Boots of Spanish Leather
Walking home the other night, I was trying to make sense of some writing I’m doing, so I took out my headphones and shuffled my music. The song “Boots of Spanish Leather” came on, which is always a good use of four minutes.
For those who don’t know, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is a very early Bob Dylan song, arguably the third masterpiece of his career (coming after “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”) The lyrics depict a conversation between a young couple who is on the verge of breaking up, but only one of them realizes it. The girl is preparing to take a trip to Europe, and keeps asking her boyfriend if he wants her to send him a gift from Spain. He keeps resisting, saying he doesn’t care about such things, only to realize months later that she was trying to break up with him, and sending him a present was a way of letting herself off the hook. It’s a gut-wrenching song, and absolutely every line of it is perfect. I don’t know what you’d expect, since nobody has ever been as good at anything as Bob Dylan is at songwriting.
It’s always been one of my favorite songs, but listening to it this time was different. I was blown away by how perfect it is, and even more blown away by the fact that it was blowing me away. I’d heard the song hundreds of times. It’s 50 years old. It’s four minutes long. It had no right to be affecting me the way it was. I had no personal connection to the lyrics either. It’s just a really, really, really good song.
The album was released when Dylan was 22 years old, which means he had to have been my age when he wrote the song. I tried to deal with this incredibly depressing fact, even though efforts to do so are useless. I know that you can’t make comparisons between music and the kind of writing I do. Someone like Bob Dylan can write a song in ten minutes that stands the test of time. Scripts can take years for even the best writers. And anyone can record a song. Movies and TV shows are so much more capital intensive, so nobody is making them when they’re 22. It’s pointless to compare our careers, although I can’t help but do it.
Music is also such a unique animal, because you can hear a song a thousand times, and it still affects you as much as the first time. There’s no movie that’s ever been made that can do that. As readers know, I’ve always been obsessed with songwriters, and a few of them have impacted my life to the point where they feel like my closest friends. I like to think of myself as being in the same line of work as them, but our two art forms are dramatically different. Listening again, it stopped being depressing and became freeing. The song is as good as music can possibly be, and I certainly couldn’t have written it. But the art I make is not music. I’m chasing a completely different reaction from people. I’ll never write a “Boots of Spanish Leather,” but rather than be depressed about that, I’m choosing to be relieved that I don’t have to.