This week’s Dusting ‘Em Off circles back to August 8th, 1964, when Bob Dylan released Another Side of Bob Dylan, his fourth studio album, which deviated from the more socially conscious style he trademarked previously on The Times They Are A-Changin’. Today, veteran music writer Allen Rabinowitz celebrates the album’s 50th anniversary by discussing why it’s his most underrated work to date.
It’s only in retrospect that you become aware of a great change. Only when the dust has cleared does the reality of what’s just occurred become obvious.
The lucky ones might intuit the coming change in advance and prepare for the cataclysm soon to follow, but they are rare. For the average person, the alterations being wrought are at first subtle and then overwhelming. What had come before is done, what’s ahead might be frightening, but also welcome. It’s the shock of the new, the journey into the great unknown led by a guide only one step ahead, equally clueless of what to expect but brave enough at heart to deal with the unknown prospects coming into view.
In a previous album, Bob Dylan prophesized—or to some ears, warned—that the times were a changin’. As the unelected leader of a generation building a reputation for following its own muses and seeking to change the world, his words were siren calls to the children of the land of plenty to not listen to the dogmas of the past but to become active in creating a world unlike that which had been before.
But before Dylan took the lead in the Reinvention of the Rock & Roll Song, he recorded his most underrated album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. Fueled by several bottles of Beaujolais and a sheaf of songs that were screaming to be recorded, he entered Columbia Records Studio A in New York on June 9, 1964, and in one massive session that lasted until the wee hours of morning recorded 14 songs reflecting a more personal, more poetic vision of the times and the world around him. With producer Tom Wilson in the control room directing the session, Dylan played guitar, piano, and harmonica. Although Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a fellow folksinger, was scheduled to sing on a tune, Dylan did all the vocals. By the time Dylan recorded what was ultimately the master take of “My Back Pages”, it was 1:30 in the morning.
In two months, Columbia released 11 of these songs on August 8, 1964, as his fourth album for the label. Three songs were ultimately rejected: “Denise Denise”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “Mama, You Been on My Mind”. However, the other songs were a remarkable collection. Each one was a view into Dylan’s thoughts, a sketchbook into the forthcoming Brave New World that was forming. The compositions were quite different than those that had been recorded previously, less socially conscious and more inner directed: tales of the difficulty of maintaining a romantic relationship; songs where the words were of a more mystical bent; and more surprisingly, the troubadour’s hard edge was now somewhat blunted to the point where Dylan actually yodels and laughs.
After being crowned the reluctant king of Folkie/Protest, Dylan began to rebel against the rebellion. Having met and shared an herbal communion with the Beatles, the two leading creative forces of the day each bent a little in each other’s direction—the Liverpudlians writing deeper, more introspective songs, and the boy from the North Country was resurrecting the rock and roll fury of his youth.
When a number of the songs made their debut at the 1964 edition of the venerable Newport Folk Festival, it initiated a round of controversy that foreshadowed the firestorm that would ensue the following year when Dylan would plug his guitar into an outlet and “Go electric.” That set—backed by members of the Butterfield Blues Band–would have the force of a nuclear blast, shattering the established interpretation of the role of “pop” music. While this was but a cherry bomb explosion compared to the Hiroshima soon to follow, it nonetheless raised the hackles of folk music purists.
In an open letter to Dylan, printed in the November 1964 issue of the influential folkie publication Sing Out!, editor Irwin Silber beseeched folk music’s wonder boy to return to his old self, rather than relate to “…a handful of cronies behind the scene,” to instead concentrate on “[T]he rest of us out front.” In his heartfelt missive, Silber claims Dylan has “somehow lost touch with people” and had become intoxicated with “the paraphernalia of fame.”
Silber brings out how Dylan has alienated a number of influential tastemakers who already resented Dylan’s quick rise from the “basket houses” of his early days in Greenwich Village to being profiled and/or quoted in the top mass market publications from Time to Cavalier, from The Saturday Evening Post to Mademoiselle. Silber mentions Dylan’s affection for James Dean and how “that awful potential for self-destruction which lies hidden in all of us and which can emerge so easily and so uninvited.”
For all his concern for Dylan’s well-being, Silber missed the point. While the letter wasn’t published until Another Side of Bob Dylan was already four months into its release, the album could be seen as the response to his warnings and predictions.
Particularly on “It Ain’t Me Babe”, a plea against believing the mythology that others force upon their loves—whether romantic or spiritual—to always be the idealized figure, the perfect person. Stating that the would-be lover is seeking “Someone who will die for you and more” and “A lover for your life and nothing more,” Dylan’s reply is “It ain’t me Babe … It ain’t me you’re looking for”: a not so subtle or diplomatic way of saying goodbye, get lost, leave me alone. This is not the last time Dylan would tell others to kiss off and that he was whoever he wanted to be—a declaration of independence where he demands to pursue happiness on his own terms.
The story persists that the “No, No, No” refrain on “It Ain’t Me Babe” is either a satire of or a tribute to The Beatles “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” chorus on “She Loves You”. Given the respect that he has long held for the Fab Four, Dylan was probably showing a sense of humor he previously rarely displayed.
