Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #79: Fourth Time Around

Author's note: Keep reading after this post for a special announcement.


As I'd noted in a previous post, I was a Beatles fan more or less from the beginning of my formulative period, when the interests that I'd have as an adult were being set into stone. As a voracious reader (way more so than now), I read a number of books about the Fab Four, and thus ran across the story of Dylan's meeting with the group in 1964 more than once. It really is remarkable, in retrospect - these two titans of music getting together to smoke some weed and have some giggles. The fact that they were such big fans of each other even before the encounter, with Dylan amazed by the Beatles' "outrageous" chords and the group spinning Freewheelin' multiple times in their hotel rooms, makes the encounter even more extraordinary and legendary. In a day and age where that sort of thing would have been made way, WAY too much of, it's kind of nice to hear about a casual evening where five incredibly talented men had a couple spliffs and then called it a night. And the story Paul McCartney tells about finding out the meaning of life and writing it down never fails to amuse me.*

One thing I remember reading about that encounter is that, from that particular moment, you could see the paths of both Dylan and the Beatles suddenly avert from where they had been heading, into newer and ultimately greater directions. For the Beatles, they began to move away from the catchy pop ditties they were writing about holding hands and so on, instead delving more into story-songs, ruminations on humanity (i.e. "Nowhere Man"), and eventually making the incredible masterpieces that their reputation primarily rests upon. And, for Dylan, he began to realize that there was more to music making than writing about Issues of The Day, and that there was something to be said for wearing snazzy suits from Carnaby Street. Just think - from that one encounter, we got "Like A Rolling Stone" AND "A Day In The Life". Not too shabby, eh?

Ah, if only history were that simple. To be honest, aside from the changes in fashion senses (Dylan trading in his jeans and work shirts for the finest in London haute couture, Lennon wearing that peaked cap to far less nifty effect), you can't really say that somehow this meeting of the minds proved to be the tipping point for two futures to irrevocably change - changing the world along with them. After all, the Beatles' craftsmanship in their earlier songs was so exceptional and unique that you could very easily assume that they would have had that breakthrough anyway - maybe the weed didn't hurt, but it's silly to suggest that they'd never have tried it were it not for Dylan and his Magical Stash. And Dylan, as we've seen, had already begun to delve more into the bizarre and nonsensical, as Another Side had been recorded a few months prior to the meeting. While the desire is there for that meeting to be some kind of logical springboard for Dylan and the Beatles, it simply didn't work out that way.

It rarely ever does. We always want to look at history as a completely linear sequence of events, where you can pick out patterns that allow everything to flow smoothly from one thing to the next, and where some sort of order can be discerned from everything that happens. With that in mind, it would make absolutely perfect sense for Dylan and the Beatles to have their lives changed forever by that one meeting, the same way that it would make perfect sense for, say, Lou Gehrig's career to have been launched solely by Wally Pipp getting sick (actually not true, but whatever), or for World War I starting simply because the Archduke of Austria and his wife happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If we can simplify things, we can better process them and make sense of what's happened to us as a human race. Unfortunately, things are never that easy, and our existence is all the tougher for it. Things don't always happen for a reason.

And, when you get down to it, we tend to place emphasis on particular instances in time because we like events to mean more than they do - people, in general, are fans of being able to point to something and say "(x) happened because of that". And that, also, is incredibly rare in human history. I'd love to be able to say that the meeting in August 1964 between Bob Dylan and the Beatles changed the face of popular music, sending Dylan off into the world of dictionary-twisting wildness and the Beatles into a grand future where The White Album was possible to be made. But I can't. Still, I can look back on that meeting with a smile on my face, because it's the sort of thing that we can wish had that kind of power, where we can ascribe so much to it because there's already so much already there. Arguably the greatest musician who ever lived shared a weed-filled evening of laughs with arguably the greatest band that ever lived. I think that's good enough.

