Analysis of "Brownsville Girl"
"Brownsville Girl" (1986), co-written with playwright Sam Shepard whom Dylan had previously collaborated with in the mid-'70s (the Rolling Thunder Revue), is one of Dylan's many so-called "epics" and arguably his '80s masterpiece, if not the greatest song he's ever written - I tend to think so. Clocking at 11 minutes it is (along with "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", "Highlands" and "Desolation Row") an overwhelmingly audacious composition. Perhaps, with its careless, gutsy use of back-up singers, ridiculously lengthy lines (which demand Dylan to speak rather than sing) and overdubbing, even too ambitious so for its own good. Dylan had actually recorded this grandiose piece for the album "Empire Burlesque" under the Woody Guthrie inspired title "New Danville Girl". This earlier, much simpler and plainer stripped-down version can be found on various bootleg releases, most notably "The Naked Empire" and "Tempest Storm".
Guitarist Ira Ingber later somewhat unjustifiably expressed his disapproval over the officially released recording, claiming it had lost some of its natural authentic beauty because of the excessive overdubbing (apparently, six recording sessions were devoted to this). I personally find "Brownsville Girl" more appealing musically and feel it deserves praise for its majestic feel and power. On the other hand, it's worth noting how much more wistful "New Danville Girl"-s lyrics are (for example, the line "Tell me about the time that out engine broke down and it was the worst of times" gives one a good glimpse of the narrator's and Brownsville Girl's struggles). Dylan rewrote a lot of it along the way (adding a few colloquialisms, among other things) as it was in the process of becoming the version one can hear on his "Knocked Out Loaded" album. The song is obviously the album's highlight; the centerpiece that holds together a record put together without much effort or dedication. I would still recommend the album for its unapologetically corny south-western vibe. And if anyone asked if Dylan's ever recorded an album to play to a dancehall crowd, I'd suggest this one. "Driftin' Too Far from Shore" and "Maybe Someday" are perhaps Dylan's danciest songs.
"Brownsville Girl" is about an odyssey, complete with leaps from the past to the present and vice versa, a haunting ode to memories and movies that continuosly builds up to a conclusion that displays some of Dylan's wittiest, sardonic writing, some of which apparently a contribution of Shepard's*. Dylan has always felt close to the world of film, using lines from classic noirs in several of his '80s songs, and even appearing in several films (most of which were failures). From that period, he starred in "Hearts of Fire" alongside Rupert Everett, another unfortunate flop. Amazingly enough, in a conceptual sense, movies for him work best when he's not part of them, but when he applies them to his songs... like this one. The Gregory Peck picture described is 1950's The Gunfighter, which not only provides Dylan with an incredibly generous canvas, but also allows him to present himself as both a courageous mythical figure (in his case, as a musician, and poet) and a common man. Structurally, the prosaic "Brownsville Girl" consists of three consistent platforms, which is stunning, considering this is just a single song, albeit 11 minutes long: there is a main storyline, where we learn about the narrator and his neverending travels with the titular character, how they ended up getting separated, and what the narrator does next (on a whim, it seems); there are hazy flashbacks of the film that haunts and taunts him (and is symbolic of his own journey); and there is also the true present where the listener is provided with a conclusion.
It is worth mentioning that the song came to be when session musicians were throwing ideas around during rehearals and someone started talking about a film he had seen. It's remarkable that this was the basis for what soon became a (fictious) account of a hazardous, yet tremendous journey; an epic of the west dealing with long-lost love, being stranded and later contemplating what it all had really meant. The juxtaposition of various memories from two separate stages of life that both lead up to something as simple and earthly as standing in a line at a movie theatre, works on so many levels. Some Dylan fans who don't take to "Brownsville Girl" as well as I happen to, mainly criticise it for its disjointed nature. After all, even though the narrator's journey is smoothly framed by vivid images from The Gunfighter which the narrator begins to feel a part of, we never really learn the backgrounds of the characters of Ruby and Henry Porter, nor is it revealed which crime the narrator is accused of. Then again, Brownsville Girl herself, the unnamed central character, remains just as mystifying to the listener as a lot of what occurs to the heroic journeyman. At the very beginning, for example, there is an odd gap in the narrative when Brownsville Girl disappears without warning to seek out a doctor (for an abortion, as Dylan writer Oliver Trager suggests**). Suddenly the narrator's cross-country journey continues with another girl, a substitute for the carnal and luminous titular character with "Brownsville curls" and "teeth like pearls" (as the cliché-laden chorus explains). Why the hero picks a replacement for Brownsville Girl is never explained, but knowing Dylan's songwriting, the need for companionship is a possible reason.
