Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #39: Spanish Harlem Incident

In a funny way, if Another Side of Bob Dylan is meant to be Dylan's transition album from the straightforward and simple to the wild and poetic, "Spanish Harlem Incident" is an actual transition song, where you see Dylan with one foot in the surreal world of the Electric Trilogy and one foot in the more conventional lyrical styles of the acoustic albums. That would be enough to make the song an interesting listen, but it's also incredibly charming to listen to; even if Dylan wasn't singing to anybody in particular, the lyrics are so captivating that you could be forgiven for thinking that he was. There are some Dylan songs that I wish he'd taken a pair of scissors to, but this is the opposite; "Spanish Harlem Incident" could have been a minute longer and I'd enjoy it just as much.

I try not to talk too much about Dylan's guitar style because it tends to go over my head and I'm a novice at the instrument (even after over a decade of playing), but Dylan's playing on this song manages to be quite interesting indeed. He plays a nifty little cascading riff after the first and second verse that adds to the song; in a musical sense, it adds to the swirling, mystic feel of that gypsy gal dancing in the streets of Harlem. Short of bringing in a flute player or some violins or something, that's as close to a band feel as Dylan's acoustic songs really get, and I appreciate the flourish Dylan brings to the song. Simply bashing out the chords (as is his occasional wont) wouldn't have suited the tune.

But it's the lyrics, of course, that are the real draw, and you can see that all the Rimbaud, drugs, and change in attitude had paid off; Dylan could paint a picture with words before, but never has the picture looked so blurry and dreamy. You can really see the gypsy's feet on fire as she reads his palms, see the narrator's pale face reflected in the moon of a dark night as he stares at those flashing diamond teeth, and hear those drums rattling somewhere in the distance. I'm still not entirely sure what "cliffs of your wildcat charms" is all about, but it really does sound beautiful, does it not? Dylan really captures the feelings of first love and romantic infatuation in those three verses, and does it in a way where those feelings manage to feel even more ethereal than they actually are.

Love stories come in all different shapes and sizes, but the general gist behind them is almost always the same: some ineffable, indescribable attraction developed between two people, and then good things happened. Let's leave aside the "friends becoming more" scenario, because the never happens in real life. Nobody ever immediately falls in love with a person in a rational or logical sense; I seriously doubt you've met somebody and thought "well, that person's genes would intermingle well with mine to produce children both intelligent and attractive; perhaps if I procure this lady's telephone number we could have further liaisons leading towards sweet matrimony", and if you have, I feel sorry for you. Love is many things (a burning thing, a many-splendored thing, hell, etc.), but one thing it generally isn't is rational or logical. We all have a general idea of what makes the perfect mate for us, but rarely do we ever get that; if I found a woman that liked the Red Sox, Dylan's 1966 tour, Clerks, Mikhail Tal's chess games, and Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, I'd either think I'd died and gone to heaven or she was a cyborg sent from the future to kill me. For the vast majority of us, in general love comes first, and then you sweat the small stuff like whether or not the person you've fallen for likes Scorcese films and walks on the beach.

"Spanish Harlem Incident" brilliantly captures the illogical side, the one that sees something beautiful and reacts accordingly, with no thought of "is this woman right for me?" or "will she feed me when I'm sick?" or other such legitimate concerns. After all, flaming feet a-burning up in the streets won't help pay the water bill, pearly eyes don't care if your back needs a massage, and flashing diamond teeth aren't gonna decide if you can afford law school for your 2nd child when you've still got at least a year of mortgage payments due. Those images will, however, inflame your heart with passion and set your mind spinning with lust and desire. Any song that reminds me of those feelings is a song I'm going to hold on to.

PS: Remember the very last post where I talked about Dylan sounding inebriated on "Black Crow Blues"? It's even more pronounced here; if anything, Dylan sounds like he's in a controlled state of sleep, which actually helps the song - his sleepiness adds to the ethereal unreality of the song, as though he's in the middle of a dream and singing out what he sees in the midst of the REM stage. I chose the previous post to talk about drunkenness over this one because this song had something more interesting (to me, at least), to talk about. Just FYI.

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Anonymous said...

Ew, Clerks. It was never in the cards for you and me, Tony.

It never fails to blow my mind how Dylan's elastic delivery finds a way to make "pitch black" and "make my" rhyme. (I think it was Paul Williams who wrote about that.) Plus the sexual imagery in that verse makes me blush even more than does Temporary Like Achilles.

Moose said...

This song continues to be one of my favorites. Like you, I think it reminds me of things too whimsical and dangerous to last but hold a fond memory anyway. The image that comes to mind regarding your cliffs and wildcat charms is someone in the throes of love (or lust) and not really paying attention to what they're doing. Any misstep would send them off a figurative cliff.

And I realize it's been 4 years since a comment on this page, but I'm hoping to spark a resurgence in your writing. Even if not, I hope you get these comments somehow.

Moose said...

Oh, and I cannot believe he's only performed it once.

David George Freeman said...

Yes another great analysis. Read enough, then come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/588/Spanish-Harlem-Incident and listen to all the great versions of this and every song now.

Anonymous said...

Could he be singing about the enchantment of a drug? Reminds me a bit of Odysseus.