CK Retro Review: Another Side Of Bob DylanPosted: May 20, 2013
Another Side Of Bob Dylan, released in 1964, owns a bit of an awkward spot in the Dylan catalog, wedged in between the protest folk of his first few albums and the incendiary shift to electric music in the middle of the decade. Yet the album contains several indisputable classics and a few more that probably deserve a better shake than they’ve been given over the years. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “I Shall Be Free No. 10”- Dylan comes off a little thin-skinned in the opening verse as he seems to be trying to shrug off the impact that his music makes on people. Things don’t really get a whole lot better from there, leaving this one as little more than a footnote in the man’s career.
10. “Black Crow Blues”- As we progress throughout Bob’s catalog, we’ll see a number of instances where his off-kilter, intuitive piano style adds great value to his songs. This is one of the first examples of that phenomenon, as an otherwise nondescript blues vamp is brought to life by the saloon-like stomp he conjures on the ivories.
9. “Motorsycho Nightmare”- Dylan plays a smart-mouthed rake in this comic escapade with such aplomb that you get the feeling that it wasn’t too out of character for him. The jokes about taking showers with a girl who looks like actor Tony Perkins were topical enough at the time; the jokes about Fidel Castro and his beard show that Bob wasn’t afraid of good-naturedly riling up Middle America.
8. “Spanish Harlem Incident”- One of the things that distinguishes Another Side Of Bob Dylan is that the songwriting takes a turn toward the poetic on several songs. This fun, short ode to a captivating “Gypsy gal” is strikingly vivid; Dylan’s expert descriptions allow you to see this girl in your mind’s eye as you listen and be just as entranced as the narrator by her “wildcat charms.” And Bob’s tripping wordplay is effortlessly nimble. Consider, for just one shining example: “The night is pitch black, come an’ make my/Pale face fit into place, ah, please!”
7. “All I Really Want To Do”- Any song that gets taken to the charts by both The Byrds and Cher must be pretty malleable. It’s ironic that the cover versions work so well, since the song seems to be a personal effort by Dylan to advertise his overall lightening up. The protagonist promises to the object of his temporary affection that he’s not looking to simplify or classify her, categorize her or analyze her. It sounds like the treatment that a guy burdened with the label of spokesman for a generation would want for himself.
6. “I Don’t Believe You”- This clever, one-liner-filled complaint about a fickle female feels like a precursor to some of Dylan’s jaded yet wounded anti-love songs that enlivened the tail end of his electric period. Maybe that’s why he was able to resuscitate the song for incendiary performances of it with the Hawks, including the one that can be found on the Live 1966 disc of the Bootleg Series, which turned out to be the definitive version of the song.
5. “My Back Pages”- I think people might misread this track sometimes as Dylan’s self-criticism of his earlier work. What I think he’s trying to intimate with this song is that his point of view was changing, and the gray areas of the big picture were suddenly more germane to his writing than the “lies that life is black and white.” He brings that same sort of loose-limbed approach to his wordplay, stretching the syntax of lines well beyond their breaking point and creating words and phrases from out of thin air that end up making perfect sense. Plus, it has one of the most memorable refrains not just in Dylan’s career, but in rock history.
4. “Ballad In Plain D”- Perhaps the most unjustly maligned song in the Dylan catalog, perhaps because Bob himself regretted writing it. It’s my contention that his regret is not due to the song’s quality, which is first-rate, but rather due to the song’s nakedly autobiographical nature as a blow-by-blow retelling of the final hours of his relationship with Suze Rotolo, which included a physical scuffle with her sister Carla. Bob comes off like a jerk at times in the song, but he seems to be aware of that fact and is willing to show the truth warts and all. His regret for his own failings is just as genuine as his animosity toward the sister. It all builds slowly to a towering climax, the “timeless explosion of fantasy’s dream,” before the sad epilogue and one of Dylan’s most cryptically incisive closing lines: “Are birds free from the chains off the skyway?”
3. “To Ramona”- It’s rumored to be about Joan Baez, but Dylan strayed away from specifics so the song could resonate with many. (It provides an interesting compare and contrast with “Ballad In Plain D,” for sure.) This is one of the sadder songs in the Dylan ouevre, simply because it’s hard to imagine Ramona snapping out of this funk in which she is ensconced. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of depression, and Dylan’s weary vocal is perfectly on-point, implying that hes can empathize with this girl and might even join her in the doldrums, but he’s never going to be able to save her.
2. “It Ain’t Me Babe”- When The Turtles turned this one into a hit, they sang the refrain in an almost taunting manner. Dylan’s reading is much more measured and matter-of-fact, as he simply relates all the ways in which he will never be able to live up to the demands of his former lover. The subtle genius of the song is the way that these demands escalate throughout until it becomes clear that “Babe” ain’t ever gonna be satisfied.
1. “Chimes Of Freedom”- Instead of singling out a specific cause to protest, Dylan rounds up practically every wounded soul on the planet and grants them a deux ex machina in the form of the titular bells to wipe away all their hurt. His descriptions of the storm in the verses contain imagery that makes the imaginary tumult seem spectacularly real. Then his roll call of those needing assistance, many of whom might be overlooked by the average person, builds in the refrains ‘til his final plea for the chimes to toll for “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” It’s one of the very best moments in Bob’s recorded career, coming in a song that ranks up there with his elite.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)