I find songs that do not sound remarkable by themselves but are when you’re speaking of terms of a full album interesting. The kind of songs you’d never find on a greatest hits album but, let’s say, My Aim is True by Elvis Costello wouldn’t sound right without “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.”
This idea really struck yesterday when listening to “Spanish Harlem Incident.” While it happens to be the favorite Dylan song (and possibly favorite song of all-time?) of my soon-to-be editor-in-chief of Inprint, it’s a track that to me only sounds great when listening to the full of Another Side of Bob Dylan with it being wedged between a bad song, “Black Crow Blues” and a fantastic one, “Chimes of Freedom.” However, by itself, it’s good but nothing spectacular. I have the same feelings towards “My Back Pages,” which, even in 1964, Dylan could never have performed again and been fine, while the same could not be said about The Byrds.
And yes, I did just ridicule The Byrds.
Dylan, maybe more than other artist, really succeeds in terms of the album, not specific songs. I mean, you could put together an amazing two disc set of just his love songs (more on that in another post) but to splice up Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks would be downright tragic to the listener.
The only other artist that sticks out in terms of the concept of the album is The Velvet Underground, because it has to be looked upon in terms of full career, not just one or two albums. Otherwise, The Beatles would top the list, but you can chop up Please Please Me or The Beatles’ Second Album and you’d be fine.
But to get back to “Spanish Harlem Incident,” Dylan has only performed the song once, which actually happens to be at a concert in 1964 that is now The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6. The performance is quite similar to that of the album version, and it’s a mystery to me as to why he’s never performed it again.
We know the song deals with a palm reader Dylan meets in Spanish Harlem (as one of my professors, Ben Hedin, says, “Who else but Dylan would write a song about that 5 minute moment?”) but that’s pretty much where the firm grasp of knowledge gets slippery and we head towards speculation.
“Gypsy gal, you got me swallowed.
I have fallen far beneath
Your pearly eyes, so fast an' slashing,
An' your flashing diamond teeth.
The night is pitch black, come an' make my
Pale face fit into place, ah, please!
Let me know, babe, I got to know, babe,
If it's you my lifelines trace.”
The images of “pearly eyes” being “fast an’ slashing” is one of my favorites of pre-Highway 61 Dylan, and possibly even further. And so, with lines like that, it really doesn’t matter the song is about as long as it’s a good song…albeit one that fits nice and snug into Another Side of Bob Dylan and not anywhere else.