BOB DYLAN: BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME (1965)
1) Subterranean Homesick Blues; 2) She Belongs To Me; 3) Maggie's Farm; 4) Love Minus Zero/No Limit; 5) Outlaw Blues; 6) On The Road Again; 7) Bob Dylan's 115th Dream; 8) Mr. Tambourine Man; 9) Gates Of Eden; 10) It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 11) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.
So what else can really be said here, now that we have entered the kind of territory that has already been swept clean with a toothbrush by armies of Dylanologists and amateur fans alike? As Dylan's music intrudes on the sacred, and vastly popular, grounds of rock'n'roll, and Dylan's lyrics plunge into the deep pool of surrealism, symbolism, expressionism, post-modernism, and goofy nonsense, who in the whole wide world could resist the temptation of offering an opinion, an interpretation, a critical analysis, a philosophical speculation? The overall amount of writing done on this period in Dylan's history, especially if you throw in all the Ph.D. theses, is probably larger than any other amount on any given topic in popular music. «Maggie comes fleet foot face full of black soot talking that the heat put plants in the bed but...» — come on, it's pretty hard not to want to express any sort of opinion on that one.
Let us begin by asking some questions. Who is the girl in the red dress on the album sleeve? That one's easy: all sources have her down as Sally Grossman, the wife of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. Okay, trickier question: what is the wife of Dylan's manager doing on a Dylan album sleeve? The answer «because Dylan was probably porking her at the time» doesn't quite cut it, since, by all accounts, Albert Grossman simply wasn't the kind of man with whose wife you'd want to mess around, no matter how free-thinking and liberated you considered yourself to be. The answer «because she just happened to hang out there while Bob was photosessioned for the album sleeve» is a little better, but still doesn't really cut it. It would be much better, I think, if we started looking for the answer from a straightforward perspective — most of the things that Bob was doing at the time were being done with the intention of pissing some people off, and thus, the same intention can be deduced for this photo as well.
A ragged, somber, beetle-browed Dylan is sitting, half-buried in vinyl records, in what looks like a fairly well-off upper middle class house — with a glamorous lady in a red dress puffing away on the couch. The obvious issue is — what is this freedom-fighter, protest-brewer, Greenwich Village tenant, etc., doing in a place like this? Has he come here to surrender his attitude, begging mercy from the proud and rich, or is he playing a sort of trickster part, preaching his gospel to the bourgeoisie in order to make them see the light?.. The album cover intrigues — it is obviously «hip» in a very much early 1960s kind of way, pandering to fans of Godard and Antonioni, among other things, but what would be the actual meaning of it?.. and would there be an actual meaning, or are we just being nose-pulled by unpredictable tricks of the subconscious?
Now, here is another question. The first side of the LP is fully electric, recorded with a quickly assembled backing band, Bruce Langhorne presiding on lead guitar. The second side is almost completely acoustic, with little other than Langhorne's soft electric countermelody on ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ to take the focus away from Bob's traditional ingredients. Would it matter if the sides were reversed? After all, that would be respectful to the chronology — Bob wrote ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ as early as February 1964, and ʽGates Of Edenʼ followed fairly quickly, way before he even got around to seriously thinking about going electric.
Imagine yourself buying a brand new Dylan album in early 1965, coming home, putting it on the turntable and hearing ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ. The effect is breathtaking — it is easily among the most beautiful acoustic tunes in Bob's repertoire. But then compare it with the effect of coming home, putting Dylan's new album on the turntable and hearing ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ. No actual comparison, right? even if, by all accounts, ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ is the better song of the two, musically, lyrically, attitud-ally, whatever.
ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ doesn't even have much of a melody — just a basic rhythm track, painted over with Langhorne's bluesy electric licks. Later on, Dylan himself admitted that the song was heavily influenced by Chuck Berry's ʽToo Much Monkey Businessʼ, mostly by way of Chuck's invention of the «machine-gun word attack» where a storyline would develop quickly and impressionistically, in rapid bursts of short phrases. Of course, Chuck's storyline was ultimately understandable, realistic, and relevant for the teen spirit — Bob wouldn't be Bob if he didn't try to capsize this approach. In his world, you have a happy marriage between Chuck Berry and Allen Ginsberg, and it is a little strange, in fact, that in the famous accompanying video you do see Ginsberg chatting with someone else, but not Chuck. Personally, I think Chuck should have been invited, too. But maybe Bob was too shy to try.
