Just Like a Woman

Bob Dylan’s song “Just Like a Woman” was recorded in Nashville in March 1966 for the album Blonde on Blonde:

As recounted previously on Recliner Notes, Blonde on Blonde was primarily recorded in Nashville with the first-call “A-team” of Nashville musicians. The masterful utility of this group of musicians has been explored best by Tyler Mahan Coe on his podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones. They were able to work with a diversity of singers and musicians with the ability to shift between genres – country, pop, soul – as well as tempo and volume. Basically, they could create whatever was needed to deliver the song in the best way possible.

“Just Like a Woman” starts with a roll of Kenny Buttrey’s snare drum and then a swirl of the harmonica by Dylan and the gentle swing of the song begins. The song is punctuated with fills by a nylon-string guitar; an organ appears and it sounds like it’s being played by a ghost in a church a few doors down. We hear it because occasionally someone opens a window to the studio. The band is sympathetic and caring to the song and Dylan as the singer. There’s a country lilt to the song without the normal instrumentation of a country song. There’s not a fiddle to be heard on Blonde on Blonde.  

“Just Like a Woman” is a portrait of a woman in Dylan’s circle. As Dylan told Scott Cohen for Spin in December 1985:

“In most of my songs, I know who it is that I’m singing about and to.”

This portrayal is of a woman, but Dylan ensures us that he’s not an omniscient narrator for this depiction; he’s an active participant. The first words that Dylan sings in the song is “Nobody feels any pain.” That phrase has always been used to indicate that a group of people have been drinking or taking drugs to such an extent that they are numb to anything and everything. Waylon Jennings employed the phrase memorably as “ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain” in his 1977 song “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”:

Dylan follows the opening phrase with “Tonight as I stand inside the rain.” Not only is the song about a specific person, but it also depicts a particular time and place – tonight. He is either standing in the rain as a specific choice, or he has been cast out into the rain and has chosen to linger in it. Regardless, this line is an indication of despondency on the part of the narrator. The song then shifts to the woman at the center of the portrayal with the narrator sharing his thoughts and observations about this person. The song returns to the narrator’s perspective on himself in the song’s bridge. The bridge begins with the line “It was raining from the first.” Even though the opening of the song places the time of the song as “tonight,” these words from the bridge tell us that it’s been raining from the very beginning of his relationship with the woman. The storm is a stand-in for their affair, filled with turbulence and a sense of hopelessness. 

Regardless of the downcast feeling towards the woman, Dylan goes on to sing, “ I was dying there of thirst / So I came in here.” There’s a vagueness to the localities named, but the narrator is implying that the woman provided him with protection, despite the storminess of their relationship. The bridge continues:

And your long-time curse hurts
But what’s worse
Is this pain in here
I can’t stay in here
Ain’t it clear that—

The narrative thrust of Dylan’s writing is a bit clumsy reading the lyrics on the page with the repeated uses of “here” and “there,” but it works better when being sung because of the insistent rhyming: “first,” “thirst,” “curse,” “hurts,” “worse.” In the vocal delivery of these words, Dylan sells the pain the narrator is feeling. The narrator’s aching in the bridge is paid off in the marvelous final verse:

I just can’t fit
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit
When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry and it was your world.

Dylan sings “your world” and it encapsulates everything the narrator has been cataloging about the woman throughout the song. In addition, “your world” is a direct call back to the opening lines of the song, the crowd who is not feeling any pain, so numb to any hurt and sadness through affectation or artificial means. This world is a stand-in for the woman and the narrator can’t be a part of it anymore. After his separation from this world, he anticipates a subsequent encounter with this woman. Even though their separation is in the midst of happening – remember that this song is happening “tonight” – he is already imagining what could happen in the future. He knows that his own vulnerability will be revealed. Thinking about that eventuality, he comes to the point of begging her not to reveal how much she and her world were able to provide for him. In Dylan’s quote above, he says that he knows who he is singing to in his songs. On the face of “Just Like a Woman,” it appears that the song is solely a portrait of the woman in question, but on further investigation, the song reveals so much about the personality of the narrator through the filter of this woman.

