There was a time, specifically 1966, when a song like this -- literate, biting, original -- could crack the Top 40. It is certainly one of the most, if not the most, radio-friendly track on the masterful double record Blonde on Blonde (1966). While much of the album's material was written in the studio and has a loose feel to the arrangements, "Just Like a Woman" is one of the more straightforward and well-arranged pop songs. Ostensibly about a few different women in Bob Dylan's orbit, lines like "Please don't let on that you knew me when/I was hungry and it was your world" certainly seem to make the case that the lyrics deal at least in a small part with Dylan's relationship with Joan Baez -- who was a successful folksinger before Dylan was. While there is much criticism of Dylan's supposed misogyny in lyrics such those from "Just Like a Woman," this song actually finds the narrator explaining his own actions. In the song's bridge, often the place to find a pop song's essence, Dylan's narrator claims: "It was raining from the first/And I was dying there of thirst so I came in here/And your longtime curse hurts but what's worse is this pain in here/I can't stay in here/Ain't it clear that I just can't fit/Yes, I believe it's time for us to quit." While there are some vague allusions in this passage, it is downright plainspoken when compared with Dylan's surrealist verses: "Tonight as I stand inside the rain" and "With her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls." This latter line has also inspired speculation that the "little girl" of the song was Edie Sedgwick. It is likely that the target is an amalgam of personalities. Thus, listeners have a narrator who seems on the defensive, speaking variously in the third person through the verses, and addressing the woman in the second person during the bridge. It is as if he has been accused of causing the woman's breakdown. But he takes some of the blame as well; he was clearly taken by the woman at first, but apparently matured a little and saw through "her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls," and now sees that "her ribbons and her bows/Have fallen from her curls." It is certainly not misogynist to look at a personal relationship from the point of view of one of those involved, be it man or woman. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Dylan has a disrespect for, much less an irrational hatred of, women in general.
The lilting melody and finessed instrumentation are handled by some of Nashville's top session men. A couple of Dylan's usual sidemen, Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson, acted as intermediaries with the studio musicians not accustomed to Dylan's unorthodox recording methods. Robertson apparently did not play on the session for "Just Like a Woman," leaving the guitar work to Charlie McCoy, Joseph A. Souter Jr., Wayne Moss, and Dylan himself (who also plays harmonica). Kenny Buttrey plays drums, while Hargus Robbins plays piano and Henry Strzelecki handles the bass. The playing, particularly on the finger-picked guitar (which sounds like a nylon-string guitar) and the piano, falls somewhere between a classical feel and 1950s-style arpeggios. Dylan seems to relish each word, his phrasing impeccable, over-enunciating like Frank Sinatra to wring out the meaning of each word. This is the case on versions ranging from a murky bootleg recording in a hotel room from 1966, to the solo acoustic live performance documented on Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Live 1966 -- Royal Albert Concert (1998), to his mid-'70s live performances. The versions from his 1976 tour -- as heard on bootlegs -- offer a mournful, harmony-laden reading reminiscent in tone of Neil Young's "Helpless," or some of the Band's ballads. "Just Like a Woman" has become something of a standard, not just for rock and pop artists -- like Joe Cocker, and Van Morrison -- but for jazz artists like Nina Simone and David "Fathead" Newman. On Here Comes the Sun (1971), Simone seems to use the soul-revue, gospel-like reading of the song from Morrison's 1978 Into the Mystic (a famous bootleg of a 1971 performance) as a blueprint. Intrepid folk interpreter Richie Havens recorded a famous version of the song for his Mixed Bag (1967) and again as a live tribute on Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993). Havens employs his legendary highly percussive, open-tuned strumming style and his deeply resonant and soulful voice to uncover his own tenderness in the song. Cocker takes the piano theme from Havens' earlier recording, and offers an R&B ballad perspective of the song on his breakthrough With a Little Help From My Friends (1969).