“Sweetheart Like You” – Bob Dylan’s “most beautiful woman”

Infidels

Well, the pressure’s down, the boss ain’t here
He gone North, for a while
They say that vanity got the best of him
But he sure left here in style
By the way, that’s a cute hat
And that smile’s so hard to resist
But what’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you
She wanted a whole man, not just a half
She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh
In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear
It’s done with a flick of the wrist
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

You know, a woman like you should be at home
That’s where you belong
Watching out for someone who loves you true
Who don’t know how to do you wrong
Just how much abuse will you be able to take?
Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

You know you can make a name for yourself
You can hear them tires squeal
You can be known as the most beautiful woman
Who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal

You know, news of you has come down the line
Even before ya came in the door
They say in your father’s house, there’s many mansions
Each one of them got a fireproof floor
Snap out of it, baby, people are jealous of you
They smile to your face, but behind your back they hiss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

Got to be an important person to be in here, honey
Got to have done some evil deed
Got to have your own harem when you come in the door
Got to play your harp until your lips bleed

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king
There’s only one step down from here, baby
It’s called the land of permanent bliss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music

This is one of my favorite songs by Bob Dylan, from his great album “Infidels.” It has previously resisted my efforts toward an interpretation that makes sense of it both in part and in whole. This is also partly due to the lesson I keep in mind from Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” that I discussed here.  But after more thought and possible illumination I humbly offer the following.

Overall the song seems to be about a woman who is a “sweetheart” that is out of her rightful place, away from previous “persons” that had influenced and/or had power over her, namely “the boss” who’s “vanity” had overcome him, and has “gone North,” and her “father” who reportedly has a “house of many mansions each with a fireproof floor.” These two characters seem to be Satan and God.

Some support for this seems to inhere in the fact that the presence of the boss entails “pressure,” while the very word “father” intrinsically implies loving relationship. Dylan may also imply this in that her critics are jealous of her for this reason, even though their  “smile to her face” is hypocritical because of their “hissing behind her back.” She needs to “snap out of it,” probably meaning the spell she has presumably fallen under by courting their “news” opinions of her.

All of this may signify that the woman is the Church, at least in its American expression, which obviously and sadly is what Dylan had perhaps encountered mainly in a negative way. When the song was written the Church was seeking a stronger alliance with the political powers through the “right wing” efforts of “the moral majority.” It seemed to be a time of opportunity, perhaps signified by the “boss” not being around. But Dylan seems to view that opportunity as a situation that led to compromise,  belittled her dignity, and reduced her existence to being “in a dump like this.” The last few lines of the first verse show that notwithstanding her temptations, she is in essence a “sweetheart” with her “cute hat…and a smile so hard to resist.

The next verse seems to be about the personal relationship of Dylan to the Church. He begins by saying “I once knew a woman who looked like you” meaning that the woman/church he now sees is not the same as she used to be. She previously wanted “a whole man…not just a half” meaning that she once wanted the whole Christ, but her divided allegiance has resulted in her desires for a lesser Christ. The “queen” has now disappeared with “a flick of the wrist” of handshake deals.

The third verse says that she should remain “at home where she belongs,” where she can care for the one who “don’t know how to do you wrong.” But she has been enticed by “the first kiss.” Dylan wonders how much “abuse” will follow and how much she will be able to take.

The next verse contains one Dylan’s greatest lyrics ever, that reveals the drive for, and consequences of, the deal:

You know you can make a name for yourself
You can hear them tires squeal
You can be known as the most beautiful woman
Who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal

Dylan’s lyrical genius! (If I try to explain it i’ll only diminish it, which I fear is the sum effect of interpreting Dylan!) The deal with its attendant compromises is also “fleshed out” in the last two verses. Compromise with evil, committing evil, is the price of admission to this party. To be part of this performance you have to “play the harp until your lips bleed!”

I believe that there is two lines that are quite possibly autobiographical of Dylan’s relationship to the Church:

She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh

Dylan seems to be lamenting the woman/church he used to know. He is reminded of her “when she laughs.” Has she taken herself to seriously! Has she forgotten the joys of her chief end of “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever?” The most touching part is his recollection of how she “used to call him sweet daddy when I was only a child.” The Church, when it explains the redemption of Christ, tells us that our potential for maturity is already accomplished. In a sense then, the new Christian is already “a new man,” even though he is in a sense merely a newborn infant. The Church also tells us that in the redemption in Christ we are “sweet.” Many wonder what happened to Dylan, but it seems that this is one of the earliest hints that the political involvement of the Church at that time for him diminished what the Church in essence is, and overshadowed the edifying attraction of her redemptive message.

I would like to call attention to another lyrical gem in this wondrous song. It is probably the lyric most remembered by Dylan aficionados, and for good reason.

Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king

This shows the worldly means/worldly power that the woman/church is flirting with. The song ends with what probably signifies an ironic view of the would be “bliss” the church hopes to gain in her compromise. That “gain” is a step down:

There’s only one step down from here, baby
It’s called the land of permanent bliss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

The path forward for the Church, must follow the path of her Lord. His path did not entail compromise with or the use of earthly power. His “power” consisted in the negation of earthly power, in reliance upon the heavenly power of God. Jesus of Nazareth overcame the worldly power by being crucified, trusting his Father for resurrection. The Church must also be conformed to a “cruciform” faith.

In the long run, the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.” Napoleon

To the reader:

I try to keep these posts as short as possible, while knowing that their content has probably provoked some thoughts, questions, implications, or critiques. Therefore, any of these from the reader are greatly appreciated in order to “fill out” these posts.

“Likes” are also much appreciated because it helps me know if I’m posting things of interest to those following and others.

Thank you!

So, what say ye…? 

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 thoughts on ““Sweetheart Like You” – Bob Dylan’s “most beautiful woman”

  1. Gus408 says:

    Thanks for the effort. The lyrics only make sense as metaphor. Appreciate your pov.

  2. Bryan says:

    Thanks for the comment!

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