us together and the pain that ensues?  But there’s another issue which we should touch on with this song.

Let me use this song to get something out in the open now, because lots of people want to see Dylan’s life in his songs.  Of course I can’t deny that Dylan sometimes speaks in overtly biographically detail, as in “Sara,” a song to his wife when they were in the midst of splitting up and  in “Day of the Locusts” about the day he received an honorary doctorate from Princeton.  And Dylan told Time magazine’s John Farley in a 2001 interview, that his songs are autobiographical.  Quote:
Even if this is not taken as another put on or put down like that of the Time interviewer in Don’t Look Back, what Dylan is saying is generally true of all Romantic artists.  And it is, after all the Romantic artist which has been the image of the artist since the time of the English Romantic rebellion at the turn of the 19th century.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is not so much about an ancient ruler who build a pleasure dome as about the creative process as experienced by the Romantic artist —and the relationship of such artists to the expanding audience.  In the closing lines of that poem both the creative process and the audience’s response is described.  The first part of the poem describes the Khan’s creation: a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice.  Then the poet describes his own creative process which begins with a vision.


A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing on Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware, beware,
His flashing eyes, his floating hair.
Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of paradise.


That closing description of the artist as visionary and the audience’s tendency to see the artist as bewitched, as somehow in touch with a reality which we don’t see and tend to fear—even today this accurately portrays the view most people have of “the artist.”  Thus the dilemma of the modern artist.  Coleridge’s poem portrays that dilemma in two stages: first, the need to capture the vision, and then the need to overcome the isolation from audience, an audience which tends to stand back and say, “Beware, beware, his flashing eyes, his floating hair.”  Certainly that was the response of many to Dylan’s wild hair and flashing images from the mid-sixties. @>

 I will be devoting an entire show to this topic later.  But for now, let me just say that, “on one level or another” even Shakespeare’s plays are probably autobiographical, but we don’t have to buy into an interpretation of Hamlet as an exploration of Shakespeare’s relationship with his dead son Hamnet, as promulgated by Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses

Even the most obviously biographical of Dylan’s songs like “Sara” and “Ballad in Plain D” and “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “Girl from the North Country” (all of which are about broken relationships we might note) are about a state of mind rather than just about what happened.  Even more so with “Just Like a Woman.”   It is so tempting to read this song as an account of Dylan’s relationship with Joan Baez. When he blew into Greenwich Village in 1961, looking like a homeless waif with a baby face and a raw voice like an old Mississippi bluesman, Baez was already emerging as the queen of the folk scene.  This relationship is explored extensively in Positively Fourth Street by David Hajdu.  He quotes Terri Thal, wife of Dave Van Ronk, a contemporary of Dylan in the Village.   She worked as manager for her husband and saw Joan’s career take off, including a contract with Vanguard Records.  Hajdu quotes her:

Joanie’s success was the first indication that this stuff that we were just doing because we couldn’t help ourselves because we loved it so much was anything viable—that anything could come of it.  When people saw what was happening with Joanie, they started thinking maybe they could have a hit record, too.  Everybody was a little jealous.  It was kind of ‘Oh my God!’ I mean, here was this chick from Cambridge, singing English ballads.  But there was less of that, really than there was genuinely, ‘Hey—somebody’s making it! Great!” (62)

Baez signed with Vanguard Records in 1961 and was soon touring all over the country, especially on college campuses, singing traditional folk music like Child ballad #243.  I first heard “House Carpenter” sung by my grandmother, so later it was a revelation to me to find Joan singing this ballad that goes back centuries in the English tradition.

She and Dylan met in the Village, Dylan being the upstart folk singer trying to get gigs and she being the established recording artist.  She became impressed with some of his songs and began, like Peter, Paul and Mary, to sing and record Dylan’s songs.  By 1963 he had emerged in the folk circles as the one who wrote songs which spoke powerfully to the issues of the day.  His “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become the anthem of the white wing of the Civil Rights movement, and Baez began introducing him as her guest at her concerts. 

