Bob Dylan, “Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence”
Bob Dylan has always liked the spaces in between, dividing lines, and borderlines in his songs. Particularly in the mid-1960s, he liked, lyrically, hanging out in no-man’s-lands: the haunted wild-western, Tex-Mexican border town of “Desolation Row”; wherever it is he has the “Tombstone Blues”; wherever the “Gates of Eden” are set.
A barbed wire fence is a peculiarly painful dividing line to occupy if you’re sitting on it. “Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence” is a song from his Highway 61 Revisited (1965) days, but that didn’t make it onto the album. A version of it was released on Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series No. 1-3, Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991 (1991), and bits and pieces of some of the other recordings have been bootlegged over the years. Listening to the already-released version, and bootlegged bits and pieces, is grand — but today Dylan released an alternate version that shows just how much fun he and the other musicians were having in the studio long ago.
Women are, not surprisingly for a Dylan-dilemma song, involved in the pain — as well as the barbed wire itself. Dylan’s voice, Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, and Dylan’s harmonica take turns in plaints and howling. “This gal I got, I swear she’s killin’ me alive / She’s makin’ me into an old man and I’m hardly even twenty-five,” Dylan mourns on the alternate version. Fragments and splinters of the song appear elsewhere on the album, like the lines “Well I went to the doctor he gave me a shot, but he wouldn’t tell me what it is I got,” and “hungry woman and she’ll really make mess outta you,” which were reworked for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Lines got saved for much later Dylan songs, like “If You Ever Go To Houston.” Dylan intersperses Mike Bloomfield’s searing, soaring guitar with “awrights” and “ah-hahs,” and then he shifts the words of the last verse to pay tribute to Bloomfield’s skill. His woman in L.A. “makes the sweat run down my brow,” but she “isn’t as good as this guitar player I got right now.” Dylan yowls, and then laughs. “Fade it out,” he orders, and the beat goes on, under Bloomfield’s guitar line, into rising silence. But don’t listen to what I say about it — just listen to it. Happy Thursday to you.
* previously unreleased version, on Bob Dylan Vevo but exclusive today through the Wall Street Journal, of “Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence.”