Anniversary Records: Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home
by Chad Jewett
There’s a thick enough sediment of legend, myth, hyperbole, and praise layered over Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home that at times it can be hard enough to hear the record, let alone know what to think about it. There are the stories we’ve all heard: during an especially charged and needling performance of album-highlight “Maggie’s Farm” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger, legendary folk-singer, activist, and otherwise a bastion of progressivism, threatened to cut the power, so apparently caustic and overwhelming was the proto-punk blues that Dylan and the Butterfield Blues Band were cooking up (though every single aspect of the story has been disputed). And indeed, that performance still thrills, still sounds a decade ahead of its time as one of the band members shouts “Let’s go!” before the rest of the group leaps into the song’s jangling, ramshackle forward thrust. The recording makes you wonder if Iggy Pop or The MC5 had gotten a hold of a bootleg some time in ’65.
Then there’s the now-legendary reaction from the larger folk community to Bringing It All Back Home, the first of a trilogy of electrified records that didn’t forsake folk music so much as they turned away from strict literalism. There remain the moments in Martin Scorsese’s excellent 2005 documentary No Direction Home where more than one veteran of the Greenwich Village folk generation still bemoans Dylan’s turn from “protest” songs to the more imagistic, free-verse streams that began with the even better Another Side of Bob Dylan and reached a fevered Beat-poet crescendo on Home. Dylan, riding a hot streak that made every word from his mouth sound brilliant, offered an easy rejoinder: “All I do is protest.” Indeed, fifty years later, it’s hard to see what anyone was so upset about; if little of “Maggie’s Farm” or “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” would announce itself as part of a new folk repertoire or fit onto a painted sign (even though the latter was the last of several wry, rambling blues numbers spanning from 1962 onward), the album was nevertheless pointed in its critique of a conservative, ultra-capitalist, deeply cynical Cold War America.
The approach of Bringing It All Back Home was simply more oblique, interested in the freedom that comes from making words do new things. For Dylan, the protest seemed to be against the cold delimitations of meaning that weren’t as far from real world authoritarianism as some might think. Freeing words so the rest might follow. The language of the indelible “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is deeply modernist, practically stream-of-consciousness in its rhythmic pitching of language, yet you can hear a righteous bite in the song’s delivery that hardly wavers from the more solidly activist passages of They Times They Are A-Changin’. There’s little room to question the withering pointedness of lines like “Money doesn’t talk, it swears” and “Bent out of shape from society’s pliers” as the twenty-three (!) year old singer-songwriter spools skeins of language into a hissing pile.
In its sharpest, most energized passages, Bringing It All Back Home plays like an abstract expressionist’s idea of punk rock. Fifty years have not dulled the savory punch of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, a three-verse nonsense poem set to a barbed scrap of blues, all tense wires of lead guitar and choppy chords that gnaw at the very far edges of headphones. The song seems deeply hopped up on speed or some other strange drug, but its paranoia feels real, a tart mix of street-wisdom and outsider survivalism: “The phone’s tapped anyway…” “Look out kid, don’t matter what you did”, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” If Dylan dispensed with more transparent, legible forms of political resistance, there is nevertheless a very tangible dispatch on power and dissent underneath the Dadaism of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Remember that another word for “Subterranean” is “Underground” – where both Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and a generation’s worth of activists were forced. “Maggie’s Farm”, delivered at a more measured but also more densely pugilistic pace in its studio form, does similar work, and is even more overt in its suspicion of power, money, and “respectability”.
Yet Bringing It All Back Home is also largely an intimate, even gentle album. There is still enchantment to be found in the twilit lushness of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, one of Dylan’s finest sustained dispatches of weary, intimate poetry all set to just an acoustic strum, haloed by Bruce Langhorne’s willowy lead and occasional chimes of harmonica. There is striking, painterly detail in lines like “Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind / Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves / The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach / Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.” Bob Dylan had already given us a lovely glimpse into the romanticism hiding behind his righteous indignation and witty sharpness – the love songs on Another Side are serious achievements. Yet “Mr. Tambourine Man” remains singular and deeply moving for the ways in which it explores the interiority of the singer-songwriter, and how trying it apparently was to be Bob Dylan in 1964. The song plays like a more impressionistic, dream-like sequel to “My Back Pages”, Dylan’s first try at a less guarded form of autobiography. Bringing It All Back Home has aged unevenly, but “Mr. Tambourine Man” maintains its ethereal beauty.
Beyond the tent-pole essentials of the album – “Maggie’s Farm”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” – Bringing It All Back Home ebbs and flows. For every transcendent love song like the breezy, pastoral country lilt of “She Belongs To Me” there are old ideas like the jaunty but low-calorie “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” that are on their last legs. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” retains its loose, jangling charm but feels like a warm-up for the more confident proto-alt-country lushness that would define Blonde On Blonde. Zoom out and you realize that Bringing It All Back Home is actually a transitional record, one where Dylan was beginning to see how the long-form poetics and romanticist snapshots of Another Side might fit into the pop, soul, and rock music that the singer clearly found more interesting, less expected.
The months surrounding Home overlapped with Dylan’s interaction with The Beatles, and, through the long view of history, it’s tempting to see the two parties beginning to trade ideas. The Beatles reached for some of Dylan’s folk mysticism for their own tangibly transitional Rubber Soul. Dylan, for his part, was still perfecting the rock/folk/country/soul math that he would get just right on his next two albums – Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. Added up, Dylan’s trio of LPs would be recorded in the span of fourteen months – an artistic explosion to match Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury to Light In August run, or the non-stop, nearly Teflon productivity of Kanye West through My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — or indeed The Beatles’ own Help! to Sgt. Pepper’s sprint. Listened to in that context, Bringing It All Back Home becomes one of the most fascinating first drafts in music history.