The story of “I Want You” is the story of two different arrangements. Bob Dylan, of course, is famous for never singing his songs the same way twice. It’s why many people grew tired of him, and why many more follow his every single move; downloading every recording they can get their hands on, and taking in as many live shows as possible.
In 1966, “I Want You” was just another impressively fantasia-filled Bob Dylan tone poem, with “guilty undertakers,” “organ grinders,” “drunken politicians,” and dancing children in Chinese suits. The spritely guitar figure that kicks off the song is an instant classic though, and the way the chords are structured, the song seems to build and build with each lyric, until the chorus releases the tension. The song is a paeon to romantic longing, but on the Blonde on Blonde version, Dylan doesn’t seem particularly mournful. Maybe the woman he “wanted” so badly, he already “had.”
By the time he gets to the bridge, which reads like a riddle, he seems to be in a pretty good mood.
Now all my fathers, they’ve gone down
True love they’ve been without it.
But all their daughters put me down
‘Cause I don’t think about it.
There’s even some classic Dylan antagonism thrown in at the end, where he sticks it to some kid who dares to speak to him, “because he lied, because he took you for a ride.” Overall though, there’s something about the arrangement that’s just joyful, that propels the singer through a world of weirdness, and, with each chorus, leads him straight back to the woman he loves.
On one level, it’s a difficult song for anyone to literally to relate to. How many lonesome organ grinders do you know? On another level, Dylan nails certain aspects of love that we all can relate and aspire to:
She is good to me
And there’s nothing she doesn’t see.
She knows where I’d like to be
But it doesn’t matter.
When he sings “I wasn’t born to lose you,” a great line if there ever was one, I wonder if Bruce Springsteen picked up on it, when he wrote the chorus to “Born To Run” eleven years later.
Flash forward to 1994, and the MTV Unplugged outake of “I Want You.” While it never aired (imagine that), it ended up on YouTube anyway. The song, now plaid acoustically, has been slowed down, lines come in at unexpected times, and the chorus is somehow twice as resonant. It’s like the song has grown up, and grown into its own skin.
That’s what great songs do. They change. They stay the same. They make you feel something.