The befringed asocial pop artist Andy Warhol once said, “Living in New York City gives people real incentives to want things that nobody else wants.” A fair dose of truth is added to that quote, considering that for a long time nobody outside of the subterranean circles of the Big Apple was interested in the seismic force of the Velvet Underground either. And yet, in a weird subversive way, the bohemian combination of Andy Warhol and the proto-indie outfit fronted by Lou Reed just about defined the dying embers of the sixties.
However, it has to be noted that none of the late bohemian boom would’ve been possible if it wasn’t for one single scruffy troubadour who will go down in history hailing from his new beat home of Greenwich Village. Lou Reed and his iconoclastic tongue were not always full of praise for many, but it is the forbearing hero of Bob Dylan who he considered to be ahead of anyone when it comes to songwriting.
Comparing his poetic folk force to the rather more visceral, but perhaps vapid rock ‘n’ roll that followed, in a 1987 interview with Joe Smith, Reed stated: “You don’t want to actually listen to the lyrics of a rock ‘n’ roll record. I mean, for what? It’s not like when you read a book and you come across a great line, it would be great if you got that in a song I thought.”
Adding: “Now, other than Dylan, there’s not much there. Elvis Costello has some lyrics. But, the thing Dylan did with Sam Shepherd, ‘Brownsville Girl’, I mean, I think that is one of the greatest things I ever heard in my life. I fell down laughing. You can listen to that, you can listen to the words going on and it’s tremendous.” Indeed, there aren’t many songs that can cram in something as simultaneously poetic and cinematic as the line: “Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square, / I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death.” In some ways, the song almost even seems like a counterpoint to Lou Reed’s American epic ‘Street Hassle’.
The reason that the track proves to be so pictorial is, in part, because it was co-written with the playwright, screenplay star and actor Sam Shepard (Paris, Texas). 11 years prior to the release of the track, Dylan had hired Shepard for his Rolling Thunder Revue concept tour. Dylan had envisioned the wayfaring tour as a rag-tag travelling gipsy circus, who roamed as a multi-talented fleet across the rolling land’s ala Jack Kerouac. During which Shephard was ostensibly given the difficult task of penning a Fellini-esque script as they went along.
As Shephard would later write in his logbook of the whole experience, in which he even became romantically entwined with Joni Mitchell: “Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not to the head. It moves us into an area of mystery. Some myths are poisonous to believe in, but others have the capacity for changing something inside us, even if it’s only for a minute or two. Dylan creates a mythic atmosphere out of the land around us. The land we walk on every day and never see until someone shows it to us.”
In truth, this transfiguring of the everyday is what makes Dylan’s poetry so poignant and with ‘Brownsville Girl’ he takes this to cinematic new heights with a dose of realist irony. The warring tale of the song might not sound relatable on first listen, but if you get a spare 11 minutes to give it another go, gilded earthy touches begin to shine through the grandeur of the surface. As Paul Simon once said: “With Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun at the same time.”
Bob Dylan himself would join Lou Reed in praising the track, and while he didn’t declare it a favourite as the late Velvet Underground man had, he did say that along with ‘In the Garden’ it was one of two songs that didn’t get the attention they deserved. Sadly, perhaps the reason for this is because the Knocked Out and Loaded album from which the song is taken is Dylan’s most critically panned effort. However, whether it’s Lou Reed describing it as laughably good or Ira Ingber (who played guitar on the song) remarking that when they finished recording, “We all looked at each other and we were thinking, well – this is one for the ages,” it shows that Dylan always has an epic up his sleeve.