Counterbalance No. 73: Bob Dylan’s 'Bringing It All Back Home'
Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine. I’m on the pavement, thinking about Bob Dylan’s 1965 folk-rock breakthrough album. It’s the 73rd Most Acclaimed Album of All Time, and it’s this week’s Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: How many Bob Dylan albums must a man listen to before he's listened to all of them? Is it 42, Klinger? Is it? Because it seems like we've listened a lot of Dylan since we started this fun little experiment. That's a gross exaggeration, I know, but nonetheless, Mr. Zimmerman is again the subject of this week's discussion, and as I'm sure you are already aware, I'm less than thrilled.
Not that Bringing It All Back Home is a terrible record. It's got some good stuff on it—we as listeners get to see Dylan emerge from his protest past into a more abstract future and lyrically, most of it is fairly straightforward where the Dylanisms are concerned. I've just got this Dylan complex for which there is apparently no cure. Every time Bob starts mumbling into a mic, my heart starts racing and the room feels like it's getting smaller. So while I try to fight my way out of this box, maybe you can explain to me why we moved back past Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited to pick up another Dylan record—this one by the young, erstwhile folksinger version trying to break away from the overpowering, oppressive folk movement?
Klinger: I don't even know where to begin. First of all, Bob is anything but mumbling on this album. He's shouting his new found liberation from the rooftops, and as a result Bringing It All Back Home is nothing short of a joy to hear. Seriously, rediscovering this album this week has been one the high points of this whole Counterbalance project. I had forgotten just how much fun this album is, from the rapid-fire "Subterranean Homesick Blues" through the rapturous "Mr. Tambourine Man" and onward to the incandescent, bittersweet "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". Yes, he's in the process of fully separating himself from the dogma of the folk movement—and he had already dissociated himself from the protest sounds by the time of Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964—and the result is a songwriter who has found an entirely new footing, leaving his contemporaries in the dust.
I think it's hard to overstate what a sea change this album represents in rock history. Forget the fact that he "went electric"—in this context, plugging in is as much a metaphor for Dylan's invigoration as it is a physical act. Plus, there's an obvious joy he's taking with wordplay and storytelling that makes this one of the funniest albums in the entire canon, and one of the funniest albums in all of rock. "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" alone sees to that, but there are great lines throughout the entire first side that still make me chuckle even after years of listening. Honestly, Mendelsohn, I know you have some weird blind spot where Bob is concerned, but I really must suggest that you somehow listened to this album incorrectly. Were you watching TV at the same time? Eating especially crunchy chips? I am baffled, frankly.
Mendelsohn: I get all that. But you know how certain things become expected of you over time? Like maybe you get wrapped up in some intellectual exercise and you take a position, but after a while it starts to wear on you a little bit? And maybe you start to see cracks in the facade and you start to question your allegiance to this idea? And suddenly you realize you've been wrong all along? I think Dylan captures that idea pretty well on this record. And it's something that I wish I too could experience—maybe even in regard to my inability to love and understand Dylan. But, since I'm not a flip-flopper—and once my moral compass finds its point nothing will sway me from the path. I fear I will never feel the luxury of going back on something I stand firm upon.
What do you want from me, Klinger? Do you want me to revel in the fact that this record possibly revolutionized the way artists thought about and wrote music? Do you want me to tick off points of admiration for the word play and social commentary in songs like "Maggie's Farm" and "On the Road Again"? Or maybe I should just say something like, "This is the most succinct album Bob Dylan has ever created, straddling the line between the past and the future as he forcibly pulls the rest of the world in to the realm of his abstract thought by sheer force of will and finely crafted melody?" I'd bet you'd like that.
Klinger: Well, it wouldn't be wrong. But far be it from me (or Bob Dylan) to try to disabuse of your steadfast notions, even if I'm beginning to think that at this point you're just being stubborn. At this point, I've pretty much come to the conclusion that Bringing It All Back Home is my favorite Bob Dylan album. According to the critical consensus that is the Great List, it's currently considered the junior partner in Dylan's 1965-66 triptych—compared to Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Bringing It All Back Home is apparently thought of as a good start. But to my ears (which have been listening to all three of these albums for 25 years), this one has best maintained its freshness. The two later LPs sound to me like a guy who's responding to his naysayers, first with rage, then with resignation. Bringing It All Back Home comes from a place of pure spontaneous invention, as if it never occurred to him that he was poking a hornets’ nest by incorporating rock and roll into his sound.
But that's exactly what he did. And the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Bringing It All Back Home came out in March 1965. Dylan played the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. I know that culture moved a lot slower back then, but you can't tell me that at least part of that audience wasn't aware that Bob was heading in a new direction. To quote Lisa Simpson, "Why would they come to our concert just to boo?" But I suppose that's part of the Dylan mystique: From the moment he stopped being a folk purist, people have wanted him to serve their needs. And they care very deeply when he doesn't.
Mendelsohn: Dylan, whether he liked it or not, had become the voice of a generation. He and his music were expected to follow a charted course that could be easily understood and dissected by the masses. As an artist, that can feel terribly constraining, and he chose to do what most of us would have done: he charted his own course, followed his own muse, and, as you noted, it shows through on this album. For that fact alone, I find Bringing It All Back Home much more interesting than Blonde on Blonde. Highway 61 Revisited will always be my go-to Dylan record (if I had one) but that's due more to familiarity than anything else.
I also find myself wondering about the incidents leading up to, during, and following the Newport Folk Festival. Regardless of why the crowd was booing, I think Dylan saw an opportunity and used the incident to as a way to make the break from the folk movement final. If it motivated him to make the music on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, so much the better, but I think, more than anything it was just an excuse for him to stop associating with the folk movement and explore the creative depths he seems to be so gleefully mining on Bringing It All Back Home.
Klinger: Actually, I'm not sure that most people would necessarily chart their own course. I think most people, including (especially?) performers, crave the adulation that comes from giving the people what they want. If the crowd turns on you, you're more likely to retreat and stop messing with the formula. The great ones are the ones who can say that they're honestly not concerned and are willing to defy expectations. Looking at many of the artists who've made it onto the Great List, you see how that manifests itself. Dylan, Prince, Miles Davis, Neil Young—these are people who have never let the audience get between themselves and their muse. That can be infuriating, but in the end I'm glad they didn't play it safe.
I also think it's telling that the second side of Bringing It All Back Home is all acoustic, and it's got "Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)". These are two heavy duty "protest" tunes, even if they are somewhat more oblique that what he was writing a couple years prior. And I think they served as a way for Dylan to let the old guard down easy, gently weaning them off their old expectations.
But you know, it's interesting that you say that Bob did what most people would do. Maybe doubling down in the face of criticism is something you would do. Maybe you're actually a lot like Bob Dylan, Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn: Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. But then, it’s the masters that make the rules, for the wise men and the fools—I got nothing, Klinger, to live up to.