By the time Bob Dylan strapped on an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he had already turned away from the old guard.
Dylan’s development as a songwriter was steep. His unassuming 1962 debut album of traditional blues and folk ballads features just one Dylan-penned song. But his stunning second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is comprised of totally original material, among the songs three genuine folk song masterpieces of completely different styles; the deeply poetic and doom-laden “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the wryly personal “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” and the simple but timeless “Blowin’ In the Wind.” The rest of the Freewheelin’ songs comprise a wide palette of styles and intentions within the folk genre that includes a lot of humor. If stylistic variety is your thing, be sure to have a listen to Dylan’s extraordinarily fun 2nd album.
The third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) is a tour-de-force of topical songs, all but the last song on the album written in a similar style and with a singular intention (Dylan called them “my finger-pointin’ songs”). Densely packed and serious, these songs are impressive and at times moving, but by the final track, “Restless Farewell,” Dylan is already symbolically breaking from his folk audience and leaving them behind for greener, less stilted pastures.
Later that year, Dylan writes another full album of original material, this one all interpersonal songs about relationships, with not a hint of anything topical. Performed solo like his previous three albums, Another Side of Bob Dylan is his breeziest collection yet, reportedly recorded in a single session with the aid of many lyric sheets and a bottle or two of beaujolais. The one exception to the theme of the album is the beautiful and arresting Chimes of Freedom, a song that contemplates the restless times and the moral ramifications of just being alive, free, and self-aware.
Surely, the old guard folkies who championed the protest singer must have been scratching their heads by this point. Bob Dylan, their shining hero, their representative on the world stage — these lefty activists were not interesting in hearing “another side of Bob Dylan.“ But they could not have been prepared for what happened next. In fact, no one was.
According to the man himself, Dylan never “went electric,” insisting that he was a rocker from the start, and it is true that he wrote in his high school yearbook that his desire was “to join Little Richard.” His claim is that he was just writing folk music because that’s where the audience was but that his soul was rock and roll all along. It’s impossible to know for sure; Bob Dylan has told many tall tales.
So much ink has been spilled on the “Dylan goes electric” moment that you’d think it represents some sort of tear in the space-time continuum, or at least a portal. It seems pretty silly to us in retrospect that the world at one time got its cosmic panties in a bunch over one guy putting down his acoustic and strapping on an electric guitar for a few songs. But it was the corresponding introduction of amps, turning up and counting off the heavy drums that really confused people, so deeply ingrained was Dylan’s image as a troubadour folk hero.
“I’m on the pavement thinkin’ ‘bout the government…” “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…” “Don’t follow leaders and watch your parking meters.”
It’s hard to believe that anyone would hear this obviously anti-establishment manifesto, Subterranean Homesick Blues and think “sell-out” but that was the folk world’s reaction. Electric guitars represented rock and roll and in those Beatlemania days, rock was music for teeny boppers not poets and troubadours. Ironically, the rock instruments confused so many folkies that they missed the point of Dylan’s music at this momentous time, which, unsurprisingly with Bob Dylan, was really more about the lyrics.
In a nutshell, this is when rock and roll becomes rock
In the context of the Dylan timeline, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, his fifth album signals a break with the past and a bold step into the unknown. It’s Dylan kissing off, not just the folk establishment that tried to dictate his career, but the entire straight world in favor of a path through the unpredictable, the limitless, the ethereal, that ultimately leads to self-actualization and enlightenment. Dylan simultaneously joins up with the rock world and throws down the gauntlet; either get on the path or be left behind with the squares. It’s a message that is heeded by his peers and it is from this point that rock and roll bands and artists reach for more. In a nutshell, this is when rock and roll becomes rock.
What Springsteen famously said that about the opening snare shot of “Like a Rolling Stone” (the opening song of Dylan’s next album) that it “sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” serves as a good description for the entirety of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” which opens Bringing It All Back Home.
The whole song is a warning which pits you the listener, referred to here as “kid,” (“look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did…”) against a society that will judge, control, and in every way try to contain you, even tap your phone. Dylan advises, “Jump down a manhole/light yourself a candle” In other words, escape; seek enlightenment. The song is a hoot — Dylan is on fire with wordplay, attitude, rhythm, and style with a tie back to beat poetry and forward to hip hop. A fine opener and the segue to track 2, “She Belongs To Me” is breathtaking.
“She’s got everything she needs/she’s an artist, she don’t look back.” Here, in my interpretation, Dylan has presented a personified version of the very same themes, a woman who is so unencumbered by the demands of society that she renders everyone else a “walking antique.” She defies society’s labels and is inscrutable to squares who try to dominate her, to tame her with gifts and flattery (“You start out standing proud to steal her anything she sees/But you wind up peeking through a keyhole down upon your knees”). This woman is “nobody’s child,” she empowered in a way that even defies the laws of society if not the laws of nature. Dylan in his most seductive voice and with the help his loveliest and most hypnotic musical track yet, implores us to behold and even bow down to this paragon of freedom and personal empowerment.
