Bob Dylan Countdown #101: “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

It is just one of 14 songs on the colossal Blonde On Blonde, and its lighthearted tone might tempt you to dismiss it. That would be a mistake. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” contains one of Dylan’s, and rock music’s, all-time most-quoted lines:  “To live outside the law you must be honest.” It has a classic backhanded compliment:  “Well anybody can be like me, obviously/But, then again, not everybody can be like you, fortunately.” And it yields a killer euphemism for masturbation:  “I’m just sitting her beating on my trumpet.”

Not bad for album filler, huh? Dylan was operating at such a high level of proficiency at this point, the brilliance practically oozing out of his pores, that the extraordinary was commonplace. There are so many great songs from this point in time that individual tracks like this can be taken for granted, at least until you take a close listen to it and it stuns you all over again.

The band stomps through this song with a purpose. Al Kooper’s brazen hook is the nexus from which all the other elements emanate. Kenny Buttrey’s double-timing drumming doesn’t allow you to wallow too long in Bob’s wordplay; you have to keep sprinting along just to catch up. And I love how Dylan sings the lyrics with that detached playfulness that made him the coolest man on the planet circa 1966, then follows it up by tearing into his harmonica solo like the Tasmanian Devil.

The lyrics tell a tale of frustration, emotional, sexual, even postal, as the narrator tries to no avail to corral a wild, unreliable woman. Dylan’s imagery is so vivid that it engages practically every one of the senses in describing the surreality left in this girl’s wake. I personally love the phrase “ruins of your balcony”; it’s both evocatively exaggerated and deadly accurate, just one of many parts of the lyrics that meet that standard.

Sweet Marie makes it through the entire song without being tracked down by the narrator. After all, if she were easily caught, she wouldn’t be so wanted in the first place. The only thing absolute about her is her elusiveness, and yet we as listeners are right in the same boat with the poor sap conducting his futile search, exasperated and captivated all at once.

(E-mail the author at countdownkid@hotmail.com.)

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4 Comments on “Bob Dylan Countdown #101: “Absolutely Sweet Marie””

  1. Andy says:

    Album filler? It’s in my all time top ten.

    • rreitman says:

      I never hear an album filler on Blonde on Blonde and I’m pretty sure I never will. But if I do, I know it won’t be “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

      • countdownkid says:

        I guess the point I was trying to make, albeit sloppily based on the comments, was that Dylan was writing so many great songs at this point in time that some people might dismiss a less well-known song like this as filler. Obviously, I don’t think so, otherwise I wouldn’t have had it ranked so well in the first place. My bad, and thanks for reading.

  2. Ralf says:

    Curiously enough, the so often quotes “To live outside the law…” line is almost directly lifted from a ’40s or ’50s movie whose title I can’t recall at this point…


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