On January 21, 1966, Bob Dylan entered Studio A of the Columbia Recording Studios in New York City to continue recording the follow up to his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. The goal for the day was a composition by Dylan called “Just a Little Glass of Water” as noted on the recording sheet. He had previously attempted two other sessions in the fall focused on other songs, not yielding anything to his satisfaction. Meanwhile, he had begun touring with his backup band The Hawks in fall of 1965, adjusting to singing with a full rock ‘n roll band once again. The band in the studio with him included members of The Hawks, with a few exceptions. The working title of “Just a Little Glass of Water” must be Dylan’s, and it connects to something that Dylan said in conversation to Joni Mitchell in mid-70s as shared by her in a subsequent interview:
“He said ‘If you were gonna paint this room, what would you paint?’ I said ‘I’d paint the mirrored ball spinning. I’d paint the women in the washroom, the band…’ Later, all the stuff came back to me as part of a dream that became the song ‘Paprika Plains.’ I said ‘What would you paint?’ He said ‘I’d paint this coffee cup.’”
Dylan would go on to write the song “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” soon after this conversation with Mitchell. But Dylan’s painterly instinct in this anecdote demonstrates a desire to reduce a large, complicated scene to a singular, simple image. Ten years earlier, Dylan did the same by providing his new song with the title “Just a Little Glass of Water.” The words “just” and “little” betray the complexity of the composition. It would eventually be released as “She’s Your Lover Now”:
The song is a portrait of a love triangle in which the narrator’s ex-lover is now with a new man and all three are at some sort of social function together. The situation is defined early in the song:
The scene was so crazy, wasn’t it?
Both were so glad
To watch me destroy what I had
Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?
The narrator is an absolute wreck, distraught still from the end of his relationship with the ex-lover, and now he finds himself in a scene in which he has to endure the pain of seeing her again in the company of her new boyfriend. This is happening in a public setting in which the narrator finds that he has to uphold certain social niceties, and they are taking advantage of these expectations. The narrator senses that they enjoy seeing how uncomfortable he is as seen in the following line: “Now you stand here expectin’ me to remember somethin’ you forgot to say.” The narrator is certain that the ex-lover is twisting the knife, knowing he still has feelings for her and that she is taking advantage of her hold on the narrator. In fact, the narrator feels that the ex-lover is secretly coming on to him and her current beau is in complete ignorance:
Yes, and you, I see you’re still with her, well
That’s fine ’cause she’s comin’ on so strange, can’t you tell?
In this vein, the narrator addresses his ex-lover:
You never had to be faithful
I never wanted you to grieve
Oh, why was it so hard for you
If you didn’t want to be with me, just to leave?
Now you stand here while your finger’s going up my sleeve.
The actions of the ex-lover and her clueless current boyfriend are so extreme that the narrator can’t hide his disdain towards them. The bitterness of the narrator colors the language of “She’s Your Lover Now.” At one point, he spits out the following lines:
Yes, you, you just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach?
I see you kiss her on the cheek ev’rytime she gives a speech
With her picture books of the pyramid
And her postcards of Billy the Kid
Why must everybody bow?
You better talk to her ’bout it
You’re her lover now.
The narrator’s contempt is evident as he doesn’t want to witness this public aspect of their relationship, but he also doesn’t want to reveal the deep hurt that he still feels. This causes the bitter pettiness we hear in his inner monolog. He lets these scenes play out with a minimal amount of public comment and lashes out at both of them through the words of the song.
The extremity of the narrator’s distaste towards the new couple is expressed in such strikingly bizarre language that the surreal nature of the imagery turns to comic. This can be seen when the narrator shares how he has been through all of this with the ex-lover before the new boyfriend showed up and knows where their current scene is heading:
She’ll be standing’ on the bar soon
With a fish head and a harpoon
And a fake beard plastered on her brow
You’d better do something quick
She’s your lover now.
Though Dylan’s lyrics in this section are probably a metaphorical representation of the ex-lovers antics when she has too much to drink, the “fish head and a harpoon” line always brings to mind the cover image of the 1969 release Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. It would be truly freakish if the ex-lover stood on a bar wearing this trout mask get-up from the album cover. Dylan’s lyrics here are meant to be outlandish, demonstrating the grotesque circumstances of this meeting of the love triangle. At another point, the narrator says, “Oh, why must I fall into this sadness? / Do I look like Charles Atlas?” It’s hilarious that the narrator chooses this image — the strongest man in the world according to the ads in the back of magazines and comic books — to demonstrate the strength of his restraint from totally losing it towards the couple in public. Additionally, the narrator has a random mention of El Paso, a specific reference, one that only the ex-lover would understand. Hearing “El Paso” is completely unexpected, a hilarious non sequitur in the middle of a tense situation.
Lastly, the narrator refers to the current boyfriend as “your friend in the cowboy hat” with such a dismissive tone that he can’t even bring himself to call him by his name, just point out his stupid manner of dress. The narrator then says: “You know he keeps on saying everything twice to me.” He is pointing out the new boyfriend’s own nervousness in the situation, but dismisses it out of hand in this contemptuous yet still comical description. Sometimes it’s fun to imagine that the current boyfriend does say everything twice and is actually the gangster Jimmy Two Times from the 1990 film Goodfellas.
This is certainly a complex situation that the narrator finds himself in, alongside the ex-lover and the current boyfriend. It’s much more than the “Just a Little Glass of Water” description of the working title. The delicate complexities described in the song share the tone and emotion found in The Sun Also Rises, a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The similarities are strong enough that “She’s Your Lover Now” could be a scene from the book. Both the song and the novel demonstrate the same bitterness to the point of comedy, ironic writing style. Also, they both share similar depictions of what is said or left unsaid about the ways of love in social settings.
