It took me a long time to get Bob Dylan. For years I was totally immune to his harmonica-laced charms, happy to tell anyone who would listen that I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. After all, the guy couldn’t even sing and having only been exposed to his protest song era, he didn’t seem like a barrel of laughs either. Later, as my music tastes became more discerning, I begrudgingly accepted that he’d written some classic tunes, though still felt he would never really be my cup of tea. In fact, it wasn’t until I heard Blood on the Tracks one day at a friend’s place, initially unaware of who I was listening to, that my attitude began to shift.
With a proper investigation underway I burrowed into his early records. And while not exactly blown away, they did boast enough gems to feed my curiosity, so I continued to traverse the Bobography with an open mind. Looking back on my journey today and I’m oh so pleased I persisted! How else would I have uncovered masterpieces such as Highway 61 Revisited, Nashville Skyline, Blonde on Blonde and Time Out of Mind? But when people ask me to choose my favorite Dylan album, I have trouble settling on just one. While the aforementioned long players (and a few more) remain titan moments in pop culture, for some reason I always find myself going back to his game-changing 1965 release Bringing it All Back Home.
A clear-cut album of two halves, side one’s run of seven tracks showcased Dylan’s new electric style, a controversial progression that famously infuriated a chunk of his die-hard folkie fan base. Listening to the metallic thrust of opener Subterranean Homesick Blues today and it’s easy to imagine their shock. A cutting, catchphrase-laden romp through the political landscape of the times, Dylan’s acerbic vocals sound like a precursor to rap as he sprints through observations on drug use (“keep a clean nose”) police surveillance (“watch the plainclothes”), racial tensions (“stay away from those that carry a fire hose”), national service (“join the army if you fail”) and mindless thuggery (“the vandals broke the handles”). While unraveling the piece as a whole remains virtually impossible, Dylan’s influences are at least crystal clear, with sources as varied as Allan Ginsberg, Chuck Berry, Robert Browning and Jack Kerouac all adding color to the chaos.
Subterranean’s powerful assault is soothed by the gentle She Belongs to Me, a swaying anti-love song that, despite its misleading title, is actually about being on the receiving end of a controlling relationship. “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back” hums Bob, switching to a lilting vocal. Besotted by a woman so charismatic and powerful she can “take the dark out of nighttime and paint the daytime black”, our narrator feels compelled to “bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes”.
It’s a sweet, affecting interlude before the bitter, electric blues of Maggie’s Farm, an irate report of the job from hell. A non-stop confession of misery, poor old Bob is forced to “scrub the floor” and “sing while you slave”, all the while used and abused by Maggie and her father, a man “who puts his cigar out in your face just for kicks”. But as any Dylan scholar will eagerly explain, he isn’t really out in the sticks surrounded by livestock and manure. The farm symbolizes the folk music scene he felt imprisoned by, a movement that sought to tame his “head full of ideas”. As an artist Bob wanted to explore and innovate, but was finding his urges increasingly oppressed. “Well I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them”. Proud and defiant, Maggie’s Farm starts out sounding like a woe-is-me-tale, but ends up as a defiant declaration of independence.
Following a template of hard Dylan, soft Dylan… Love Minus Zero/No Limit is a low-key love song in tribute to his soon-to-be first wife Sara Lowndes. A doe-eyed praising of her many virtues, we learn that she is ‘‘true like ice, like fire’’, a woman who ‘‘speaks softly’’ and ‘‘laughs like the flowers’’. Carried along by serene vocals and lilting latin rhythms, our singer draws strength and comfort from her love in the face of life’s stormy difficulties, as ‘‘the wind howls like a hammer’’ and “the bridge at midnight trembles”.
And then it’s back to some gloriously unfussy rocking on the raucous Outlaw Blues, a grim depiction of The Wild West with its references to freezing temperatures and stumbling around in “some muddy lagoon”. There are also nods to Robert Ford and Jesse James, our royal Bobness feeling so distraught by his surroundings he dreams of being far away on some “Australian mountain range”.
The hard-soft cycle is broken by On the Road Again, a twelve bar blues stomp with harmonica breaks that offers up some of his most LSD-fuelled, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. A nightmarish introduction to the world’s freakiest in-laws, you know you’re in for a rollercoaster ride the moment the father ‘‘walks in wearing a Napoleon Bonaparte mask”. Her mother meanwhile “is a-hiding in the ice box’’, the grandfather’s ‘‘cane turns into a sword’’ and there’s a pet monkey that gives ol’ Bob ‘‘a face full of claws’’. Enough to scare any man out of the best of relationships, our hero brilliantly quips ‘‘you ask why I don’t live here, honey do you have to ask?”
