I have long wanted to write in praise of the Bob Dylan song “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word,” a song that Dylan has apparently never recorded, but that Joan Baez has been performing since 1965. In a documentary about Dylan, Baez is shown saying that she was with Dylan when he first heard her recording of the song on the radio. She says that he said, “Hey, that’s a great song!”, apparently having forgotten that he had written it. This anecdote echoes the song’s narrative and interpersonal complexity, which I am tempted to call Jamesian.
The complexity seems one of several reasons why the song has given me so much pleasure over many years. There must be something, too, in Baez’s rendition. I suppose it’s the mellifluous clarity and simplicity, the openness of her voice, which serves as the perfect counterpoint to the disjunctions and the sort of burrowing quality of the lyrics. The contrast is so striking that I have wondered—when Baez started performing the song, apparently before Dylan had even finished it—did she herself appreciate the complexity? She was 24 and involved in a brief but passionate relationship with the songwriter. Did the song seem to her, and long continue seeming to her, a great self-portrait of someone she had tried to love? Throughout her life she seems to have made a specialty of brief romantic relationships. Just starting out, did she like this message: “Love is just a four-letter word”?
And what is this message? That is, does “four-letter word” here mean “dirty word”? Or should we embrace the “just,” as in “merely,” as in “‘love’ is just a few letters”? Neither of these interpretations offer much insight into love. Or at least not to someone close to 60 years old who has been acquainted with a lot of different kinds of love, to include with a love of words and of my son. Can a song that reduces love to four letters be great and worth writing and reading about?
In fact I would propose that the song is about isolation yet more than love, and in tandem with love. The isolation involved in overhearing the conversations of lovers (who are also parents), and of then, many years later, making something for oneself and entirely by oneself of what one has overheard. The isolation that is wrapped up in our failures to find love and that leaves us unsure, unable to know when we are in love.
Which is also to say that the song is about the isolation of language, of being—as a writer often is, and as many people sometimes are—alone with words. A singer may often find herself alone with someone else’s words—holding, molding, caressing someone else’s words in her mouth and throat. “I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard,” Dylan/Baez says at one point.
I often quote the philosopher Dmitri Nikulin’s line that “to be is to be in dialogue.” My sense is that he was ignoring and yet would not deny the fact that many of our dialogues are internal or are dialogues manqués—dialogues we wish we had had with others, but did not. And dialogues we did not realize we were engaged in, tacitly, with many of the people around us.
Herewith in italics Dylan’s lyrics as sung by Baez. My explications are in the Roman font. For concision and to focus on the storytelling, I have taken the lyrics out of the standard, poetry-like format. And for simplicity’s sake I will, for the most part, have the “I” of the song be the songwriter, Dylan, a man, and this while noting that if the “I” here were a woman (i.e. Baez, the singer) our sense of the sympathies between the people in the story would be different.
Seems like only yesterday, I left my mind behind, down in the Gypsy Café with a friend of a friend of mine.
The songwriter—or a first-person narrator of his inventing—is remembering becoming confused by someone or falling in love with someone. Not to jump the gun, but it may come to seem that he has fallen in love with a woman precisely because he overhears her saying that love is just a four-letter word. He is also announcing that, on account of his confusion, of having left his mind behind, he is what literary critics call an unreliable narrator, and thus we listeners enter with him an uncertain world.
Who sat with baby heavy on her knee, yet spoke of life most free from slavery.
Although the friend of a friend—who we presume is a woman, a mother—might be said to in fact be quite burdened as a result of love-making, baby-making, maternal love, her message is one of freedom.
With eyes that showed no trace of misery, a phrase in connection first with she averred that love is just a four-letter word.
Is this a statement of someone who is free, and this thanks to being disabused of any illusions, or is the speaker bitter?
Outside a rattling store-front window, cats meowed to the break of day. Me, I kept my mouth shut; to you I had no words to say. My experience was limited and underfed. You were talking while I hid, to the one who was the father of your kid. You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard you say that love is just a four-letter word.
