Fifty years ago, in May 1965, Bob Dylan’s fifth album Bringing It All Back Home was released in the UK. I don’t know for sure when I first began to hear songs off the new album, though it must have been soon after its release since by then I was listening for nearly a year to music beamed from the pirate radio ship Caroline North, broadcasting to sleepy Cheshire from the Mersey Bay. My 17th birthday in September brought a copy of the LP with songs which have remained personal favourites through the years, including ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘It’s Alright Ma’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’.
The album had been released in America on 22 March 1965, the first of a trilogy of electrified and electrifying records with which, in the next 24 months, Dylan would almost single-handedly transform ideas about what rock or folk music could express.
With Bringing It All Back Home Dylan shifted gears and began making what Greil Marcus, in Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan At The Crossroads, calls ‘noisy rock ‘n’ roll songs’. In his book, Marcus sums up side one of the album – consisting of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ followed by ‘She Belongs To Me,’ ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit,’ ‘Outlaw Blues,’ ‘On the Road Again’ and the hilarious ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,’ as being ‘scratchy, clanging, written with flair, sung with glee, Dylan and his backing musicians in moments thrilled at their own new clatter.’
Even fifty years on, the punch of the album’s opening track, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, has not diminished. It took a 17-year old Cheshire lad a while to work out what the hell Dylan was on about in this helter-skelter poem set to Chuck Berry blues chords, all tense, choppy and excitable. At first, for a kid approaching the last two years of his schooling, it was these lines that leapt out from the clatter:
Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle.
Now, the rest of it sounds far less nonsensical that it did in 1965; now I hear a disciplined expression of youthful alienation and paranoia, raging against the forces of conservatism and authoritarian control: ‘Look out kid, don’t matter what you did…’. Nothing in these lines sounds dated:
Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the DA.
Today, even though half a century has passed, we still don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
As a seventeen year old with a head full of ideas that were driving me insane, I heard the album as if reading a political manifesto, particularly when digesting the lyrics of the revelatory ‘It’s Alright Ma’, perhaps Dylan’s greatest political statement. My mind was nourished by the pointed aperçus with which this 24-year old peppered his song: ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears’, ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’ and ‘Bent out of shape from society’s pliers’. Verses like these were just about the most subversive I had ever heard:
A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That nothing much is really sacred.
Advertising signs that 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.
Here was a song that expressed the whole counter-cultural thing, not in tired political clichés but in words that spoke to those of my generation who really thought that if their thought-dreams could been seen, they’d probably have their heads placed in a guillotine. But it’s alright, Ma – it’s life, and life only!
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’
I just might tell you the truth.
– ‘Outlaw Blues’
Thomas Erlewine, discussing the album on the Allmusic website states:
This is the point where Dylan eclipses any conventional sense of folk and rewrites the rules of rock, making it safe for personal expression and poetry, not only making words mean as much as the music, but making the music an extension of the words.
Half of Bringing It All Back Home was fierce stuff like ‘It’s Alright, Ma’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Gates of Eden’ – not forgetting ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’, the hilarious satire that closed side one (at the time even the false start seemed subversive, undermining accepted ideas about recorded order and perfection; I now know it wasn’t Dylan breaking up with laughter and saying ‘Start again’, but Tom Wilson, the producer).
Captain Ahab he started
Writing up some deeds
He said, ‘Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads.
But the other half of Bringing It All Back Home consisted of enchanting songs of great beauty and mystery, poetry to be pored over as I sought the key to unlock their allusive and elusive puzzles. I saw pictures like never before.
There were romantic ballads like ‘She Belongs To Me’, dedicated to the mysterious woman (Joanie, no doubt) who wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks, who had inspired verses of a kind you didn’t hear from anyone else:
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees.
‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ was another delectable love song, the imagery evocative and mysterious and Dylan’s words accompanied by rippling guitar:
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.
The song features one of my favourite verses:
In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all.
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (memorably covered by Van Morrison and Them – see below) was a new kind of break-up song. While some have speculated that Baby Blue was Joan Baez, the consensus seems to be that Dylan was singing to his old folk-singer friend Paul Clayton who had shared the trip across the American south during which Dylan had written ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. The pair had parted company because Clayton’s amphetamine abuse had become intolerable (though Dylan was to set the bar high in the same respect himself). Later, during the infamous 1966 world tour, Dylan heard that Clayton had killed himself.
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.
For me, no song in Dylan’s long career has ever come close to the twilight imagery of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’:
Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.
I am moved to tears even now when I hear the line ‘And but for the sky there are no fences facing’ or visualise that beach beneath the diamond sky whose dancer – one hand waving free – is silhouetted by the sea.
The oldest song on the album, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ had been roughed out a year before during a road trip through the south. His first ideas were scribbled down after a night in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, before the song was finished off in New York.
The song’s poetry is enhanced on the album recording by Bruce Langhorne’s delicate electric guitar. Langhorne – whose giant Turkish tambourine inspired the song (according to Dylan himself, in his sleeve notes for Biograph) – later revealed how easily things came together during the Bringing It All Back Home sessions: ‘Some of those numbers were barely rehearsed. Some were done in one or two takes.’
‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ became Dylan’s first number 1 radio hit when covered by the Byrds in April 1965. Their densely harmonized version, drenched in Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker guitar, is often cited as the beginning of folk rock.
With the exception of ‘Gates of Eden’, ‘It’s Alright, Ma,’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man,’ Dylan wrote the bulk of the songs on Bringing It All Back Home between the end of November 1964 and the second week in January 1965. There were just three recording sessions. On 13 January 1965, Dylan entered Studio A at Columbia, and during a three-hour session with Tom Wilson producing, recorded 14 songs. On the first day Dylan recorded alone, accompanying himself, as he had done for his previous albums, on guitar, piano and harmonica.
