Of the several run-ins between the Beatles and Bob Dylan during the 1960s, perhaps the most abstract involves two particular songs — one from Rubber Soul, the other from Blonde on Blonde. It’s obvious that by 1965 the Beatles had started to exhibit in their own work the absorbed influences of current American music trends, most conspicuously in George Harrison’s emulation of the Byrds and John Lennon’s reverence for Bob Dylan. The collision of both, and arguably Rubber Soul’s most Dylanesque moment, is heard on “Norwegian Wood”. Yet the subject of this post is not which Dylan number that sounds like, but rather how he reacted the following year to acknowledge the song’s similarity of spirit. Dylan did what must have seemed only natural: copied the nuts and bolts of the Beatles’ song right back at them.
His “4th Time Around” is equal parts knowing nod and humorously lazy admonition, couched in a similar melody and bar structure and stretched out about twice as long. Though “Norwegian Wood” moved the Beatles’ lyrics for the first time past straight love song and towards more whimsical terrain, its rhyme scheme is still kind of laughable on paper — likely intentionally so — and this is something that Dylan, no stranger to ridiculous rhyming himself (see: Bob Dylan’s 1st and 115th Dreams), lampoons mightily. With lines like “She buttoned her boot, straightened her suit, said ‘Don’t be cute,’” it almost seems that Dylan was sort of reaching into his past and possibly even making fun of his own former proclivities on an album that had otherwise left them more or less behind. In that way, “4th Time Around” represents an injection of tongue-in-cheek absurdity into an otherwise poignant account of a bitter misunderstanding and the amends that follow. That being said, the song overall plays it pretty straight with a lovely simplicity which, taken at face value, belies the complexity of his multi-layered homage.
Have a listen to the two:
It’s hard to escape the notion that John’s “Norwegian Wood” lyrics were a bit of a lark, while “4th Time Around” actually achieves some kind of real emotional resonance. For example, each song features a character who winds up on the floor, but for different reasons. John’s first person narrator gets there because he’s told “to sit anywhere, so I looked around and noticed there wasn’t a chair,” while Dylan riles his lady into screaming “till her face got so red, then she fell on the floor.”
John Lennon had different interpretations of the “response” song over the following decade, imagining that Dylan was trying to send a message to the Beatles to back off from copying his style, before ultimately deciding that the song had a more friendly tone. There are lines that make one wonder, like the downright ornery “Everybody must give something back for something they get,” and “I never asked your crutch, so don’t ask for mine.” Though for every line like that, there’s a “Felt with my thumb, gallantly handed her my very last piece of gum,” so all in all who can say.
Several of the Beatles songs came from songs written by Bob Dylan, such as Long, Long, Long from Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands and I Should Have Known Better from If You’ve Gotta Go, Go Now (the verse melody of Garden Party by Rick Nelson also seems to come from here).
The intro of the Manfred Mann version of “If You Got To Go” sounds a lot like the intro of “I Should Have Known Better.”
I said about that right here.
Dylan is on record saying he played 4th Time Around for the Beatles, and when he later heard Norwegian Wood, he felt compelled to record it.