Another Side of Bob Dylan

Released: August 8, 1964

The impetus for creating this writeup came from the fact that I just got through watching a godawful film about Bob Dylan called I'm Not There. Then I read oolong's writeup about the film, and then I looked at oolong's home node and realized I should help him out in filling in the holes of writeups about this man's body of work because it's an excellent body of work and deserves recognition: Unlike that film I just mentioned. In fact, you should never watch a movie about Bob Dylan or read a book about Bob Dylan or read a review of his work, like you're doing right now. Just get the music and listen to it. Then think what you will inside your own head without anyone else's opinions jarring what should be a religious experience for you.

OK, that's been said and you're still here. So I'll continue to the best of my ability to dance about architecture.

This was the fourth album the man released, and it was the last one for quite a while where there would be no electrical instruments involved. This seemed to be a big deal to a lot of folks when that change was made, but I was right smack dab in the middle of it (having started with buying the eponymous album when it was first released and each album afterwards, as soon as I could get my hands on it) and it sure didn't matter to me. I wouldn't have cared if he'd started releasing polka albums, as long as the lyrics were there and he was sincere about their sound.

On a Dylanesque personal level, it's fairly accepted history that Dylan's continued romantic trysts with Joan Baez had led to a breakup with his fairly steady girlfriend Suze Rotolo (the one of the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) and that all of this had broken his heart in a significant place. It likely led to some drug abuse, which would have been predictable since he was hanging out with the Beatles and other n'er-do-wells at the time. Some even go so far as to say that dropping acid led to his fascination with Rimbaud and the evolution of his more abstract lyrical jaunts.

Having done my share of these sorts of things around the same time (not including screwing Joan Baez, which I wouldn't have done anyway; that woman scares me), I can tell you that I am not aware of anyone whom acid made smarter or more creative who probably wasn't going to wind up there anyway. It might have hastened the trip but I sincerely doubt it changed the destination. I would have enjoyed using another analogy there in order to avoid the word "trip," but I just couldn't think of one. It's probably because that stuff I did back in the 60s.

Dylan spent some time traveling around Europe in early 1964 with this Nico chick who apparently shows up in all sorts of fifteen minutes of fame spots around that time, likely adding up to at least three whole hours. The recording session for what became Another Side of Bob Dylan occurred June 9th at Columbia's Studio A in New York. He apparently drank a couple of bottles of Beaujolais and laid down fourteen original tracks that night, ending with "My Back Pages" around 1:30 AM. The three that didn't make the cut were "Denise Denise", "Mama You Been On My Mind" (one that Joan Baez did a really good version of on one of her albums around this time) and a little ditty he called Mr. Tambourine Man. I'm glad he waited on that one. It really wouldn't have fit the mood here, it seems. It does fit a slightly later mood in a way that can only be called transcendental.

I think the important thing to take away from this album is this: It's fairly obvious that it was going to take electricity to take him where he wanted to go from here.

The songs:

--"All I Really Want to Do"

It's the Jimmie Rodgers yodel here which indicates what he refers to now as his lifetime love for "authentic American music." I would imagine Woody Guthrie is smiling down from his socialist perch with a big thumbs up on that epiphany. As I mentioned in another writeup here, all you have to do is listen to Dylan's gut-wrenching version of Dixie to know that he was probably way beyond politics before politics gave up on him as a placard-carrier.

The Byrds covered this song and it became quite a little radio hit for them. I guess one could call this the ultimate, "Can we still be friends?" song.

I ain't lookin' to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up,
Analyze you, categorize you,
Finalize you or advertise you.
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

--"Black Crow Blues"

One of those bluesy numbers that just don't do it for me. As I've said elsewhere, if there is one genre Bob Dylan should have avoided, it was the blues. I could rhyme something here with "Jews" and "blues," but I'd likely catch flack about it. But what is it with this Jewish vote going to the party that doesn't give a rat's ass about Israel? I mean, seriously. What is it with that?

--"Spanish Harlem Incident"

Another one covered by the Byrds.

Gypsy gal, the hands of Harlem
Cannot hold you to its heat.

I'd like to think that this song was inspired by a song I dearly love, "Spanish Harlem," released by Ben E. King in 1961 on Atco Records, written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector. And I'd also like to think that it inspired two of my favorite songs written and released later. One is "Spanish Rose" by Van Morrison released in 1967 on his very first album called "Blowin' Your Mind." Quite a title, eh? He probably hates this now about as much as Bob Dylan hates the title of this album I'm writing about. The other song I imagine this inspiring is one by Joe Henry on Shuffletown called "Helena By the Avenue." I could be wrong about both of these that came afterwards, but I have a spidey-sense that I'm not. They both feel a whole lot like this song to me.

