Classic Music Review: Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan

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My father conned me into doing at least one Dylan review, so first, let’s get the sacrilege out of the way.

I’ve never been a Dylan fan, for several reasons. One, he’s a terrible singer. Two, he’s musically boring. Three, he’s a lousy harmonica player. Four, the reverence that people of my father’s generation feel for Bob Dylan is so over the top that it triggers deep skepticism. I’ve come to realize that I’ve resisted Bob Dylan primarily because his fans are almost religious in their adulation of the man, and I have a deep distrust for any form of religion.

Sorry, but nobody is as good as my dad’s generation says Bob Dylan is. You’d think he was Shakespeare, Yeats and Doestoevsky all rolled into one. Most reviews of Dylan’s work have been written in hushed tones of deference and respect by the Baby Boomers who worship him. I read those reviews, then I listen to the music and ask myself, “What the fuck planet are these people on?” As a poet, he’s done some fine work, but compared to Donne, Keats, Emily Dickinson, Rimbaud, Neruda, Heine, Baudelaire, Browning, Blake, Eliot . . . get real, people! Nobel Prize? Shit, even a writer has profoundly limited as Hemingway won a Nobel Prize, so whoop-de-do.

Sure, he was influential, but influential usually means you started something and didn’t finish it. He took folk music out of its dogmatic dead-end of predictable simplicity and shook it up with rock and blues influences. Thank you, Mr. Dylan! He was one of the first to introduce intelligent lyrics into popular music, making it okay for artists to expand their horizons and sing about something other than boy-meets-girl. Way to go, Bob! But the real fruits of that labor are seen in other people’s work: Ray Davies, John Lennon (when decoupled from Yoko), Phil May and a host of others who integrated thoughtful lyrics with melody, harmony and greater musical sophistication. You can also argue that Dylan has had a equally powerful negative influence in that he encouraged thousands of tone-deaf, three-chord musicians to believe that a music career was a viable option.

To his everlasting credit, Bob Dylan has generally avoided the adoration people heap him: he is the anti-Beyoncé of the music world. Some cynics claim that his relative isolation is a clever marketing ploy, but I don’t buy that. I do not question his sincerity, his intellectual curiosity or his insight into the absurd world we have created. I’m simply not in awe of the guy.

Sorry, dad!

I narrowed my search for a Dylan album to his peak period in the 60’s, focusing on three possibilities. At first I thought I was going to do John Wesley Harding, but in the end it proved to be too country for my blood. Highway 61 Revisited was my next choice, as Mike Bloomfield is one of my all-time favorites, but the experience listening to “Desolation Row” is like having a root canal. I finally chose Bringing It All Back Home in part because it’s the album where he made his shocking break with all those sanctimonious folkies.

But the main reason was this: it sounds like Bob Dylan had a lot of fun on Bringing It All Back Home. It has the classic exuberance of a liberation album, and I love those moments when an artist breaks a boundary, ignores a limitation or removes the restriction that had been dead weight on the imagination. The poetry on this album is often exceptional and has more lasting relevance than his earlier protest songs or some of his later meanderings when his symbolism crossed the line into Finnegan’s Wake-land (though he does have a few Finnegan moments here).

When new listeners first encounter Bringing It All Back Home after all the hype about Bob Dylan’s dramatic move to add rock instrumentation to folk music, it is likely they’ll ask, “This is it? What’s the big fucking deal?” This isn’t exactly Tommy Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore or Joe Satriani blasting your eardrums. Shit, even I could play the lead or the bass on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and if you allowed me to use my favorite riding crop on the sweet bare ass of a willing lady, I could probably handle the drum part as well. I would advise people who are new to Dylan to listen to one of his earlier albums like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to get an idea of how dramatic a change simple amplification represented to listeners of the time.

Once you make that paradigm shift, it’s easy to get into this song because Dylan’s energy is set to high and the lyrics are outstanding. I’ve always thought of “Subterrranean Homesick Blues” as the modern, absurdist version of Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Act I, Scene iii of Hamlet.  So, instead of boring parental advice like “Give thy thoughts no tongue” or “Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar” we get a barrage of “wisdom” borrowed from time-honored clichés, American consumerism and Monday-morning quarterbacking:

Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tiptoes
Don’t try “No-Doz”
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows.

