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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bob Dylan: Another Side Of Bob Dylan


1) All I Really Want To Do; 2) Black Crow Blues; 3) Spanish Harlem Incident; 4) Chimes Of Freedom; 5) I Shall Be Free No. 10; 6) To Ramona; 7) Motorpsycho Nightmare; 8) My Back Pages; 9) I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); 10) Ballad In Plain D; 11) It Ain't Me Babe.

Whoever suggested that title for Bob's fourth album was smart enough to understand that the al­bum was different — naturally — but certainly not smart enough to understand just how different it was. Another Side Of..., linguistically, suggests something like: «You thought he could only do that — guess what, he can also do this, bet you didn't know that, did you?» But on the other hand, it is tough to think of how a more proper title might have sounded. The Real Bob Dylan? But nobody really knows what a «real» Bob Dylan would be. The Selfish Side Of Bob Dylan? Closer to the truth, perhaps, but a little too repelling for the potential buyer and a little too insul­ting for the artist. Bob Dylan Arrives? Too promotional. Bob Dylan Doesn't Really Give A...? Too avantgarde. Whatever, we will just have to live with that original title, issued in poor under­standing, but good faith.

Most sources call the record «transitional», which is objectively true in that the instrumentation and arrangements still mostly follow the old acoustic guitar-and-harmonica model (with the im­portant exception of the electric piano, soon-to-be one of Bob's favorite instruments, on ʽBlack Crow Bluesʼ), but the lyrics have almost completely shifted away from socio-political issues into the realms of the deeply personal, the deeply sarcastic, or the deeply absurd. However, from a general «ideological» point of view, Dylan's transformation is already quite complete; and this completion does not even have that much to do with abandoning the image of the «protest singer» — the process goes deeper than that.

To illustrate, let us begin from an unexpected point of reference: a superficial comparison of The Freewheelin's ʽI Shall Be Freeʼ with this album's «sequel», called ʽI Shall Be Free No. 10ʼ (why ʽNo. 10ʼ? because ʽNo. 2ʼ would be too boring, that's why). In 1963, this little comic number, a slapstick-ish talkin' blues with a few scattered moments of brilliance here and there, was deli­vered in a low, shy, murmured tone — presumably, by a humble guy lurking in some dark corner of the stage, not yet daring to come out and spill it all in-yer-face. In 1964, the harmonica blasts get more shrill and piercing, and the guy is no longer afraid to raise his voice — sometimes al­most to a shout, giving the tune an arrogant-defying feel that his talking blues used to lack previ­ously. Nor are the lyrics always inoffensive to his surrounders — at least once he sneaks in a snappy verse about them ("I got a friend who spends his life / Stabbing my picture with a bowie knife... I've got a million friends!"); and one should definitely pay attention to the last verse — "Now you're probably wondering by now / Just what this song is all about... / It's nothing / It's something I learned over in England!" — which, on its own, might be interpreted as a good-bye to his past that is at least as strong as the entire message of next year's ʽIt's All Over Now Baby Blueʼ. And, mind you, we are still only talking about one of the most «throwaway-ish» pieces on the entire record. And it goes on for fifty minutes (the record, that is, not the song, although I'm pretty sure that Bob could have easily thrown on a couple dozen extra verses).  

This is, perhaps, the most important breakthrough achieved in Another Side: the discovery of Bob's new voice, the one that would dominate his «golden age» over the next two years, the «ar­rogant bastard» voice that, no doubt, owed its existence to Bob's stabilized stardom — after all, a true king should behave as a true king, with none of that shying away in the dark corner. And, above all, a true king should be perfectly free to do whatever he wants to do, not whatever the people expect him to do — at least, such could have been Bob's reasoning when, instead of open­ing the album with an inspiring, visionary anthem like he had already done twice in a row, he preferred to open it with ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ instead of, say, ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ.

