Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #84: Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?

For all of the trail blazing that Bob Dylan did in the first stage of his career, expanding the ideas of what you could do with music both in terms of length and subject matter far more than any other musician, it's worth remembering that in many ways he was writing about the same stuff as many other musicians of his time were. Sure, he was writing about those things in wildly different ways (I'd daresay that Mick Jagger never thought to use the same wordplay Dylan did - well, at least until he wrote "Jigsaw Puzzle"), but there were still a fair share of jilted love and non-jilted love songs scattered across the discography of the Electric Trilogy, not to mention the folk songs that dealt with topics that many other lesser folk musicians were writing about. And this is definitely not a knock - I mean, if there are (supposedly) only seven basic plotlines that every story/movie/what have you draw from, then surely Dylan can be forgiven for touching on the same subject matter in his songs. Like any good film, it isn't so much the subject matter as what you do with it; even the most basic underdog story can take flight in the hands of a master craftsman.

And so, with "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?", we get master craftsman Bob Dylan taking on the time-worn conceit of "your man doesn't appreciate you, you need to get away". What's interesting about this song is that Dylan's narrator never actually says "you need to get away...and come to ME", which is where a lot of these songs tend to go lyrically. In fact, the narrator even says "you can go back to him any time you want to", an odd suggestion given what a real jerkwad the boyfriend (or whoever - controlling father, maybe?) that's holding this woman down. I mean, he even mentions how the woman's "face is so bruised", a really uncomfortable image that gets tossed off almost casually by Bob. That actually makes the song a lot more interesting that maybe it should be - why is Bob saying this stuff? This guy is clearly an asshole, and yet Dylan says "you can leave him, no prob - hell, you can go back to him, if you want to"? Maybe that's where all that "Dylan = woman-hater" business came from.

Perhaps that's the reason why "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" doesn't have quite the same reputation as the other singles of this era (I've always found it odd that somehow this got A-side status, especially given any other number of options). It's a really odd duck of a song, mainly because those lyrics are so wickedly incisive - as they tended to be during this time - but somewhat conceptually muddled, thanks to that "you can go back to him" bit. Perhaps Dylan's trying to make a point about how women can find it so difficult to escape from an ugly relationship, no matter how gigantic an asshole the man in question is, or how badly the woman in question is treated; the "Trailer Trash Woman On Cops" theory, as it were. And this is certainly a true point - any of us can point to someone we know that found themselves trapped in a horrible relationship, knowing full well that their situation is a wreck, and yet unable to extricate themselves out of some misguided sense of duty, or perhaps just because they love that person, no matter how horrible they are. Somehow, though, I don't think so - the jaunty arrangement Dylan whipped up, with that organ that zips in like a flash of lightning, kind of belies any more sympathetic sentiments you'd like to tie to the song. Even when Dylan's singing "don't say it will ruin you/please, don't say it will haunt you", it sounds more like an annoyed exhortation than any attempt at comfort. Amazingly, Dylan spends the whole song knocking the man, and yet the woman comes off just as bad. The little snippet from "Positively 4th Street" he tacks on at the end, apparently just for funsies, doesn't help matters much.

Then again, it might just be a matter of perception. Not too long after the release of the song, Jimi Hendrix covered the song with the Experience on one of his many BBC sessions (it can be found on the official release), and would cover the song live as well. He gives the song the usual heavy Experience treatment, sacrificing some of the more charming aspects of the original (like that nifty organ, of course) for a heavier attack, allowing his still-astounding guitar chops to carry the day, and singing with that charmingly amateur voice he'd have his entire career. But - and here's the important part - while singing the lyrics from the song exactly as written, with absolutely no change at all, it still feels more playful, like he's being cheeky about it, but not in the same nasty way Dylan's being cheeky about it. And yes, there is a difference - there's a very fine line between being a smartass, and being an ass. So you have Hendrix, who wrote psychedelic-tinged songs without much meanness to them, and you have Dylan, who couldn't walk down a street in 1965 without coming up with a song with at least some meanness to it, performing the same song in very different ways. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Dylan's version is going to come off as the meaner one. That's just how perception works.

What makes Dylan's career so fascinating is just how these dichotomies work - the fact that so much analysis of his writing and his lyrics stems entirely from the perceptions we place upon him, and upon the inevitable biases that spring up from those perceptions. We then see things in his career because we expect to see them, which can make things quite handy, but often might pay him shorter shrift than we mean to. It's sort of like how Street Legal takes a critical beating because the arrangements are often overblown, which also leads into criticism of the 1978 world tour (thanks mainly to the Budokan live album, which honestly isn't that great), in which Dylan's back catalog received the same Michael Bay-style treatment. Never mind that Street Legal has some of the greatest lyrics Dylan ever wrote, or that the 1978 world tour has some really fantastic performances if you want to find them (although I will say that my favorite performances are entirely from the tour rehearsals). We have the ideas we know about Bob, and we go with them. I'm as guilty of that as the next guy - it's human nature, when you get down to it. We just have to try to do the best we can to avoid that pitfall, every chance we can.

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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite song...of all time.

anon said...

great analysis of an amazing song. my guess is that the "jerk" was inspired by andy warhol and the lass needing to crawl out her window by edie sedgewick. she left too late and did not crawl far enough.

kevin cramsey said...

Never cared much for this song. It is mean-spiried and just not very pleasant.

Phil Ochs famously criticized the song upon release, essentially saying it just didn't have the chops that Dylan's two previous singles had. Dylan, thin-skinned and egocentric, shunned Ochs from this moment on -- wrote him off. But Ochs was right. The song's a dog. I'm not sure Dylan has ever played it in concert, adding credence to the fact that he, too, came to realize that Ochs was right. -- Kevin C., Reading, Pa.

anon said...

Poor Phil Ochs' critical acuity was, to say the least, limited.

Anonymous said...

hi, it's zimfreud....i just want to call attention to
the opening line..."fist full of tacks"...this to me is pure dylan genius...not "handful of tacks", but fist full, the very act of making a fist is the last thing one does when holding tacks....and so we see this character, not only filled with hatred, but turning the hatred upon himself in a very self-destructive way...it's no wonder ochs didn't care for this particular song (phil can you please crawl out my limo?)....zimfreud

Josh Perry said...

I'm a huge fan of the thin wild mercury version. check it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLeutT09Vnk