Somewhere in ancient scripture, it is written, “A fool is he who underestimates the poignant pulling power of the guitar.” Over the years Bob Dylan has embodied this bygone idiom, that I just made up, by singing more autobiographical songs of love and love-lost than a particularly shy bird has twittered half-notes from a treetop. He may have been championed the voice of a generation for his societal incision and profuse propagation of protest songs, but the token title of a modern-day Casanova may well have been more apt for the iconoclastic lothario.
With the ability to pen poetic lines like, “The future for me is already a thing of the past / You were my first love, and you will be my last,” it’s easy to see how he’s induced so many swoons. On the other hand, with lines such as, “You can’t be wise and in love at the same time,” it’s equally easy to see how quite so many serenades have raced through the sanguine notes of C, F and G, towards the soured end of the scale.
For the stiff-upper-lipped laymen of this world, perhaps the most notable feature of Dylan’s love-in lyrics is how nakedly vulnerable they are. It is this humanity with which he approaches the subject of love that has transcended his songs from the insular microcosm of private dramas to the resonant realm of human comedy. When the treatment of women in his songbook comes across as questionable, the irony of self-exposed honesty and the subtle cloak of protective secrecy that he offers his muses usurps any issues in a bare-naked boon of soaring vulnerability transfigured in song.
His honesty is introspective; he often brands himself with his own searing hot words and leaves his lover anonymous, whether that be to spare them the rod or to embalm his odes and attacks with a sweet cushion of privacy depends on the song. This has, however, often made it difficult to piece together the narratives that spawned the music.
Take, for instance, his love song, the eponymous misunderstood piece of music, ‘Just Like a Woman’. In the Blonde On Blonde era of 1966, it is unclear whether the song is for Joan Baez or the ill-fated Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick. The fact of the matter is that it may well be about both or rather Dylan’s lacklustre love life with women in general. Whether it is Baez or Sedgwick, the point of the song remains that Dylan fulfils the age-old adage of ‘can’t live with them and can’t live without’.
There are also inevitably songs in his back catalogue dedicated to his old flame Sally Kirkland, whom he introduced himself to by saying, “You remind me of a girl from the north country”. And his secret second wife Carolyn Dennis no doubt receives odes in his later work, but the very nature of these relationships and the period in which they entered Dylan’s life places their singular influence on his songs amidst the multitudes that they contain.
Other times, however, the songs are rather more discernible, and we’ll be dissecting the moments that he has loved, lusted over or lamented the lady(s) in his life below.
Bob Dylan’s famous love songs:
When it comes to Dylan being covert about his lovers, he blew his cover, literally, when he opted for the snap of an arm-in-arm stroll down Jones Street with Suze as the iconic album sleeve for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Although there is an argument that the piece was written for his old childhood sweethearts back in Minnesota, the song’s wise and wistful tones sound more like a prognostication of the future than anything else. Not to mention the fact that her “hair hangs long” on the album cover.
Whilst the imagery of the song may be more akin to his Minnesota homeland, the track is written from the perspective of some far-off future in which Dylan is looking back. It seems unlikely that a 22-year-old Dylan would sing of lovers from a few years ago “as the way he remembers [them] best” in a literal sense.
Bob Dylan romantically described his first meeting with Rotolo in his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, writing: “Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blood Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid’s arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard…”
Despite those glowing words, it is the more visceral lament of love lost in ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ that is most obviously about Rotolo, a notion which Rotolo accepted in her own memoir A Freewheelin’ Time.
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan formed a captivating couple and rubbed off on each other creatively with immense effect. The pair have probably written a myriad of songs about one another over the years, but the spiritual way that they both approach records leads to a more distanced approach from the visceral edges of drama; thus the links to one another in a literal sense can be lost.
Interestingly, one of the songs where the muse is most apparent is in Joan Baez’s song ‘Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word’, which was originally written by Dylan about Baez herself. Sadly, however, aside from ‘To Ramona’ and ‘I Want You’, which also seem to be about Baez through the simple deduction of timing and circumstance, it is clear that the couple were drifting apart in the film Don’t Look Back. In reality, the notion of the King and Queen of folk in union was a flame that was short-lived. In the 2009 documentary on Joan Baez, How Sweet the Sound, Dylan apologised to “Joanie” and said he felt “very bad for his part in the break-up”.
Edie Sedgwick was the poster girl of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and despite losing her life so painfully early at just 28-years-old, she lived life to the fullest and cut herself out as a prominent figure in the New York art scene. It is this highflying lifestyle of parties and possessions that has led many to believe that one of Dylan’s most famous songs, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, was written about her.
The model and actress was born into an incredibly powerful and wealthy family in 1943. Her ancestors had moved to America from England in the 1600s and went on to become one of the most illustrious families in the whole of North America.
It is widely reported that Dylan began an affair with Sedgewick shortly before marrying Sarah Lownds. It is even claimed by Edie’s brother, Jonathan, that his sister fell pregnant to the folk star.
Edie’s departure from high society to the art scene was all well and good, but it was her dive into the darker side of the counterculture that led to Dylan’s caustic condemnation in song. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Positively 4th Street’ stand out from Dylan’s back catalogue as two of his best-ever songs, but also two of his most viscerally disdainful, and it would seem that whilst poseurs and champagne socialists, in general, may well have been under attack, to Bob on a personal level that side of society was encapsulated by Edie. The one thing that songs prove unanimously is that hell hath no fury like Dylan scorned.
Sara (Lownds) Dylan
By all accounts, it is fair to label Dylan as flippant. In Suze Rotolo’s memoir, she labels him “funny and affectionate one minute,” but “capable of total withdrawal the next”. His relationship with his first wife seemed no different. The posthumous biography of his old tour manager, Victor Maymudes, describes him as being shocked that Dylan was marrying Sara and not Baez, to which Dylan apparently replied: “Because Sara will be there when I want her to be home, she’ll be there when I want her to be there, she’ll do it when I want to do it. Joan won’t be there when I want her. She won’t do it when I want to do it.”
Yet by the same, she completely transformed Dylan. As his old personal assistant once commented: “Until Sara, I thought it was just a question of time until he died. But later I had never met a more dedicated family man.” Sara may have offered up a domesticated shelter away from the gaudy storm of the limelight, but her impact was for more spiritual than merely that alone. Dylan frequently eulogises his first wife in his memoir and speaks of his love.
It would seem that this same spectrum of emotion is on display in the songs that he wrote about her, during a period where he became more introspective not just as a person but as a songwriter. In many ways, this is best personified by his underrated masterpiece ‘Sign On the Window’, which features the final verse, “Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me ‘pa’ / That must be what it’s all about.” Many of his songs in this period speak of the same dichotomy he was facing: a need for a home-life and vying force to get back on the bike.
That introspection, however, is all but abandoned with Blood On The Tracks when rows over the prosaic matter of home improvements had somehow culminated in Dylan taking to drinking and cheating and ultimately bringing a girlfriend back to his marital home for breakfast and the inevitable end of it all.