Bob Dylan Countdown #180: “Spanish Harlem Incident”

Clocking in at just a shade over two minutes long, “Spanish Harlem Incident” is just a postage stamp of a song. Yet into that brief time period, Bob Dylan crams in so much rich imagery that it almost couldn’t afford to be any longer, lest listeners be completely overwhelmed by the results.

This is Dylan at the age of 23, in complete command of his poetic gifts. This stunning wordplay was unprecedented in his genre, whether you considered that genre to be folk or pop or rock or whatever. At this point in his career, he was already leaving all comparisons behind. Even The Beatles would need another two or three years before they shed all of their influences to create something never heard before. In that respect, Dylan got there first.

The encounter with the Gypsy gal in Spanish Harlem gives him the opportunity to unleash a torrent of descriptive words. It’s as if all of his senses have been inflamed by her exotic beauty and the world is exploding in front of him. Everything is flaming or flashing or rattling, assaulting the reality that he thought he knew before he met her.

“Spanish Harlem Incident”, found on Another Side Of Bob Dylan, could seem like showing off if the fancy verbage weren’t apropos to the story. Consider the lines,”The night is pitch black, come an’ make my/Pale face fit into place, ah, please.” Alliteration, assonance, and consonance jam-packed in two lines:  A poetry professor’s wet dream. And yet it expertly expresses how Dylan’s outsider character is feeling in this unfamiliar location.

Although this song is probably too short and slight to be considered among Dylan’s classics, it still indicates the stunning level of talent at which he was operating. He was in some seriously rarefied air way back then, and, nearly 50 years later, he’s still pretty lonely out there.

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