Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #75: Just Like A Woman

For many years I was in the camp of "Dylan at his most misogynistic" when it came to this song. And, honestly, could you really blame me? We already know that the Dylan of the Electric Trilogy had plenty of things to say about the women in his life, and was not afraid to say them, albeit in his own way. Then you have a song like "Just Like A Woman", which seemingly casts aside the more poetic aspects of Dylan's lyricism and just gets straight to the point - not only is the woman in question a horrible, needy succubus, but all women by default act that way. And not only that, but Dylan takes a shot at little girls, too! It seems like a small wonder that this song has come under protest - and it's kind of nice, in a way, that for once Bob cuts out all the weird nonsense and comes right out with what a jackass he is.

Thankfully, I figured out not too long ago that the lyrics don't have to be taken that way, and it makes the song a lot easier to listen to. Obviously you can take them that way if you want to, and that is the always-present genius of Bob's lyrics (that they're open to such interpretation). And the song does remain interesting if you take it as a screed against womanhood and their many foibles, although then you get that nasty edge that people have such a problem with. But if you take a different tack and interpret Dylan talking about maturity and not just about women in general (i.e. "you make love just like a woman" meaning that she makes love like a grown-up, not just like a female per se), then the song becomes more intimate and personal, more about a singular person that hasn't managed to grow up yet and, from the narrator's perspective, probably never will. And that becomes less a song worthy of women's rights groups calling Bob names, and more a song about the pain of love gone wrong.

To me, it's the last verse that always stings the most, when Bob says "please don't let on/that you knew me when/I was hungry and it was your world". That speaks, to me at least, about one of the hardest things to do once a relationship has ended - meeting up with your ex again, especially in public, and trying to put a brave face on a tremendously difficult situation. I always wonder, in a way, if this is why so many people argue against going from being friends with the opposite sex to starting a relationship with that person. If the relationship falls apart, the friendship is inevitably jeopardized - I mean, how hard would it be for you to go from watching movies with somebody to sleeping with them to having to decide if you want to watch movies with them again? It's a damn hard thing to get over, and I have lost people in my life that I truly enjoyed spending time with when things got too awkward.

In the case of "Just Like A Woman", though, it's even more poignant because the narrator has moved on not only from the relationship in general, but from the person that he was during that relationship. We all know that having relationships at a younger, less mature age is a rite of passage in our lives, sort of a test run for the deeper and more meaningful relationships we will have as we grow older and wiser. And we also know that, at certain times, we'll enter relationships we should not, if only because we don't know what we're doing and haven't acquired the necessary experience to say "you know, I think I'll steer clear of this one". Dylan's narrator, in a way, is telling us that the woman he's singing about had him in that kind of relationship, that he didn't know better at the time, and that he finally wised up and got away from this train wreck before it was too late. And now, if they ever meet again, he wants her to keep their relationship a secret, because he's just that ashamed. I don't know about you, but that's some pretty cold shit.

You listen to the song, hearing that famous trilling guitar line, the organ floating cloud-like across the mix, and Dylan using a less vicious vocal attack than usual, and it's hard to believe that a song that sounds so sweet could be so callous and cruel. And yet the lyrics paint the picture for you so easily; the ribbons falling from her hair like a beautiful painting that's cracked and sloughing with age; the woman placed on the pedestal she carved herself, lost in a drug-induced haze; and, finally, that hypothetical meeting in the future, when all he wants is for her to pretend she doesn't know his name. And you know that those feelings can only come from a place of hurt and sorrow - you can try to speak with as much distance as you can muster, but there's only so much pretending you can do without speaking directly from the gut. I'd hate to be somebody that makes a man like Bob speak from the gut like that.

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18 comments:

Matt Brown said...

A great reading of the song, I think, that moves beyond the knee-jerk reaction of "misogyny." Like all (or at least most) of his songs, this too works on a much more complicated level than it seems at the outset. And I think Tony has helped get at that.

It is interesting that this song came up on the list now because the other day I was talking with my wife, who usually patiently endures my devotion to Dylan. She has become quite a fan herself, to be honest; she has seen the light, I say. But I asked her if she could identify my 5 favorite BD songs. (I told her that 4 of them are pretty much set; the fifth rotates now and then.) She did very well and got 3 of them, 4 with a little help from me.

