Boots Of Spanish Leather is Bob Dylan‘s first truly great love song. They would’ve quaintly called it ‘a ballad’ in 1964, when it first appeared on his The Times They Are A-Changin‘ LP, although it dates back to at least 1962 when the then 21 year-old Dylan recorded it along with a whole host of originals that were to be potentially offered to the more established acts of the day in the hope that this would help cement the burgeoning Bob’s up and coming talent as a writing force to be reckoned with.
Boots Of Spanish Leather (demo)
Like any other Dylan song you care to mention, Boots Of Spanish Leather is open to any number of interpretations; It’s a straightforward long-distance plea to an absent lover. It’s a metaphorical paen to Dylan’s past, the towns he grew up in and grew out of as he morphed from Minnesota Little Richard wannabee to Greenwich Village hipster. It’s sung from Dylan to his muse. It’s sung from the muse to Dylan. You could tangle yourself up in blues just thinking about it, but if you put all the messages and metaphors aside for a moment and just listen, one thing becomes clear – Boots Of Spanish Leather is timeless, ageless and peerless. And written by someone barely out of his teens. The talented bastard.
It’s very possible that it was written about Suze Rotolo, the girlfriend who’s wrapped around Bob as they walk the snow-filled Village streets on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Couldn’t live with her and couldn’t live without her, Bob and Suze had an up and down relationship. In 1962 she took off for Italy to study art. Of course. Only bohemian New Yorkers who barely had a dime to their name went to Europe to study art.
“I’m sailin’ away my own true love, I’m sailin’ away in the morning…” and off we go. Verses ping-pong back and forth between the two protagonists, Dylan’s youthful voice that strangely wonderful blend of sand and glue. “Is there something I can send you from across the sea, from the place that I’ll be landing?”
“No,” replies Bob. “I just want you back.”
“I might be gone a long time,” she says. (Or, to paraphrase, I doubt I’ll be back anytime this side of Christmas, and if I am, I won’t be rushing round.)
“I just want you back, that’s all.”
“Phhhh. Listen. I don’t know if I’ll be back, it depends how I feel.”
“Sca-roo you then. Send me a souvenir of Spain. A pair of boots or something impractical to post.”
Bob’s words are far more poetic than my ham-fisted praphrasing, but that’s about the jist of it. If he can’t have the girl, he’ll have the boots instead and metaphorically walk out of her life/away from this town/and on to pastures new. Have a listen to the LP version;
Boots Of Spanish Leather
I’ve shamefully given up on Bob a wee bit recently, what with his joint tours with Mark Knopfler and 4 nights in the Armadillo at £60 a pop, but a decade or so ago I was a card-carrying Bob Cat who went to all the gigs; the good, the bad and the ugly. It was tragic watching a once terrific backing band led by a a true maverick degenerate into Chris Rea’s backing band with a Thunderbirds puppet, back to the audience, farting about on rudimentary organ.
Much has been written of the fact that you can go and see Bob and not recognise a single song until you read the setlist the next day. That’s rubbish. It’s usually said by those who truly expect to hear a hopped-up Bob rattling off Subterranean Homesick Blues like it’s 1965 all over again before segueing into a carbon copy of Hurricane. Bob’s sets are peppered with a liberal sprinkling of mid 60s majesty. Sometimes the arrangements have been altered. Sometimes the phrasing is all over the place. But the song is always recognisable.
In June 2004, Bob played 2 nights in Glasgow. On the first night, at the SECC, he played a version of Boots Of Spanish Leather that was truly spine tingling. A small ripple of applause from those in the know greeted it like a long lost brother as Bob and the band eased into it. A guy in front of us, at the gig alone, could barely restrain himself. His right leg juddered up and down and despite the dark, you could see his knuckles were pure white as he gripped the edge of his £35 plastic seat with one hand and his long-range binoculars with the other. Lost in his own wee world, he was oblivious to the dimwits all around who used this opportunity to go to the toilet or the hot dog stand while Bob played ‘a new one’.
Boots Of Spanish Leather (SECC June 23rd, 2004)
So, there you go. The moment I first heard Bob sing Boots Of Spanish Leather in the same room as myself was somewhat spoiled, but for that guy his night was made. The next night, Bob played the Barrowlands and, well, that was outrageously brilliant. Watching the sweat drip off his cowboy hat and onto his keyboard as he cautiously felt his way into Ballad Of A Thin Man. Being swept away, feeling his joy at ours, as he conducted the audience during Just Like A Woman (which he’s played in Glasgow every time since, I think). A wee Bob speech at the end. And Bob never speaks. That’s how good he was that night. No Boots Of Spanish Leather though.