Like Judas Kissing Flowers
by Robert Forryan
Thank you, John, for inviting me to join you for ‘Freewheelin’s Last Waltz. Has it been a goddam impossible way of life, I wonder?
I wanted to contribute but was faced with something of a dilemma, the minor part of which was that I don’t listen to much Dylan these days – some, but nothing like I used to. But I could’ve got round that if it weren’t for the second part, which is huge: I don’t write on Dylan any more and I seem to have lost the knack or the impulse or something. So I have had to cheat. What follows I have lifted from a larger piece I once wrote for a few friends. If I was writing it now I would do it differently but I’m not. I think John and Andrew have seen the whole thing but the rest of you haven’t. It’s not much but it gets me my seat on the last bus out of town I hope, allowing me to read all of your final contributions.
The song I am writing about is ‘She’s Your Lover Now’, which I have always liked a lot. According to my books there are just two versions and they were both recorded on 21 January 1966. When I wrote this I talked about Vermeer’s picture, ‘Woman and Two Men’, because this song seemed to be about that situation. I assumed that the characters in the song were sitting at a table in a bar, though Dylan doesn’t actually say that. As this is sung in the First Person, present tense, I tend to refer to the character telling the tale as Dylan. It’s easier that way, though there is no reason to assume that this is a biographical vignette. It’s also reasonable to assume that there are two male characters; that it’s actually Dylan, Miss-Ex, and Miss Ex’s new lover. Although there was a time when I half thought that when Dylan sang ‘She’s your lover now’, he was actually singing to himself – as if he were putting himself down, but that doesn’t hold water when you examine the words closely.
I think this is both a minor piece and a universal theme. It works on both levels. We don’t need to know who the characters are as we have all sat at this particular table at some time in our lives – to that extent it is universal. On the other hand it is not about the great themes of belief and war, of civil rights and Armageddon, that Dylan so often engages with. It’s a simple love story, but maybe the most major minor work he ever wrote. Mostly I prefer the slower, less polished of the two recordings. The voice is like a musical instrument which he pushes through endless innovatory riffs. It would sound good even if, like ‘I’m Not There (1956)’, it made no sense. The voice is so much to the fore that it sounds as if the piano is in another room.
The slower recording commences with Dylan mumbling before he gets into the lyrics. It shares that hesitancy with the electric ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’. And it’s reminiscent of that live 1966 ‘One Too Many Mornings’ when he mutters incomprehensible noises as he waits for the audience to cease baying and ends it with ‘If you just wouldn’t clap so hard’. Ironically, in the story in the song Dylan is the butt of other people’s disdain just as he was on that electrifying concert tour. He is being jeered at by people he doesn’t respect. Certain sections of those 1966 audiences were like landlords or pawnbrokers, roaring: “You owe us, you owe us – we’ve given you our devotion, how can you not repay in the currency we recognise? What are these strange coins you cast before us now? We want legal tender, man”. And when he doesn’t pay, the interest on what’s owed becomes exorbitant, equivalent to usury. I have to confess to my own usurious tendencies where Dylan is concerned, most recently in terms of “Love & Theft”, but that’s another tale, not worth telling.
Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used this line, it’s so useful. Like Robert Frost’s aphorisms:
Or old English proverbs like
Easy to say when it’s not you that’s the one suffering. It sounds like irony in Dylan’s mouth – feels as if it’s done with a wry grin and a shrug of the shoulders. However, in the case of the artist Dylan, it is surely a truism? We usurers in the 1966 audience provoked such a response, it has to be true. It had even begun in 1965 before Dylan recorded this song.
In reality he is turning his own aphorism upside down to demonstrate what he has brought out in them. Whether pain in general has positive aspects is more than just a moot point – it is demonstrably untrue as a categorical statement for all seasons. But the way he sings doesn’t it recalls so easily the didn’t you at the end of you threw the bums a dime in your prime…
From the outset the singer evokes the emotional nature of their conversation by defying logic. In line 5 he is, presumably, still talking to us or to himself, when accepting a share of the blame – he destroyed what he had, or what they both once had. But as soon as he turns to her and to the new him, the recriminations fly: why’d you have to treat me so bad? This is a portrait of reality – it is easier to be self-critical than to take criticism from others, being oneself one’s own worst enemy. Hard not to blame her when she is flaunting his replacement.
Once in each verse he throws in one of these wonderfully convoluted lines, but all he really means is “you never told me”. And then he turns to the third person at the table: I see you’re still with her, meaning: hasn’t she tired of you yet? A put down and an unmissable implication that it’s only a matter of time, because she is inherently fickle. And what is her iron chain? Can anyone explain? If she can take it off it’s obviously something she wears. In each verse we discover more about her oddness in the words Dylan says to the friend in the cowboy hat.
On a personal level this verse makes all kinds of connections in my mind. It’s akin to the lonesome train whistle in the night that disturbs your dreams with imaginings and fears of dark woods and primeval caves. One morning, a long time ago, I was driving along in my car with ‘Desert Island Discs’ on the radio and the guest chose a 1935 recording of a song called ‘Trees’ by someone called Arthur Tracy. I’d never heard of Arthur Tracy or his song title, but as soon as it began (It goes: I thought that I should never see, a poem lovely as a tree) I knew it, because my dad used sing it all the time, and hearing it again induced a thousand weird childhood memories. Noel Coward had his own aphorism about ‘cheap music’ and its potency, and this verse of Dylan’s works like that for me.
