Bob Dylan's ''Highlands" - lyric analysis by Kees de Graaf- Part 3
4. The Boston Restaurant intermezzo.
‘I’m in Boston town in some restaurant’. Although there seems to be a restaurant in Boston called ‘Max and Dylan’s restaurant, this restaurant – at least as far as I know -has nothing to do with Bob Dylan or this song. It looks like we are drawn into a sudden detour, some side-path, off the main road leading to the Highlands. At first glance there seems to be no connection with the main theme of the song at all. But when you take a close look at it, this scene fits in well within the song. In fact, the whole scene is typically Dylanesque. The poet has some vague idea that – on his way to the Highlands - he has a mission to fulfill, going to this Boston restaurant: ‘I got no idea what I want, well maybe I do but I’m just really not sure’. It is as if some heavenly force has sent him to this restaurant but he has no clear idea yet why he is being drawn into it. On the other hand, he has some misgiving that he will be drawn into something which he just isn’t going to like at all. Especially when we read: ‘She studies me closely as I sat down’. He doesn’t like to be looked at and scrutinized. It resembles a little what he says in ‘Not Dark Yet’: ‘I don’t even remember what it was; I came here to get away from’. His saying to the waitress: ‘Tell me what I want’ (or ‘tell me what’s good today’ – in a live version) not only shows that he is unable to put his purpose of going to this restaurant into words. Maybe he silently hopes that the waitress will not ask him any nasty, inquisitive questions and that she will leave him alone. But as the conversation with the waitress progresses, it becomes apparent for him that there is no escaping and the story is getting more and more relief and purpose, ostensibly against the will of the poet.
‘Nobody in the place but me and her’ and ‘It must be a holiday, there’s nobody around’ sounds strange. During a holiday one would expect a crowded restaurant but this is obviously not the case. The section on the hard boiled eggs makes us believe that the Easter holidays are meant here. On his saying ‘Tell me what I want’ the waitress replies: ‘You probably want hard boiled eggs’. In some live versions he seems to sing ‘soft boiled eggs’ but here – on the official recording - it is clearly ‘hard boiled eggs’. Why does the waitress think he wants hard boiled eggs? Probably the waitress has some vague notion in her mind that the visitor in front of her is either a Jew or a Christian. Hard boiled eggs have a connection with both Easter and Passover. Both Easter and Passover revolve around the idea of rebirth. At Easter Christians celebrate that Jesus resurrected from the dead and the Jews celebrate at Passover that they were once freed from slavery in Egypt and reborn into freedom. Both holidays draw in the idea of birth or rebirth with Easter eggs and the hard boiled eggs served on Passover. Eggs are seen as the seed of life and are symbolic for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
While the poet acknowledges the suggestion made by the waitress and says: ‘that’s right, bring me some’ she unexpectedly replies by saying: ‘We ain’t got any, you picked the wrong time to come’. How is this possible? It is Easter time and yet there are no (hard) boiled eggs on the menu. It just doesn’t seem to make any sense. The reason may be that in this town there is nobody left who believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is a thing of the past in this town. It is also the reason why there is nobody around. Nobody celebrates Easter any more. It reminds you of what Dylan would later say in the song ‘Ain’t Talking’:’ I practice a faith that’s long been abandoned, ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road’. The whole scene exacerbates his pain and loneliness on his way to the Highlands.
It is not getting any better when the waitress turns things around. Instead of receiving orders she gives him an order: ‘I know you’re an artist, draw a picture of me!’ The poet does not deny that he is an artist but he is very reluctant to consent to the demand of the waitress. He comes up with a number of apparently lousy -and at the same time humorous -excuses not to make a drawing of the waitress: ‘I would if I could, but I don’t do sketches from memory, I don’t have my drawing book, I don’t know where my pencil is at’. Why does the waitress insist on having Dylan drawn a picture of her? Out of vanity? Could be. She has something to show. She has a ’pretty face and long white shiny legs’. She knows she is pretty and does she want some confirmation from him? I think that there is more to it. She seems to live in – what Dylan elsewhere calls - a world of steel-eyed death. A world where hunger pays a heavy price to the falling gods of speed and steel. A world of the end times where wickedness is multiplied and were most men’s love has grown cold (Matthew 24:12). The waitress has some faint hope that this weird, spiritual stranger has something to offer, that he is able to give her some comfort, some self-confirmation, something that is missing in this desolate world, something that has been has long been abandoned but is yet of great value. She wants him to draw a picture of her and the world she lives in that might give her some sort of consolation. At the same time, it must be a picture she likes. She wants reassurance from him but certainly no appeal for repentance or even self-criticism. But the poet is not willing to consent. He knows that she is not going to like the picture he has in mind. Therefore, like Jonah once, he wants to get away from it all, he feels very uncomfortable about the whole thing but in spite of all his efforts he just can’t escape from her.