The last couplet speaks volumes about how 60’s people could stretch meaning out of all proportion to the original intent of the songwriter. The psychotic terrorists known to history as The Weathermen took their name from that couplet, an act as unjustified as Charles Manson finding predictions of race war in “Helter Skelter.” While “Helter Skelter” has no meaning whatsoever, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” contains wisdom that is even more true today than it was in the 60’s: in a world as chaotic as ours, there are no experts—there are only con artists pretending to be experts. The only way to survive in such a world is to listen to your native intelligence and find your own direction.

Dylan deals with the phenomena of the dominant female (bless his heart) in “She Belongs to Me,” easily my favorite Bob Dylan vocal of all time. His voice is sweet and submissive (as it should be!) and he manages to hit most of the notes for a change. The irony of the song lies in the contrast between the title and the lyrics: the title describes traditional male ownership; the lyrics sing of male respect for female power. Culturalization makes it difficult for a man to relinquish his power to a woman, just as was difficult for many white Southerners today to acknowledge the authority of a black President. Give it up, guys . . . game over:

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you’ll wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees.

Dylan fans seem rather distracted over a silly debate as to whether Dylan wrote the song about Joan Baez or Nico of Velvet Underground fame. I hate it when fans debase a work of art by sinking into gossip mode. I’d prefer to think that the woman on “She Belongs to Me” is that sexy bitch on the cover, holding her cigarette with confidence and class. At least that theory keeps the argument within the context of the actual artistic package.

Similarly, Dylan devotees pin the meaning of “Maggie’s Farm” to Dylan’s rejection of the folk music scene and its purist dogma. While I’m not doubting that interpretation, it’s a very narrow one that would limit the song’s appeal only to the Baby Boomers who view Dylan’s conversion to rock as one of the great spiritual revelations in the history of humanity along with misogynist St. Paul’s revelation on the road to Damascus. I think the song works on multiple levels, and the theme more relevant to my generation is the theme of the destruction of the human imagination through the regimentation of society, most often manifested in the workplace. Dylan describes a workplace full of absurd rules, mean-spirited sadism and blatant favoritism (Maggie’s family could be blood relatives or the guys you knew at Harvard or any other sealed clique). The effect of such an environment is the denial of potential and the obliteration of individuality:

Well, I wake in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more . . .

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

Dylan really nails this one, and his vocal captures both the humorous absurdity of the players and the misery of toiling for these pathetic losers who encourage us to ignore the ennui by whistling while we work. Here’s a performance of the song at The Newport Folk Festival, and if you notice a significant upgrade in the quality of the lead guitar as compared to the album, that’s because the name of the guitarist is Michael Fucking Bloomfield, people!

Continuing his support for a matriarchal society (go, Bob, go!), “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is an ode to the strong and independent woman who rises above the trivial pursuits of human society. Full of yin-yang imagery (ice/fire, success/failure, speaks/silence), the woman Dylan describes manifests the rare ability to rise above the false notions of division, adopt Blake’s wisdom that “opposites are necessary to human existence” and live on the narrow edge between extremes. What makes this song so remarkably insightful is the last verse, where Dylan wisely avoids leaving this woman in an unrealistic state of untouchable bliss to acknowledge that she too can suffer at the hands of an inhuman society:

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

That last couplet has resonated with me for weeks . . . but I digress. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is simply one of the most beautiful odes of modern times.

Unfortunately, the mood crashes with “Outlaw Blues,” where confirmation that Bob Dylan is a lousy blues singer is received and fully understood (although he does still seem like he’s having a good time). He has a much better flair for comic surrealism, first demonstrated in “On the Road Again,” where the conflict between the artist and “the normal” is described in a series of strange images and interactions that beg the question, “And you think I’m weird?” Apparently people didn’t talk much about dysfunctional families in those days, especially when compared to the voluminous and embarrassingly public obsession we have with the topic at present, but Dylan has no qualms about exposing the insanity that lies behind the manicured lawns and frozen smiles:

Your grandpa’s cane
It turns into a sword
Your grandma prays to pictures
That are pasted on a board
Everything inside my pockets
Your uncle steals
Then you ask why I don’t live here
Honey, I can’t believe that you’re for real!