My point is that biographical readings are too narrow, that to read “Just Like a Woman” as “just” about any one relationship is to limit its meaning and significance.  @>
I don’t doubt that at one level this song can be read that way, but there is so much more there. 

The same is true of drug readings.  Sure, it’s tempting to read the line “Queen Mary, she’s my friend” as a drug reference.  Or  the request to the Tambourine Man to “Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship.” But such readings don’t carry through the songs,  they only work for these isolated lines.  As with biographical readings, drug readings restrict rather than open our ability to see the full significance of Dylan’s songs as poetry.

So much for the biographical interpretation.  But what about interpretation in general.  Some have objected to any kind of interpretation.  Archibald McLeish ends his poem “Ars Poetica”:  “A poem should not mean/But be.”  Susan Sontag wrote an entire book titled Against Interpretation. Let me close this show by anticipating those who might even quote Dylan himself in “Gates of Eden”:

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what's true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden


Those who object to interpretation might then ask,  “Isn’t this series of radio programs an attempt to do what Dylan is objecting to?  Aren’t you attempting to ‘shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each song means’”?

It would seem so, but my plea of guilty is made with this qualification.  That I am not, like the three kings on the liner notes to  John Wesley Harding, trying to go in just deep enough to say that I have been there.  Instead, I am seeking to sound the depths of what Dylan is getting at by comparing one glimpse to another, by looking repeatedly and seriously at songs which try to say that which cannot be said.  This is what makes them poetry.  They touch us not softly but deeply.  By attempting to say that which cannot be said.  By facing the reality that, as Prufrock says, “
It is impossible to say just what I mean."  By asking the overwhelming questions. 

If I risk the danger of going too far in, I will not be deterred into not going in far enough.  So I ask your indulgence, gentle listeners, in this quest.   And in case you don’t recall the liner notes to the John Wesley Harding album and have it handy, I’d like to offer this wonderful parable to you now in the form of radio drama.


So you see, gentle listener, the real sin is in not going in all the way. 

Many of Dylan’s songs are so much richer after careful analysis.  There not just obscurity, the parts really do fit together in a pattern to lead us to the kinds of overwhelming questions which Prufrock was unable to bring himself to answer.  And he’s been asking them for us, asking them to us, and still is.  Listen  to the opening verse of “Sugar Baby” –the closing song on Love and Theft:

I've got my back to the sun 'cause the light is too intense
I can see what everybody in the world is up against
Can't turn back, you can't come back, sometimes we push too far
One day you'll open up your eyes and you'll see where you are

Sugar baby get on down the road, you ain't got no brains nohow
You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now


I think to interpret Sugar Baby as humanity and the speaker as the Romantic visionary is not too
much of a stretch.  Whether you do or not,  I hope you will join me each week to explore the democratic poetry of Bob Dylan, that Shakespeare in the alley.

Next week I will be taking you on a quick tour of what some call Dylan’s career, but Dylan has a better word.  He told RS in the 2001 interview, “…career, by the way, isn't how I look at what I do. Career is a French word. It means "carrier." It's something that takes you from one place to the other. I don't feel like what I do qualifies to be called a career. It's more of a calling.”  This quick tour of the turns this artist has twisted through will provide a backdrop for the following shows which, like this one, will explore certain themes and forms which run throughout his work for over four decades.  His love songs explore themes of freedom and identity—or lack thereof, as we began to touch on in this first show.  His ballads explore the quest for emotional and spiritual fulfillment.  His blues explore the need for and difficulty of connecting to another human being.  As with most Romantic artists, he explores the relationship of artist to audience, and this deserves at least one full show.  I won’t ignore the obvious—his protest songs, but will show how he expanded the concept of “protest,” liberating it from its narrow left-wing political confines and reached out to a wider democratic audience.  So, as Dylan says in “Mississippi,” “Stick with me baby, things are about to get interesting.
Everybody's moving, if they ain't already there
Everybody's got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now.


Add reference to Williams or whoever first noted this.


This is covered extensively in the first chapter of my dissertation, The Artist in the Marketplace, which you can access via the link to the title here.

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