Friday, February 27, 2015

How to Tell a Story in Dialogue: Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather

One of my favorite Dylan albums is The Times They Are A-Changin', released by Columbia Records seven days before I moved with my family to New Jersey in January, 1964. It's a powerful album, dealing with themes of poverty and racism among other things. The tone is heartbreaking in so many places, including his laments about relationships, also delivered perfectly. "Boots of Spanish Leather" is one of these.

What strikes me is how skillfully the young Dylan has mastered the art of story telling. Many of the songs here are ballads, stories in song. In this case it is a story told by means of a dialogue.

A story has several noteworthy elements. First, there are the characters. Study any great story and you'll see that each character has a motivation. The characters are defined by that something that they want. This want or need is what moves them. As Syd Field, in his book Screenplay, puts it, "The need of your character gives you a goal, a destination, an ending to your story."

A second feature of a good story is conflict. Again quoting Field, "Without conflict there is no drama. Without need there is no character. Without character there is no action." In the song this turmoil is palpable, chiefly due to their conflicting desires -- his to hold on to her, hers to flee.

A third feature of short stories is its focus. Our lives are generally like a train rumbling down the railroad tracks. Only at incidental moments does the train come to a place where by a slight movement of a lever the track can be moved, resulting in the train moving toward a different destination. Great stories zero in on this moment where the character comes to a decisive changepoint or, in some stories, where the character fails to act and to his shame misses this alternate destiny.

One of the most important skills writers must cultivate has to do with the manner in which dialogue is handled. On of the things that this song shows vividly is Dylan's grasp of how to write dialogue when telling a story. The entirety of Boots is an exchange between to people who have been very close, but whose relationship has dissolved.

Even though books on screenwriting and on writing fiction hammer home the importance of learning this skill, many a writer handles dialogue clumsily. When you really listen to people talk, including yourself, it is surprising how much discussion is indirect, even conceals what we think or feel. We have a tendency to fear being direct, often because of a fear, whether a fear of revealing our true depth of feeling, or fear of being rejected, or fear of hurting someone we still care about. So we speak obliquely. We veil our meaning. We suggest or even conceal.

This is what makes "Boots of Spanish Leather" such a true and painful song. It's the breakup of a love affair. At the beginning of the song even he doesn't understand that this is what is happening. Near the song's close we, the listener, and the hero come simultaneously to the realization of what's going on, which amplifies its poignancy.

I've taken the liberty of rewriting the song in dialogue form, as opposed to the stanza form that you'll find at any song lyrics site, or here at Dylan has performed the song 299 times live; four times in 1963 and 295 times during his later career on the Never Ending Tour.

Boots of Spanish Leather

Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love, I’m sailin’ away in the morning. Is there something I can send you from across the sea from the place that I’ll be landing?

No, there’s nothin’ you can send me, my own true love, there’s nothin’ I wish to be ownin’. Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled from across that lonesome ocean.

Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine made of silver or of golden, either from the mountains of Madrid or from the coast of Barcelona.

Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night and the diamonds from the deepest ocean I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss, for that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’.

I might be gone a long, long time and it’s only that I’m askin’. Is there something I can send you to remember me by, to make your time more easy passin’?

Oh, how can, how can you ask me again? It only brings me sorrow. The same thing I want from you today I would want again tomorrow.

I got a letter on a lonesome day. It was from her ship a-sailin’ saying, “I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again. It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.”

Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way I’m sure your mind is roamin’. I’m sure your heart is not with me but with the country to where you’re goin’.

So take heed, take heed of the western wind, take heed of the stormy weather. And yes, there’s something you can send back to me, Spanish boots of Spanish leather.

* * * *

For some reason no matter how many times I hear this, or read it here now, this last stanza just pulverizes me. It's so simple. All throughout he was being direct, earnest, straightforward. But he mistakenly assumed she was being the same. He didn't hear what she was saying. Because of his own obtuseness he was unable to hear her saying that she was leaving him.

How many times do we ourselves fail to hear what others are saying? Why does it take us so long to "get it"?

I'm certain it has happened the other way around for many of us. Maybe we were traveling abroad, or just going away to college. Lacking the courage to be frank in a relationship that we wanted to cast off, we wait till we're going away. Our thoughts are not with where we've been, but to the place where we're landing.

Like all Dylan songs every detail has been analyzed in depth (or to death) by someone somewhere. Many "analyzers" note that it could be a song that reflects the departure of his first serious flame, Suze Rotolo, who went overseas to Europe and left him behind brokenhearted. But it's the universality of the song's sentiments that give it such power. Someone is heartbroken.

How heartbroken? You may find it interesting that the Spanish Boot is a torture device. Of course it could in this case simply be a metaphor for what she already did to him: she gave him the boot.

Another revealing piece worth noting in this story is how the rejected lover reacts in the end. It could have gone a hundred ways at this point. There is no rage. He doesn't berate her, doesn't blister her with recriminations. Despite his disillusionment, he responds with a surprising dignity, affirming that he still wants to remember her. And yes, there is something she can send after all, even though he's lost her... Spanish boots of Spanish leather. For her to know what size shoe he wears indicates that they knew each other fairly intimately for this breakup. If this is the case, the shattered hero may be a role model.

Boots of Spanish Leather, Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

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