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October 13th 2020
What's your favourite Bob Dylan song? It's not an easy choice for those of us who love the Bobster (I don't think people call him that), and my shortlist would include such classics as Like a Rolling Stone, Ballad of a Thin Man, Hurricane & Tangled Up in Blue, as well as slightly less obvious choices like Blind Willie McTell, I Want You, Changing of the Guard & One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below); purists might prefer Blowin' in the Wind or The Times They Are A-Changin'. Not everything Bob did was gold: I have over 30 of his albums, and I can't honestly tell you to rush out and get Good as I Been to You or Shadows in the Night, and as I type I'm listening to his pretty ropey cover of The Boxer. One of the few Dylan albums that I don't own is 1986's Knocked Out Loaded, but it contains what might be my favourite Dylan song: Brownsville Girl.
It's an 11+ minute rambling epic, co-written by Sam Shepard (of writing plays & starring in The Right Stuff fame), that I first came across on (I think) the second Dylan album I ever bought: Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. 3, a wonderful collection of his tracks dating from 1973-1991, and well worth seeking out if you've only ever come across him as a folk singer and want a crash course in his later work. It's only a few quid on Amazon.
Here, then, is a dissection of Brownsville Girl in all its lyrical glory - but, of course, you should listen to it yourself, to enjoy a performance that is not a far cry from spoken word, and a rhyme scheme so stretched out that I didn't even realise it rhymed until I'd listened several times.

Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding 'cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck

I love To Kill a Mockingbird, the film that won Gregory Peck his only Oscar, and at university I got Peck's biography out of the library. This was before I was really into films, but it was a fascinating read - he was apparently remarked upon at college for how terrible his acting was - and, in its coverage of his film career, the author suggested that The Gunfighter was regarded as one of the best westerns of all time. I bought the film on DVD and thought it was excellent, even though I know now that its place in movie history is not quite as pronounced as the biography suggested. Anyway, that's the film that Bob is singing about. The casual, conversational style of the opening - from that first 'well' onwards - is exactly how the song will continue.

He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck
Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath
'Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it's like to every moment face his death'

No spoiler warnings from Dylan, this is the ending of the movie straight out. Peck's gunfighter - called, as none would be now, Jimmy Ringo - is renowned for being the fastest gunslinger in the West, and early in the film we see him reluctantly accept the challenge of a stranger in a bar, easily shooting him dead when confronted. This is how Ringo lives his life: his fame going before him; the everyone wanting to prove themselves against the legend. He just wants to reunite with his wife and son. It's not difficult to see how Dylan relates to this, and - as he'd previously hinted at in the likes of Ballad of a Thin Man and Positively 4th Street - he'd like the tables to be turned for once, just as they were on the kid in The Gunfighter.

Well, I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in
And you know it blows right through me like a ball and chain

Another conversational line beginning with 'well', the first 'you know', and the first abrupt change of subject. Something's the matter. What on earth does it mean for something to blow through someone like a ball and chain? It's classic Dylan - analyse it too hard and it doesn't bear the scrutiny; instead, it's a poetic picture that makes total sense when you hear it. Even if the sense it makes to you might not be the same as it makes to someone else.

You know I can't believe we've lived so long and are still so far apart
The memory of you keeps callin' after me like a rollin' train

And now we discover that Bob's not been talking to us about this Gregory Peck film, he's been talking to... someone. Who? An old lover? Sounds like it. Let's see.

I can still see the day you came to me on a painted desert
In your busted down Ford and your platform heels
I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet
Ah, but you were right, it was perfect as I got in behind the wheel

'Painted desert' is beautiful. There is, apparently, a Painted Desert in Arizona, but I always think of this as an early callback to The Gunfighter: the scene of the fictional Western that started the song is now being intertwined with the singer's own past - and there will be plenty more of that. And how about the economy of 'your busted down Ford and your platform heels' to give you as comprehensive an understanding as you need for this otherwise mysterious woman? Wonderful stuff.

Well, we drove that car all night until we got into San Anton'
And we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft
Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back
I would have gone on after you but I didn't feel like letting my head get blown off

Suddenly it's a road trip song, and any lingering doubts that the woman is an old flame are dispelled. Just as soon as we get that piece of the jigsaw filled in, though, and the relationship is over, as mysteriously as it started. 'You went out to find a doctor and you never came back' - a simple escape? Illness? Pregnancy? Or just a lie?