* for those that don't know, McCartney got so stoned at one point that he thought he'd discovered the secret of the universe and told roadie Mal Evans to write down his incredible realization - only to find, in the morning, that the only thing written down was "there are seven levels". How very Douglas Adams.


So the obvious reason for the lead-in there is because "Fourth Time Around", according to lots of people (including John Lennon himself, at various points in his life) is meant to be an homage/send-up/maybe some of both of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)", one of the highlights of Rubber Soul. It's kind of ironic that Dylan would be goofing on a song from Rubber Soul, commonly considered the Beatles' "weed album" and certainly the most adult album they'd recorded up to that point. And you can certainly see where everybody's coming from on that; the subject matter is slightly similar, and Dylan's harmonica work has faint echoes of George Harrison's famous (and kinda ham-handed, but he can be forgiven there) sitar playing. What the heck, maybe all those Dylan parodies Lennon wrote later in his life were for just cause after all.

I never really subscribed to that theory, and not just because I'm not as paranoid as Lennon could be (Lennon definitely had his moments in that regard). I mean, I'm not going to deny that the verse structures have their similarities, or that Dylan may have had the song in mind; after all, the similarity became more pronounced when Dylan performed it acoustically during the '66 tour. But, to me, that's really where the similarities ended - Dylan's song is much more of his own style, not so much about telling a story as it is about setting a particular mood and seeing it through. Sure, we get a tale, but it's so out-there and blatantly fantastical that it can only really be taken allegorically (what that allegory is, well, is up for debate). "Norwegian Wood" is much more straightforward - we get the couple meeting up in her apartment, talking - and only talking - until late at night, the unsatisfied man passing out in her bathtub, awakening to find her gone, and then burning the place down. There may be an allegory there, especially if you think about the life of a musician out on the road, but the focus is more on telling the story.

For many of those that like to play "spot the meaning" in Dylan's songs, the line that everybody focuses on is where Dylan says "I never asked for your crutch/so don't ask for mine". The two competing theories there are 1) he's singing about Lennon, and 2) he's singing about Joan Baez. I mean, both of them make sense - Dylan surely could have felt that Lennon was leaning too much on the songwriting style that he had developed to make his leap into more "adult" songwriting fare, and we can talk about Baez fitting in there until we're collectively blue in the face. Never mind that Dylan certainly leaned on Baez in the early stages of his career in order to build his following; we certainly know that Baez tried a little too hard to have the favor returned when Dylan took off like a rocket, and still tries a little too hard to this day. No matter which of them he's singing about, it's a pretty powerful statement to say to anybody.

Here's the thing about those two theories - they kind of ignore the 95% percent of the song that precedes those two lines, as though the part about crutches exists entirely within a vacuum. So if you look at the song as a whole, here's what you get: woman basically gives man a truckload of shit, man takes it with wry good humor even while getting clawed at (I love the bit about the gum), woman finally passes out from strain of giving man shit, and man heads off into safety of new woman, or whoever might actually love this man. On one level, you have a typical story of a man getting out of a nasty relationship and finding solace in the arms of another woman, all the while cautioning her to not ask for too much from him. But if I think about the song on a different level, I always find myself coming back to the first woman saying "don't waste/your words, they're just lies", and to that woman breaking him down and saying "what else you got left" (a mirror of "It's Alright, Ma"?), and to him standing in the dirt where everyone walked, and I get a different picture. I suddenly see him talking about his new life as a folk musician, dealing with an audience that hates the new words he's saying (to the point where he calls them "deaf" for not hearing what he's saying, maaaan), being taken in by a new audience that took to him the moment he made his turn to electric music...and warning them about asking too much from him, the same way his formerly adoring folk fans did. How's that for an interpretation?