Even better is “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” which is an absolute hoot! Was Bob having a good time or what? How about that fuck-up on take one and the subsequent laughter that sounds suspiciously cannabis-induced? I love Dylan when he gets playful and allows his active imagination to merge with his sense of humor; one of my favorite earlier Dylan tunes is “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” where he takes the Woody Guthrie talking song and transforms it with playful splashes of wordplay. He takes it to an entirely different level with this amazingly compelling and brilliantly structured piece loosely dealing with the discovery of America (it’s actually more about discovering the fundamental tensions underlying American society than the geographical new world). It’s poetry-by-suggestion, very much like the experience of watching great improv actors make spontaneous connections that somehow magically come together at the end and provide a satisfying sense of completion. The second verse describes the moment of discovery where what we really discover is at the heart of America is guns, greed and an absurd legal system:

“I think I’ll call it America”
I said as we hit land
I took a deep breath
I fell down, I could not stand
Captain Arab he started
Writing up some deeds
He said, “Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads”
Just then this cop comes down the street
Crazy as a loon
He threw us all in jail
For carryin’ harpoons

“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” ends the electric side of the original record. The songs on side two are all traditional (at that time) Dylan acoustic folk numbers. At this point, we have to discuss one of the major challenges of Bob Dylan: the amount of effort he requires of his listeners. This is best illustrated by looking the similar challenges posed by one of my favorite authors, James Joyce.

Most people haven’t read Joyce. Even a relatively accessible work like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man feels impenetrable to the average reader. Multiply that apparent impenetrability by 100 and you get Ulysses; multiply that by another billion and you get Finnegan’s Wake. While it might be due to the Irish half of my gene set, I think Ulysses is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read and one of the most moving pieces of literature ever written. Most people think I’m crazy, and everyone I’ve pushed to read it has returned it unfinished, usually accompanied by a warnings of future bodily harm if I ever recommend a book to them again. My love of Ulysses does demonstrate that I am willing to follow an artist who relies heavily on mythology and symbolism in his art, but even I draw the line at Finnegan’s Wake. The symbols and multi-cultural myths collide and coalesce in a narrative-free environment where interpreting a single word (several of which Joyce invented) can take hours. While I love immersing myself in the arts, there comes a point where the artist demands too much from us and creates a wide gap between effort and potential reward. You get to the point where you say, “Christ, I’m wasting time on this when there’s all these people out there that I haven’t fucked yet? What the fuck am I doing?”

Well, at least I say that.

This is the problem with Bob Dylan’s lengthy journeys into symbolic landscapes: they require too much effort from the listener. Generally, they bore me to tears. I start listening to them and by the second or third verse I feel just like I did when reading Finnegan’s Wake. I find myself drifting to other more interesting topics, like “Should I do my nails now or later?” and “I wonder what I’ll have for dinner tonight.” So, side two is pretty much a bust for me. I despise “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” They all go on far too long and the effort required to interpret the lyrics isn’t worth the pain of listening to Dylan’s whiny voice for as long as the song requires. Please note that his voice is almost unbearable through digital technology, which is why I thank my lucky stars for a father with an extensive collection of vinyl.

The one exception on Bringing It All Back Home is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” While some of Bob Dylan’s songs are forever trapped in the amber of the 60’s, the poetry here is unfortunately timeless. I say “unfortunately” because Dylan has thrown back the curtain and exposed the inner workings of a social structure that has endured over the years, and despite superficial changes, is still fundamentally structured on the same old bullshit. This song should be a required course of study for every high school senior in the United States to prepare them for the real world instead of the phony crap we give them about what they have to do to achieve the American dream . . . which is crap in itself. The insights in this song are breathtaking—bursts of eye-opening truth about the way things really work.

The first thing to understand is that the motives that drive American society have nothing to do with freedom, justice and liberty. The real motives are base, selfish, dehumanizing and violent and the counter-forces are weak, ineffective and eminently manageable:

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

The purpose of life in such a society is to exploit one another while establishing paranoia and greed as the elements of the lifeblood that make the system thrive. The true Founding Father of The United States was P. T. Barnum, for only a sucker could reconcile a philosophy that holds guns and God in equal esteem and turn that into a sales pitch:

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
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

Of course, the con game can only work if everyone believes they have a chance at the gold ring. Hence the philosophy of American individualism, which teaches us that emphasizes the overriding importance of the individual . . . a philosophy that is fundamentally absurd in a modern society that requires collaboration. The purpose of American individualism has nothing to do with valuing human life: the purpose is to keep us in competition with each other so that we are occupied with that struggle instead of trying to change the system and make things better for us all:

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

Freedom of speech is therefore absurd in a society that requires its people to believe in the sanctity of capitalism, violence, competition and a worldview of us-against-them. Thought is repressed by well-established social norms, because the consequences of allowing people to have real freedom of thought would threaten the fabric of society and the power of the elite:

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

There are literally hundreds of insights in this rich piece of poetry, often found in a single word-choice. Dylan performs the song with a burning intensity that gives the lyrics even greater power. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is also a great song to turn to when you think you’re the one who’s crazy or defective. You’re not. It’s the system that’s crazy and defective.

