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What does a Nobel prize winner do at 4 in the morning?

Well it’s four in the morning by the sound of the birds
I’m starin’ at your picture, I’m hearin’ your words
Baby, they ring in my head like a bell

So sings Dylan in “Under Your Spell”. So if you’re Dylan likelihood is you’ll be awake and listening to the birds and writing your next song.

Dylan comes in a long line of poets and singers who have taken inspiration from birds early in the morning, and identified with birds as singers. Here’s a section from “Understanding Bob Dylan” on this literary tradition. And if you want to read more about poets such as Rudyard Kipling, Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney and Bob Dylan gazing out their windows in the night and hearing the sound of birds, buy a copy of “Understanding Bob Dylan”. Continue reading


Now available on Kindle

Understanding Bob Dylan is now available on Kindle. Go to to download a copy

Sad-Eyed Lady and the literary tradition

Here’s the second post about “Sad-Eyed Lady” from my book “Understanding Bob Dylan”. Who knew that it fits sweetly into an age old tradition about writing on women’s bodies. For those of you interested in the meaning of this song, read on….


Perhaps “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” isn’t drivel after all!!! And, as it turns out, the song fits sweetly into a long tradition of “love” poems known as “blason”, which Belknap defines as[1]:

a poetic genre dedicated to the praise of the female by the particularization of her attributes. This technique conventionally allowed the poet to describe or metaphorically elaborate one feature per line, creating a vertical compilation whose constituents are thematically continuous but linearly independent.

Basically, a poem about different parts of the female body. Belknap gives an example of traditional blason from Bartholomew Griffin, the 16th century English poet:

My Lady’s hair is threads of beaten gold,/Her front the purest Chrystal eye hath seen:/Her eyes the brightest stars the heavens hold,/Her cheeks red roses such as seld have been….

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

over 1000 copies sold

Understanding Bob Dylan has now sold over 1000 copies, all through word of mouth. Clearly there is something readers like about this book. You can order a copy at:

2nd edition of Understanding Bob Dylan out now

The snd edition is available on with new analysis of some songs such as “Visions of Johanna” and an index. Buy it at:

Please write a review of Understanding Bob Dylan

If you have bought the book and enjoyed it, please write a review on Amazon for other potential readers. You can post the review at:

Love, sex, money in a “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”

Love, sex, money in a “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”

Here are adapted extracts from Understanding Bob Dylan about one of literature’s and Dylan’s favourite themes – love and money, with some sex thrown in, and with a focus on that not so simple but very fateful song “Simple Twist of Fate”, drawing on Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” notebook where he wrote the album’s original lyrics; and with reference as well to “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Boots of Spanish Leather”.

To read more, buy the book on Amazon

All royalties are going to a charity. Continue reading

Boots of Spanish Leather and letters

Here is another extract from my book, this time from the chapter about Dylan and writing. If you’re interested in Dylan’s take on writing in his songs, and the extensive literary tradition on which this draws, read on.

Like the rest of the book, this chapter draws on numerous song-writers, poets and novelists who have used the same theme, including Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Elias Canetti and Vladimir Nabokov.

Written in my soul?

Western literature has at its heart a fascination with the creative process, and a fear of creativity and the written word. There is a reverence for literature past, manifesting itself in the many writers who have used their literary predecessors as sources. And there are many novels and poems that dwell on the creative act, and an equal number that include destruction of a book or a word as a central or hidden feature. Who wouldn’t be scared of baring their soul to the world in a book? And if your job is to sit all day writing, wouldn’t you eventually start writing about writing? But if the focus of the creative act is to write about the process and perhaps pointlessness of writing, doesn’t that become a little self-referential – and, where’s the point? Dylan draws on and is part of this tradition.

Dylan ambivalence about creating is perhaps most evident when he refers to the written word in his songs. Take that extraordinary, poignant and much admired and discussed lost love song, “Boots of Spanish Leather”, released in 1964, which I already discussed from the angle of money and love in the last chapter. Ricks includes a brilliant analysis of its cadences, rhymes and rhythms, and Gray reveals its heritage in traditional British folk ballads, particularly “Gypsey Davy” which was perhaps written at the beginning of the eighteenth century.[1] But the key element of the song is that, after refusing any gifts from his (or her) love, what is received is a letter:

I got a letter on a lonesome day,
It was from her ship a-sailin’,
Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again,
It depends on how I’m a-feelin’. Continue reading

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Here’s a post from the beginning of chapter two of “Understanding Bob Dylan”. which starts with an analysis of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, the beautiful but puzzling song that ends “Blonde on Blonde”. The chapter looks at how Dylan writes about those subjects that have been an endless preoccupation of modern western writers: love, sex and money, focusing on “Sad-Eyed Lady” and the rest of “Blonde on Blonde”, “Love minus zero”, “Simple Twist of Fate” (see the post below) and a few other Dylan favorites.

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?

So begins the puzzling, evocative, mesmeric “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, the last track of “Blonde on Blonde” which Dylan released in 1966, a song that has caught many Dylanists in its headlights. “Puzzling” –  some would say meaningless –  because this song contains weirdly complex imagery. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times” – good luck working that one out. It’s a song that has elicited fundamentally different views from admirers and critics – and sometimes the same person. Dylan encyclopaedist, and author of “Song and Dance Man” Michael Gray, hated the song, then loved it. First he wrote a damning two page criticism which concluded: Continue reading