Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #84: Spanish Harlem Incident

In John Hinchey’s 2002 book, Like a Complete Unknown: The poetry of Bob Dylan’s songs, he makes the argument that Dylan’s songwriting can in some ways be divided into a “mother” phase and a “lover” phase. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” for example, was “the first in a series of progressively demoralized apocalyptic prophecies Dylan would address to a mother figure who always seems to induce in Dylan a self-revelatory expansiveness verging on logorrhea.”

This is an interesting—and neatly Freudian—thesis, but I think (and Hinchey also knows) that Dylan’s relationship with women is more complicated than that. “Spanish Harlem Incident” is an example of this. In some ways, the “gypsy gal” addressed in the song is a kind of maternal figure for Dylan: He is clearly coming to her for guidance and direction, in the same way he comes to the mother figure in “Hard Rain.”

At the same time, though, the singer clearly does not view the “gypsy gal” in a strictly maternal sense. Lines like, “I got to know, babe, will I be touching you/So I can tell if I am really real” make that clear enough. It’s easy to just view this as a simple Oedipal relationship, but that’s not really sufficient.

The “demoralized apocalyptic prophecies” are nowhere to be found, and even the “self-revelatory expansiveness” is minimal. Bob Dylan, as he tried to make clear in the title of the album, was going in a different direction with Another Side of Bob Dylan. This is an album of supposedly simple love songs, like “All I Really Want To Do,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Spanish Harlem Incident,” instead of grand, prophetic messages.

As I’ve hinted at before, though, Dylan’s efforts to become “simpler” and more specific generally made his songs more substantive and resonant. Instead of using the feminine figure in his songs as a vessel to pour his grievances into, the songs can actually explore the relationship between two people. “Spanish Harlem Incident” really does sound like it’s about a woman too enigmatic and complicated for Dylan to keep up with,—“On the cliffs of your wildcat charms I’m riding,/I know I’m ‘round you but I don’t know where”—as opposed to being interested in her as a mere contrast with Dylan himself.

“Spanish Harlem Incident” isn’t an especially brilliant or resonant song—it’s one of the simple love songs that really is just a simple love song. But in it Dylan seems legitimately interested in the “gypsy gal,” as something more than just a figure that induces logorrhea.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by dylanfan on March 6, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    Just FYI, Dylan didn’t want “Another Side” to be the title of the album, as he discussed in Chronicles Volume 1. It certainly wasn’t his choice.


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