Bob Dylan, “Brownsville Girl”

The notion that the ‘80s was a lost decade for Bob Dylan was somewhat misleading. The great stuff was still there; you just had to search a little harder for it. For example, 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded is generally considered one of the nadirs of his career, a listless collection of half-baked covers and tossed-off originals. Yet sitting in the midst of the mediocrity on the album is the epic “Brownsville Girl,” a song about lost love, unreliable memories and, in truly idiosyncratic, Dylanesque fashion, Gregory Peck. Dylan composed the song with playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who was once part of Bob’s Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-70’s. Shepard recalled the process in a 2004 Village Voice interview. “With Dylan you're continuing on this hunt for what he's after, who he is, this continual mystery about his identity,” Shepard remembered. “He had that little snatch of a chorus and melody lines that he'd laid out. He had 'em on tape and then he would play them on guitar. The way I found my way into it with him was to follow this story that started to evolve. All these characters started to pop into the story. Traveling around, visiting these characters, tracking people down.” Peck plays a tangential role in the song as the lead actor of a film that the narrator is seemingly standing in line to watch. Although Dylan never names the movie and his character’s foggy memory clouds the picture, 1950’s The Gunfighter is widely believed to be the movie within the song. The film serves as a jumping-off point for the narrator to remember a road trip with a mystery woman, all while addressing the titular female, the one who truly owns his heart. There’s also a side trip to the home of Henry Porter, whom we never get to actually meet and may not... Sign In to Keep Reading

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