“When I first heard Elvis Presley’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” – Bob DylanInterview, US Weekly August 1987
There has been much speculation that this song is about a meeting between Dylan and Elvis. The “well, well, well,” and “said it back to him” sounds exactly like how an awkward meeting in a hotel room in Las Vegas between the two legends would go.
Although most books/sites say the meeting never took place, or is at least unknown, Clinton Heylin in Revolution in the Air claims that it did. The only source he cites though is an interview with a New Morning session guitarist, Ron Cornelius, who said “I asked him about ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ and he told me it was about going to see Elvis in Las Vegas (interview in Melody Maker 1971), and it’s not clear if his source is this article or something else.
For what it’s worth, Dylan told Rolling Stone that he never met Elvis.
“I never met Elvis,” Dylan says. “I never met Elvis, because I didn’t want to meet Elvis. Elvis was in his Sixties movie period, and he was just crankin’ ’em out and knockin’ ’em off, one after another. And Elvis had kind of fallen out of favor in the Sixties. He didn’t really come back until, whatever was it, ’68? I know the Beatles went to see him, and he just played with their heads. ‘Cause George [Harrison] told me about the scene. And Derek [Taylor], one of the guys who used to work for him. Elvis was truly some sort of American king. His face is even on the Statue of Liberty. And, well, like I said, I wouldn’t quite say he was ridiculed, but close. You see, the music scene had gone past him, and nobody bought his records. Nobody young wanted to listen to him or be like him. Nobody went to see his movies, as far as I know. He just wasn’t in anybody’s mind. Two or three times we were up in Hollywood, and he had sent some of the Memphis Mafia down to where we were to bring us up to see Elvis. But none of us went. Because it seemed like a sorry thing to do. I don’t know if I would have wanted to see Elvis like that. I wanted to see the powerful, mystical Elvis that had crash-landed from a burning star onto American soil. The Elvis that was bursting with life. That’s the Elvis that inspired us to all the possibilities of life. And that Elvis was gone, had left the building.”
Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. The subject of the song is not really Elvis, even if he did perhaps inspire it. The subject is a gypsy, or perhaps better, the gypsy girl that the narrator encounters, and then, regrettably, cannot find again. It’s a Road Not Taken song, ala Robert Frost. The sad tale of missed opportunity that we all know too well. Perhaps Dylan is remembering some lone lost waif from this boyhood “Minnesota town.”
Michaeal Gray, in his Song and Dance Man, points out the illusion to Alice in Wonderland – “bring you through the mirror.”
Went to See the Gypsy was attempted during the Self Portrait sessions. See alternative versions below.
The song has never been performed live, which is a bit surprising since it’s an interesting song.
Bob Dylan meets some real gypsies.
Some girl in her bedroom.
Went to see the gypsy
Stayin’ in a big hotel
He smiled when he saw me coming
And he said, “Well, well, well”
His room was dark and crowded
Lights were low and dim
“How are you?” he said to me
I said it back to him
I went down to the lobby
To make a small call out
A pretty dancing girl was there
And she began to shout
“Go on back to see the gypsy
He can move you from the rear
Drive you from your fear
Bring you through the mirror
He did it in Las Vegas
And he can do it here”
Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears
I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone
And that pretty dancing girl
She could not be found
So I watched that sun come rising
From that little Minnesota town