Ladies on Blonde on Blonde

The most viewed post on this blog has been the one on “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, so here are a couple of posts about that song and other ladies on “Blonde on Blonde”, taken from my book “Understanding Bob Dylan” which focuses on literary archetypes Dylan has used. First, here are the ladies:

The ladies treat me kindly

While “Blonde on Blonde” ends with one sad-eyed lady, there are plenty of other references to suspicious women and ladies on the album. But before we come to that, let’s take a moment to appreciate one of Dylan’s best-loved songs, “Visions of Johanna”, and realize how much creative energy went into its composition. Among other things, “Visions of Johanna” is about the night, which makes three appearances in the first two verses. As most people in the western hemisphere (or at least those who have any appreciation of music) know, the song starts:

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?

“Ain’t it just the night to play tricks”? Well is it or ain’t it? Is that, like, a rhetorical question? Don’t we already all know that it’s just like the night to play tricks when we’re trying to be so quiet? Or is this Dylan just playing tricks with this kick-assonanced line, full of “t”s,”s”s and “k”s, so by the time we get to the end of the second line we do feel kind of stranded:

We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

Thirteen “t”s. four “st”s and one almost “st” (sit), a half rhyme on “night” and “quiet” and “deny it”, a quarter rhyme on “like” and night”, even a rhyme on “ain’t it” and “sit”, all in two lines – not bad! But, back to the question, “ain’t it just like night to play tricks”? It is, because the night playing tricks, in the context of all the other sexual references on Blonde on Blonde refers to the slang meaning of the term, which is the sexual act between a prostitute and customer. Dylan is not alone in imagining the night as a prostitute, e.e. cummings went there in “Paris”, published in 1928:

this April sunset completely utters
utters serenely silently a cathedral

before whose upward lean magnificent face
the streets turn young with rain…

there and here the lithe indolent prostitute
Night, argues

with certain houses

If it wasn’t enough to have the most alliterative two lines in history starting the song, Dylan takes us back to the night playing tricks in the second verse:

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane.

OK Bob, that’s a clever internal rhyme the – night playing tricks and the night watchman clicking his flashlight, but did you really have to be such a show-off and introduce a third internal rhyme in the third line of the song:

Lights flicker from the opposite loft

Night-light-trick-flick-click. This sensational use of internal rhyming and alliteration just shows us how good Dylan is at writing great sounding songs. But if Visions of Johanna had stopped there, it wouldn’t have fascinated us all for the last almost 40 years. It’s the themes that Dylan weaves through the song and the album that have made it stick (or click) – themes which have been among the most common in western literature for several hundred years. Here I focus on ladies of the night, and in later chapters look at how the song has drawn on other literary traditions such as insomnia literature.

Groups of powerful ladies are a literary archetype, for example the Amazons and the Valkyries, the witches in Macbeth, or, another modern day version, the witches in Philip Pulman’s “The Golden Compass”.[1] Dylan’s ladies come from a long line of groups of women on the outskirts of society who, like prostitutes, challenge to social norms.

On “Visions of Johanna” there’s the all-night girls, also known as ladies of the night. We know what kinds of escapades the all-night girls are whispering about on the “D” train. Why should they be staying up all night, and didn’t the D train go through what was one of the sleaziest part of Greenwich Village? And incidentally, when was “all-night” an adjective, or even a word?

But “Blonde on Blonde” is full of ladies – to use that anachronistic word of which Dylan is fond – from the first track to the last. The “they” (they’ll stone you when you do this or that) on the raucous “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”, the first track of “Blonde on Blonde” are the first group of ladies we encounter, and the album ends with that much misunderstood sad-eyed lady of the lowlands. And in-between we have (from “Stuck Inside of Mobile”):

The ladies treat me kindly/And furnish me with tape/But deep inside my heart/I know I can’t escape

And don’t forget about the Queen of Spades (perhaps from Robert Johnson’s “Queen of Spades”[2]), the French girl, mothers weeping, the debutante, the countess, Madonna, Mona Lisa, Mona, Ruthie, Sweet Marie and the ladies playing blind man’s bluff (on “Visions of Johanna”) among others. We have already been introduced to many other ladies by the time we come across the sad-eyed lady in the album’s last track.

[1] See P. Brunel (1992)(ed.) Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. London: Routledge.

[2] Johnson recorded “Little Queen of Spades” in 1937, and no-one needs a reminder about…..


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