When I first looked at the track-list for Another Side of Bob Dylan, and saw the title “Spanish Harlem Incident”, I wrongly assumed that it was a topical song about Spanish Harlem. This was back when I didn’t know much about Dylan, and had yet to realize what Another Side of Bob Dylan was about.
It should come as no surprise that Dylan would be attracted to such a girl. He’s always had a fascination with the exotic nomadic lifestyle – he’s romanticized his travel from Minnesota to New York. The Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975/76 was a sort of circus/gypsy touring extravaganza. And “One More Cup of Coffee” is another song about gypsies.
“But now destiny was about to manifest itself,” He wrote in Chronicles Volume One. “I felt like it was looking at me and nobody else.” Is this why he wandered up to Spanish Harlem, to confirm what he already thought might be true? “Let me know babe, about my fortune,” He tells the mysterious woman. “Down along my restless palm.” Perhaps that was his original intention, but as the song goes on, he is seduced by the gypsy girl’s powers. “You have slayed me, you have made me,” He tells her.
While on the surface, the attraction is purely sexual – perhaps Dylan felt a subconscious connection as an exile with her. In the 1960’s Dylan had not only abandoned his home in Minnesota for a better life and opportunity in New York City, but he also abandoned his life as a Jew, adopting Dylan as his last name versus his surname Zimmerman. Both Gypsies and Jews were targeted by Nazis in the Holocaust, so perhaps Dylan and the “gypsy gal” both saw themselves victims and exiles trying to make it in New York City, where all different kinds of cultures and races came together for a better life. “I’ve been wondering all about me,” Dylan admits in the song. Could he be referring to his new found identity as “Bob Dylan” versus “Robert Zimmerman”? Did he think that this woman he found on the street could help him?
At the song’s conclusion, Dylan wants to know if he is real. Is this referring to his legitimacy as a songwriter, or if making the move to New York was in fact the right move? A year later, on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as his narrator wanders through Mexico in a drug-haze he answers this question by stating: “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’d had enough.”
“Spanish Harlem Incident” – The only version I could find on Youtube was this cover by James Mercer: