Bob Dylan Countdown #137: “4th Time Around”Posted: February 10, 2012
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.