Dylan was asked about “Just Like a Woman” by Cameron Crowe for the 1985 box set Biograph, and Dylan said: 

“I think I was on the road…I think I wrote it in Kansas City or something, on Thanksgiving, yeah I’m pretty sure I did…I was invited over to somebody’s house for Thanksgiving dinner but I didn’t go, didn’t feel like doing anything. I wasn’t hungry. I stayed in my hotel room and wrote this.”

Though Kansas City does not make an appearance in the lyrics of “Just Like a Woman,” Dylan has inserted it into many songs in his writing. Kansas City is one of the many places in which the narrator is wanted in 1968’s “Wanted Man,” recorded first by Johnny Cash in 1969 off his At San Quentin album with Dylan’s version eventually being released on ​​The Bootleg Series Vol. 15: Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969. There are references to Kansas in both “Union Sundown” off of Infidels as well as “High Water (For Charley Patton),” a song previously investigated on Recliner Notes. In “Meet Me in the Morning,” off of 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, he sings:

Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha
Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha
Honey, we could be in Kansas
By time the snow begins to thaw.

As the Internal Monologue blog has determined, the intersection that Dylan is referencing is old Minnesota Highway 56 and Wabasha Street in St. Paul, Minnesota. Being a born and raised Minnesotan, Dylan knows that there will be snow at this location, so he is yearning to take his honey to Kansas. 

Curiously, Kansas City is featured on two songs on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, the 2014 project helmed by uber-producer T Bone Burnett. The legend behind this project is that Dylan’s publisher found a box of lyrics in Dylan’s archives that were never recorded by Dylan and purportedly date back to 1967, the time of The Basement Tapes. In 2014, Burnett assembled a group of musicians to give these lost-but-now-found lyrics the “Mermaid Avenue” treatment and set them to music for new recordings.

If the lyrics from the Lost on the River project were indeed written in 1967, the city of Kansas City loomed large for Dylan, only a year after the composition of “Just Like a Woman.” The first instance is “Kansas City” as co-written and sung by Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons:

The chorus of the song connects the vocation of singing songs to the location of Kansas City:

And I love you dear, but just how long
Can I keep singing the same old song
And I love you dear, but just how long
Can I keep singing the same old song
I’m going back to Kansas City.

These words speak to the life of a working musician, who has expectations from an audience to sing the same song over and over again. The lines are also a way to talk about a love affair that is stuck in a recurring loop or an unbreakable cycle. Taking the words literally, the narrator wants to return to Kansas City for renewal and inspiration. Though Marcus Mumford has contributed music and perhaps some lyrics, this is Dylan’s work and he himself was able to find inspiration in Kansas City for the composition of “Just Like a Woman.”

The second song with Kansas City at its center from Lost on the River is “Six Months In Kansas City (Liberty Street)” sung by Elvis Costello:

This song – especially the rousing chorus – is a showcase for the full vocal talents of the musicians assembled for Lost on the River, including Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James (discussed in the “Goin’ to Acapulco” post), and the incomparable Rhiannon Giddens. “Six Months In Kansas City (Liberty Street)” is listed as “written by Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello.” It’s unclear if Costello wrote something new from the same set of lyrics as Marcus Mumford. Or, perhaps there were two different sets of lyrics about Kansas City by Dylan to choose from for the Lost on the River project. There are small touches from the lyrics that would fit well alongside any Basement Tapes song, including:

Thank you for not helping me out
For not treating me like a fool
If you didn’t lay me on a cold mattress at night
I might be kicking more than your mule.

The key line of the song is “six months in Kansas City,” which is a realization on the part of the narrator about his fate, and it sounds like a jail sentence handed down by a judge. The individual vocalists in the song detail the different things that can happen when spending six months in Kansas City, including “cause a man to rob and steal” and “some lost and some drown and some turn to greed” and “some wake one day and they’ve made them king.” Forced time in Kansas City is certainly one to be dreaded from the perspective of this song, which is in direct contrast to the Kansas City in “Kansas City,” which is a place of restoration.

Taking in all of the various references to Kansas City, we can see that it is a trope that Dylan returns to over the years for different reasons. It could be that the location speaks to him, a place in the geographic center of the country. Or, perhaps those instances are a conscious or even subconscious acknowledgement of the artistic success he found with the composition of “Just Like a Woman.”

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash

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