When at last, he very reluctantly draws a few lines on a napkin and shows it for her to see, she is very disappointed. She takes the napkin and throws it back and says: ‘That don’t look a thing like me’. It is not so much that in the picture Dylan has drawn she does not recognize herself and the world she lives in but she actually says: ‘I do not accept the way you look upon me and the world I live in. Your world view as an artist and as shown on this picture is completely unacceptable to me. Accepting and recognizing him as an artist is one thing, but accepting his deepest motives and beliefs is another thing. She wants him to be like her and the world she lives in. Like Dylan says in Maggie’s farm: ‘I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them’. There can be no doubt in my mind that Dylan’s moral principles heavily draw upon on Biblical principles and as a result of this, the Bible has had a huge impact on his works to this very day. Large numbers of fans – like this waitress - recognize him as a great artist – one of the most powerful and creative artists of our times –but at the same time reject and throw back the Biblical picture he draws of them and the world and say: ‘That don’t look a thing like me’.
Having drawn this picture, the poet is not willing to pull back. He has drawn this picture against his will. But once he has drawn it, he is not prepared to modify the picture and persists in his stance: ‘Oh kind Miss, it most certainly does. She says: ‘You must be joking’ I say: “I wish I was”. For the waitress there is only one resort left now. She either acknowledges and respects him, and the message he stands for, and asks no further questions and leaves him alone, or she puts him away as a backwards man, as somebody behind the times, as an unworldly stranger, having old fashioned world views which have not been emancipated.
She chooses to do the latter and does so by accusing him of not being emancipated. She says: ‘You don’t read women authors do you?’ He rejects her retort as completely irrelevant: ‘How would you know and what would it matter anyway?’ Is reading women authors really a must and does it change anything? She makes one last attempt and retorts: ‘You just don’t seem like you do’. She sees a contrast in him. It looks as if the way he is, his character, is in contrast with what he does. His act, his gestures are quite secular but it does not reflect what he is deep down inside. Deep down he is not secular at all but deeply dedicated to the moral principles he believes in. Again he denies: ‘you’re way wrong’. It is as if she now says: ‘prove to me that I am wrong’. She is not willing to give in: ‘which ones have you read then?’ Dylan is now more or less forced to prove to her that her argument is wrong and irrelevant and says: ‘I read Erica Jong’. Jong as a novelist is the icon of the sexual emancipation of women .It is now clear that Dylan has read Erica Jong. In fact, from his song writing it is quite apparent that Dylan has a broad based knowledge of all sorts of modern literature.
The Boston restaurant conversation appears as suddenly as it disappears: ‘She goes away for a minute and I slide out of my chair; I step outside back to the busy street but nobody’s going anywhere’. He now has a chance to escape from her without any fuss and immediately takes this chance. The conversation and the whole scene ends abruptly and unfinished. Yet, all that needs to be said has been said. It is the only time the poet enters into contact with the outside world. He has made his point. From now on it is going to be: ‘Ain’t talking, just walking’. He steps back to the busy streets, back to his lonely pilgrimage to the Highlands. Ostensibly nothing has changed. Everything seems as irrelevant and as purposeless as it was before: ‘I step back to the busy street but nobody is going anywhere’.
At the beginning of this article we argued that this Boston restaurant scene is typically Dylanesque. Why is this? One of the reasons – in my opinion – may be that Dylan has never regarded himself as the spokesman for whatever culture or movement. He never wanted to be a spokesman for the sixties counter culture or for whatever later religious or non -religious movement, organization or church. But that does not mean that Dylan doesn’t have a set of moral and religious rules by which he abides. He certainly has that set of rules. He once said that it is all in the songs. He wants to be recognized for his works – as an artist - but as a person he wants to remain at a distance, you simply cannot annex him for your own private purposes or moral principles. The waitress in the Boston restaurant tried to do this and to draw him out of his comfort zone and make him her spokesman and that of her generation: ‘Draw a picture of me’. His reluctance to do this might have given her a clue, not to attempt this. But she wouldn’t listen. Therefore the outcome for the waitress and for a lot of fans cannot be anything but disappointing. Next time we’ll continue to follow the path of the pilgrim on his way to the Highlands. Your comments on this article will be appreciated. To respond click on the link below.
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I've always taken this as both a very funny and sexy song, still in line with the theme on many on the albums tracks - lost youth, getting closer to death etc.
Some small points:
The hard boiled eggs, aren't they a possible sexual reference (mind you, the singer picked the wrong time to COME...).
Maybe Dylan is adressing getting older, at least clmpared to the waitress, and there is also a hint at a time-shift/dual times when the singer says he doesn't draw pictures from memory, while the woman points out she's right there.
Then she is not happy with the drawing, and connects that to a suspicion that the singer-me doesn't read female authors - i.e. doesn't understand or try to understand women.