The naiveness of the narrator and his new partner in crime - a girl reminiscent of Brownsville Girl who has slipped away - is oddly charming. At one point, the song describes Ruby, whose eyes "were filled with sadness" and who says that "even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt" (a nice touch of humor) as being "disillusioned with everything"; the hero, on the other hand, claims not having any destination nor aim, but he hasn't given up looking: "We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn / ’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies". Brownsville Girl was the true love who the narrator let go to easily (which the narrator realises too late, but ends up concluding he has no regrets), later expressing his sadness, perhaps pitying himself as he stands in the line of the movie theatre, thinking: "Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content" and "People don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent" - these must be the truest and most proverbial lines Dylan ever sang. Among other things, the song studies how we find comfort in familiarity, but how we can also be chained by it.
And, of course, the process of writing the song seems to have been just as spontaneous and erratic as the narrator's actions in this story, who never appears to truly understand where he is headed or why, which was probably the case with Dylan / Shepard as they partnered up to pen this playfully wild ballad. Some of it undeniably is autobiographical. The line "“We got him cornered in the churchyard,” I heard somebody shout" is a fine example. Another one: "Well, you saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune". Corpus Christi, also meaning "body of Christ" in Latin, is also a city in Texas where a lot of the action of the song takes place. Those familiar with Dylan are well aware of his brief period of devoted Christianity in the late '70s and early '80s. And, as already mentioned, in the song Dylan clearly ponders about the nature of celebrity as he draws a comparison between himself and the gunfighter Jimmy Ringo from the film that he can't help but shake off as he reminisces about his trek on the harmonious landscapes of the elusive American wilderness, never by himself, but so lost and seeking a certain purpose. Similarly to Dylan classics such as "Isis" or "Tangled Up in Blue", the geographical nuances of the narrative are disorienting: at one point the narrator is in Mexico, and then suddenly roaming the highways of Colorado, gazing at sunrise near the Rockies; the French Quarter of New Orleans is also mentioned. This is probably one of the reasons the song is considered fragmented, but people seem to be forgetting how often Dylan songs are nothing but intricate puzzles. An earlier song of Dylan's similarly describing the travels of a lonely lost drifter, "Tangled Up in Blue", is known for its anachronistic structure, along with other complexities that still befuddle even the most devoted, focused listeners.
The magic of "Brownsville Girl" is essentially based on the idea of physically experiencing something so amazing and astonishing it feels almost like you're playing the part of a film, even if the outcome is devastating to whomever is experiencing it; yet, at the same time, films are generally linked to escapism. Seeing a film often allows one to distance oneself from whatever hardships one may go through, and as the memories of both The Gunfighter and Brownsville Girl become one and then slowly dissolve in his head, he can finally be at rest and see whatever Gregory Peck film is showing. As the song states, he thinks he would see that haunting western again, but apparently it's a totally different one. This is what I consider a valuable symbol of finding peace; being able to finally stop mulling over whatever went wrong in the past, and to venture into new open territory. Despite becoming separated and never again connecting with Brownsville Girl, a lot went right as well. Inescapable fate has led the narrator, a destiny's child, to the movie theatre, and whatever really happened inbetween seeing The Gunfighter in his youth and that very point, has given people a reason to talk about him plenty after he's gone. For that he has no regrets. That shows grateful sensibilities. Most likely his content attitude has a lot to do with the fact that despite having been fired at and chased, he is still alive, something that appears important to him at the beginning of the song, where he first describes Jimmy Ringo dying after being shot, and then getting separated from Brownsville Girl because he was afraid of risking his own life. Because of the loosely linked events of the song, a lot of the it is supposed to remain a mystery, just as mysterious as often anonymous gunslingers from western films are, and the ideal Brownsville Girl herself is.
* Dylan expert Clinton Heylin suggests that Shepard's real contribution was to encourage Dylan not to settle for "second best", which is believable considering how weak his other songs from the mid-'80s are. It's almost confusing to hear such a long and profound ballad from an era so pathetic in terms of Dylan's musical output. "Without wishing in anyway to diminish Shepard's role in the song's lyric or his own gifts for dialogue, it seems that his primary function in the writing process – like Jacques Levy nine years earlier – was to push Dylan to not give up on the idea, or settle for second best. According to Shepard, they “spent two days writing the lyrics – Bob had previously composed the melody line.” Dylan acknowledged his co-lyricist's input when talking about their collaboration to a German journalist in 1997: “Working with Sam was not necessarily easier, but it was certainly less meaningless. In every case writing a song is done faster when you got someone like Sam and are not on your own.” The once prolific penman had evidently been struggling to motivate himself to, as it were, give the envelope a shove one more time, until Shepard brought along his shovel."
** Oliver Trager's suggestion is probably derived from the fact Dylan changed the line "And we slept near the Alamo, fell out under the stars" from "New Danville Girl" to "your skin was so tender and soft" for "Brownsville Girl", which may emphasize they had sex, leading to an unwanted pregnancy.Bob DylanKnocked Out Loaded
Written by an Italian poet from the... I mean, Ralf Sauter