Bob Dylan Countdown #137: “4th Time Around”

For a guy who wasn’t crazy about other people overanalyzing his lyrics, John Lennon sure wasn’t bashful about doing the same to the lyrics of others. Lennon, who famously wrote songs like “Glass Onion” and “I Am The Walrus” to confound those looking for meaning in his songs, was fixated for a while on “4th Time Around,” feeling that the closing lines, “I never asked for your crutch/Now don’t ask for mine,” were written by Bob Dylan as a dig at the Beatle’s attempts to bring Dylan-like sophistication into his own lyrics.

Lennon also thought that “Hey Jude,” clearly written by Paul McCartney to cheer up Julian Lennon in the wake of his parents divorce, was actually about Yoko and him, so you have to take his song analysis in the spirit of the drug-fueled paranoia in which it was sourced. But, to be fair, Dylan does seem to be having a bit of a go at the Fab 4 with this casually mesmerizing track from Blonde On Blonde.

There is little doubt that the main melody bears a striking similarity to “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” released by The Beatles in 1965, a year before Dylan released “4th Time Around.” While the sound of “Norwegian Wood” was dominated by George Harrison’s main sitar riff, Dylan substitutes some Spanish guitar a la “Desolation Row.” Still, the two songs certainly could be first cousins.

“4th Time Around” also shares the basic setting: A woman’s home that the narrator is visiting, presumably with the intention of initiating a sexual encounter, although, in both songs, it’s never quite clear if said encounter actually occurs. Dylan also adds a lot of “She said” and “I said” phrases to set up the story, which was a bit unusual for his storytelling but certainly was favored by The Beatles.

Where do they differ? Well, “Norwegian Wood” is notable for that fabulous twist ending, where the narrator, seemingly frustrated at the girls reticence, sets fire to her house (“So I lit a fire/Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?”) Dylan adds a third character to the scenario, the “you” in the song to whom the narrator turns after being booted out by the girl in the house.

So what’s the verdict? Was Dylan getting after Lennon? Well, yes and no. He was clearly taking the main frame of “Norwegian Wood” and putting his own spin on it, but he also did that with old folk and blues songs, songs for which he clearly had the utmost respect. So even if he was doing his take, that doesn’t mean he was insulting Lennon. As for the line about the crutch, it’s in keeping with the general absurdity of the lyrics, what with wheelchairs, chewing gum, and rum bottles (“Jamaican rum,” a la “Norwegian wood”) all playing a key part.

That said, I do think Dylan was, in a way, showing the Liverpudlians just what he could do. He took Lennon’s story, which, even with the nifty twist, is told in linear fashion, and threw it into a blender, coming up with something more weirder and more difficult to grasp. It was as if he was saying, “I see what you can do; now here’s what I can do.”

After all, Dylan could be as competitive as the next guy; witness what he did to poor Donovan in Don’t Look Back. “4th Time Around” sounds like him saluting his friends and rivals on a job well-done, even as he was showing them that they still had a ways to go to get on his wavelength. 

For the record, I’ll go with “Norwegian Wood” in a head-to-head battle; the songs are about even, but, as recordings, the exotic sitar and the Lennon/McCartney harmonies give the edge to The Beatles by a nose. Anyway, they’re both terrific, no matter who was zinging who.


12 Comments on “Bob Dylan Countdown #137: “4th Time Around””

  1. Andri says:

    Thanks for a great blog. I’ve read a lot of dreary interpretation about Dylan but this one shows great insights into his art, his music as well as his poetry. However I have to disagree about Hey Jude – it is obviously about his mate, John, and of cource John knew that immediately. The lyrics really don’t make any sense otherwice. Paul McCartney has always been very secretive and closed about his lyrics. Especially those about John – for example Two of us.

    • countdownkid says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I will respectfully disagree about “Hey Jude” still. McCartney has been pretty clear in interviews that he wrote it on a drive to see Julian to cheer him up. Either Paul has been lying all these years, or it’s about John on a subconscious level at best. Nonetheless, I appreaciate the comment and hope you keep reading.

  2. Singing Bear says:

    I second what Andri says about your blog in general – it’s becoming a regular feature of my daily reading. I enjoy your analyses of the songs which is usually refreshing and not pseudo- academic. I go along with much of what you say about 4th Time Around and consider it to be one of Dylan’s lesser-valued greats. Of course, he rips off Norwegian Wood but definitely more as a tribute than anything else, I’d say. Of the the two I’d take 4th Time because it’s even funnier than Norwegian Wood. Nice work.

  3. John Henry says:

    You seem to miss Dylan’s point at the end of the song. Dylan shows that Lennon’s spiteful setting fire to the woman’s house (because he had to sleep in the bath instead of with her), puts it close to the tradition of the so-called “murder ballads”–where a frustrated lover kills his sweetheart at the end of the song (usually for some trifling fault in the sweetheart). This is Dylan’s version of a “murder ballad”: “She screamed till her face got so red/Then she fell on the floor/And I covered her up and then/Thought I’d go look through her drawer.” Murder ballads are a recognised sub-genre of folk songs–there’s an article on Wikipedia. Nick Cave’s album of that name alludes to this genre.

    • countdownkid says:

      That’s an interesting take. I don’t think necessarily that either one of us is wrong; I just think these amazing songwriters could have a lot going on many different levels.

      Would “Run For Your Life” by The Beatles be included in the Murder Ballads genre? He later regretted writing that song? Interesting.

      Anyway, I appreciate the comment, and I hope you keep reading.

  4. peterbunnett says:

    I believe fourth time around was “written” before dylan ever heard “norweigan wood”

    • countdownkid says:

      Pretty sure that’s not the case. Rubber Soul came out in ’65 and Blonde On Blonde in ’66, plus the similarities are pretty strong. Most Dylan historians accept that he was referencing the Beatles song in some manner. Thanks for checking out the site and I hope you stick with it.

  5. wardo says:

    I’ve decided that the title of “4th Time Around” is a red herring, just like the adverbs about Sweet Marie, 5 Believers and so forth. It’s the same reason why titles like “Just A Little Glass Of Water” (She’s Your Lover Now), “Freeze Out” (Visions Of Johanna) and “Alcatraz To The Fifth Power” (Farewell Angelina) exist.

  6. John says:

    Dylan claims he wrote 4th Time Around before Lennon-McCartney wrote Norwegian Wood –

    • countdownkid says:

      Interesting piece of info, although I’m not sure that Kooper’s quote proves anything. It would have been hard for The Beatles to steal “4th Time Around”, considering that it was released in ’66, and “Norwegian Wood” came out in ’65 on Rubber Soul. I’m guessing that Bob could have meant that the Beatles were copping his overall sound with “Norwegian Wood.” Most Dylan scholars that I’ve read are in agreement that Bob was making some sort of playful commentary on The Fab 4’s song.

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