She then turned the table on me and asked if I could ID her fave five. I did less well. But I was struck to find out that one of her favorites, maybe even her absolute favorite, is "Just Like a Woman." I didn't ask why, but now that I've read this post I will ask her and find out what she likes about it. Maybe insights into the issues Dylan raises from a woman's perspective?

Gary said...

I have always , and I first head the song when it was released, as a song about a relationship with a certain person, not about 'women' in general. As he does in many songs, Idiot Wind comes to mind, you think as he is lambasting someone that is is nothing but nasty until he includes himself, usually as someone with failures and weaknesses also. Also the performance of the original is so tender, that it balances out the hostility he expresses.

Anonymous said...

I criticised your ramblings regarding 'One of us must know' a few weeks back but this is a good read so well done.

Anonymous said...

SOOO glad you didn't go the misogyny route; i never heard that in this wonderful song. i myself am female, and when i heard the misogyny interpretation i just couldn't relate to it at all, but i sort of tried to. after hearing the 1966 acoustic performances of this gem - which i'm sure you'll get to - any traces of anti-woman sentiment were dashed in my mind. the line you referenced from the third verse is a priceless materialization of this.

i was actually listening it to it this morning & thinking that some arguments about JLAW's misogyny apparently stem from "knowledge" about dylan's personal life, relationships, etc. however, dylan seems to me like the epitome of a very layered & complex person & artist - who's to say he can't feel the things sung about in this song even as he gallivants around with a rotating cocktail of women? it's contradictory, but so are human beings. & anyway, we are doing ourselves as well as dylan a great disservice by assuming that bob dylan is the narrator of the song, as this is so often not the case in his work. just because we know dylan was kind of an ass hole doesn't mean that's all he is, & also doesn't mean that the narrator of JLAW is the shades- & boots-wearing insult-hurling hipster of 1966.

to me, it's the 1966 performance that seals the deal: JLAW has always just been about two people who have loved but inevitably hurt each other immensely. this doesn't mean there can't be some kind of edge to the song: the narrator may well be trying to hurt his former lover, but it comes across as a desperate attempt to injure that is foiled by his love for her, & that's what i like about it. really, it's just a truly beautiful, heartbreaking song. nice work acknowledging that.

Anonymous said...

I think another interesting interpetation is what Dylan himself had to say about the song in an interview with Songwriter Magazine, in which he says it is not exactly about a woman at all but "a city." New York, obviously then, if we take his cue.
Of course it is hard to tell whether Bob was just putting the interviewer on, as he is often wont to do, or if he was writing it as a metaphor for his struggling days in New York, but if you think about it a while, it does fit, at least to some extent.

Anonymous said...

Don't spoil your analysis by submitting it to gender politics. We have a duty to despise the women who hurt us and they have the same prerogative. Would you have a similarly censorious attitude to a woman composer who described the behaviour of her male lover as like a little boy's? I don't think so, yet we universally are. I am in love with a woman for whom 'her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls' is not just an accurate description, but a rapt and adoring one, and sometimes she's the same woman 'who speaks like silence', just a little further along her path.

Bonne continuation!

Abe Hawari said...

Misogyny, schmisogyny, this song is nothing compared to some of the records being put out today.

maine character said...

It gets to me, as well, whenever anyone gets down on this song for being against women in some way. It also amazes me when people take the song literally. ‘Cause the song is not about a woman, but about a drug. You can hear this most clearly in the “Before the Flood” live version, where he’s speaking from further down the road.

The album starts off with “Rainy Day Women,” which is about the biblical version of getting “stoned,” but is also tongue-in-cheek about getting high. A “Rainy Day Woman” would be a joint saved for a rainy day.

That sounds like a stretch, but Dylan uses “rain” for drugs often. Like a couple songs later, he’s hanging out with friends in a loft at night and “Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it.” Passing him a joint as he sits there, writing about what he sees and hears as the visions conquer his mind.

A couple songs later “the rainman gave me two cures,” and “it strangled up my mind” and “I have no sense of time.”

Later on we have him asking, “Where are you tonight, sweet Marie?”, looking for someone to bring him a bag, just like in the album before this he says that he’s tired of himself and all of his creations, and so “Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?”

