"If they can't understand my songs, they're missing something. If they can't understand pornographic ashtrays, green clocks, wet chairs, purple lamps, hostile statues, charcoal...then they're missing something too. It's all music, no more, no less." Bob Dylan 1965.
When Bob Dylan went into Columbia Recording Studios in New York city on the evening of January 13th 1965 to begin work on what was to become his fifth album, nobody could have known that he was about to change the face of popular music. "Bringing It All Back Home" (released 22nd March 1965) and the two albums that followed it ("Highway 61 Revisited" - 30th August 1965 and "Blonde On Blonde" - 16th May 1966) are the three mid sixties classic albums that cemented Dylan's position as the foremost rock star on the planet, and coupled with his subsequent withdrawal from the public gaze at the end of this period began the cult following surrounding him that exists to this day. These three albums cover a ridiculously short fourteen month time span, and when one considers the amount of unreleased material that was recorded, it becomes apparent just how prolific he was during these months. The sessions for "Bringing It All Back Home" covered three consecutive days (13th - 15th January) but nothing from the first session actually made the album, although that date yielded the version of "I'll Keep It With Mine" that appears on "Biograph" and the "Bootlegs Vols. 1-3" cuts of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Farewell, Angelina." A fourth session reputedly took place on the evening of 14th January, where Dylan apparently recorded several songs using a different set of backing musicians (John Hammond jr., John Sebastian and John Boone) but none of these have ever surfaced, and Hammond even denies ever having been involved in such a session. The importance of this album however, cannot be overstated, as it was here that Dylan began to realise his potential, and nothing would ever be the same again. Of course, folk audiences hated it and accused Dylan of selling out (again!) but he had obviously become frustrated with the confines of acoustic guitar and harmonica and needed to stretch himself musically, "After I finished the English tour" he said "I quit because it was too easy...It was down to a pattern." Also, his writing was taking on a far more surreal quality, and although flashes of this new awareness could be found in songs like "Chimes Of Freedom" and the then unreleased "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," it was here, backed by competent studio musicians that Dylan gave full rein to his fertile imagination. The album splits naturally into two halves, the first seven tracks (or side one for those of us who still think in vinyl) are electric, and the second four are acoustic classics that have become the benchmark by which many people measure his later work.
The album kicks off with "Subterranean Homesick Blues" which Dylan said "...didn't sound right by myself. But it fit right in with the band." Two and a half minutes of absurdity, opening with "Johnny's in the basement/Mixing up the medicine," leaving one in no doubt as to what the "medicine" was. There is an uneasy feeling of paranoia running through this song with the police, government officials, D.A. and phone tapping all in evidence, and a typical nugget of advice "You don't need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows" closes verse three. The equally Dylanesque "Don't follow leaders" became a rallying cry for the anti establishment mid sixties, and Dylan showed his contempt for formal education with "Twenty years of schoolin'/And they put you on the day shift."
It's difficult to imagine today how an unsuspecting public, being spoonfed a diet of Beatles chirpy love songs and Rolling Stones ersatz R&B copies reacted to this astonishing torrent of words and images, but on release as a single early in 1965, it reached number nine in the UK charts. In Dylan's 1974 book of lyrics "Writings & Drawings," there is an interesting copy of an early draft of this song (complete with what I believe are coffee cup stains) that allows us the rare privilege of composing along with him. Among the little snippets of advice that did not make the final draft are, "...don't be bashful but please be careful" and "...sick smog, thick fog, they tell you that its fresh air," as ideas appeared to come to him quicker than he could get them down on paper.
There are not many occasions where Dylan is in better voice than on "She Belongs to Me," a song that he performs with a certain bitter irony. "She can take the dark out of the nighttime/And paint the daytime black" is his awe-inspiring description of this heavenly creature who "...never stumbles/She's got no place to fall." The phrase "don't look back" from the second line was to provide the title of the Pennebaker film that would document Dylan's upcoming tour of England. The song may have been inspired by Dylan's relationship with folk queen Joan Baez which was now fragmenting due to personal and artistic differences, although he probably still felt a debt of gratitude to her, and "Bow down to her on Sunday/Salute her when her birthday comes" is his acknowledgement of this. Like most songs on "Bringing it all Back Home" this was to become a Dylan favourite, and the version on the "Live Albert Hall" album recorded a year later (where the "Egyptian ring" becomes red) is quite astonishing.
