Witty Songs

ŠTed Schaar 2011

7.  "Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word." 

Although Drake didn't play on it, Number 7 is Bob Dylan's from 1965.  It's brilliant like most Dylan songs, and while its meaning is subject to interpretation, like most Dylan songs, the words go together beautifully, and it features an unusual, hard accent on the second-to-last syllable before the refrain containing the title line.

Tennessee Williams' play, Camino Real (translated from Spanish as "Royal Road" or "King's Highway"23) reportedly is the source of the title  which probably has much greater antiquity.24   It's unlikely Williams was the first to make this connection between the supreme human emotion and vulgarity.

The song opens with, "Seems like only yesterday, I left my mind behind, down in a Gypsy cafe, with a friend of a friend of mine"--a cool combination of simple rhymes and a homophone.  References to Gypsies and their culture aren't unusual in Dylan songs, and Williams' play includes a Gypsy and his daughter Esmeralda (also the name of a character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame25 --whose protagonist pops up in Dylan's "Desolation Row"26 ).  But the line refers specifically to a "Gypsy cafe" which made me wonder if a certain type of cafe is so labeled.

Poking around the Web produced an informative connection with a woman named Melanie who co-owns with husband Jim and a silent partner a restaurant named Gypsy Cafe27  in Pittsburgh. I e-mailed the site's general address and asked: Why was the name chosen? did it have any special meaning?   Melanie wrote back: "I realized that 'Gypsy Cafe' was a perfect way to express our mission. We say we 'go where the Gypsies go' and follow a seasonal path through Europe with our menu. There have also been several intervening details that have proven the name was the best fit."

And what did she think about the Gypsy cafe in "Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word"? 

She hadn't heard the song but knew enough about Dylan to suggest the following: "Regarding what Dylan might have meant, I will say that calling ourselves Gypsy Cafe has essentially set the path for us. We have become a home for a very interesting range of folks, all of whom have approached us because of their self-association with the term 'Gypsy.' We offer Eastern European music led by a Gypsy violinist and belly dance. We have a resident Tarot card reader. We are next door to a new works theater whose clientele associate us with the theatrical vibe. We are the official Pittsburgh home of the National Cartoonists Society via the Pittsburgh ToonSeum. We offer a Geek Brunch that attracts comics and sci-fi geeks. Look for a thread between these seemingly disparate groups, and what ties them together is their 'outsider' identification. I think interesting people are frequently misunderstood, or at least believe they are, but crave acceptance just as anyone might. Every outsider wants to be inside, although not necessarily with those who they feel pushed them outside in the first place. That seems pretty Dylanesque to me."

That's an impressive analysis, and I have a feeling the Gypsy Cafe is a cool place.

The third verse, "I said goodbye unnoticed," reminds me of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" and its "Goodbye's too good a word, babe, so I'll just say fare thee well."  That line never made sense to me.  How could something as everyday as goodbye be too good a word?  About eight years ago, however, in an entirely different context, someone mentioned that goodbye is a Middle English contraction of the phrase "God be with ye."28   My hunch is Dylan understood the word's etymology, a fact that reflects careful and subtle writing and is among the many reasons he is superb and often eloquent. 

The hardest-hitting line, however, in my estimation, is one that passes quickly, "Yes, I know now traps are only set by me."  That sums up a lot of psychological theorizing.  (Visit YouTube [Baez] for the song).


Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in a Gypsy cafe
With a friend of a friend of mine
Who sat with a baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
A phrase in connection first with she occurred
That love is just a four-letter word

Outside a rambling front-store window
Cats meowed to the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut
To you I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn't think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed towards things in my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more absurd
Than that love is just a four-letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The holy kiss that's supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers travels free
Yes, I know now traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be assured
That love is just a four-letter word

Strange it is to be beside you, many years and tables turned
You'd probably not believe me if told you all I've learned
And it is very, very weird indeed
To hear words like "forever" plead
So ships run through my mind, I cannot cheat
it's like looking in a teacher's face complete
I can say nothing to you but repeat
No, I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word.

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