The first three lines present a conundrum: exactly who is on trial here? Dylan or Miss-Ex? I ain’t the judge, you don’t have to be nice to me seems to imply that she is being nice to him, and that he is saying “It’s OK, don’t think twice, I’m not accusing you, or anything like that”. But a minute ago he was asking why she had treated him so bad, so he was a kind of judge. Maybe this line is more subtle than that – maybe he is saying to her that her attitude stinks? Because she knows and he knows and her friend in the cowboy hat knows that she doesn’t have to be nice to him: because he ain’t the judge, she is. In her eyes it is Dylan who is going up on trial. Maybe.
And the friend in the cowboy hat, who keeps saying everything twice is both the butt of Dylan’s sarcasm and his ultimate humiliation. Because for Dylan then, the essence of cool as he was, to be usurped by anyone so naff as to wear a cowboy hat, is the final twist of the corkscrew. Actually, it’s unbelievable, of course. But back then, it was unbelievable that Dylan would ever himself wear a cowboy hat (but the naffness endures, sadly).
The line that most engages me is:
Nick Hornby’s book ‘High Fidelity’ talks about this very tendency as an illustration of the gender divide. In it a girl friend asks the central character to tell her one thing about herself that he would like to change. His failure to come up with an answer is interpreted by her as an indication that he has little real interest in her, since everyone has faults, and he clearly has not noticed hers. She accuses him of being self-centred. Dylan clearly sees this not trying to change others as something positive. I never tried to change you in any way is a protestation of innocence. I would hazard a guess that most men would see it as a kindness and that most men also wonder why it is that their women are always trying to change them. It’s a male perspective: if you love me, why don’t you love me as I am? To which the female reply is: because I love you I want to make your life better, and if there is some pain in changing yourself well, pain sure brings out the best in people doesn’t it? There is a connection here to another song of the same period, “I’ll Keep It With Mine” – I’m loving you not for what you are.
After reminding her for a second time that she doesn’t have to stay, he turns on her friend again:
You can sense him spitting out this line. The angry contempt almost materialises in the air as you listen. The pause after the first ‘you’ is telling, it has the appreciation of the power of dialogue that you expect from a playwright. And again, in talking to the third corner of the triangle, we learn more about her. Must everybody bow? Suggests a woman who expects to be the centre of attention. And I find that her postcards of Billy the Kid use cultural baggage to define a person in the way that sheet-metal memories of Cannery Row does for the sad-eyed lady.
The opening lines of this stanza can be taken in at least two ways. They might refer back to the must everybody bow? of the previous verse – an acknowledgement of her self-perceived majesty as she inhabits a court where Dylan no longer pays homage. Alternatively it may be sexual metaphor – everyone goes up her stairs.
And I like the fact that San Francisco and El Paso are both the titles of songs by other artists. This may be pure coincidence but a heart is broken in Tony Bennett’s San Francisco and a cowboy dies in Marty Robbins’ El Paso.
The plot thickens. These four lines raise all kinds of questions. Who has done what to whom and why? Who did the leaving and who was the one left? Whose pain is the greater? If she didn’t have to be faithful, what’s the problem? Or is he defending his own infidelity by saying: “I wouldn’t have minded if you’d had someone else as well?” But, if so, why all the vituperation directed at the cowboy-hatted one? And why are her fingers going up his sleeve? (Great image that, you can just see her doing it) Why is she trying to bring him round if he has been in the felony room? All this confusion is the mirror reflection of the end of a complicated relationship. In its incomprehensibility lies its magic.
More cultural baggage with intimations of Captain Ahab and the Great White Whale. Is this instability or alcohol abuse? At least she’s not his responsibility now. And a nice use of the word ‘brow’ which could so easily be a ship’s bow.
I wonder how old you have to be to remember Charles Atlas? Or how young, not to have heard of the muscle man whose advertising signs conned you into thinking you didn’t have to get sand kicked into your face on the beach? In 1966, if anyone had heard the song (and, presumably, no-one outside the studio did), he or she would have known it referred to the strength needed to cope with all that sadness. I wonder how much sense this particular piece of cultural baggage makes to anyone born after, say, 1970?
Among the many, many things I don’t understand in Bob Dylan’s lyrics, are the three lines above. The warmth of Dylan’s voice on the slow ‘She’s Your Lover Now’ is palpable, despite the expressions of bitter contempt. So the first line here fits his sound. And maybe it’s true that a voice has no form other than on some kind of electronic graphing machine. But what does the incandescent ‘dead man’s last pistol shot’ refer to? Suicide? I can’t explain.
This juxtaposition reverses expectations, as if it were a non-cliched cliché. Because it’s the mouth that normally cries wolf when there is no wolf. But here it seems that she is face to face with some kind of wolf. A wolf that may be a lone wolf, or a wolf in sheep’s (or grandma’s) clothing, or merely a lady-killer – her eyes filled with desire?
Get back into a relationship with her? Is that how the eyes cry wolf? A “wolf in the stomach” is an old expression for hunger. A wolf is a man with an excessive sexual hunger. It seems that, finally, her fingers going up his sleeve express a desire of her own. The humiliation may, therefore, be hers and the cowboy-hatted one’s – if he is intelligent enough to realise it, which seems unlikely. And of course ‘you were just there, that’s all’ makes a re-appearance, almost word for word, in ‘One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later). Well, one of them must…
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Sorry I couldn’t create something more pertinent or more related to Freewheelin’s end times. It was good being with you – strangers though most of you are. Take care out there.
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