"Maggie's Farm" is another that has stood the test of time, and has seen many transformations over the years. The humour and absurd situations that so typify Dylan's writing are here in abundance as the much maligned narrator describes his woeful existence "It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor" when he would much rather be doing something else "I got a head full of ideas/That are driving me insane." Each member of this dreadful family gets the Dylan treatment, from the sly brother who "...asks you with a grin/If your having a good time," to pa who "...puts his cigar/Out in your face just for kicks" and ma (perhaps the worst of the lot) who although "She's sixty-eight but she says she's fifty-four" is probably "...the brains behind pa." Ultimately of course we are all on some form of Maggie's farm, and as Dylan points out the difficulties of trying to be an individual "Well I try my best/To be just like I am/But everybody wants you/To be just like them" he resigns himself to his fate "They say sing while you slave and I just get bored." This song was given a new lease of life during the Rolling Thunder concerts of the mid seventies, but a decade earlier it was the source of major controversy when Dylan chose it to open his evening set at 1965's Newport Folk Festival, setting in motion one of the most contentious events in rock music history.
There is some wonderful writing in "Love Minus Zero/No limit," a song that contains some of Dylan's best similes. The quest for the perfect lover who "...speaks like silence/Without ideals or violence" and who "Valentines can't buy" is what we are experiencing here. For all the self-opinionated people who "Draw conclusions on the wall," she "...speaks softly" and "She knows too much to argue or to judge." As with everything on this album the vocal is superb and marvellous images like "The bridge at midnight trembles" and "The wind howls like a hammer" abound. Ultimately though she is not as strong as she appears "My love she's like some raven/At my window with a broken wing." This song has long been a personal favourite and is in some ways companion piece to the earlier "She Belongs to Me," and is a perfect example of Dylan's ability to portray so many images and ideas in so few words. Wilfrid Mellors describes it as "...both verbally and musically potent."
"Outlaw Blues," with its pounding R & B beat, sees a shift in tempo and some bizarre humour that would be more fully realised in the later "From A Buick 6." The opening verse introduces us to the chaos that Dylan was experiencing in his writing and would soon be witnessing in his life with the non sequitur "Especially when it's nine below zero/And it's three o'clock in the afternoon." Outlaws have always featured strongly in Dylan's mythology (future songs would feature, among others, John Wesley Hardin(g), Joey Gallo, "Hurricane" Carter and Lenny Bruce), but here we are reminded of the demise of Jesse James, shot in the back by a supposed friend while hanging a picture, surely only Dylan could use that unlikely sequence of events as a yardstick for modern day confusion. But the most telling line of the song comes in the fourth verse, "Don't ask me nothin' about nothin'/I just might tell you the truth" as Dylan seemingly makes light of the label he was rapidly acquiring. This version of the song comes from the second session (14th January), but it had been attempted the previous day under the working title of "California," which has markedly different lyrics, one sample of which that is worth mentioning is "San Francisco is fine/You sure get lots of sun/But I'm used to four seasons/California's got but one." "On the Road Again" is more of the same, not Dylan's best, but amusing absurdity peopled with more bizarre characters. Frogs inside socks, father wearing a Napoleon Bonaparte mask, mother hiding in the ice-box and Santa Clause in the fireplace - this is Maggie's Farm on acid or just Bob Dylan having a good time.
