“Bringing It All Back Home” by Bob Dylan (1965)
Pinpointing the start of the “classic rock” era is purely subjective.
Some observers place the transition from early rock ‘n’ roll to a more enlightened form squarely on the shoulders of the Beatles, perhaps starting with their first recording session with George Martin in September 1962 or their February 1964 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The release of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” in the summer of ’64 gave early exposure to the potential of power chords and distorted lead guitar. The Rolling Stones came as close to anyone in perfecting the form with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in the spring of ’65.
Much of what distinguishes “classic rock” has to do with its presentation, evolving in emphasis from 45-RPM to 33 1/3. In that context, one long-player might be considered the first of the Classic Rock Era, which takes in roughly 15 years, from 1965 through the end of the ’70s.
Bob Dylan recorded his fifth album during a three-day blitz in January 1965 at Columbia Recording Studios in New York City. When “Bringing It All Back Home” hit the shelves on March 27, quite a few fans were puzzled at what appeared to be his abrupt switch from acoustic guitar to louder instruments: He’d gone electric.
That was only partially true. Dylan first recorded with an electric band in late 1962, but the resulting track, “Mixed Up Confusion,” disappeared quickly after Columbia Records released it as a single. And while the entire first side of “Bringing It All Back Home” is electric, Dylan returns to his familiar acoustic approach on Side Two.
But no matter how it’s presented, the music on Dylan’s first album of 1965 represents a major step forward in the maturation process of rock.
His lyrics had been progressing from relatively easy-to-digest protest songs to more personal and arcane matters, such as “To Ramona” on his fourth LP, “Another Side of Bob Dylan”:
The flowers of the city
Though breathlike, get deathlike at times
And there’s no use in tryin’
To deal with the dyin’
Though I cannot explain that in lines
On “Bringing It All Back Home,” Dylan ups the ante right off the bat. The opening track, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” opened a whole new world of arcane wordplay for rock-oriented songwriters, none of whom have yet to come up with anything matching this:
Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off
Look out, kid, it’s somethin’ you did
God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way, lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skip cap in the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten
Dylan has cited Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” as a stylistic antecedent, as Bob’s fast-paced delivery is sort of reminiscent of what Chuck did with his tune. But “Subterranean Homesick Blues” also sounds like a primordial form of what would become rap, albeit without the obligatory references to violence toward women.
Whatever the case, Columbia decided to release the song as a single, and it reached No. 39 to just barely give Dylan his first Top 40 hit.
“She Belongs to Me” seems like an easygoing love song, but Dylan weaves in more than a hint of contempt for the subject: “She’s a hypnotist collector, you are a walking antique.”
Dylan’s protest inclinations manifest themselves on “Maggie’s Farm,” this time with a few twists. The electric backing provides a rollicking backdrop to provide Dylan with some swagger as he expresses his defiance of oppression, and the lyrics, while obtuse, still resonate fully with listeners. Take the description of Maggie’s brother, for instance: “He hands you a nickel, he hands you a dime/He asks you with a grin if you’re havin’ a good time/Then he fines you every time you slam the door.” You’ve worked for that guy!
“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” actually is a love song, about Sara Lowndes, later Mrs. Robert Zimmerman. Rather than serving up the usual series of platitudes, Dylan describes his future wife through intriguing pieces of imagery:
The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of match sticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge
Dylan’s sense of humor comes to the forefront on the album’s next three songs, which close out the electric portion of the album. “Outlaw Blues” features a series of absurdist declarations – “I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like a Jesse James” – before he wraps up with a cogent protest of miscegenation:
I got a woman in Jackson, I ain’t gonna say her name
She’s a brown-skin woman, but I love her just the same
By the way, Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane band, the Great Society, covered “Outlaw Blues” with Grace singing about her love for a “brown-skinned man.” Perhaps it’s best that such performances were limited to the more open-minded audiences of the San Francisco area.
“On the Road” is Dylan at his funniest. Almost. How can you not grin when confronted with lyrics like:
Well, I wake up in the morning
There’s frogs inside my socks
Your mama, she’s a-hidin’
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearin’
A Napoleon Bonarparte mask
And so it continues for two-and-a-half minutes, with Dylan questioning why in the world he’d hang around such shenanigans.
But that’s merely a prelude for the six-and-a-half minutes of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” which begins, appropriately enough, with the backing band blowing its cue and Dylan cracking up laughing. What follows is a wholly amusing deconstruction of many of America’s ills, framed against a rapid-fire twisting of words and phrases to create some type of surreal, yet believable, netherworld:
I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land
I yelled for Captain Arab, I have yuh understand
Who came running to the deck, said, “Boys, forget the whale
Look on over yonder, cut the engines, change the sail”
The narrator’s adventures go on to include a stint in jail, an explosion at a restaurant, a visit to a bank – “They asked me for collateral, I pulled down my pants” – threats of physical violence from a patriot, and his eventual return to his ship:
I saw three ships a-sailin’
There were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck”
The acoustic side of “Bringing It All Back Home” dispenses with humor for a quartet of lengthy, thought-inspiring compositions. The first, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was covered in a truncated version by the Byrds that went to No. 1 later in 1965 and served as the template for what became known as folk-rock. Then there’s the version by William Shatner … that’s a classic of a completely different sort.
“Gates of Eden” is shrouded in mystery as far as lyrical meaning, combining plenty of Biblical allusions with modern imagery, most notably “the motorcycle black Madonna, two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver-studded phantom cause.” Perhaps the final verse best sums up the song’s intent:
At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden
“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is a strikingly foreboding composition that addresses the tensions ready to boil over in the mid-’60s:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Made everything from toy guns that sparks
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
Dylan counters such start portrayals with the figurative shrugging of shoulders: “But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life and life only,” which would seem to represent less of protest than resignation to inevitability.
“Bringing It All Back Home” closes with a diatribe against an unknown subject, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Speculation has run rampant over the years as to who Baby Blue might be, but Dylan has kept his mouth shut. The song remains one of his best-known and most-covered tunes, with Jerry Garcia singing it with the Grateful Dead off an on for the better part of 30 years.
Despite the electric/acoustic dichotomy, or perhaps because of it, “Bringing It All Back Home” became cracked the Top 10 for Dylan, peaking at No. 6 in the spring of 1965. By then, he was steeped in another project that would raise the rock music bar one more notch.
But that’s another story.