An interesting, and probably true, interpretation of ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, previously sugges­ted by some people, is that the song was really a vehicle for lambasting feminist clichés — some­thing Bob must have swallowed his fair share of in his Village period. It is a fun, catchy song, an object convenient enough to have had both The Byrds and Sonny & Cher to use it as a weapon for chart domination, but one mustn't lose track of the condescending contempt, lurking behind the superficially innocent arrangement — the funnier it gets, as Bob intentionally bursts into «spontaneous» laughter towards the end of the song, the harder it snaps at the heels of all those girls who must have, many a time, actually accused Bob of wanting to «simplify them, classify them, deny, defy, or crucify them». Then again, to be fair, some of them may have deserved this rough treatment — let us refrain from demonizing the artist alone.

In any case, ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ is definitely more personal than it seems to be upon first sight, and it introduces a series of even more personal songs — be it in the form of surrealist love letters to surrealist female characters (ʽSpanish Harlem Incidentʼ, ʽTo Ramonaʼ), or in the form of nasty-but-honest confessions (ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ), or in the form of unpleasant reminiscences of a general (ʽMy Back Pagesʼ) or way-more-particular-than-we-really-need character (ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ). A pretty impressive bunch, especially considering that, of all the songs on the previous two albums, probably only ʽDon't Think Twice, It's Alrightʼ and ʽOne Too Many Morningsʼ could match them in the intimacy department. This, too, is yet another side of the another side —the artist is raising his voice, but he is also less afraid to dig into his own feelings, his own past and present, than he was just a year before. As inspiring and grandiose as those ʽHard Rainʼ pic­tures must have been, in a sense, ʽMy Back Pagesʼ is even more «Dylanish» in nature.

Not that being «Dylanish» is always a good thing. The existence of ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ mars this idyll in a most harmful manner — the song is a misguided creation both on the lyrical side, re­miniscing of Bob's rather shameful handling of his relationship with Suze Rotolo and her sister from a decidedly biased (to say the least) point of view, and on the musical side, as the languid, barely existing melody drags on for eight bleeding minutes at a snail's pace, so that the listener may fully savour and digest each little jab, sting, and kick addressed at «the parasite sister» whom the protagonist was allegedly able to «nail in the ruins of her pettiness» (allegedly, by getting booted out of her house for improper behaviour). As a document of human relations, ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ is a fine educational piece; as a work of art, it is... let's just say, «undeserving».

It is a little funny, though, that the song, in which Dylan presents himself and his former passion as innocent romantic victims of misguided social practices, is immediately followed by ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ, where the protagonist switches from self-victimizing to self-humiliating, almost as if to atone a little bit for the aggressiveness of the eight-minute rant. But the song is also a mirror companion to ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ — just like in that one, Bob is once again proclaiming his distance from all sorts of «masculine stereotypes». See, lady, he ain't gonna beat or cheat or mis­treat you, or disgrace you or displace you, but as a consequence of that, he also ain't the one who will die for you and more — so «go melt back into the night, babe»: a fairly convoluted way to tell somebody to fuck off, but works exactly the same way. Alas, it is also an extremely catchy song, the catchiness being provided mainly by the sneering, mocking refrain — the "no, no, no, it ain't me, babe" bit lashes out with cruel sarcasm and sarcastic cruelty in the nastiest way yet wit­nessed on any Dylan song. No wonder it had to be The Turtles to become the first artists to cover the song: for the Byrds, it must have seemed a little too prickly to fit in with their image.

Just about every song on Another Side merits detailed discussion, but I would rather com­press things a little bit by simply saying that the album is also quite musically diverse for something re­corded with such limited means. There is the quasi-baroque gallantry of ʽSpanish Harlem Inci­dentʼ, with Dylan in a courteous, serenadish mood; the Mexican waltzing of ʽTo Ramonaʼ, with Dylan in the grip of Latin romanticism (something that would not be properly revisited again until the age of Desire, I think); the primitive, but effective «blues-punk» piano punching of ʽBlack Crow Bluesʼ; the instantaneously memorable pop structure of ʽI Don't Believe Youʼ — a trifle in the grand scheme of things, but every bit as delightful to the ear as anything off A Hard Day's Night; and, of course, the two grand anthems — ʽMy Back Pagesʼ and ʽChimes Of Free­domʼ, with Bob's newly found «loud-and-proud» singing voice turning them into the stateliest epics of 1964... and, perhaps, the entire decade as well.

