When I first started listening to Dylan, the received wisdom was to ignore his mid-80s music and to focus on the major works in the 60s and 70s. The consensus was that by the mid-80s, he had lost his fastball. Albums such as Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove – the period between 1984 and the “comeback” in 1989 with Oh Mercy – represented a map with blank spots. Here be monsters. When I started dating my then-girlfriend/now-wife and we began the 90s rite of passage for couples of combining CDs into one collection, she had Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits III,which compiled Dylan’s “hits” since 1971. That was my first exposure to the hallucinatory fever dream that is “Brownsville Girl.”
“Brownsville Girl” was released on 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded, and Dylan obviously felt that the song was an achievement since he included it with his greatest hits of the period. Still, the song remains somewhat obscure, probably because of the received wisdom to avoid mid-80s Dylan. In a 2017 interview when asked what songs he thought did not get the attention it deserved, Dylan first response was “Brownsville Girl.”
“Brownsville Girl” has a big 80s sound. The song starts with a loud snare drum hit like the famous snare opening of “Like A Rolling Stone,” only this time with an 80s-y echo-yet-no-echo drum sound. There are trumpets blaring throughout, a sax solo, and relentless female background singers, who are following and supporting Dylan’s vocals. Eventually, they begin commenting on the lines that Dylan is singing like a gospel Greek chorus. At the very end of the song, Dylan drops out and the backup singers are no longer backups and take over the song, repeating the chorus over and over again during the long fadeout. Even Dylan’s vocals, which in the 80s had diminished to a pinched, nasal delivery, work here. “Brownsville Girl” is packed with so many different instrumentation ideas, and yet it works. This is the ideal of what 80s Dylan could have sounded like, but he very rarely hit on this same mixture again.
The writing of “Brownsville Girl” is the result of a collaboration with playwright, actor, and short story writer Sam Shepard. Dylan had known Shepard from the mid-70s when Dylan asked him to join the Rolling Thunder Revue as an on tour/in house playwright, ostensibly to help write the movie being shot during the tour. Renaldo & Clara was the result and Shepard himself said that none of what he wrote ended up in the final film.
Throughout his career, Dylan has occasionally turned to outside collaborators to help him lyrically. In this instance, it is not evident who did what in “Brownsville Girl.” The song does share DNA with Shepard’s work including a setting of the American Southwest – the painted desert, the panhandle, San Anton’, way down in Mexico, Amarillo, supporting local American Southwest journalism by reading the Corpus Christi Tribune, and Brownsville itself. But as we know from “Billy 4,” Dylan shares Shepard’s affinity for the border. Additionally, Dylan and Shepard have a shared fascination with Hollywood, inserting movie references into their bodies of work. In the collaboration that resulted in “Brownsville Girl” we see a prime example of this attraction.
“Brownsville Girl” is a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-song. The narrator tells us about a Gregory Peck movie that he saw once (which internet sleuths have determined was 1950’s The Gunfighter) and that Gregory Peck is “ridin’ across the desert” and recounts more details from the film. Suddenly, the song shifts and the narrator himself is awash in his own memories, and he himself is riding across the desert:
I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert
In your busted down Ford and your platform heels
I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet
Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel
This verse begins the song’s slide into timelessness. The narrator then depicts a visit to a friend named Henry Porter and Porter’s friend Ruby. This scene includes two classic Dylan laugh lines: “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt” and “I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran.”
Then another time-slip occurs in the story of “Brownsville Girl,” and the characters are poking holes in the reality of the song.
Something about that movie though, well I just can’t get it out of my head
But I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play
All I remember about it was Gregory Peck and the way people moved
And a lot of them seemed to be lookin’ my way
At this point, the narrator is actually in the movie with Gregory Peck and the other characters are looking to the narrator for his contribution to the movie. As the song progresses, the narrator is out of the movie and is once again standing in line to see the movie starring Gregory Peck, but the narrator clarifies, “Yeah, but you know it’s not the one that I had in mind.” The unreality of the song is underlined when Dylan sings, “The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.”
Confused? Sure, who isn’t! In “Brownsville Girl,” Dylan and Shepard are blurring the lines between reality and film, confusing time and timelessness, and slipping real time with memory. We know that Dylan and Shepard both acted in movies themselves. They are used to inhabiting a character while being filmed. They are used to seeing themselves as other people onscreen. They are both used to turning their lives into movies.
To confuse things even further, Dylan recorded an earlier version of the song under the title “New Danville Girl.”
This version has a more stripped down sound and much more ragged than “Brownsville Girl.” The key difference between the two versions is that “New Danville Girl” includes a verse not in “Brownsville Girl” which reinforces the theme of unreality and passing through different worlds:
You know, it’s funny how people just want to believe what’s convenient.
Nothing happens on purpose, it’s an accident if it happens at all.
And everything that’s happening to us seems like it’s happening without our consent,
But we’re busy talking back and forth to our shadows on an old stone wall.
The key line in this verse is that we are interacting with “our shadows on an old stone wall” as if we are watching our life experiences projected as a kind of ancient film screening. Are Dylan and Shepard playing off of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? The allegory, as summarized on Wikipedia, is that “Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality, but are not accurate representations of the real world.” In “Brownsville Girl,” Dylan and Shepard are asserting that we don’t have a hand in the actions of our own lives. We are living “without our consent” as if being under the control of a movie director and playing a part that’s been written for us. It’s all there on the page, but the film is not truthfully depicting our experiences.
“Brownsville Girl” is hard to pin down. The song is an experimentation in narration, changing points of view, shifts in reality, and slipping through time. It shares themes with some of Dylan’s best and most famous songs (e.g., “Tangled Up in Blue”), yet there is nothing else like it in Dylan’s body of work.
One side item: “Brownsville Girl” isn’t the last time that Dylan and Shepard collaborated. In 1987, Esquire published a one-act play by Sam Shepard called True Dylan. In the play, a character named Sam visits the house of a character named Bob with a case of beer and a tape recorder. Sam asks Bob a series of questions, interview-style, while Bob muses on James Dean, plays guitar, and they both drink beer throughout while the music of old piano player Jimmy Lloyd mysteriously interrupts them. Though enjoyable, it’s a bizarre way for Sam Shepard to interview Bob Dylan and doesn’t reveal nearly as much as their “Brownsville Girl” collaboration does, despite the song’s mysterious nature.
Photo by: Scott Bunn