So now we must correct one of our earlier impressions: that the speaker was talking to the songwriter. Rather, the speaker may have been assuming that the songwriter could not hear what she was saying, perhaps under her breath, to another man, perhaps a former lover. And this “friend of a friend” has now become “you”; the songwriter is now trying to speak directly to her. It seems she may be still in his life when he is writing the song. Or is he trying, as we sometimes do, to speak across a span of years to someone he once thought he knew? (We’ve come to a Beatles lyric: “I’m looking through you, where did you go?/I thought I knew you, what did I know?”)
I said goodbye unnoticed, pushed forth into my own games, drifting in and out of lifetimes unmentionable by name. Searching for my double; looking for complete evaporation to the core. Though I tried and failed at finding any door. I must have thought that there was nothing more absurd than that love is just a four-letter word.
At the time of the overhearing, neither the words nor the speaker of them had seemed to mean much to the songwriter. He had likely dismissed the woman’s view of love. Instead he had kept looking for something, and someone, very different—for a much more romantic, all-consuming love that he thought would allow him to escape from his solipsism, his isolation.
Though I never knew just what you meant when you were speaking to your man, I can only think in terms of me and now I understand. After waking enough times to think I see the Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity blow up in smoke, its destiny—falls on strangers, travels free. Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me. And I do not really need to be assured that love is just a four-letter word.
Life may not have taught the songwriter the truth of the words overheard because the songwriter is not sure what the speaker meant when she spoke those words. But the songwriter is now able to understand the words as if they had indeed been spoken to him rather than to another man. And with these “traps” is he saying that he does not blame the speaker for having seduced him; he has seduced himself? It may seem that all his seducing is of himself.
On not all versions of the song, but on the one that I listen to, Baez sings a final verse that does not appear in some on-line copies of the lyrics. For example, this verse does not appear on www.bobdylan.com, which advertises itself as “The Official Bob Dylan Site.” This verse adds yet another layer.
Strange it is to be beside you, many years, the tables turned. You’d probably not believe me if I told you all I’ve learned. And it is very, very weird indeed to hear words like “forever” plead. Those ships run through my mind, I cannot cheat. It’s like looking in the teacher’s face complete. I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard, that love is just a four-letter word.
Is this Baez now speaking to Dylan? Or are these Dylan’s words to this “you,” this former “friend of a friend” who has now become his lover? And how can he give himself over to love? What is he to make of her now using words like “forever” when she is the very person who helped him realize that love is just a four-letter word and that he is encased in self-seduction?
And what are we to make of these “many years” if we have in mind a songwriter in his mid-twenties? Or, again, could the “I” of the song be neither Dylan nor Baez, but an imagined character? We might imagine a man or woman, nearing 60 perhaps, now falling in love with someone who in her youth, as a young mother, had pretended, to herself above all, that she had given up on romantic love.
In any case, does it not often seem that as human beings, and with our life in language, we are in a kind of hall of mirrors, or of sound reflectors, which never stop bending what we see and hear and throwing us back into our uncertain selves? And, thus, how are we able to relate to one another, what can love be besides a four-letter word?
— Wm. Eaton, Editor, Zeteo
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, has been slated for publication by Serving House Books. See Surviving the website. Readers interested in close readings of poetry, may wish to visit Translating Dickinson.
Baez’s recording of the song available on YouTube. This version does not have the final, or extra, verse. The longer song may be found on Vanguard Sessions: Baez Sings Dylan. I recommend this latter version highly, and the lyrics above are as heard on this recording. The “averred,” for example, would seem to be a Baez emendation of an original “I heard.”
Dmitri Nikulin, On Dialogue (Lexington Books, 2005).
The photograph of Baez and Dylan may well be from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 documentary Don’t Look Back.
The Baez story is from Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home.
Readers possessing unusual enthusiasm for exploring our hall of mirrors/sound reflectors life might enjoy Zeroing In.
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