In any case, ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ is simply one of the greatest punk songs ever written — the whole Side A of this album is fairly punkish, but the opening blast may have been an even bigger fuck-you statement for 1965 than ʽMy Generationʼ and ʽSatisfactionʼ put together, despite not saying anything «in the open». Bob's «rap» delivery, of course, has nothing to do with «rap» as we have generally come to know it — it is quite consistent with his overall singing style, just a little faster than usual, but it has a special dynamics to it that generic «rap» parts usually do not have: note how each verse is divided in two parts, the first one delivered on the wave of a single breath, overwhelming the listener, then the second part ("look out kid...") starts out slow, then turns into a second wave of even huger intensity. The lyrics don't make much literal sense — naturally — but it's no good to haughtily pretend that we do not understand what the song is about, or to whom it might be addressed. "The man in the coonskin cap wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten" — Johnny Rotten never had it that good. Oh yes, there was a time when I remembered all the words to the song and could sing along on time — I do consider that as some sort of personal feat, but, more importantly, there was something there to make me do it. Never happened with Lou Reed or Joni Mitchell, for some strange reason.
ʽMaggie's Farmʼ, to some extent, doubles the punch of ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ (remember how many times you used to confuse the acoustic / electric openings of the two?), but puts things in a more personal frame — sung in the first person and initiating a series of vicious put-downs that could have gotten Bob into lotsa personal trouble... had anybody understood properly who it was that was getting the face-in-the-mud treatment. Since ʽMaggie's Farmʼ may be interpreted as a pun on «McGee's Farm» where Bob performed his protest songs, Dylan studiosos usually understand the song as a big fig to the folk movement. But it could actually be a big fig to just about anyone — "I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them", and why should the "everybody" be confined to the Pete Seegers and the Joan Baezes?
On a sidenote, as «generic» as the blues-rock of ʽMaggie's Farmʼ actually gets, witness Bob's sharpness as each line of the "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more..." type gets its own intonation — decisively affirmative first time around; higher-pitched, more scandalous, more defensive and hysterical on its second round; a little calmer, but also a little tired worn at the end of the verse, as if the previously given explanation has cost the narrator too much effort. It's just a trifle, perhaps, but it is these subtle dynamic minutiae that need to be felt, in order to understand what separates a great Dylan song from a not-so-great Dylan song.
Not-so-great Dylan songs on Side A on the album do make an appearance — one doesn't often hear great praise for either ʽOutlaw Bluesʼ or ʽOn The Road Againʼ, and it's easy to see why: not only do they fail to match the righteous fury of ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ and ʽMaggie's Farmʼ, but they simply seem a little undercooked, and would soon be obliterated by better songs in the same vein, like ʽFrom A Buick 6ʼ or ʽMost Likely You Go Your Wayʼ. They do have a sort of minimalistic roughness which would be completely absent from the next two records (where the issue of overcooking stuff would replace that of undercooking), but both are clearly second-rate, tentative efforts that can easily be excused — they are short and funny, after all — yet their presence does bring the cumulative value of the album down a little bit: if anything, they are here to remind us that on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan's new «electric image» was still sinking in, but he wasn't quite there yet.
None of that applies to the near-mystical celebration of the mysterious bohemian lady who was concocted from Joan Baez, Nico, and probably a pack of other women in Dylan's life (ʽShe Belongs To Meʼ), nor to the courteous beauty of ʽLove Minus Zero/No Limitʼ, achieved not so much with the lyrics as with its three descending chords (that bear an eerie resemblance to ʽDo You Want To Know A Secretʼ — Beatles influence at work?), nor to ʽBob Dylan's 115th Dreamʼ where the lyrics are, indeed, the biggest attraction, considering that the words flow together to tell «the greatest story ever told» in a Dylan song. Or maybe it's the opening fit of hysterical laughter, prompted by Dylan's backing band missing its cue, that is actually the biggest attraction? Once the stage is set with those ten seconds of rolling over, you are already drawn deep into the experience before the song has actually started.
