Chapter 7
Just Like A Woman Revisited

It is generally pointless to perform a traditional ‘thematical’ analysis on a popular song. The song structure, with the same – relatively short – music repeated for each verse, hardly allows for very intricate motivic elaborations. Neither is a harmonic analysis often very rewarding, beyond pointing out the obvious: that the song (any song) is closely related to formalized chord patterns. We knew that already.

But still – the temptation remains, and the desire to ‘find’ something in the song. And lo! (and behold) suddenly a connection strikes you, and you can’t help but grasping for your analytical box of tools, to see if there isn’t a wrench somewhere that will fit one of the screws after all.

Take Just Like A Woman. It was one of the first Dylan songs I heard, yet it took until friday (March 6, 1998) before I suddenly saw the genius in the song (as apart from its beauty or its cleverness). It all works on a harmonical level, of course. Not much more than three chords and its variations, but here it all comes together very nicely. Whatever the text is about – drugs, transvestitism, or whatever – the music is about pain and unfulfilled love.

‘Nobody feels any pain,’ the first phrase states. The music says precisely the same, in its own language: F major-Bb major-C major-F major. Or more technically: Tonic (T), Subdominant (S) , Dominant (D) and Tonic (T). The oldest and most thoroughly established turn in tonal music, popular and classical alike, and it represents the highest degree of tonal stability. Full circle. Nothing has happened. It means Rest, Stability, Repose, Return, Cadence – No pain.

In the next phrase there is evidence of rain, but the chordal level is still the same: No pain.

The third phrase – ‘Everybody knows’ – goes with the chords Bb major-C major, or S-D, which is the beginning of the turn back to the tonic in the basic tonal cadence, as it has already been exposed twice already. At this point, at least the harmonically oriented ear begins to feel that, well, yes, we’re beginning to know by now, even musically. The expected tonic is further delayed by the declaration ‘that baby’s got new clothes’ to the same two chords as the previous phrase – once again: think I’ve heard that before. (And why did he have to do it twice?)

‘But lately. . .’ – yes, it is late, and still no return to the tonic, only a quasi-descent, but still circling around the Subdominant-Dominant area, waiting to be resolved. This could be called: building up tension. Prolonging a preparation. Like when you’re travelling, you always reach a point when you’re no longer leaving, you’re returning, and if you still have ten days left on the road when you reach that point, that’s going to be ten long days. That kind of tension.

And then, after all this: ‘have fallen...’ You realize the train you got on didn’t take you home, it went to the shitty, no-good neighbour town of yours, Kill Devil Hill, Goosebum Gulch, Namsos or whatever it’s called, and you still have a long way to go. In the language of tonality it’s called the relative tonic, and is represented here by D minor. This harmonical turn, to the minor key that is the closest relative of the tonic, which is just about the smallest conceivable deviation from the ‘trodden path’ of the three-chordal scheme, is nevertheless one of the pillars that the dramatical course of events rests upon. The effect is a combination of the expectations that have been created and the words that accompany this: ‘fallen’, ‘fog, amphetamine, pearls’, ‘I was hungry’. It’s a punch in the stomach that forces you to reevaluate all that has happened so far. The State-of-No-Pain was just make-believe. And what’s worse: there’s more to come.

Whereas the introduction of D minor was more of a gesture, the real drama begins in the bridge, and it’s hardly bringing anyone safely over troubled water this time – ‘It was raining from the first, and I was dying there of thirst.’ The lyrics recount past events, as a reference to the rain in the first verse, but the thirst is new information, you didn’t say anything about that then? The chord here is A7, what one might call a ‘reconciliatory gesture’, since A7 is the dominant – the preparatory chord – of Goosebum Gulch, a.k.a. D minor. Look upon it as an attempt to look at the Gulch from a more benevolent perspective; maybe it isn’t such a shitty town after all. But just at the point where the now longed-for D minor was supposed to enter, comes the most fatal mistake: ‘I came in here’. Back to the Tonic, F major, instead. Really – you shouldn’t have done that. The Tonic, which only a moment ago signified Rest, Stability, Repose, Return, Cadence, No pain, is now rather an act of desperation in a hopeless situation. You can’t recover what’s lost. (She breaks, you know.) But this time, you can’t escape: ‘This long time curse hurts, and what’s worse . . .’ – yes, what is? Once again the A7-chord waiting to get to D minor – ‘. . .is this. . .’ – are we finally going to get a D minor after all? – ‘pain in here’. Not even a Tonic this time, but a Bb major: the Subdominant of F major, but not even remotely related to A7. A complete loss of tonal direction, in other words, or as the lyrics state: ‘I can’t stay in here.’ Well, don’t say I didn’t tell you?

Back to start, but then not at all. The same full circle in the beginning of the last verse (as in every verse), but this time: ‘I just don’t fit’. The same music, but with a completely different ‘meaning’. Interestingly enough, this is exactly the way a classical sonata works: The exposition is quoted again in the end of the movement, but all that has happened in the mean time transforms the music (or the experience of it) into something different.

These are the essentials of the song, musically speaking: A delayed release of tension, then a release in the ‘wrong’ direction, before at the third attempt the release is withheld completely. From here the analysis can go in several directions. One is the rather obvious question: Is this withheld tension sexual tension? And in that case: what happens when the string breaks? The musicologist Susan McLary has called Beethoven a rapist based on the evidence of his ninth symphony, because of the enormous tension that is generated and then violently released, with a ‘pelvic pounding’. The style of Beethoven had such an influence on his followers, which remotely includes even popular music, that it is not entirely wrong to compare Dylan with him. Arguably, the aesthetics of the violently released tension is fundamental to most or all music written ever since. But in the case of Just Like A Woman, there is no pelvic pounding, only frustration.

A more psychologically oriented analyser might find it an interesting task to go through all the different live versions to see if there is more or less ‘pelvic pounding’ in the performances depending on how Dylan’s life was at the moment. I prefer, in accordance with my analytical credo, to view the song solely as a musical expression of a frustrated love affair and the laborious and impossible way back from the point of no return. It is the flip side of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, if you like.

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And look down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In that sense it really is a ‘Just Like A Woman Revisited’. And it turns out that that’s not any better place to be than Highway 61.

The journey is over. Please leave by the left hand side.