Taking requests now on the bandstand . . . .
Last night I had the unusual pleasure of speaking in person to that rarest of persons, an enthusiast of DB’s Song of the Day. Hugh spoke feelingly of today’s song as one that should be addressed and, since there will most likely be at least one Dylan song per month, why not make “Boots of Spanish Leather” today’s choice? Especially as all those celebratory “hot damn, it’s spring” songs I was contemplating don’t suit my attenuated status—in other words, I still feel crappy. And this song is much more in line with the pensive mood I might be said to be in, just now.
The song comes from Bobby Dylan’s third album. The one that was recorded in 1963 but got held back because it was supposed to come out right when JFK got gunned down. So it’s actually January 1964 before this LP sees the light of day. And Dylan was evolving so fast in those days, these songs were already “history” to a certain extent. By which I mean that, when you see him at Newport Folk Festival in July, 1964, he’s nothing like the guy on this album.
The guy on this album is incredibly earnest, almost painfully so at times. And look at the cover photo. Our Bob looks like he’s been in some kind of concentration camp. Or maybe that there Summer Camp for Serious Folksingers, angling to become the “conscience of a generation,” and all that. In 1964 proper, Bob would be having no more truck with all that. The times they were a-changing, indeed, and even faster in Dylan’s career. But the title track would be a hit in England when he went over there on his last solo acoustic tour in spring of 1965. “Are birds free from the chains of the skyways?” Dylan asks in a song on his fourth album and one might wonder if artists can ever be free from the chains of their earlier work. Times and its predecessor, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May, 1963), would leave a mark to “live up to” for a long time to come.
“Boots” dates from the time when Bob’s lady love, Suze Rotolo, was over in Italy. And so Dylan borrows a tune and writes some new words, using an old traditional form: the colloquy: two voices speaking to each other in the lyric.
It starts with her asking, before sailing in the morning, if there’s anything she can send him from where she’s going (Spain). And the form will follow the tradition of asking three times (is that because Peter denied Christ three times? Maybe) and always getting the same reply, though with modifications. So let’s see how it works:
First time: is there something I can send; answer: no, there’s nothing I want except for you to come back. And Dylan uses a key term “unspoiled.” In the old days (of the form this song is using) the assumption would be that the girl is virginal until their eventual marriage, and he’s saying he’s hoping she’ll stay that way. Given, in 1963, that we suspect the girl is not a virgin, there’s the sense that travel won’t “spoil” her, that she’ll remain toward him as she is now.
Second time: Oh, but you might like some fine gift from those romantic lands I’m traveling to (think of it!), Madrid, Barcelona . . . . She’s kinda rubbing it in a bit, since he clearly isn’t too keen on thinking about her over there. Answer: a very romantic No! I’d trade stars and diamonds (though what diamonds are doing in the deepest oceans I’ve never been able to determine—I think our boy’s getting a bit upset) “for your sweet kiss / For that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’.” And there’s some of that Dylan magic, right there. In his folkie period he had a great way of using demotic speech to great effect: “I’m wishin’ to be ownin’.” As opposed to something grand like “All I care to own.” And he does stress the kiss, which is something they would do in the old ballads and so Bob keeps that courtly tone going, but it also emphasizes what the kiss of the beloved is worth. Everything, basically. Without it, it’s a pretty barren world.
Third time begins with a statement that shows us where this is headed: “But I might be gone a long old time,” and now the gift is supposed to help him: “something to remember me by / To make your time more easy passin’.” Which is a way of saying “make your time pass more easily,” but, again, Dylan keeps his effective colloquial diction going, apt for a ‘spoken’ song like this. But that “something to remember me by” is wormwood. It sounds sincere of course; she’s worried he might forget her, but that question only gets at what’s bugging him in the first place: the fact that she’s leaving. And now she’s underscoring how long she might be gone and that it will suck for him.
Answer: he kind of explodes: “How can, how can you ask me again / It only brings me sorrow / The same thing I would want to today / I will want again tomorrow.” This is what we pay Bob the big bucks for. For in this protest the speaker has stated the eternal law of love: what I want today I will want tomorrow. I will not alter. That, supposedly, is the basis of marriage. And there’s really nothing to say to that. But we might also reflect that he doesn’t in fact propose at this moment.
Then comes the “dear John” letter: “I don’t know when I’ll be coming back again / It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.” Yes even before answering machines and email, people could break up from a great distance. And think about it: how long would that letter take to reach him. So, she would’ve written it at a certain point—let’s hope she dated the letter—and he would’ve read it at another point and then would be able to calculate how many days he lived in ignorance of her changed feelings. Fun.
So then comes his reply. First the statement of the obvious: if you feel like that then you’re going forward and leaving me behind (notice that the letter was written while she’s still sailing—she hasn’t even gotten to Spain yet. A shipboard romance? Maybe). Then comes the killer, the part that for some reason puts everything back into the speaker’s hands.
Take heed, take heed of the western wind / Take heed of the stormy weather / And, yes, there is something you can send back to me / Spanish boots of Spanish leather
First that warning in “take heed”—storms could be coming and other bad shit. Gee, I hope your ship doesn’t go down, bitch. And then the terse request but, no, not something to remember her by, not something “made of silver or a-golden” to wear as a badge of honor. Boots. To go rambling in, to hit the road in, made in Spain of Spanish leather to remind him. My girlfriend got to run around in Spain and all I got was these boots. But, y’know, as Lee Hazelwood would say—by way of Nancy Sinatra—these boots are made for walking. And that’s just what they’ll do.
Like another great Dylan send-off song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Boots” ends with a fare thee well, but here there’s a dramatized sense of the grievance, and a sense that the speaker, if not wronged exactly, has met his rude awakening.
Well, time for my boot heels to be wanderin’ . . . .