However, even these songs generally pale in comparison to the acoustic side of the album: ironic, indeed, that Bob was reaching his absolute peak in the «acoustic folk» department just as he was all set to make the transition to «electric rock». The four songs on Side B are four different musical worlds, a brief, but unforgettable journey through four types of mindsets that take you from the early morning through the day into the night and back to the light again — I have no idea just how conscious that particular sequencing might have been, but I could imagine these four songs in no other order.
First, ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ is, of course, the rising-sun kind of song, not just because "in the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you", but because the whole attitude is that of a piper at the gates of dawn, no more, no less. The lyrics are dazzling with imagery, Bruce Langhorne's subtle electric countervoice in one channel adds extra sweetness, and only ʽLove Minus Zeroʼ on the first side challenges this song's monopoly on a «benevolent mood».
Then ʽGates Of Edenʼ comes along like a prophetic follow-up to ʽChimes Of Freedomʼ — only where the latter made some attempt at making some sense, this one already doesn't. It is much more stern, with a lot more iron in Bob's voice, and it should offend Christians, because Dylan's «Gates of Eden» do not offer salvation: instead, they seem to offer indifference to everything that is either mentioned in the lyrics or left outside them. They're pretty Buddhist, in fact, his Gates of Eden — describing a state of nirvana rather than eternal bliss.
Then, with ʽIt's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)ʼ, darkness moves on — this is a 100% nighttime song — no wonder "darkness" is the first word spoken. In some ways, the tune invokes the image of creepy old-time bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson, and Bob even tries to introduce various complex flourishes into his playing: this is one of the few of his acoustic songs where an instrumental version (okay, not a seven-minute long one) would not be uninteresting to hear. Moreover, the song is quite religious in nature — most people remember it for the "even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked" bit, which is Dylan once again challenging the verbal skills of Old Testament prophets, but there is much more to it. I mean, Dylan actually complaining about how "it's easy to see... that nothing much is really sacred"? This is a little personal, nighttime vision of one man's personal apocalypse, and if you keep thinking about it too long, it might eventually grow pretty creepy, so be warned.
Then, once the gruelling seven and a half minutes of the song are finally over, we are brought back to life from the nightmare with the bright guitar and harmonica of ʽIt's All Over Now, Baby Blueʼ — despite the categoricity of the title and, once again, the put-down nature of the lyrics, in this particular context it actually sounds like an optimistic awakening after the horror of ʽIt's Alright Maʼ. Like ʽMaggie's Farmʼ, the song is usually understood as Bob's personal goodbye to the folk scene — or, perhaps, as his personal goodbye to some girl (Baez?) — or, better still, couldn't we just understand it as a goodbye song in general? Riding off into the sunset, or, to be more precise, into the sunrise? A goodbye song as the last song on an album does make sense, doesn't it?
The thumbs up that this record gets should not, of course, obscure its overall place on the Dylan curve: a major move forward from the already greatly advanced Another Side, but still a little faltering and teetering in an environment that had not yet become fully «natural» for Bob. Most importantly, the electric side is essentially powered by his voice alone — excited and energized by these new developments, drawing its strength from the clear understanding that he is allowing himself to go against the grain and be strong enough to get away with it. Langhorne's skills at the electric are considerable, but he is still no match for Mike Bloomfield, nor is there any Al Kooper here to add organ depth to the sound. On the other hand, this does make Bringing It All Back Home into a record that brings Dylan closest of all to whatever could be called «punk aesthetics» — and for that reason, it might draw its own fanbase that an album like Highway 61, not to mention Blonde On Blonde, could possibly shoo away for being way too full of different superfluous ingredients. To each his own, I guess.
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