None of the versions recorded that day were used on Bringing It All Back Home, and only five have so far been officially released. ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ was included on Biograph, and an acoustic ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Farewell Angelina’ appeared on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. With all the first day’s takes subsequently discarded, clearly Dylan was seeking something new. He found that something during the next two days’ recordings.
For the second session, on 14 January, Dylan and producer Tom Wilson assembled a group of musicians to record with Dylan. On hand were: Al Gorgoni (guitar), Kenneth Rankin (guitar), Bruce Langhorne (guitar), Joseph Macho Jr. (bass), William E. Lee (bass), Bobby Gregg (drums), Paul Griffin (piano), John Sebastian (bass) and John Boone (bass). Eight songs were recorded that day. Five of them – ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Outlaw Blues’, ‘She Belongs To Me’, and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ – found a place on the album.
A day later, the 15 January session was momentous, with Dylan recording ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘On the Road Again’, ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, ‘Gates of Eden’, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ just as they appear on the album.
In Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, Greil Marcus, discussing the second side of Bringing It All Back Home, wrote:
There was no laughter on the other side of the album. There, except for ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ where single backing instruments were so subtle they seemed more like emanations from the songs than pieces added to them, it was Bob Dylan as he had always been, alone, with his guitar and harmonica. The side comprised four long songs, all of which promised they would never get near Top 40 radio – and they were so self-evidently full of meaning, so striking, so important, so elegant and so beautiful that their quiet drowned out the noise of the songs on the other side.
While we listened to the songs, there was much to study on the LP sleeve. Far removed from the earlier folk album covers, at the time it was all quite mysterious, but through the years the pieces of the puzzle have been explained. The album’s cover, photographed by Daniel Kramer with an edge-softened lens, featured Sally Grossman (wife of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman) lounging in a red trouser suit in front of an impressive fire surround. Artefacts are scattered around the room, including LPs by The Impressions, Robert Johnson, Ravi Shankar, Lotte Lenya (Berlin Songs by Kurt Weill), and folk singer Eric Von Schmidt.
Just visible behind Sally Grossman is the cover of Another Side of Bob Dylan; under her right arm is a copy of Time magazine with President Lyndon Johnson on the cover. Leaning against the table is a fallout shelter sign while above the fireplace is a copy of a magazine devoted to Beat Generation poetry. In the foreground Dylan sits holding his cat. he’s wearing cuff-links that were a gift from Joan Baez (referenced in her 1975 song ‘Diamonds and Rust’.
There was more to study on the back of the LP sleeve. Monochrome photos included shots of Dylan with Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg wearing a white top hat, and of Dylan having his head massaged by the film-maker and performance artist Barbara Rubin. Alongside these images is another of the prose poems which Dylan had included on earlier LPs. It begins:
i’m standing there watching the parade/
feeling combination of sleepy john estes.
jayne mansfield. humphry bogart/morti-
mer snerd. murph the surf and so forth/
Later, he writes that his songs are
written with the kettledrum
in mind/a touch of any anxious colour. un-
mentionable. obvious. . . . i have
given up at making any attempt at perfection/
It’s all entirely zany, stream-of-conciousness:
the fact that the white house is filled with
leaders that’ve never been t’ the apollo
theater amazes me. why allen ginsberg was
not chosen t’ read poetry at the inauguration
boggles my mind/if someone thinks norman
mailer is more important than hank williams
that’s fine. i have no arguments an’ i
never drink milk. i would rather model har-
monica holders than discuss aztec anthropology/
english literature. or history of the united
nations. i accept chaos. I am not sure whether
it accepts me. i know there’re some people terrified
of the bomb. but there are other people terrified
t’ be seen carrying a modern screen magazine.
experience teaches that silence terrifies people
the most . . . i am convinced that all souls have
some superior t’ deal with/like the school
system, an invisible circle of which no one
can think without consulting someone/in the
face of this, responsibility/security, success
mean absolutely nothing. . . i would not want
t’ be bach. mozart. tolstoy. joe hill. gertrude
stein or james dean/they are all dead. the
Great books’ve been written. the Great sayings
have all been said/I am about t’ sketch You
a picture of what goes on around here some-
times. though I don’t understand too well
myself what’s really happening.
He goes on:
a song is
anything that can walk by itself/i am called
a songwriter. a poem is a naked person . . . some
people say that i am a poet
It’s obvious now that Bringing It All Back Home was a transitional album, one where Dylan was beginning to see how long-form poetics might fit into the pop, soul, and rock music that he now found more interesting, more challenging than folk. The Beatles were having a big influence on him (and vice versa): it seems truly remarkable that in less than two years the twin axes of rock music produced Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965), Highway 61 Revisited (August 65), Rubber Soul (December 65), Blonde on Blonde (May 1966), Revolver (August 66), and Sgt Pepper (June 1967).
An amazing time to be alive, and young; to believe that ‘But for the sky there are no fences facing’.
Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
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.
Bringing It All Back Home covered
Some of the best cover versions of songs – and outtakes – from Bringing It All Back Home.
Tim O’Brien: Subterranean Homesick Blues
Neil Finn’s Pajama Club: She Belongs To Me
The Specials: Maggie’s Farm
Tim O’Brien: Maggie’s Farm
Jackson Browne: Love Minus Zero No Limit
White Stripes: Outlaw Blues
Bob Dylan: On the Road Again (a song never covered)
John Bull and the Bandits: Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream
Roger McGuinn: Mr Tambourine Man
Julie Felix: Gates of Eden
Roger McGuinn: It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Them with Van Morrison: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Joan Baez: Farewell Angelina
Fairport Convention – Si Tu Dois Partir (If You Gotta Go, Go Now)
Nico: I’ ll Keep It With Mine