CK Retro Review: Another Side Of Bob Dylan

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com 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.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

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Bob Dylan Countdown #151: “All I Really Want To Do”

So who do you have in the battle of the Dylan cover versions? It was Cher vs. The Byrds in a tete-a-tete over “All I Really Want To Do,” the two disparate artists having duked it out in the charts in 1965. (For the record, Cher won easy in the U.S., but The Byrds had her number in the UK.) I’m going with Cher, because she captures the playfulness of the song; The Byrds’ version is too solemn by a half.

I know I’m going to sound like one of those annoying dudes who digs for autobiographical evidence in songs, but I’ve always heard “All I Really Want To Do” as Dylan’s gentle prodding of his fans and critics to just chill out and let him be the songwriter he wants to be. While it works on the surface level as a guy trying to cajole a girl that his intentions are pure, some of the lines seem like references to Bob’s public persona.

An example of some of the things the narrator’s not lookin’ to do:  “simplify you, classify you,” “analyze you, categorize you,” “define you or confine you,” “Or select you or dissect you/Or inspect you or reject you.” That sounds like the kind of treatment Dylan might want for himself. His last promise:  “I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me/See like me or be like me.” Perhaps a reminder to his fans to not follow leaders and watch their parking meters?

You also have to consider that “All I Really Want To Do” is the first song on Another Side Of Bob Dylan, an album designed to pull back from all the heavier stuff he had been doing, an album which contained a song with the line, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Throw in Dylan’s laughter during the song and his impromptu yodeling, and it all seems calculated to get everyone to lighten up.

Come to think of it, that’s probably what he’d tell me when he read that long-winded description. You can tell us all you want, Bob; it doesn’t mean we’re gonna listen.


Bob Dylan Countdown #180: “Spanish Harlem Incident”

Clocking in at just a shade over two minutes long, “Spanish Harlem Incident” is just a postage stamp of a song. Yet into that brief time period, Bob Dylan crams in so much rich imagery that it almost couldn’t afford to be any longer, lest listeners be completely overwhelmed by the results.

This is Dylan at the age of 23, in complete command of his poetic gifts. This stunning wordplay was unprecedented in his genre, whether you considered that genre to be folk or pop or rock or whatever. At this point in his career, he was already leaving all comparisons behind. Even The Beatles would need another two or three years before they shed all of their influences to create something never heard before. In that respect, Dylan got there first.

The encounter with the Gypsy gal in Spanish Harlem gives him the opportunity to unleash a torrent of descriptive words. It’s as if all of his senses have been inflamed by her exotic beauty and the world is exploding in front of him. Everything is flaming or flashing or rattling, assaulting the reality that he thought he knew before he met her.

“Spanish Harlem Incident”, found on Another Side Of Bob Dylan, could seem like showing off if the fancy verbage weren’t apropos to the story. Consider the lines,”The night is pitch black, come an’ make my/Pale face fit into place, ah, please.” Alliteration, assonance, and consonance jam-packed in two lines:  A poetry professor’s wet dream. And yet it expertly expresses how Dylan’s outsider character is feeling in this unfamiliar location.

Although this song is probably too short and slight to be considered among Dylan’s classics, it still indicates the stunning level of talent at which he was operating. He was in some seriously rarefied air way back then, and, nearly 50 years later, he’s still pretty lonely out there.