Along with The Beatles, 19th century French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud also had a profound influence on these new songs. In many ways, Rimbaud was the Dylan of his time without Dylan’s remarkable staying power or gift for reinvention. A precocious talent and the rage of Paris at an early age, his abuse of drink, drugs, and people led to an early death. His impact on Another Side of Bob Dylan is most evident on “Chimes of Freedom”. A story of travelers seeking refuge from a storm, the singer compares the lightning strikes and crashing thunder to the actions of those fighting oppression wherever it’s found. “Chimes of Freedom” with its subtext of sympathy for the downtrodden was called by Paul Williams, a founding father of rock criticism, Dylan’s Sermon on the Mount. Although the subject matter was standard for folk music, never had any folksinger used such colorful and evocative language to tell the tale.
Like “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “My Back Pages” is a classic Dylan declaration of individuality in which he quashes the expectations of others on whom and what he should be labeled. It can be interpreted as a kiss-off to the doctrinaire political types who want the old Folkie Bob to return and demolish this new incarnation. Although he told write Nat Hentoff in an interview for Playboy that Another Side of Bob Dylan contained “No finger pointing songs,” “My Back Pages” with a chorus stating “I was so much older then/ I’m younger than that now” is a putdown of those who are tied tightly to their beliefs and are unable to see other sides to issues and problems. He’s now more open to new experiences and solutions, more youthful in a search for truth than those who have pat, politically approved answers for every question.
Along with an absence of overtly political songs, Another Side of Bob Dylan was a new look at the dilemma of Male-Female Relationships and the vicissitudes of romance. In the lead track, “All I Really Want To Do”, the narrator lists a litany of things he doesn’t want out of the relationship: “I ain’t lookin’ to block you up/ Shock or knock or lock you up/ Analyze you, categorize you/ Finalize you or advertise you…” In fact, all he wants to do is be friends. Though the Sensitive Male was still a child, Dylan provided a script for him to follow once he started courting.
Also on side one, “Spanish Harlem Incident” is about lust, passion, and desire of the most animal kind. The dancing gypsy girl on the hot sidewalks of New York is a temptress with flashing eyes and diamond teeth whose dance promises to unlock the secrets of the universe to the narrator.
The break up with Suze Rotolo (the woman clinging to Bob’s arm on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) was the subject of several songs. The eight-minute “Ballad in Plain D” is a blow-by-blow account of how the relationship ended, complete with Dylan’s putdown of Rotolo’s mother and “parasite sister.” Although he does shoulder a share of the blame, he still believes himself to be the wronged person in the violent verbal war that finally ends it all.
“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” on side two is the song to listen to if you’re a man involved in the difficult task of trying to make sense of the confusing aspects of male-female relationships. On the one hand, the woman is as excited about the romantic prospects of the evening, only to become anonymous with the morning light. “And if anybody asks you/ Is it easy to forget/ I say it’s easily done/ You just pick anyone/ And pretend like you never have met.” If a friend is suffering through such a breakup, it’s best to advise him to play this tune on repeat until the pain subsides.
Some of the album’s songs hearken back to an earlier phase of Dylan’s career, primarily “I Shall Be Free No. 10”, a talking blues as well as the paranoid shaggy dog tale “Motorpsycho Nitemare”, which manages to name-check Fidel Castro, La Dolce Vita, Psycho, and every traveling salesman story ever told. Dylan’s piano styling is featured on “Black Crow Blues”, a classic 12-bar blues. “To Ramona”, a Spanish-flavored number, is another song of a love doomed before it can really begin.
Though the album eventually was certified gold for sales, its highest chart position was No. 43. The impact, however, would far exceed its sales. Although he despised and disparaged the term, the new genre took on the tag “Folk Rock” and Dylan was once again a reluctant leader.
The number and variety of artists who recorded songs from Another Side of Bob Dylan is astounding. The Byrds career took off with their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” (a session outtake) as well as subsequent recordings of “My Back Pages”, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “All I Really Want to Do”, and “Chimes of Freedom”. “It Ain’t Me Babe” was a No. 1 hit for The Turtles. The list of artists includes such luminaries as Dion, Cher, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Osborne, Nancy Sinatra, and Warren Zevon. “Chimes of Freedom” was the title chosen by Amnesty International for a collection of musicians’ interpretations of the Dylan catalog to mark the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When Columbia Records celebrated 30 years of Dylan recording with an all-star gathering at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1992, such headliners as Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, and George Harrison joined Dylan on stage to close out the night’s festivities with “My Back Pages”.
Within two years of Another Side of Bob Dylan, Dylan would release three albums that changed the course of songwriting forever: Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). It’s doubtful that a Greatest Album List exists without one — if not all three — of these titles on it. The paradigm had shifted; songs had to do more than just rhyme. The lyrics had to mean something, tell a story, or express the songwriter’s deepest feelings in a language that rivaled the great poets of any era.
Of course, people still wrote stupid novelty songs that became hits, teary romantic ballads were still beloved, and even Dylan rhymed “moon” with “June,” but make no mistake, things had changed. Although overlooked by many 50 years upon its release, today we recognize Another Side of Bob Dylan as a groundbreaking effort. Imagine what Dylan might have accomplished with a few more hours in the studio and several additional bottles of Beaujolais.