Yeah, you're right - there's a ton of holes in it, and that's why I can't take myself too seriously when I search for these kinds of hidden meanings. I prefer to just be taken in by the music, that gentle guitar riff washing in and out like the tides, the beat playing both arrhythmically and perfectly in time, Dylan's mouth harp playfully squeezing itself in every chance it gets. And I'd rather listen to Dylan's words, both sharply funny and ethereally out of reach, like a dangling rope that you can never quite put your outstretched fingers on. It's better to think of the song that way - you don't want to get caught up in figuring out if Dylan's aiming his rapier at anyone.


As my posts on Blonde on Blonde are reaching their conclusion, I thought that I'd like to try something a little different before moving on to something even more different. So starting March 16th, Every Bob Dylan Song will be publishing a special series on the 1966 World Tour. Monday will feature an article I wrote about "Tell Me Mama" a number of years back - in fact, it's very much the prototype of what would eventually become this site. Wednesday will feature a special guest post from commenter extraordinare and friend of the blog Justin Shapiro. And Friday will be the long-teased column by me about the 1966 Tour. Hope you'll look forward to reading them and enjoying them!

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Anonymous said...

You ought to slot in Positively 4th Street and Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window, at this point. Unless we are going to have to wait for Biograph...

Cymbaline said...

One thing I appreciate with Bob's lyrics is how well he twists descriptions of mundane acts. A good example is in this song-

" I filled up my shoe and brought it to you"-

at least I THINK it means-put on my shoes and came over to your place:)

Your future blog ideas sound intriguing and am looking forward to it!

danhofstra said...

Your blog is so awesomely reading it everyday!

icex2008 said...

To begin with, how do you get "burning the place down" from "I lit a fire"? When I was younger, I figured it to mean he started a fire in the fireplace. As I got older, I decided that the singer could be doing the same thing that Dylan & the Beatles did during that legendary meeting you described earlier in the article. In during our endless late night college discussions, we figured that Norwegian Wood was a slang for pot. Also, Dylan seems to think that the "theft" was from the other direction. He previewed an early version of the song for Lennon on a visit to England before the Beatles recorded "Rubber Soul" which is why when Dylan heard "Norwegian Wood", he titled his song "4th Time Around". Makes a lot of sense if you think about it (especially if you're doing what the Dylan & the Beatles were doing together in August of '64!!)

kevin cramsey said...

Some interesting ascertions, I especially like the one geared toward Dylan talking to his folk audience. But in the end, I think, as you yourself seem to realize, we'll never know and Dylan will never tell us. I often think he's just putting wordplay together for his own amusement and doesn't know what the heck he's really driving at. He's pretty well said as much in interviews over the years. In his liner notes to "Biograph," he basically says he decided not to release "Caribbean Wind" because it had so many ideas and feelings in it that he kind of lost track of what it was even remotely about. Something like that., anyway. I think of "Fourth Time Around" as a comic relief, albeit twisted, black comedy at that.

Anonymous said...

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

max said...

* for those that don't know, McCartney got so stoned at one point that he thought he'd discovered the secret of the universe and told roadie Mal Evans to write down his incredible realization - only to find, in the morning, that the only thing written down was "there are seven levels". How very Douglas Adams.

probably the funniest thing I've heard

really said...

great interpretation of dylans folk/rock transition. i got here through trying to interpret it strictly in dylan to lennon narrative
like the woman is the failed relationship and the you as lennon
(picture of john in a wheelchair,
johns handicaps? limitations). then i decided to just enjoy the odd six beat song and intricate guitar playing that makes norwegian wood simplistic by comparison... and dylan simply genius.

ghost of electricity said...

I have recently discovered your blog and reading through it has been a joy. I do hope you find it in you to get back to writing...
Not knowing about Lennon's views up until now, I always thought the song is Dylan's take on what was (at the time) a huge milestone for the Beatles. The harmonica line recalls the sitar, the chord progression is almost identical. One can even sing FTA to NW's melody, it works quite well.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there, thank you for posting this interesting and extensive essay. When you have finished reading follow us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.