So there you have Marie and Jane – Mary Jane. One is sweet and one’s a queen. And he goes to the queen when “you want somebody you don't have to speak to.” Meaning a drug, not a woman. It’s a theme that repeats in “Empire Burlesque,” and it’s all through this song.

First it starts off letting you know he’s stoned – “Nobody feels any pain / Tonight as I stand inside the rain.” He’s enthralled by the drug, how she takes him in and embraces him, but then the high drops and “she breaks just like a little girl.”

Then you have the drug imagery of “her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls,” (referenced in U2's song of heroin abuse, "Running to Stand Still") and then it’s back to the rain: “It was raining from the first,” and he goes for it, and while “your long-time curse” of addiction hurts, “what's worse / is this pain in here.”

Again he tries to get off it, saying, “Yes, I believe it's time for us to quit.” And knows that he’ll be at a party or backstage somewhere and someone will offer him something – “When we meet again / Introduced as friends” – he doesn’t want anyone to know how strung out he was: “Please don't let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world.” Meaning the drugs made over the world, and that was all he saw.

Your analysis is better than most – certainly better than one I read in a biography in which some critic said it was about birth – but again, you have to see the song from the songwriter’s point of view. He was often alone, and we know he was smoking and much more, and in that situation the drug becomes your mistress – the woman you want to see that night. Even when you know she isn’t good for you.

I’ve never read of this view on the song before, but I happened upon your blog here by accident, looking to see if anyone had posted the Patti Smith radio show on Dylan anywhere, and thought I’d just chime in with that. Thanks.

maine character said...

Almost forgot, there's also this line in the song: "Queen Mary, she's my friend." So there's Queen Mary and Queen Jane, and for a while they inspired him like no woman before.

Abe Hawari said...

I think you're looking a little too much into it, man, but that's really interesting to think about. I never saw the connection between Marie and Jane.

Anonymous said...

I never thought of it as misogynistic at all, and I'm a feminist. :) I always thought it was about the contrast between maturity and immaturity as well. I also never thought it was particularly scathing or cruel. I hear a certain tenderness in the song. When he says "please don't let on that you knew me ..." it seems to me that he doesn't want to deal with the pain of failure and loss, not that he wants to pretend he never knew her because of her flaws. It's certainly interesting reading the different interpretations. Personally, I tend to let this song wash over me like a dream. It has huge sentimental value to me and I think it's one of his best, just sublime. Maybe I'm just not paying enough attention to the words!

everysongsaboutagirl.com said...

Very interesting article, one of the more thoughtful comment sections I have seen on a website.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Blonde On Blonde rated & discussed

Anonymous said...

Great analysis. I would like to point out one additional thing that I recently realized about the song. The use of the word "break" has a double if not triple meaning. Where "break" means breaking off a relationship. As in this woman breaks off relationships like she's a teenager.

mrmorris50 said...

great blog. i've always believed just like a woman was written about a man - baby can't be blessed,
Queen mary, she's my friend,
you fake just like a woman.

just a thought, but that is my theory, best wishes

Sans Souci said...

As someone else said, I am a feminist too and I don't hear misogny in the lyrics. I have written some scathing, desperate, sarcastic, wistful, plaintive things about men that I have loved and lost and they are in no way ever intended to be about ALL men. It's just my experience with one person. And those words are a snapshot in time; ask me 10 months or 10 years later and I would write something completely different - who hasn't felt this way about their failed relationships.

The line "she breaks like a little girl" sounds utterly tender to me, not misogynistic. Maybe it is meant to be deprecating but to me, it sounds like he sees her faults and they aren't going to make it, but he also sees her vulnerability too. It sounds sad but tender to me.

Anonymous said...

Then you must not have heard, better yet, watched Richie Havens rendition. A particular bit of footage I have from a Bob Dylan Anniversay Concert is where I found this performance and it's no exaggeration when I say... it brings me to tears EVERY time I see it.

Moose said...

I have always heard this song as tender and more about loss and heartbreak then any sort of revenge or misogynist feelings. I think the simple fact that this song has been covered so sweetly by the aforementioned Havens and Joe cocker as well dispels that notion