David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 164: Bob Dylan (Brownsville Girl)

July 16, 2022

And the winner of the "Best Song on Worst Album" is . . . drum roll please . . . Bob Dylan with "Brownsville Girl" off of Knocked Out Loaded, perhaps the most honest album title ever, since 7 of the 8 songs do appear to be knocked out while loaded on some kind of alcohol. Dylan was struggling a bit to find his voice within the landscape that was mid-80s pop music, competing (since there is no better word) with Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone," Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," and Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach." 

While most of the songs on Side One are uninspired, at least on Side Two, Dylan explored some collaborations, one with Tom Petty, one with Carole Bayer Sager, and one, "Brownsville Girl," with playwright, Sam Shephard. I always figured that once Dylan had recorded "Brownsville Girl," and maybe these two other collaborations, he slapped together a few other songs just to get an album out.

The problem is that by doing that, very few people know "Brownsville Girl" and don't know what they are missing.  The song provides classic Dylan song-writing in many ways:

1) Rambling cinematic scenes, captured in the opening by a, well, cinematic scene. The narrator speaks of watching an old Western with Gregory Peck who gets killed by a young gunfighter, encouraged by the dying Peck to be set free be cause "he outdrew me fair and square."  Two more times in the 11+ minute long song (longer than some Acts in a Shephard play) he hearkens back to that Western and to the figure played by Peck, "as I'll see him in anything, so I'll stand in line."

2) A personal narrative embedded in the broader song, "a memory of you . . . calling after me like a rolling train," some mystery woman who "way down in Mexico . . . went off to find a doctor and never came back," leaving her car with our Peck-obsessed, pompadour-headed, narrator driving around with a new woman whose "got that dark rhythm in her soul." He eventually gets arrested for an unstated crime, and it is never clear which of these two women, if either, saves his butt.

3) A tangent to the personal narrative that makes you wonder if Dylan's point is the woman who left, the woman who is now there, or characters who come out of nowhere, Henry Porter, who "owned a wrecking lot outside of town" or Ruby (Henry's wife?) with "her red hair tied back." I often wondered if this is where Shephard's influence came in, to see the song like a series of one-act plays, each section between the choruses a hodgepodge of characters living isolated lives.

4) A rollicking set of female background singers that drive the chorus and provide some touches of emphasis through a few random lines in the narrative(s).

5) Individual lines that rise out of the discursive narrative and smack you over the head like a sack of potatoes:

  • She said, "welcome to the land of the living dead," but you can tell she was so broken-hearted/She said, "even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt."
  • 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.
  • You know there is something about you baby that I always liked that was too good for this world/And you said there was something about me you liked that I left in the French Quarter.
  • Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.
  • You always said people don't do what they believe in/they do what's most convenient then they repent.
  • Sometimes you just find yourself over the line/oh, if there is an original thought out there, I could use it right now.

I cite those last three lines almost daily. They convey so much of the human condition for me. In the end, I have no idea which Gregory Peck movie is referenced here; don't need to know if the Brownsville Girl is the gone girl or the found girl; and couldn't care less about where Dylan's brilliance ends and Shephard's begins. I just know that any time when I am fussing too much over a line, I will fall back on Dylan's as often as I can.

Dylan, Bob. "Brownsville Girl." Knocked Out Loaded. Columbia, 1986. Link here.

Day 163: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles "The Tracks Of My Tears."

Day 165: Amy Winehouse "Back To Black."

See complete list here.