I was 17 years old, discovering music at a breakneck pace. Between extended MTV watch sessions, record store recommendations, music critic reviews, cassette mix tapes traded with friends, and new music on the radio, I was finding new music to enjoy and connect with on an almost daily basis. I was finding music that transversed the decades and demonstrated how one generation can inform and inspire the generations to follow. NWA and Buddy Holly. The Talking Heads and the Dave Clark 5. The Beatles and Duran Duran.

Maybe it was because his catalog was so deep, and his identity and personality was so elusive, but it took me a while to connect with Bob Dylan. I was getting to know songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and “Just Like a Woman,” but not much beyond those top tier classics.

And then he released the album Infidels in 1983.

After a series of three poorly received Christian themed albums in the late 1970’s, Infidels was seen as a return to “form” for Bob Dylan. Produced by Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, and featuring reggae musicians/producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare as the rhythm section, anticipation was high. Dylan even made a music video for the lead single, “Sweetheart Like You,” likely a traitorous act in the minds of longtime Dylan devotees.

Bob Dylan has written dozens and dozens of ground-breaking, insightful and innovative songs throughout what now has been an over 60 year career. The lists of his best songs (whatever “best” may really mean) on the internet are numerous, and often the same songs always appear towards the top. Never have I seen “Sweetheart Like You” towards the top of any of those lists, and that’s too bad. I think “Sweetheart Like You” is one of his best songs, a culmination of so much of what he had done in his over 20 year career before 1983, and an indication of some of what the next 40 years would bring. It serves as yet another example of why he may in fact (much to the chagrin of your Dylan-doubting friends and relatives) be one of the finest singers in the history of rock and roll music.

“Sweetheart Like You” is also a songwriting master class. Biting and visceral lyrics with imagery that is clearly descriptive and symbolically suggestive. Ultimately, the meaning is vague, and there is plenty of room for interpretation.

The song begins with a couple of delicious, deep thumps of the drum, and Dylan sings close to the mic. Quietly, with authority. Every other line ends with a trademark Knopfler guitar lick.

“Well, the pressure’s down, the boss ain’t here
He gone north, for a while
They say that vanity got the best of him
But he sure left here after in style
By the way, that’s a cute hat
And that smile’s so hard to resist
But what’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?”

Dylan emphasizes the word “resist,” we are then surprised that the sweetheart is in a “dump” rather than a “place” (evoking the classic Casablanca movie line, with a twist), and then he quickly curls and turns the word “this” in a way only Dylan can. After some more light guitar interplay, we go directly into the next verse.

“You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you
She wanted a home, and not just a house
She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh
In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear
It’s done with a flick of the wrist
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?”

The Infidels album was Dylan himself announcing that his Christianity phase was over. The back cover showed Dylan on a hill overlooking Jerusalem (taken, I believe, when his son Jakob became a Bar Mitzvah), and many of the songs can be interpreted as politically religious statements.

The lead track “Jokerman” begins with the lyric “Standing on the water casting your bread
while the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing…”
and goes on to symbolically critique and question the story of Jesus Christ. “Neighborhood Bully” portrays Israel as an underdog, while understanding that her neighbors view her as a bully. “Well the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man. His enemies say he’s on their land. They got him outnumbered about a million to one, he got no place to escape to, no place to run.”

On its face, “Sweetheart Like You” sounds like it is sung by a misogynistic care taker, almost “mansplaining” to a woman who she should be, how she should act, and how she should behave. But scratch the surface a bit, look just a little deeper. I think the song might be about something else.

You know, a woman like you should be at home
That’s where you belong
Taking care of somebody nice
Who don’t know how do you wrong
Just how much abuse will you be able to take?
Well, there’s no way to tell by that first kiss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?

The music is sparse, yet lush. It was an early digital recording, beautifully produced by Mark Knopfler. Rhythm section Sly and Robbie stay deep in the pocket throughout the song while never rushing, never overpowering. Knopfler’s guitar work stays lean and clean, and Dylan shapes and bends words to his will.

“You know you can make a name for yourself
You can hear them tires squeal
You can be known as the most beautiful woman
Who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal”

The passion and immediacy picks up a bit, but Dylan takes time and care while he emphasizes that delicious last line of the bridge. Because maybe “Sweetheart Like You” is not about a woman at all, or her overpowering, misogynistic Svengali. Maybe the song is not about a boss, or needing to find an escape. Maybe, in line with so many of the other songs on the Infidels album, “Sweetheart Like You” is about something else. Maybe the song is about Israel not as a bully, but rather as a jewel. A diamond in the rough. A sweetheart.

“You know, news of you has come down the line
Even before ya came in the door
They say in your father’s house, there’s many mansions
Each one of them got a fireproof floor
Snap out of it, baby, people are jealous of you
They smile to your face, but behind your back they hiss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?”

The first Infidels track is “Jokerman,” Dylan moving away from his born again Christianity. The third track is “Neighborhood Bully,” which looks at Israel through the eyes of its neighbors. In between is “Sweetheart Like You,” which is might Dylan looking at Israel as a diaspora Jew giving Israel advice, support and love.

“Got to be an important person to be in here, honey
Got to have done some evil deed
Got to have your own harem when you come in the door
Got to play your harp until your lips bleed”

Dylan’s singing throughout “Sweetheart Like You” is masterful. Cutting words, like “hiss,” “cut glass,” “lips bleed” and “permanent bliss” are hit hard, stretched and emphasized. The lyrics sizzle. His phrasing is precise and wacky. Sometimes he sings quietly like he’s telling you a secret. Other times he sings loudly, like he’s making an announcement. Everything works. Everything is right.

“They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king
There’s only one step down from here, baby
It’s called the land of permanent bliss
What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?”

Dylan is looking at Israel through the lens of reality and pragmatism. People around the world see a country that seemingly, to some, appeared out of nowhere in a place that is otherwise desolate and dry (“a dump like this”). The land of Israel is dearly loved by its people, Israeli and Palestinian, and yet it has always been a place of domestic and foreign terrorism (“just how much abuse will you be willing to take?”). A strong and fervent sense of patriotism has helped Israel to grow and thrive, and yet some still see it as stolen land, land that rightfully belongs to others (“Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you a king”).

“Sweetheart Like You” is a wonderful culmination of Dylan’s career up to that point. The song is part protest, and part puzzle. His voice is in perfect form, and the song serves as a showcase for what Dylan can do with bravado, singing and phrasing (as only Dylan can do).

It is also a prescient indicator of where his career would go. The song sounds like it could have been sung by Frank Sinatra or Nina Simone, a sound that Dylan would lean into with the 5 LP’s worth of American standards he would begin to release in 2015 with the Shadows in the Night album.

Though Dylan has never played “Sweetheart Like You” live (never even once), it would fit perfectly amongst the songs he stylishly croons from the center of the stage, singing into the bullet microphone with the absolutely killer jazz band behind him he has been touring with the last few years.

I dove deep into Dylan after Infidels, and I continue to find significant and important treasures throughout his catalog. I found his mystery and mastery. I found questions and his answers. Mysteries and connections. I found those who inspired him, and those who have been inspired by him.

I found a lot when I found Infidels at 17 years old. I’m 55 years old now, and there’s still so much more left to explore.

“Sweetheart Like You”
Written and Performed by Bob Dylan
Released December, 1983

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s