So it could be viewed at least partly as a take on male artists way to portrait women, that is of course sometimes generally critizised for being too sketchy, and maybe seeing women as either angels or whores, or the muse/madonna or the devil.
When the waitress says the drawing looks nothing like her, the singer-me objects and says that unfortunately it does, as to say that there is some truth in the portrayal that the woman herself might not like or accept.
— JJ30-07-2018 18:46
I enjoyed this thoughtful interpretation.
— Molebird06-02-2013 02:48
Having pondered this song & particularly this passage a great length over the years, the only conclusion I've reached is that he may or may not have "read Erica Jong" but he chose the name to rhyme with "wrong." Dylan will go a long way to get a rhyme.
— Ralph Hitchens11-07-2011 18:56
Even though agree with this ^ in that 'the meaning is what the listener brings to the table', that doens't mean that it is forbidden to analyse anything, as some of the comments here seem to suggest. That is absurd. As long as you don't claim any objective truths are gained from analysing a song (or anything else) it's great fun to try and find some meaning in it. And anyway, a statement like 'the language is simply another instrument in the arrangment' is just as much an attempt to give meaning to the whole.
So although this analysis isn't the most careful and strong one that could be made, saying that Dylan's songs are 'not to be analysed', or stating that since there is no preconcieved meaning in it and therefore none can be taken from it, is complete nonsense.
— Jesper11-07-2011 11:41
Your analysis is complete blather. The song was written off the cuff, vowel and consonant sounds woven around a melody as if the language itself were simply another instrument in the arrangement. The words that he chooses to bring forth these vowels and consonant sounds are what make the song unmistakably Dylan - words drawn from his own world of folk totems, railroads, side streets, clowns, and criminals. The meaning is derived simply from their arrangement in time, nothing is preconceived, and there is no alternate or underlying meaning, except that which the listener brings to the table, and this meaning is a reconciliation between Dylan's perception of the images and that of the reader.
— J09-07-2011 21:54
Your analogy sucks eggs. It's all about timing, hard boiled eggs require a certain amount of time in order to come out perfect. "Highlands" is self explanatory, why don't you choose something a little more challenging. (as if I really need to ask!) Christian vs.Jew get real!
— janmarina09-07-2011 19:43
Do you live in 1971, or in 2011 ?
Analysing Dylan's Lyric's...give me a break, shure they are nice, but analysing, and looking for clues?
Somewhere a certain Mister R Zimmerman is laughing his very wealthy ass of !
— macken peter09-07-2011 13:24
I like how you attempt to explain (rather than analyse, perhaps) the song. However, there's a couple of things i don't really agree with, so i thought i'd comment here.
First, stating that it must be Easter, taking only the holiday and the boiled eggs as hints, is a bit farfetched, i think. So you're on thin ice there: the entire point about this place, this town being without any faith is rather questionable. I would say that the boiled egg isnt' the best symbol of the Christian
celebration of Easter, but rather the heathen celebration of spring. Even if you disagree, take a look at the reason that there aren't any eggs: it's because 'it's the wrong time to come', which could mean a number of things. If you really want to make the connection that eggs + holiday = Easter, then perhaps it means that it isn't Easter at all; if it is Easter, it could mean that they sold a lot of eggs already, and this town is indeed very religious (contrary to what you suggest). Or it could be the wrong time for hard boiled eggs (the evening, for instance), etc. etc. And finally, saying that this proves that the town has abandoned faith, yet the poet (as you call him) has not (which you do when you make the comparison with Ain't Talkin'), doesn't fit: because he's not the asking for the eggs, it is suggested he eats them - which would mean that he is without faith, as well. Besides that, of course, you could question wether the 'I' from this song is the same as from Ain't Talkin', which i personally think is probably not so.
Second: about the scene with the drawing, I think the most important thing there, which struck me immediately when I first listened to this song, is the (ironic) fact that Dylan is indeed an artist, but not one that draws (well, a little): he's a musician, of course. So it's really wry that she recognizes him as 'an artist', but then thinks he's a painter and asks him to draw her, instead of sing to her. This must also be the reason he is so reluctant to draw her, and makes excuses: he's not a painter at all, he is out of place, misinterpreted, he doesn't fit - yet he doesn't want to admit this.
One more thing: I dont get why you would suggest that the waitress 'sees a contrast in him' (the 'poet') simply because she says he doesn't seem like he reads women's authors. This discussion about women's authors and the reading (or not reading) of them does not point to a 'character in contrast to what he does' with 'secular gestures but not reflecting what is deep down inside'. You cannot say this at all, at least not just based on the conversaiton about Erica Jong.
Just some things to think about :) I'm curious as to how you will give this 'intermezzo' a place in the context of the entire song, which i think could be very interesting - how exactly it 'fits' into the rest, not as a piece that is totally random and disconnected, but as meaningful within the whole. Quite a challenge!
— Jesper09-07-2011 12:26