“Brownsville Girl” (1986)

Christopher Ricks makes a fuss about “lines” in “Brownsville Girl.” “[M]uch is made of lines in this song,” he says.  And, of course, songs/poems are made up of lines, as Ricks acknowledges.  Dylan is hip to being at the end of the line or over the line as themes but also as phrases that pertain and bring attention to the lines on the page, which Dylan puts in the air when he sings them.  “She studied the lines of my face” is a famous line of Dylan’s, and aren’t the lines of a song as personal as a songwriter’s/poet’s face?

I recently tweeted that when I listen to “Brownsville Girl” I feel like I’m at a pub overhearing Bob conversing with the bartender.  What we remember most about “Brownsville Girl” is the unique conversational prose he pours into it.  But there’s a great deal of rhyming in it, end of the line ones where we expect rhymes.  And good ones, too, some over the line, over the top:  “soft”/”off,” “soul”/”control,” “curls”/”world.”

The word“said” is what’s over the line in “Brownsville Girl,” appearing 9 times to “line”s mere 3. “said” never ends a line, but it appears so often that it smacks of internal rhyming, perhaps to keep the prose in line; it’s a poem Dylan seems to want to remind us with the end of the line rhymes.  When the prose gets going, “said” seems to reign it in.  This verse is a good example:

She said, “Welcome to the land of the living dead”
You could tell she was so broken hearted
She said, “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt”

Also, In “Brownsville Girl,” the word “stars” refers to celebrities. Dylan recalls Gregory Peck, playing a character in a movie,  shot in the back:

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

Dylan had his share of being torn down by fans and the media, and the 80’s may very well have been his time to recover from feeling beat down.  But this verse,  not totally rhyme-less, “bound”/”down” keeping it from being all prose, comes only five years after John Lennon was killed in front of his apartment in NYC, shot in the back by Mark David Chapman.  The allusion to it gives the song a mournful feel or rather assists the mournful feel throughout.   The mourning continues; forgetting that day is impossible. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be his friend . . . can’t . . . Imagine . . .

If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit that when I first heard this song I thought knocked-out loaded was exactly the condition Dylan must have been in when he wrote it.  I thought that for awhile.  And then the likes of Michael Gray and Stephen Scobie set me straight, and I started to see why so many put this song on their list of his greatest.  Gray’s observation especially that “uncertain crossings of one sort of another are a recurrent motif in “‘Brownsville Girl’” raised my awareness of its depth.

Here’s an alternative outtake version apparently from Empire Burlesque sessions.  Enjoy!