Had ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ been written a good forty years earlier and gotten a solid translation into Russian, it would have, no doubt, been readily adopted by some of the more progressively-oriented Bolsheviks — of all Dylan songs, this one has the most revolutionary spirit, and, in fact, somewhat sticks out in the context of all the smaller-scale, personally-oriented tunes on Another Side. Very very soon, this «grand vision» would be turned on its head and adapted to reflect sur­realist and near-psychotic values, as on ʽGates Of Edenʼ (which, in nature, is like ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ on a heavy acid trip). But for the moment, this one here still seems to be tailored to the likes of Bob's friends in the protest movement — and delivered with all the seriousness and ins­piration that could be mustered, even if immediately following it up with ʽI Shall Be Free No. 10ʼ might have been an intentional sequencing move.

Lyrical influence from Rimbaud, Blake, Shake­speare, etc. etc. has all been detected and described by a million authors and hardly needs any of my comments — as usual, though, the magic of the song goes far beyond the lyrics: it is rousing, yes, but at the same time also «lulling», with a regular rise-and-fall vocal drive throughout each verse, and a perfect «calm» resolution after the high-pitched lines that usually nail one or another social injustice. Despite the violent nature of the lyrics, the only thunder and lightning in the entire performance are in the man's voice — but it has by now gained so much in confidence that, at times, it does begin to seem that the guy is busy flinging out sonic lightning balls, a first example of the practice that would reach its peak on Highway 61 Revisited. And he does that without recurring to screaming, fist-clenching, or shirt-tearing — a tricky art mastered only by a select few.

To recapitulate, Another Side Of Bob Dylan really shows all of his sides — the romantic and sentimental, the nasty and offensive, the humorous and playful, the visionary and anthemic, the pretentious and the humble, the serious and the clownish (the latter as represented by ʽMotor­psycho Nightmareʼ, the one song that has not been mentioned because, hilarious lyrics aside, it should really be viewed as an early demo version of the vastly superior spectacle of ʽBob Dylan's 115th Dreamʼ on the next album). And somehow, depending on the angle you choose, it's all there in the man's facial expression on the album cover: not yet fully embracing the hip attitudes and attires of the «young intellectual elites» of the Sixties, but already far removed from the «working class hero» image of The Times — half-dreamy, half-grounded, staring somewhere right above your face, but not entirely into the sky.

A «transitional photo», perhaps, taken for an album that he himself knew would be «transitional» — not all of his friends and admirers might have guessed that, but ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ was already written at the time, and the only thing, really, that separates Another Side from Bringing It All Back Home is that, with the former, there still remained a slight technical chance of going back. «Another Side» — as in, «indulge a little bit in that beatnik stuff, show off your creativity, then go back to singing about coal miners and racial discrimination». Well — as it turned out, that side ended up being quite sticky. Thumbs up without a question: the album would have been a flawless masterpiece, had he decided at the last moment to replace the hatred of ʽBallad In Plain Dʼ with, say, the tenderness of ʽMama You've Been On My Mindʼ, but even geniuses are only human in the end, and have their reserved right to occasional lapses of judgement.

Check "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. Hey, how about The Many Sides of Bob Dylan? Or does that sound too much like a vinyl boxset's title?

    1. Didn't Brian Wilson's dad have an album called The Many Moods/Sides of Murry Wilson? It would have sucked to call that one Another Mood...

  2. I think Tom Wilson came up with the title.

  3. I believe Johnny Cash covered "Ain't Me" around the same time as the Turtles. I know it's a bitter song, but Johnny's version is just SO rigid and dire, biting down on every word. Never cared for it. Johnny could play The Bastard as well as anybody, but there always was a bit of levity to it. Bob used that skill as well.

    1. Cash also did that one at the 30th Anniversary Concert with June Carter. A very strange version, Carter and the band are trying to set up some carefree party atmosphere, and Cash sings it like a mournful dirge.
      But then that whole concert was just strange all over.

  4. Another brilliant review, and I had a very good laugh!