Well, we're drivin' this car and the sun is comin' up over the Rockies
Now I know she ain't you but she's here and she's got that dark rhythm in her soul

We're back on the road trip, a classic slice of Americana, the kind you make postcards and movies out of... but now the pronouns mean something else, and 'she ain't you but she's here', one of my favourite lines from the song.

But I'm too over the edge and I ain't in the mood any more
To remember the times when I was your only man
And she don't want to remind me, she knows this car would go out of control

He's not in the mood to think of her, but that's all he's doing, and it's all this new girl is doing as well. They're both making do with second best. Just to prove that his mind is focused on the former love, not the new one, let's jump to chorus.

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearl, shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you're my honey love

She still doesn't have a name, this mysterious woman, and she's not going to be known as anything other than Brownsville girl. There are Brownsvilles in about half the states in America, it turns out. The chorus might be in the present tense but that soubriquet speaks of impermanence: a lover known by a location.

Well, we crossed the panhandle and then we headed towards Amarillo
We pulled up where Henry Porter used to live
He owned a wreckin' lot outside of town about a mile
Ruby was in the backyard hanging clothes, she had her red hair tied back
She saw us come rolling up in a trail of dust
She says: 'Henry ain't here but you can come on in, he'll be back in a little while'

Bob doesn't make it easy for us, but the change of tense (even if it's not consistent) says that we're back to the original road trip, the one with the Brownsville girl. Didn't she go to see a doctor and never come back? But these are the rambling thoughts of regret, they're not going to be in any kind of order, and they're packed full with detail that doesn't make any sense to us. Why, after all, would he want to make sense to us? We're not the one he's talking to. So, who is Henry Porter? Who is Ruby? Who, for that matter, is the Brownsville girl? Don't expect to find out. Still, wrecking lots and trails of dust paint their own picture. And... perhaps Henry's another who went out to find a doctor and never came back.

Then she told us how times were tough and about how she was thinkin' of
Bummin' a ride back to from where she started
But she changed the subject every time money came up
She said: 'Welcome to the land of the living dead'
But you could tell she was so broken-hearted
She said: 'Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt'

Nostalgia hidden with nostalgia. These might be the times that the singer is yearning for, unable to get out of his mind, but even in the memory there's someone else who's yearning for her own past, going back to where she started. She knows, like the singer knows, that it's never really going to happen; so she makes jokes, and everyone can tell she's broken.

'How far are y'all going?', Ruby asked us with a sigh
'We're going all the way, 'til the wheels fall off and burn,
'Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies'
Ruby just smiled and said 'Ah, you know some babies never learn'

They're beautiful, these imagined futures, but Ruby - with hopeless dreams of her own - knows that's not how life pans out. Bob - is it Bob? Or Sam? Both? Neither? - knows it as well, now, but still pours his heart into the future he never had. Oh, and a water moccasin is a snake. Don't know what that's doing there. More desert stuff, I guess.

Something about that movie though, well I just can't get it out of my head
But I can't remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play
All I remember about it was, it's Gregory Peck, and the way the people moved
And a lot of them, they seemed to be lookin' my way

It's been hinted at before, but this is the first time in the song that the narrator explicitly intertwines the film with his own life. Dylan himself did try his hand at acting, perhaps most famously in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (the film for which he wrote Knockin' on Heaven's Door), but that's not what's going on here. The whole song is a series of confused memories, where anything that doesn't include the Brownsville girl herself is blurred at best, so why not blur a movie you liked with your own history? Even then, confusion reigns: he doesn't know why or what, he just remembers Gregory Peck.

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearl, shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you're my honey love

The chorus again, and this time Bob gets it wrong in the third line, starting off "with your Brownsville curls" then reverting to the correct line as he hears the background singers get it right. Not searching for deep meaning in this one, just noting that when you're doing an 11 minute epic, you don't do a retake just because you got a word or two wrong (see also: Dylan's duet with Johnny Cash on Girl From the North Country).

Well, they were looking for somebody with a pompadour
I was crossin' the street when shots rang out
I didn't know whether to duck or to run, so I ran
'We got him cornered in the churchyard', I heard somebody shout

Well, that was a bit of a handbrake turn, and perhaps we're back in the blur between movie-land and real memories: pompadours and shots and running through churchyards are a far cry from trails of dust and Ruby's laundry hanging on the line, but that's the way memories intermingle. 'I didn't know whether to duck or to run, so I ran' is another of my favourite lines.

