Today’s Dylan Song for Real, Boots of Spanish Leather

You always hear Dylan-ites and critics, scholars and aficionados, talk about Bobby’s grit in his performances, his uncaring and indifferent snarl. As timeless as the songs pre-Blonde on Blonde are, there’s some sense of distance to them, some temporal span between Dylan’s lyrics and Dylan the singer. I’ve always felt this. In the Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Dylan himself admits–with a laugh of course–that he sold his soul, a la Robert Johnson at the crossroads, to the devil after his mediocre debut album, Bob Dylan. He’s even claimed a number of times that he doesn’t remember writing any of the songs on Freewheeling, stating that he was channeling some old blues soul. Which, putting the cliche metaphor aside, is true for all blues and folk music, isn’t it? All folk channels the artists who came before it in both tonal and lyrical qualities, whether they came from the church or the fields. We hear this in all of Dylan’s early work; the blues progressions, the fingerpicking, the “protest” lyrics and the “storyteller” lyrics. He didn’t sell his soul to the devil and channel Leadbelly to write his songs. He was just singing folk music to a mass audience.

Boots of Spanish Leather, though, is nothing like this.

It feels strange to be so close to the Dylan psyche in listening to this song, almost voyeuristic. Even in his most “heartfelt” and well-known breakup song, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, there is still distance between the songwriter and the song. We still hear the Dylan indifference, the distance, the snarl. It’s true that he’s singing of a breakup, with Suze Rotolo we all assume, yet it’s not your typical, sorrowful, feeling-sorry-for-yourself breakup song. “We never did much talkin’ anyway,” he sings. “So don’t think twice, it’s alright.” This is the distance I’m speaking of, right in this exact instant, the moment where he abandons the heartfelt and personal for the mundane and the indifferent. Sure, he’s singing about a breakup, a lost love, but the song, in it’s most basic form, is really one massive shrug.

Boots of Spanish Leather opens much like the other fingerpicked folk songs, with the chords and changes being very similar to Don’t think Twice. But we quickly here in the tone that it’s not the same.

Whatever you think of Dylan, anyone can agree he’s a mystery. His way in public, the means in which he talks about himself and his music, his general ambiguity. He’s sort of a tough guy to pinpoint. Joan Baez tells us in the Scorsese documentary that he’s the “the most complex person she’s ever met.” So it’s satisfying to finally get a clear read on him, to at least one time,  know exactly what he’s thinking when he sings this song.

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