In his book The Nightingale's Code, John Gibbens writes that this song captures the moment "when Eros strikes" (Eros being the Greek god of love and/or sexual attraction). It's a worthwhile observation to keep in mind, because the song doesn't really make great sense in terms of a literal linear narrative or vignette. It wasn't meant to, though. The song is about capturing a feeling, and it does so beautifully.
In "Spanish Harlem Incident," we have "homeless" Bob Dylan professing poetically irrational love for a "gypsy gal." He's asking her to read his palm and tell him his fortune, including the role that she is meant to play in his life. This reaches a pretty intense level in the final line, as Dylan declares:
I got to know, babe, will you surround me?
So I can tell if I'm really real
He needs the lady to validate his very existence - no neediness there! Yet, the song isn't being sung from a rational man. This is a young man trapped in the throes of love. As Michael Grey observes in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, the real poetic turn of the song is Dylan asking this woman to read his palms because "his future is in her hands." That little bit of a twist is the thing that turns the song on its head and gives it an air of depth and mystery.
Many Dylan connoisseurs consider this one of Dylan's best underappreciated songs.
The song was recorded June 9 and 10, 1964, in Columbia Recording Studios' Studio A. The fifth take of the song became the master.
Spanish Harlem was the name given to a section of East Harlem in the 1940s, as Puerto Rican and Latin American immigrants moved into the area. For a time it existed in East Harlem alongside Italian Harlem, but eventually came to encompass the whole area. By the 1950s, the entire East Harlem neighborhood was called Spanish Harlem.
Running 2:22, this is the shortest song on Another Side Of Bob Dylan.
Dylan performed this song live just once, on October 31, 1964 at Philharmonic Hall in New York.