Bob Dylan has been quite prolific in his career, which certainly puts him at a disadvantage. That disadvantage exists for any prolific artist, for the power of a relatively small number of works causes fans to rise in united adulation of everything the artist has ever done. That is as true (maybe even more so) for Picasso as it is for Dylan. We do artists a disservice by failing to acknowledge the noble failures and placing them on pedestals as superior human beings. Adopting a more balanced view of Bob Dylan’s work is a far more helpful orientation than turning him into a lifeless icon. Perhaps viewing artists through the lens of baseball might yield some benefits: after all, the best hitters in the game fail two-thirds of the time.

The majority of the songs on Bringing It All Back Home reveal stunning perceptive ability regarding the human condition, making them still relevant today. Once you get past the hype surrounding Dylan, you will find some poetic gems that will make the effort more than worthwhile.

p. s. Okay, Dad—I hope this made you happy, but it’s your own damned fault you raised your daughter to have her own mind and to never follow leaders but watch the parking meters! Love you—see you soon!

4 responses

  1. Michael Chaney | Reply

    No time for a detailed response, but a couple quick points. I agree with all the positive comments and disagree vehemently with all the negative ones. For me, every note of every song on this album is near perfect. Listening to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” requires too much effort? Those songs are like great novels; the longer the better. Unless you were there at the time, it’s easy to forget that those songs were written by a kid doing something no one else had ever done.

    I love Bob’s voice during this period. I don’t know what ARC was talking about, but point me to one word of a vocal that’s off-key. Some don’t like Bob’s voice, that’s one thing; but during the mid-60s he hit all the notes. For my money, no one has ever sung with more pure, honest passion and conviction than on this album (and Highway 61). It’s Alright Ma, in the context both of what had come before and what’s followed, by itself, warrants the permanent label “genius.” Bob was performing this song in ’64, which means he wrote it when he was 23 years old.

    This album, and the influence it had on every musician, before and since, is incalculable, comparable, by analogy, to the impact the theory of relativity had on science.

    P.S. The woman on the cover of the album is Albert Grossman’s wife. The pic was taken in the living room of the Grossman’s weekend place in Woodstock.

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  2. […] Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home […]

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  3. As a lover of Joyce, I agree that Ulysses is a hilarious novel at the same time as it is only second (or maybe third) to Shakespeare for inventiveness with language. But for me it also has some of the most moving moments in literature — when Poldy is ejected by the Cyclops, when he masturbates with the monstrance behind him, the young girl spreading her legs on the beach in front of him, and the fireworks going off in the distance; and, to me, a moment that makes me well up, when Stephen rejects Poldy to return to his dismal world of Tomist philosophy and whacky theories about Hamlet — which only allows, thank God, for Molly’s voice to finally raze everyone and everything to the ground with its stream of orgasmically increasing affirmation. With that said, Dylan can’t touch this. I love three of his albums at most, particularly the one reviewed here. But what kills me about Dylan is the legion of people who worship his “poetry.” RARELY do his lyrics reach a level called poetry — rarely does any pop/rock reach the level of poetry when the lines are isolated from the music. Dylan’s lyrics on the page are, for the most part, gibberish; and if we treat them as poems, they are horrible. Once and a while he approaches something of poetry, just as the Beatles and the Kinks did — but NONE of these guys were trying to write poetry in the first place. They were writing music, which WITH the melody and delivery becomes a lyrical poem in its own right, not as an isolated thing. As a whole package, the 2-3 minute song can be a poem–quite frankly, some of the most beautiful poems in the past century. Musicians can reach a point where the lyrics approach poetry, though: I always thought one of the most masterful lyrical moments was the W-sounds Paul puts into Eleanor Rigby: “Waits at the window, Wearing a face that she keeps in the jar by the door.” But I ramble on. This allows me to procrastinate from the deadlines I must deal with today.

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    1. Thank you, and I agree completely about Ulysses and its power to move the reader. I’ve had a problematical relationship with Dylan, in part because I’m voice-sensitive and find his rather abrasive, but more so because my father is a true believer. My hypothesis is that what works best in popular music is poetic economy, and Dylan is one of the least economical songwriters of them all (except for the faux mythologizers who dominate progressive rock). I’ll take “Waterloo Sunset” and “Eleanor Rigby” over any Dylan piece, with music included, of course.

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