Bringing It All Back Home is Bob Dylan’s first masterpiece, notably it’s also his first album to make it into the Billboard Top 10 Albums chart. The first notes from the electric guitar in the introduction to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are an immediate declaration of intent, separating Bringing It All Back Home from the folk music that had comprised Dylan’s career up to that point. Structurally, the album is divided into two halves with side one featuring Bob Dylan backed by a rock band and an acoustic side two. Lyrically, the album continues on from Another Side Of Bob Dylan in eschewing the protest and socially conscious songs of his early albums and moving towards the more personal and sometimes surreal.
Bringing It All Back Home was also the first Bob Dylan album that I bought, after reading about it in some random “Greatest Albums Of All Time” list or other when I was a teenager. At the time, the only familiarity I had with the album was the cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds and various earnest covers of “Maggie’s Farm” by angry young Brits with an aversion to Margaret Thatcher. However, from the first couple of lines of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” I was hooked. I still clearly remember thinking as the album progressed that it was like nothing that I had heard before and being transfixed by the change in tone once I turned the disc over.
Opening the album with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a bold move and seems almost intended to alienate the folk contingent of his audience. The song is clearly influenced by Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and moves at a rapid pace. So much so that Dylan’s delivery sounds considerably like a forerunner to hip hop. Lyrically the song has a stream of consciousness feel with a series of sometime surreal and often funny rhymes which are open to numerous interpretations.
Although the opening line appears to be a sly reference to LSD (“Johnny’s in the basement/Mixing up the medicine”), this is a passing point of reference in the song. The recurring themes in the song relate to police and surveillance (“The man in the trench coat/Badge out, laid off”; “The phone’s tapped anyway/Maggie says that many say/They must bust in early May/Orders from the D.A.”; “Keep a clean nose/Watch the plain clothes”), as well as the occasional witty self-deprecating swipe at Dylan’s own persona (“I’m on the pavement/Thinking about the government”; “You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows”). All this said, finding a greater meaning in the song is a fool’s errand and lines lyrics like “Don’t want to be a bum/You better chew gum/The pump don’t work/’Cause the vandals took the handles” should just be enjoyed rather than analysed.
The ironically titled second track, “She Belongs To Me”, is a wistful song of devotion and obsession toward a talented woman. Opening with the nigh-on perfect line “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist/She don’t look back”, it was most likely written about Joan Baez who also wore an “Egyptian ring”. “She Belongs To Me” is filled with a pervasive sense of unworthiness, which is perfectly balanced with the most understated melody on the first side of the album.
“Maggie’s Farm” is a fantastic piece of song writing, taking great joy in the irony of essentially being a protest song against protest songs. The title is a pun on the McGhee’s Farm where Dylan performed as part of a civil rights protest. Dylan’s dissatisfaction with the expectations of the folk scene see him wishing for poor weather to stop him from having to perform (“Well, I wake in the morning/Fold my hands and pray for rain”), as well as highlighting the limitations it has on his creativity (“Well, I try my best/To be just like I am/But everybody wants you/To be just like them”). The song is an interesting foreshadowing of the controversy he was to spark at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 when he played with a band, opening the set with, of course, “Maggie’s Farm” to an almost equal mixture of boos and cheers. An event captured in Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home.
“Outlaw Blues” and “On The Road Again” similarly chart Dylan’s dissatisfaction with his career and lifestyle. Both of these tracks express a need for change through relocation. In “Outlaw Blues” it is to the other side of the world (“Oh, I wish I was on some/Australian mountain range/I got no reason to be there, but I/Imagine it would be some kind of change”) and in “On The Road Again” it is expressed through the details of frustrations left behind with each verse stating “Then you ask why I don’t live here” before the final verse concludes “Then you ask why I don’t live here/Honey, how come you don’t move?”.
When I first listened to this album around thirty years ago, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” was the track that, along with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, stuck with me the most. The song opens with a brief acoustic intro followed by a false start (“I was riding on the mayflower when I thought I spied some land”) that ends with uncontrollable laughter by Dylan and others in the studio, before quickly restarting with an electric guitar on the same line. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” ends the “electric” side on a high note about as far removed from the dour acoustic protest songs of his past as is possible. The title of the song makes a sardonic allusion to “Bob Dylan’s Dream” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, while musically and lyrically hitting a similar tone to “Motorpsycho Nitemare” from The Other Side Of Bob Dylan.
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” moves along at a rollicking pace and has the feel of a surreal stream of consciousness take on American history leaping backwards and forwards across 500 years. Although the song is filled with humorous, seemingly nonsense lyrics (The waitress he was handsome and he wore a powder blue cape/I ordered up some suzette, I said could you please make that crepe”), there is an underlying commentary on mythical, fictional, historical and contemporary America.
The concept of an electric side one and an acoustic side two may have come across as a bit of a gimmick, however, the songs on side two are exceptional. As a result of this, the contrast is one of the things that makes Bringing It All Back Home such a successful album.
A version of the first track on side two, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, was originally recorded for the Another Side Of Bob Dylan sessions, although as a result of errors in that version and the single day recording session for that album that version was rejected. The song is probably better known by The Byrds version which reached number one on the Billboard charts and gave the title to their debut album. The two versions were recorded five days apart with The Byrds single released two weeks after Bringing It All Back Home. Lyrically the song connects the creation of music (“Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me”) with psychedelia (“Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship/My senses have been stripped/May hands can’t feel to grip/My toes too numb to step/Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering”), although notably the version by The Byrds only contains the second of the four verses.
By virtue of being the B-side to “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Gates Of Eden” became one of the best known tracks on the album. Despite the surreal nature of the lyrics, “Gates Of Eden” clearly expresses the down side of the optimism of the mid 1960s (“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”). This insight into the false paradise of the “gates of Eden”, always brings to my mind the memorable description of the death of the optimism of the mid-1960s described by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas six years later:
“And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is another song possibly best known for its connection to The Byrds. After Peter Fonda was unable to use Dylan’s original version due to rights issues, the song was covered by Roger McGuinn for the Easy Rider soundtrack and accompanied one of the many iconic road scenes in the film.
Running through twenty verses over the song’s seven and a half minutes, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is probably Dylan’s most epic piece of song writing to this point. Although comparable to “Chimes Of Freedom”, the song is wider in scope with considerably more pointed lyrics. The track is a repudiation of much of contemporary American society and unlike many of his earlier tracks which focus on societal ills, it offers little in the way of any solution or hope. It is, however, filled with many of his memorable and oft-quoted lines (“While money doesn’t talk, it swears”; “Proves to warn that he not busy being born/Is busy dying”; “But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have to stand naked”).
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is a poignant ending to the album. A song with a pervading feel of sadness, which on the surface is about a break-up of a relationship long after the point where both parties were resigned to the fact that it was over. However, there is also a clear sense that the song is a farewell to his folk audience. Ending the acoustic side of the album with a song that begins “You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last/But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast”, it’s easy to interpret that Dylan is saying that the Bob Dylan his audience knew is gone and to take what they want from that history, but not to expect anything more from the folk singer that they knew.
Between March 1965 and May 1966, Bob Dylan was to release arguably his greatest three albums. Bringing It All Back Home marks the beginning of this astonishingly creative burst and is the first album where Dylan finds his voice as an artist, free from the restrictions and expectations of the folk scene. Incorporating elements of rock and pop into his distinctive style, as well as abandoning the earnest protest songs of his earlier albums, Bringing It All Back Home is the sound of Bob Dylan becoming Bob Dylan.
Favourite Track: “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Favourite Cover Version: Them – “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”