Bob Dylan Countdown #182: “Dear Landlord”

Dylan has stated that one of the reasons that John Wesley Harding stands out in his catalog is that most of the songs were written in piecemeal fashion, with the lyrics already in place before the music was composed. As a result, a lot of the songs, including this one, have surprising melodies. Straying from the adapted folk tunes of which he had been so fond, Dylan comes up with unexpected twists and turns that are certainly in keeping with the lyrical complexity.

On “Dear Landlord,” Dylan’s insistent piano drives the bus. He starts singing in a low, guttural moan on each verse, eventually rising into a piercing cry as the chords veer off in an almost atonal fashion. He then tumbles back down woefully so he can start all over again. There is nothing resembling a chorus onto which a listener might be able to grab. While it may make the song an unlikely candidate for humming along, it also keeps it fresh after innumerable listens.

It’s bracing to hear Dylan singing from a position of weakness as he does here. It can be fun to speculate who the landlord represents, but it’s ultimately less important than the genuine emotion contained in the singer’s lament. There is a something of a “judge not lest ye be judged’ feeling to the message here. But while he’s singing from the point of view of the oppressed, Bob also tries to understand the motivations of his oppressor instead of simply castigating him for his actions.

And, considering where he was at in his life and career, it’s intriguing to hear Dylan spit out the following lines: 

“All of us, at times, we work too hard                                                                                                                                                                       To have it too fast and too much                                                                                                                                                                             And anyone can fill his life up                                                                                                                                                                                 With things he can see but he just cannot touch.

Maybe the Landlord was Dylan himself, at least the version who had spent the previous years on a non-stop binge of revolutionary music, incendiary touring, and living so hard that it almost broke him completely. Maybe “Dear Landlord” is the physician trying to heal himself.