Side one’s electric run comes to an end with the equally barmy Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, a satirical homage to American myth with name checks for Moby Dick author Herman Melville, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and the infamous Scottish sailor Captain Kidd. ‘‘I was riding on The Mayflower when I thought I spied some land” howls Dylan, kicking off an exhausting outburst that is as ridiculous as only a crazy dream can be. Thinking he’s discovered a new country (“I’ll call it America”), Bob disembarks only to be arrested by a policeman and thrown in jail. He then breaks out (“Don’t even ask me how”) and heads for “The Bowery slums’’ after getting directions from “a Guernsey cow”. From there, among other bizarre events, he escapes an exploding restaurant (“food was flying everywhere”), gets mugged by the friend of a French girl (“robbed my boots”) and is flattened by a rogue bowling ball (“knocked me off my feet”).
Quite how he goes from that to the bright, melodic acoustics of Mr. Tambourine Man is anyone’s guess. “Play a song for me” he asks, addressing an imaginary muse inspired by his friend, the folk musician Bruce Langhorne. In fact, it was Bruce’s tambourine-like Turkish frame drum that informs the song’s title, a wondrous instrument adorned with bells, which some Dylanites attribute to the line “in the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you”. A visit to Mardi Gras in New Orleans also informed the creative process, particularly the line “take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship”. It would of course become one of Bob’s best-loved and covered songs, most famously by The Byrds.
If the record has one misstep, for me it’s Gates of Eden, a fire and brimstone condemnation of a decadent modern world losing its way. Built around ideas expressed in William Blake’s The Gates of Paradise, Dylan’s imagery remains ever-powerful with its talk of ‘‘wicked birds of prey’’, “utopian hermit monks’’ and ‘‘four-legged forest clouds’’. But musically it’s a static dirge, his ominous delivery beginning to grate long before its conclusion at a far too lengthy five minutes and forty four seconds.
Not that length is a problem in its own right. Follow-up track It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) is longer, but a far more engaging affair that just seems to move better. Another dense, dark storm cloud of a song, the issues are no less weighty with tightly packed rhymes on politics, economics, religion and just about everything else in between. Politicians address people from a ‘‘hollow horn’’ with ‘‘wasted words’’, while “preachers preach of evil fates’’. It’s captivating stuff from start to finish, the metaphors so vehement you can just about taste the toxicity.
Which brings us to album closer It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, a sparsely arranged acoustic delight with some of Mr. D’s most earnest vocals. Fittingly, it’s also a goodbye song, though there’s been much speculation as to who exactly Baby Blue is. Could it be fellow singer-songwriter and old flame Joan Baez? Or perhaps Bob’s Greenwich Village troubadour friend David Blue? Both viable candidates and yet my favorite theory is that Dylan was simply saying farewell to the folk protest version of himself. Not convinced? Then look no further than the track’s final verse and its order to ‘‘leave your stepping stones behind” and, most poignantly, ‘‘strike another match, go start anew’’.
Bringing it all Back Home will always be a pivotal moment in the Bob Dylan story. A giant leap from its four predecessors in terms of scope and ambition, it’s a record that marked the end of an era for its creator whilst simultaneously opening up paths in all directions to create an unwritten map of endless possibilities. Upon its release there was much fanfare and critical acclaim, but also unprecedented outrage among hardcore folkies who saw him as a traitor. There would even be boos and insults when he played his new electric material, both at The Newport Folk Festival and the following year during his ill-fated appearance at The Manchester Free Trade Hall in England.
For me though this is the album where Dylan’s music started to get really interesting. His prose grew more stylistic, the lyrics stuffed with an abundance of stream-of-consciousness imagery, metaphors flying through the air like machine gun bullets. His delivery had never been so street-smart and cocksure, to the extent that Robert Allan Zimmerman actually sounded like he was having fun! ‘‘I’m a poet and I know it” he told us on I Shall Be Free No. 10 (from the previous year’s Another Side of Bob Dylan) and Bringing it all Back Home truly feels like pop music as poetry, a bold statement of intent from a man who could only just keep up with his own tumbling imagination.
Choice Quote: “The most influential album of its era. Almost everything to come in contemporary popular song can be found therein” – English author Clinton Heylin, the author of ‘Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades’.
Choice Lyric: “My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip. My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels to be wandering’’ – From Mr. Tambourine Man.
Like this? Look no further than Bringing It All Back Home’s fantastic follow-up Highway 61 Revisited (1965) the middle child of Dylan’s best three consecutive albums. While you’re at it, why not finish the job with Blonde on Blonde? (1966).
For more of my musical musings have a leaf through my other album reviews.