Spanish Harlem Incident gets my vote for the most underrated Dylan song ever. Is it a masterpiece like Rolling Stone? Of course not. But it is a little gem that absolutely deserves a lot more respect than it gets.
First, a little history lesson. Non-US residents may not know that Harlem is one of the five boroughs of New York City. The culture that evolved in Harlem in the early 20th century has had a major impact on American life, especially in literature and jazz music. Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, just to name of few, all played a role in Harlem’s artistic renaissance.
Harlem has also been the home of many immigrant cultures. Around the turn of the 20th century, East Harlem was primarily the home of Italian immigrants. In the 1940s many Puerto Rican immigrants moved into the area to work in the burgeoning industries located there. One section of the area eventually became known as Spanish Harlem.
Forget about linear narrative and logical imagery in this song. The plot is sketchy, some of the images make little sense – such as her “rattling drums” – and some of the lines don’t fit into the meter of the stanza. But it makes no difference. These ‘deficiencies’ actually work to the song’s benefit.
John Gibbens, in his book The Nightingales’ Code, captures the essence of the song better than anything else I’ve read. Gibbens writes that the song captures the moment “when Eros strikes”, which strikes me as just what the song is trying to communicate. Dylan commentator Tim Riley says that the lyric is full of “loopy love-struck detail”, also an excellent description.
Incident is a picture of an emotional state at a particular point in time. It’s an abstract painting and a particularly effective one. It reminds me of many Ann Beattie short stories – short and perfectly measured.
The performance on the album, which was recorded in one take, is absolutely wonderful. Dylan sings it especially well, bringing out the emotion of the lyrics, capturing the exuberant feeling of new love.
Dylan has only performed the song once live, in New York City in 1964.
Gypsy gal, the hands of Harlem
Cannot hold you to its heat
Your temperature’s too hot for taming
Your flaming feet burn up the street
I am homeless, come and take me
Into reach of your rattling drums
Let me know, babe, about my fortune
Down along my restless palms
Gypsy gal, you got me swallowed
I have fallen far beneath
Your pearly eyes, so fast an’ slashing
An’ your flashing diamond teeth
The night is pitch black, come an’ make my
Pale face fit into place, ah, please!
Let me know, babe, I’m nearly drowning
If it’s you my lifelines trace
I been wond’rin’ all about me
Ever since I seen you there
On the cliffs of your wildcat charms I’m riding
I know I’m ’round you but I don’t know where
You have slayed me, you have made me
I got to laugh halfways off my heels
I got to know, babe, will you surround me?
So I can tell if I’m really real