Well, you saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune
Underneath it, it said 'A man with no alibi'
You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you
Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears
It was the best acting I saw anybody do

This strange, cinematic story unfolds a bit more, and now the Brownsville girl is an actor herself, if only when she's on the witness stand. What crime has the narrator been accused of? Is he guilty or not? But that's not what the song is about, so we're not going to find out any more about it.

Now I've always been the kind of person that doesn't like to trespass
But sometimes you just find yourself over the line

Or are we? This is the first time that I've made any kind of connection between these lines and the section that preceded them, as this had always seemed like another handbrake turn, but perhaps it's a last, half-hearted excuse before moving on.

Oh, if there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now
You know, I feel pretty good, but that ain't sayin' much
I could feel a whole lot better
If you were just here by my side to show me how

The cry of the creator! Whatever character is narrating this song, this seems like an interjection from a songwriter who by this time had been releasing albums for nearly a quarter of a century. As if to prove his point, 'I feel pretty good, but [...] I could feel a whole lot better' is about as unexciting a thought as a songwriter could muster, but you'd be surprised by how often I think of it. It was even the lyric I used to sum up 2007 when I came to do my end-of-year review on this page.

Well, I'm standin' in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck
Yeah, but you know it's not the one that I had in mind
He's got a new one out now, I don't even know what it's about
But I'll see him in anything so I'll stand in line
Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearl, shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you're my honey love

And we're back to that Gregory Peck movie, the recurring motif of the song. But, rather than putting the listener back on familiar ground, this subtly distorts the song's meaning once again: it's the present tense, so where is the singer? Is he driving past the Rockies at sunrise or is he waiting outside a cinema? The confusion of memories has extended out of the past into the present, and there are only two things the singer is thinking about: Brownsville Girl and Gregory Peck. Seems like he loves them both - and again I wonder if Dylan has half a mind on the fans who laud his every work; according to his autobiography, he made albums such as Nashville Skyline in an attempt to shake off his adherents.

You know, it's funny how things never turn out the way you had 'em planned
The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter
Is that his name wasn't Henry Porter

Brilliant. Remember Henry Porter, from way back? If you thought he was mysterious then, you ain't seen nothing yet: now we don't even know his name.

And you know there was somethin' about you, baby, that I liked
That was always too good for this world
Just like you always said there was something about me you liked
That I left in the French Quarter

Dylan may have cried out for originality not long ago, but who knows why, because he's just not capable of putting down an unoriginal thought. This one gets three lines into unoriginality before throwing in the French Quarter, another reference just understood by the singer and the Brownsville Girl, with no attempt to explain to anyone else who may be listening in.

Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections
Than people who are most content
I don't have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I'm gone
You always said people don't do what they believe in
They just do what's most convenient, then they repent
And I always said, hang on to me, baby, and let's hope that the roof stays on

The song has moved out of confusedly detailed reminiscences, now, and Dylan is making some fairly profound statements about the human condition - but throwing each one of them away at great speed, moving on to the next thought straight away, seemingly without any connection between them. It's like a mind jumping between topics; 'a headful of ideas that are driving me insane', to quote another Dylan song. But, really, there are only two thoughts on the singer's mind:

There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don't remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck
He wore a gun and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

That last line is my favourite from Dylan, and by extension probably my favourite single lyric from any song. Like so much of this song, it may mean different things to different people, but to me it's about heroes falling and dreams dying. I also have a soft spot for a last line that turns everything that came before on its head. But let's not forget the penultimate line of that section, the monosyllabic and brutally concise: 'he wore a gun and he was shot in the back'. Or the bit before it that, once more, intertwines the singer's own memories with what he saw on the silver screen. Incredible stuff. Anyway, let's end on the chorus:

Oh, Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearl, shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you're my honey love
Yeah, Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearl, shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you're my honey love
Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearl, shining like the moon above

Just over 11 minutes well spent. What a masterpiece. Maybe I'll listen to it just one more time...

what was I listening to?
Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan
what was I reading?
Aunts Aren't Gentlemen - P.G. Wodehouse
what was I watching?
The Social Dilemma
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