--"Chimes of Freedom"

Some of the lyrics here came from his efforts to write a poem about the assassination of JFK; part of a book deal his manager, Albert Grossman, had talked him into. And another one that the Byrds glommed onto and got regular airplay on the radio with, even though this particular Dylan album was nowhere near one of his best-sellers. With lyrics such as, "The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder," you can see that he's entered an entirely new world when it comes to "How to Write Songs for Dummies." This is why the critics started complaining that the songs were "all about him" as opposed to being about something they thought was important, like civil rights or Vietnam. It also brings to mind the best moments in that film I generally didn't like, when Cate Blanchett is typing away at a manual typewriter. You can just imagine Dylan hammering something like this out with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and ashes all over his pants.

--"I Shall Be Free No.10"

Now you're probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about.
What's probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for.

Exactly. Some political stuff to try and pacify the folks who were yelling at him about getting too "personal," I suppose. A real throwaway. Fast forward.

--"To Ramona"

Fast forward to this one. God, how I wanted to find a girl named "Ramona" at this point in my life. Along with "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" which he'd put on his next album, this was as good as a love song could get. And may be still be as good as a love song can get.

Your cracked country lips,
I still wish to kiss,
As to be under the strength of your skin.
Your magnetic movements
Still capture the minutes I'm in.

--"Motorpsycho Nightmare"

More politics. Fast forward.

--"My Back Pages"

Fast forward to this. One could view this song as the turning point on the whole placard-carrying Pete Seeger movement political crap. When he says, "I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now," you can hear every pre-hippie beatnik silently snapping one finger in a death march to oblivion. Just like Frank Zappa was making fun of hippies while they listened to his music and thought they were being celebrated, Dylan was saying good-bye to movement politics while folks were still trying to turn his lyrics into political statements. I think back on it now and realize that listening to this song was probably why I was supporting Barry Goldwater for President in 1964.

The Byrds, again, covered this one. But there is another cover I ran across which I would call "required listening." By that, I mean, "Go and find this song and buy it and listen to it right now!" It's by a Japanese band called the Magokoro Brothers, and it's marvelous. I guess it's even better if you understand a word they're singing, but probably not. And this brings up something I need to say about Bob Dylan.

I have folks such as my wife asking me all the time, "What does that mean when he says blah-blah-blah." And my answer, universally, is, "I have no freaking idea and I don't care. That song speaks to me in tongues." All of his best songs speak to me in tongues, and I have spent plenty of drunken hours trying to decipher them line by line only to discover that the sum is greater than the parts and the whole cannot be explained or rationalized; it can only either be worshipped or disregarded. For me, it's worship. And if my wife and other otherwise intelligent folks disregard them, I can only think to myself, "Wow. Your loss, but I totally understand."

By the way, another great cover of this song is available by Marshall Crenshaw.

--"I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)"

An' if anybody asks me, "Is it easy to forget?"
I'll say, "It's easily done,
You just pick anyone,
An' pretend that you never have met!"

A pretty good ending, but probably a bit too confessional, like the next one. It's not surprising that he'd put these two back to back.

--"Ballad in Plain D"

Dylan has said at one time that this is the only song he might regret writing. Apparently, it is a very personal rendition of his version of his break-up with Suze Rotolo. (The Suze, as we call her on Seinfeld. The girl who really doesn't exist. In fact, the "I'm Not There" Girl of her day.)

I seem to have gotten a bit off-track here, and I can only say it is because of the stuff I was doing in the 60s combined with the fact that this really isn't my favorite Dylan album. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that that Japanese group blows my fucking socks off so hard with their rendition of "My Back Pages," I doubt I'd have bothered with writing this whole thing at all. I'm serious. You must go find and download that version at some point and listen to it as loud as your little computer speakers will allow. If I were going to blow my eardrums out with one particular song, it would be either that or Morrissey's "First of the Gang to Die." It would probably be the former if I had to choose, just because it begins with a loud preacher asking me in plain English if I am "right before God?" That would be a really good thing to hear as your last audible experience.

--"It Ain't Me, Babe"

The Turtles made a lot of money off of this one. Do you know who the Turtles were? Get a copy of Frank Zappa's albums starting in the early 70s. They are Flo and Eddie in this incarnation. And they are also the Turtles. Do you realize how much fun they were having making fun of pop music while making a fortune off of it? In fact, they started out as "The Tyrtles" just to make fun of "The Byrds," but that name got corrected by some marketing guru. I'm sure Bob Dylan was dead serious when he wrote this song, but Flo and Eddie turned this into such a fun fest that I will never be able to take it seriously.

So, bottom line analysis? Great Dylan album, but not a good place to start. As I've said elsewhere, start with Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited or Love and Theft and if you learn to love those, branch out. This would be a good place to go next.