Just how good a time is demonstrated at the beginning of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" when a missed cue causes everyone to break up with laughter and it somehow seemed right to not edit it out. This richly comic tale of mixed metaphors, misunderstandings and general chaos is still funny even in today's far more cynical world, and is really what the two previous songs have been leading up to. With Dylan going from one disaster to another as he tries to rescue his jailed shipmates, the situations become more and more ludicrous in restaurant kitchens, banks and back alleys. Even the sinister "The man said get out of here/I'll tear you limb from limb/I said you know they refused Jesus too/He said Your not him" is faintly amusing, as is "He gave me his card/He said call me if they die" in the funeral parlour. Of course, using the dream as a basis for a story allowed Dylan carte blanche with his absurdities, but later dreams would lose their playful humour and take on a much darker hue. The song (and the electric side of the album) ends with him wishing Columbus "Good Luck" as their ships pass at sea.
The acoustic side opens with "Mr Tambourine Man," certainly one of Dylan's most well known songs, and lyrically one of his best. Inevitably the so-called drug references of "Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship" and "Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind" were pounced on, but there is much more to this song. The quest for freedom and awareness in "I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to" and the onomatopoeic "...jingle jangle morning" is quite stark. This is Dylan in search of his muse "...cast your dancing spell my way/I promise to go under it" and realising that there are no boundaries "And but for the sky there are no fences facin'" The images of the "ragged clown" and the "haunted, frightened trees" are some of the best he has ever created, and the lines "Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow" are quite stunning. Dylan had attempted the song during the "Another Side..." session, with Ramblin' Jack Elliot but was unable to get an acceptable take down on tape, perhaps not surprising given the time constraints of that evening. Legend has it that David Crosby got hold of a copy and passed it on to Roger McGuinn. They were both blown away by the lyrics, hence The Byrds version of the song which for years was more well known than Dylan's, but these days, this is one of the songs that will forever define Dylan and his astonishing gift for words, In 1968 he said that he tried but was unable to write another song like "Mr Tambourine Man," proof perhaps of how unique it is.
The two songs that form the middle of side two (I apologise to those who do not think of this album in those terms) were both written in late 1964 and were performed at the Halloween concert a few months before these sessions, although "It's Alright Ma" had been debuted earlier, at the Philadelphia Town Hall concert in September of that year. The first of these, "Gates of Eden" is a stark and sombre song that is one of Dylan's bleakest pieces of writing, ironically dealing with the hope of salvation, and how it will not be found in this world. There are plenty of targets here from "The savage soldier sticks his head in sand/And then complains" to "The gray flannel dwarf" and "...the princess and the prince" who "Discuss what's real and what is not." It was songs like this and the one that follows that were largely responsible for giving Dylan his rock/poet tag. His choice of adjectives is quite remarkable, his "...ships with tattooed sails," the "...lonesome sparrow" and the "...shoeless hunter" are all strongly descriptive, as is "The foreign sun it squints upon/A bed that is never mine." But the final verse with its shrugging off of the man with the answers mantle "At dawn my lover comes to me/And tells me of her dreams/With no attempt to shovel a glimpse/Into the ditch of what each one means" is particularly relevant, and the final line "And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden" is of course a theme that Dylan would revisit some fifteen years later.
"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" has been described as the ultimate protest song, homing in as it does on so many of society's ills. There is a feeling of foreboding right from the very first line "Darkness at the break of noon," and the sense of futility is continued "...he not busy being born/Is busy dying." Bigotry and cheap commercialism are highlighted in "While others say don't hate nothing at all/Except hatred" and "Make everything from toy guns that spark/To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/It's easy to see without looking too far/That not much is really sacred," and the lines that brought a roar from the crowd whenever it was performed in concert "But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have to stand naked." Advertising, propaganda, pornography, greed and shallowness are all targets for Dylan's biting criticism and lines like "Bent out of shape from society's pliers" and "While money doesn't talk, it swears" were right on the button. But there is one thing that we all have to face in the end "For those that think death's honesty/Won't fall upon them naturally/Life sometimes must get lonely," and as he closes "And if my thought dreams could be seen/They'd probably put my head in a guillotine (suggesting that he had only scratched the surface)/But its alright, Ma, it's life and life only." This was Dylan, the angry young man at his most passionate and a seven and a half minute glimpse into his twenty three year old head. These two songs are such an integral part of the Dylan mythology that it is hard to imagine what the reaction of those mid sixties audiences, hearing them for the first time must have been.