Interestingly, Dylan was writing about a love triangle in another song during this same time period. As noted previously, “She’s Your Lover Now” was recorded on January 21, 1966. A few days later on January 25, Dylan’s next recording session focused on the song “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” which was previously explored on Recliner Notes. This song describes another complex set of circumstances in a three-way relationship, only this time the narrator has a different point of view than the narrator in “She’s Your Lover Now”:
When you whispered in my ear
And asked me if I was leavin’ with you or her
I didn’t realize just what I did hear
I didn’t realize how young you were
I didn’t realize just what I did hear.
In “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” the power in the relationship at that moment is with that song’s narrator. His current lover is in the same situation as the narrator in “She’s Your Lover Now.” Her contempt for the situation in “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” is more outward and demonstrative as she attempts to “claw out the eyes” of the narrator of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” She can’t hold it in as her anger comes pouring out physically. Not so for the narrator of “She’s Your Lover Now.” He takes it all in the public scene, only betraying his bitterness in a few stray spoken words, while sharing his true feelings with the audience of the song.
The depictions of love triangles are not the only connection between “She’s Your Lover Now” and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” Dylan has a similar singing style in both songs, stretching out the phrasing of certain words. For example, in “She’s Your Lover Now,” he sings the line “Did it have to be that way” in such a way to extend the “ay” sound in “way” and drops the note while still singing the syllable. Dylan utilizes the same technique in the last line of each verse of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” For each of those lines, he sings and holds the last note of each word, extending the sound before dropping down to a lower note. Dylan was certainly playing and experimenting with his vocal delivery to see how it changed the presentation of his lyrics with the goal of suitably capturing the specific emotion expressed in the songs.
In the recording of “She’s Your Lover Now,” the performance stops in the middle of the last verse. The missing lyrics are as follows:
Now your eyes cry wolf,
While your mouth cries “I’m not scared
Of animals like you.”
And you, there’s been nothing of you I can recall;
I just saw you that one time. You were just there, that’s all.
But, I’ve already been kissed,
I’m not gonna get into this.
I couldn’t make it, anyhow.
You do it for me,
You’re her lover now.
It appears to be Dylan’s fault that the take breaks down, mixing up whether it’s the eyes or the mouth that cries wolf. As can be gathered from this performance alone, it’s a complex song to perform for both the musicians as well as for Dylan. Both of them fumble over parts during this take. On January 25, Dylan and the band attempted 16 takes to that point and had not recorded a full performance of the song. The session did not yield any results, leaving Dylan drained and frustrated. After that final breakdown, he said to those assembled in the studio, “I can’t hear the song anymore.” Trying to gain clarity for himself and for the song, Dylan sat down at the piano and attempted to play the song by himself:
A studio engineer announces, “Last take” at the beginning of the track. There’s finality as well as an ominous quality to that statement. Everyone knows they are done for the night, which must have been hard since they didn’t come away from the session with a finished product. Dylan announces, “It’s not gonna be exactly really right,” and starts playing the piano. He flounders a bit, trying to find the right tempo and feel. He hums a bit to himself before settling into the correct chords. The tempo is much slower than the previous take with the full band. Earlier in the session, they had experimented with different rhythms, and it seems that Dylan wanted the song to be fast-paced. Perhaps they should have stuck with the slower tempo that Dylan establishes for the solo take.
His performance here is extraordinary, flawlessly nailing the complex chord changes and language dexterity. He’s found the song again. Though the lyrics still reflect the bitter perspective of the narrator, Dylan’s point of view in this rendition is much more resigned and even mournful. One wonders if these emotions reflect not the mindset of the narrator, but rather Dylan saying goodbye to “Just a Little Glass of Water.” Dylan comes to the end of the performance, and mutters to himself, “Huh.” It’s hard to read what this means. Is he surprised with himself? Perhaps he is saying, “How about that. I did it.” Maybe there’s a hint of satisfaction.
Despite recording a complete version of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” a few days later, Dylan was done with recording in New York City, moving his operation to Nashville. He later told Robert Shelton that the shift had to happen because of his concerns about the lack of results:
“Oh, I was really down. I mean, in ten recording sessions, man, we didn’t get one song … It was the band. But you see, I didn’t know that. I didn’t want to think that.”
After moving to Nashville, Dylan went on to write and record what would become the album Blonde on Blonde, fully energized and renewed by the studio pros in Nashville. When it came time to assemble the final running order for the album, the solo piano version of “She’s Your Lover Now” was not included. Did Dylan and producer Bob Johnston forget that they had a full take of the song in the can? Or maybe a solo piano performance by Dylan didn’t fit the sound of the rest of the album. Dylan had certainly produced plenty of solo performances to that point, and perhaps he wanted to continue presenting a full, band sound on his albums at that moment.
With that final “huh,” Dylan never returned to “She’s Your Lover Now” again in the studio or onstage. The nearly complete, full band take was finally released in 1991 as part of the The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. The solo performance saw official release on 2015’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966, after years of circulation in the unofficial bootleg world. It would be fascinating to know if Dylan has any memory of the events that inspired the composition of the song, or if he even remembers writing it. The existing recordings of “She’s Your Lover Now” are an engrossing document of a specific time and place in Dylan’s career.
Image: Not specified, Ernest Hemingway seated in 1925 with the persons depicted in the novel “The Sun Also Rises.” The individuals depicted include Hemingway, Harold Loeb, Lady Duff Twysden; and Hadley Richardson, Ogden Stewart and Pat Guthrie. Owned by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.