Bob Dylan and the Band, “On a Night Like This” from Planet Waves (1974): Across the Great Divide

As per usual, Bob Dylan uses “On a Night Like This” to talk about something, even while talking about something else — only this time, he’s sitting amidst a rollicking zydeco-influenced groove provided by his old friends in the Band. By beginning with these roiling feelings of doubt, even at the dizzying, passion-fueled outset of a relationship, they set the tone for 1974’s Planet Waves, an album that dealt with all of love’s many complexities.

The album-opening “On a Night Like This” is — at least on its face — a goof-ball reminescence about a winter’s night tryst. But listen closely, and you hear imagery both literary (they sit before a warming fire, watching it “burn, burn, burn,” a line straight out of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s runaway ode) and emotionally reserved (Dylan stops all the lover-man wooing at one point to tersely request that she “please don’t elbow me”). A throwaway number about a one-night stand has perhaps never been created with more off-handed attention to detail, to both the unbridled ardor and the deeper feelings involved.

Bob Dylan just can’t make a run-of-the-mill love song, just as the Band can’t simply play along.

Garth Hudson’s wheezing accordion gives “On a Night Like This” its winking gumption, and the song unfolds like the promise of a Saturday night — except with all of the hard-earned wisdom of Sunday morning, too. (Buckwheat Zydeco put out his own version; there can be no more impressive tip of the hat to Hudson’s contributions.) Meanwhile, Robbie Robertson’s asides on the guitar, economical and tough, provide new revelations with each successive listen.

Only, because it all happens around such a happy-go-lucky sounding cadence, “On a Night Like This” seems to have been doomed to haughty obscurity: Bob Dylan, making a pop song!? And about some girl!? The nerve, right? Yet, there’s always been more, much more, to this track.

All of its fears and doubts are only intensified, in fact, by the loping, fussy backbeat guided by bassist Rick Danko, a sound which serves to mimic an over-eager lover on that first night. As Dylan begins to dig down into the foundational worry that lies underneath those impulses, I suddenly realize: The longer I’ve lived with “On a Night Like This,” the more it’s spoken to me.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso