Bob Dylan Countdown #153: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”

It was, by all accounts, the result of one of the most chaotic recording sessions in rock history, one that rivals the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” in terms of whooping and hollering caught on tape. The song came from a take that the musicians assumed would be a demo, yet one Bob Dylan chose to release as a single that went to #2 despite the incendiary chorus of “Everybody must get stoned.” And it’s the opening track on Blonde On Blonde, one of the finest albums of rock music there will ever be.

But just what was Bob Dylan’s intent in writing and recording “Rainy Day Women #12 &35?” I guess that depends on your perspective.

As someone who doesn’t drink or take drugs and yet writes about music that was influenced at times by them, I’ve always dealt with the criticism that I can’t appreciate a song properly if I’m not feeling the effects of some mind-altering substance. While I don’t doubt that drugs can not only enhance the listening experience but also fuel the minds of those writing the songs, I think it’s an insult to great music to say that it’s only understandable by someone who is high.

As a result of this perspective, I’ve always heard “Rainy Day Women” more as a gentle ribbing of that lifestyle than as advocating for it. Dylan is writing the song from his own experience as an artist facing criticism and questioning at every turn, bewildered by the two-faced nature of it all (“They’ll stone you and then they’ll say, ‘good luck.'”) And yet his laments resonate with everybody who’s has even felt like they just can’t do anything right in school, at work, at home, wherever.

So what can you do about it? Using the double-meaning of the word “stoned” is a way that Dylan can hedge. He might be saying that getting high is the only sane reaction. Or he could be saying that he would feel better if he had some company in the perceived persecution.

How about evidence from the man himself? Well, he did say once in defense of this song, “I never have and never will write a ‘drug song.'” And yet, by all accounts, he insisted that all the performers in that legendary session, shall we say, partake before they could participate.

Again, it’s a matter of perspective. I know how I feel about it, and I’m likely not going to change your way of thinking with my argument. I will say that, no matter what Dylan intended, the satire is a bit too broad and rim-shot worthy to be considered one of his greatest lyrics. I actually focus on the ramshackle music when I listen, especially the tipsy horns of Charlie McCoy and Wayne Butler.

I’m guessing I’ll agree to disagree with you on the meaning of “Rainy Day Women #12 &35.” But we can all walk away from it smiling, one way or another.

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