Not finished yet, Dylan follows his killer one-two punch with a hilariously pointed 1st person rejection of square society. Dylan “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.” It’s a world where not are you going to get abused, but you’re going to like it, and Dylan ain’t havin’ it. Perhaps a little heavy-handed but “Maggie’s Farm” perfectly encapsulates one of the main themes of Bringing It All Back Home, refusal to conform to the well-worn paths that we scare our kids into following to ensure their survival in a cruel world. While not my favorite track on Bringing It All Back Home, the live 1965 Newport version positively rocks:
The remainder of Side One includes a reappearance of Dylan’s inscrutable, indomitable love goddess in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” Here she “speaks likes silence” with no need to boast of her faithfulness or any of the other ideals she embodies. She just is and cannot be bought with gifts, promises, or valentines. Refuses to argue or to judge, rejecting societal constructs like success and failure, she winks and does not bother, embodying a Zen state free from earthbound obsessions. Over an equally lovely and hypnotic electric backing, Dylan’s fascinating choice to include a companion piece to “She Belongs to Me,” his paen to freedom and enlightenment, underscores the enormous intention behind Bringing It All Back Home and the dedication to it’s themes.
The all-acoustic Side Two of the album opens with another manifesto, Dylan’s signature song from this period, the gorgeous Mr. Tambourine Man, a song Dylan would perform countless times throughout his career. Influential primarily for its surreal, quasi-psychedelic imagery, the song also supports the album’s themes of limitlessness (“… but for the sky, there are no fences facing”), declaring freedom from a sense-numbing society (“…the ancient empty streets too dead for dreamin’”), and dedication to exploring the unknown, (“I’m ready to go anywhere… cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it”). The Byrds scored a number one hit with Mr. Tambourine Man (something Bob never achieved on his own), but their version only uses one of the four verses. Here, kicking off Side Two is his masterpiece of language and melody in its full-length glory. It’s Dylan at his most poetic, his most persuasive and we need look no further for an argument as to why he is deserving of his Nobel prize for literature.
Skipping past the daunting Gates of Eden, but pausing to note that it too ponders the theme of freedom from earthbound obsessions like ownership, war, sin, kingship, and meaning itself, we arrive at what may be the centerpiece of the album, the stunning “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
Even though it sits in the middle of the all-acoustic Side Two, to my ear, this song has the most rock intention of any on Bringing It All Back Home. A dark and driving blues figure fuels Dylan’s harrowing tale of surviving through the cruel world on his own terms, with his soul fully intact. In this way, it’s the darker, more imagistic portrayal of the Maggie’s Farm theme. And even more to the point thematically, Dylan offers that “he not busy being born is busy dying” — a constant state of rebirth is his antidote to the death of the soul that conforming to square society represents. Adventure, creativity, and self-actualization is the path to enlightenment and Dylan rejects everything else. All of the album themes are pounded home one last time; the futility of adherence to earthly obsessions like war, authority, jobs, political parties, social clubs, idolatry, and even the comfort of knowledge itself (“…to understand, you know too soon/there is no sense in trying”); the value of self-determination (“…it is not she nor them not it that you belong to”), boundlessness (“Though the wise men make the rules… I’ve got nothing Ma, to live up to”), loss of ego (“You lose yourself, you reappear/You suddenly find you got nothing to fear”), along with the rejection of the obscenities of money and propaganda, self-imprisonment, fake morals, and general pettiness. The piling up of these powerful ideas is delivered with a combination of both scorn and human compassion, underpinned by the driving blues figure, and rippling with energy. This is the thematic and stylistic apex of the album. The only place to go now is back down to earth.
In the last song of Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan says a final goodbye to the old and obsolete, not by picking up and going himself, but by demanding that “You must go now, take what you need you think will last…” It’s a soothing tune, one that says, you’re done now, past your expiration date, please just fade away. And though there is a personal tone to the lyrics, it’s placement in the sequence of the album lends his admonition a universal quality. So that after all of this pounding home of the major themes about freedom and the pursuit of enlightenment, it begs the question as he’s dismissing the subject of the song, the ultimate square, “is he talking about me?”
Dylan had the ear of the entire youth culture in 1965. He would go on later that year to ask everyone, “How does it feel?,” to continue his rollout of surrealist imagery and epic challenges to the soul, through the masterful Highway 61 album and upping the ante with the double-album Blonde on Blonde in 1966. His audacity and ambition amounted a dare to the whole youth culture, forcing a choice between surrendering to the expected norms of the straight world or embarking on an expedition of the soul. Dylan in the 60s was a fearless artist who, by the time of his eventual retreat from those soaring heights of intensity and ambition, had spawned an entire cultural and political renaissance dedicated to humanism and the prospect of deeper understanding through the shedding of illusions and adherence to the ultimate Dylan maxim, “dig thyself.” The world heard his manifesto album, Bringing It All Back Home and it has not been the same world since.
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