“The Broken Cup: Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s ‘I Want You'”

by Sam Buntz

“I Want You” is a frequent choice for both the avid and casual Dylan fan’s favorite— and rightly so.  Leading Dylanologist and lauded literary critic Christopher Ricks says it’s his, for one thing.  Yet, it’s also easy to get caught up in the perfection and catchiness of the song—it’s sheer likeability—and interpret it as being thematically little more than a love song or, more accurately, a song about sexual desire.  It is, of course, about that—but if we look at the images Dylan uses in the song, we start to sense deeper implications.

We start off, afloat in a sea of troubles, where “the guilty undertaker sighs” and “the lonesome organ grinder cries.”  The singer faces a problem: he really wants this girl, but time and tide seem to be against him.  “The cracked bells and washed-out horns / Blow into my face with scorn / But it’s not that way / I wasn’t born to lose you.”  Why are the bells “cracked” and the horns “washed out”?   As in the late ’80s Dylan track, “Everything is Broken,” the ages have worn them down—it seems too late in the day, too deep in the jaded decades of the mid-to-late 20th Century, to have an authentic love-connection or mighty, passionate desire for someone else.  Yet, Dylan snubs time—he wasn’t born to get overwhelmed by the way history’s heading, because he knows what he really wants.

What he really wants is explained directly in the chorus: “I want you…so bad.”  In the next verse, however, we’re back in the sea of troubles again, where drunken politicians oppress the people and fool them—the fact that mothers are weeping in response to this might very well indicate that their sons have died in Vietnam or in any other misguided war effort.  But the next lines, I think, are some of the most interesting in the entire song—though they can easily zoom by without the listener suspecting anything.  Dylan sings, “And the saviors who are fast asleep, they wait for you / And I wait for them to interrupt / Me drinking from my broken cup / And ask me to open up the gate for you.”

I sincerely hope you don’t find this theory too crazy—because I’m rather proud of it, and the images and metaphors, to my mind, seem direct enough.  Dylan isn’t just talking about a girl now—or, he is and he isn’t.  At any rate, I think he’s almost certainly using the language of Jewish longing for the Messiah to express his passion… Yeah, that’s right.

In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is believed that there are, in every generation, thirty-six righteous people on earth, called Lamedvavniks in Yiddish. Throughout World Jewry, people are pretty commonly aware of this, so it’s not unlikely that Dylan had, by the time he was recording Blonde on Blonde, absorbed the idea. The Lamedvavniks go about their lives performing acts of goodness, though they themselves have no idea who they are—they’re hidden, from the world and from themselves. Their goal is to repair the world, which Jewish mysticism imagines as being like a glass that God intended to hold his Light, before it shattered with the Fall of Adam.  The Lamedvavnik’s existence consists in picking up the pieces of this glass, and putting it together.

As I interpret the song, Dylan—like Matisyahu singing in the Hasidic-rap classic, “King without a Crown”, “I want Moshiach, now!”—is saying that he wants this girl as bad as some people want the Messiah to come back.  It will be that big of a revelation for him—though maybe, in another sense, he really is saying that he wants the Messiah to come back.  The ambiguity helps make the song more powerful…

At any rate, the saviors who are sleeping are all the Lamedvavniks of all the ages—to be revealed to themselves and to everyone else when the Messiah brings about the “World to Come”—and the broken cup from which the singer is drinking is our yet unrepaired world, which he continues to enjoy despite its fractured state.  But the saviors—these perfectly righteous people—are going to remind the singer of what’s truly valuable.  He’ll put down his cup, and by performing one good deed, one mitzvot or another, he’ll help open up the gate for the Messiah—or, at least, get with this girl he’s after.

In the bridge and the next verse, Dylan talks about lacking love and counterfeit love.  His forefathers went without “true love” in the past, and their daughters today chide the singer for not thinking more about it.  This is almost comprehensible if it’s just about how much he desires this girl he’s after, without it being true love, but it makes more sense if you interpret it, again, through Judaism: in the past, so many of Dylan’s ancestors went without their love or longing for the Messiah being reciprocated by God, and the good Jewish girls in the present era are chiding him for not taking this all more seriously—which he perhaps somehow feels he should do, although he isn’t doing it yet.  I’m not saying this is the only way of interpreting the song—again, it’s my personal theory.  But it makes sense, considering the particular Jewish cultural associations of the images and metaphors Dylan chooses (especially with the saviors and the broken cup).

After talking about how the chambermaid of the Queen of Spades is good to him, and knows a lot about him, he says that it doesn’t matter—because he has this more authentic desire for another woman, whoever she may be.  In the final verse—which could easily be dismissed as classic Dylanesque nonsense, although it isn’t—he sings, “Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit / He spoke to me, I took his flute / No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I? / But I did it, though, because he lied / Because he took you for a ride / And because time was on his side / And because I . . . want you.”

The dancing child is a false prophet or false Messiah or, simply, an inferior poet and songwriter.  Whatever he is, he’s wasting the girl’s time, drawing her in with insincerity and un-truth, and—in a higher sense—seducing and monopolizing the attention of the world-at-large.  He’s every slick operator who digests other people’s attention without giving them anything real in return, and his suit is Chinese because it might look nice, but it was made for cheap and is likely of a lower quality than it appears to be (certainly no offense to the Chinese intended on my part—this is simply what Dylan’s metaphor, in a perhaps un-P.C. manner, indicates).

So, the singer smashes the phony’s flute, and replaces this impostor’s music with a more genuine song—this song, in fact, entitled “I Want You”.  The tune of the “dancing child”—this immature winker-and-nudger—is one with the voice of the cracked bells at the beginning, since time seemed to be on their side too: it’s the voice of cynicism, the voice of personal and societal corrosion and, ultimately, despair.  But the singer’s ardent desire overrides all this—fate, time, history, the entire package–and all because he wants this unnamed girl, so bad.

By Sam Buntz

I like writing, and I do it frequently. It exercises the vital humors, helps fend off "dark inertia", and enlarges life.

2 replies on ““The Broken Cup: Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s ‘I Want You'””

Hi Sam,
Thanks for your analysis. It is both original and interesting. And it is well written too.
It allows us to feel more deepness in the song.
For the last verse “the dancing child…” I suggest adding a possibility. This last verse could be the “friend” of the object of desire talking about the “I” of the first verses. This would add extra perspective or extra universality to the desire. Sort of endless mirror game…
Many thanks,
Kind regards,

Good try, but I don’t buy it…maybe some subconscious influence there, but in that time period, it seems that Bob was letting the words flow freely and in the case of “I Want You”, light-heartedly and pretty loosely. (See “Rainy Day Women” and “4th Time Around.) I rate “Blonde on Blonde” as the greatest album of all time, bar none. LarryK

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s