Last piece of gum, Jamaican rum, etc.

March 22, 2014

The comment thread to a recent post brought to my attention Rolling Stone‘s list of greatest rock albums. In the Top 10 one finds both the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and (much the better of the two!) Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Reading through the blurbs about each album, I was surprised to learn that there is a connection between John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” and Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” (which appear, respectively, on the two records in question). Since one of the aims of my pop music odyssey is to explore influences between the singers and songwriters I am following, this seems a good case study.

There are contradictory reports about the direction of influence. Some say that Dylan wrote “Fourth Time Around,” played it for the Beatles, and that Lennon subsequently wrote “Norwegian Wood” as a kind of homage, trying to incorporate aspects of Dylan’s songwriting style. Others say that Lennon wrote “Norwegian Wood” first and that Dylan, hearing it as attempt to ape his style — nobody denies that Lennon wrote it with Dylan very much in mind — wrote “Fourth Time Around” as a rejoinder and, possibly, as a rebuke. Lennon was allegedly left shaken by the final lines of the song (“I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine”), which he took, rightly or wrongly, as directed at him.

Although I don’t know that I’ve had made the connection between these two songs without reading about the background, there are similarities. One of the striking things about “Norwegian Wood,” for instance, is that its meaning is unusually opaque — unusually for the Beatles, that is, who had made their fame on straightforward love songs. Dylan, on the other hand, was the master of opacity at this point in his career, and “Fourth Time Around” is a fine example of his craft. In both songs, despite the occluding surrealism and the missing details, I think we can descry a lovers’ quarrel — much milder in the case of “Norwegian Wood,” but still hinted at (“this bird has flown”). The melodies are even similar, each with a lilting motif that turns back on itself. Dylan’s melody actually seems to move in a circle, fittingly given the title of the song.

Anyway, let’s listen to both songs. Which do you prefer?


Dylan’s studio recordings are hard to find on YouTube; this version of “Fourth Time Around” is from a 1966 concert in London.

5 Responses to “Last piece of gum, Jamaican rum, etc.”

  1. stpaulmemphis Says:

    That part about the picture of you in your wheelchair, and other parts too, remind me of “An Affair to Remember.” In fact, it’s hard to believe Dylan wasn’t thinking of it


  2. cburrell Says:

    Well now, there’s a connection I’ve not heard before, and a film I’ve not seen. Thanks for the comment. I’m going to put the film on my list.

  3. stpaulmemphis Says:

    Oh you should. I have the DVD, and if I had time I’d watch the scene I’m thinking about, but I don’t.


  4. Grumpy Says:

    I heard that story too, that Fourth Time Around was somehow modeled on Norwegian Wood, with the same ‘Schmaltzy guitar’. I have always been fond of Norwegian Wood, but Fourth Time Around has a strange combination of touchingness and humour which I find irresistible.

  5. cburrell Says:

    “Fourth Time Around” has long been one of my favourite songs from the Blonde on Blonde record. It’s tucked away near the end of the second LP, and rarely appears on lists of Dylan’s best songs, but I think it deserves consideration.

    I would really like to write a series of posts on “Lesser Known But Nonetheless Excellent Dylan Songs”, but the record companies maintain such tight control over the music that most of the songs are hard to find online — very little on YouTube, etc.

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