The album ends on a much calmer note with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," possibly written for or about Dylan friend and contemporary Paul Clayton, a beautiful poignant ballad which Dylan uses to say goodbye to many things. Youthful innocence, any number of women and the left-wing leanings of the folk movement were all being left behind. The finality of the lines "The lover who just walked out your door/Has taken all his blankets from the floor" sums up everything about this song, and "Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you/Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you" emphasise it even more. And when Dylan sings of the vagabond who is "...standing in the clothes that you once wore" he is almost certainly addressing himself. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this quartet of songs, even more that their lyrics, is the way that they were recorded. Although "Mr. Tambourine Man" required several takes, the other three were all recorded live with only one take required for each, with, according to Paul Williams, no playback between songs. "There's no overdubbing. There's no patching up. There's no splicing" says guitarist Kenny Rankin, "What you heard is what we did." I think it's fair to say that all genuinely gifted people have moments when their true genius shines through, and in my opinion, Dylan has had more than most. The afternoon of January 15th 1965 was not only one of these moments, but perhaps the moment when Dylan's writing and performing talents coalesced into true genius.
Of course Dylan was heavily criticised for "Bringing It all Back Home," Sing Out called him "...a freak and a parody" even going as far as to say "It's a pity and a frustration, for if ever the world was in need of the clear and uncompromising anger and love of the poet it is now," but this may have been something to do with editor Irwin Sibler's personal vendetta against him. Others saw it as a natural progression, Ellen Willis, writing in Cheetah pointed out that he "...had also been exposed to a very different vision. In May 1964 he had toured an England transformed by mod fashion and the unprecedented excitement over the Beatles and the Rolling Stones." Others however saw Dylan as a leader rather than a follower, "More and more performers, from Joan Baez to the Byrds, consider it mandatory to have an ample supply of Dylan songs in their repertoires" said Nat Hentoff in his introduction to the famous Playboy interview of 1966 before going on to say that in August of that year no fewer than forty-eight different recordings of Dylan songs (apart from those by Dylan himself) had been pressed. Commercially "Bringing It all Back Home" was Dylan's best selling album to date, reaching #6 in the States and #1 in the UK where its release coincided with his 1965 tour. That tour, so brilliantly documented in Pennebaker's Don't Look Back would be Dylan's last acoustic one, and those who hoped that "Bringing It all Back Home," was a temporary distraction were in for a very rude awakening. The events of the next couple of years would prove to be the most exciting yet controversial of the rock era. Newport, "Highway 61 Revisited," "Blonde On Blonde" and the 1966 world tour were all just around the corner. Forty years later we perhaps cannot envisage the reluctance to accept the "new" Dylan by some so-called fans, this is an excerpt of a letter written by a lady by the name of Kathleen Ivans to Sing Out magazine in January 1966 "His last illness, which may be termed an acute case of avarice, severely affected Mr.(sic) Dylan's sense of values, ultimately causing his untimely death. Probably the best indication of folk lovers' feeling at his death are given in Dylan's own words "I'm not the one you want, babe/I'll only let you down." I guess Mr. Dylan knew himself better than we did." For his part, Dylan was more circumspect, in the above mentioned Playboy interview (which should not, in the main, be taken too seriously) he says, "...anybody that's got a message is going to learn from experience that they can't put it into a song. I mean it's just not going to come out the same message." At the end of his UK tour, on June 1st, he recorded an acoustic concert for the BBC which was shown over two nights (19th & 26th of June) after he had left the country. Early in June he was back in the States, and on the 15th of that month he was back in the studio, working on his next album "Highway 61 Revisited," which would leave no doubt in anyone's mind that Bob Dylan's metamorphosis from folkie to rock god was complete.