Tag Archives: Bringing It All Back Home

Song of the Week: “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” – Bob Dylan

With Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan singlehandedly changed the face of popular music. With the addition of electric instruments and a new lyrical language, Dylan was rewriting musical history as fast as he could churn out songs.  Each song was so forward thinking that the album’s impact has not diminished over time.  American History was at a turning point, and in terms of popular culture, Dylan was leading the charge.

On the album’s wildest track, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” Dylan goes even further: he takes on past American History.  Dylan takes the listener on a surrealistic and hilarious trip through America, with each situation getting more and more ridiculous.  It begins with the sail of the Mayflower and ends with the arrival of Columbus’ ships.  But this is no history lesson.  The shipmates on the Mayflower aren’t Pilgrims but rather a bunch of misfits and its captain is the fabled Captain Ahab from Moby Dick (titled here as Captain Arab.)  And as for Columbus, Dylan asks him why he doesn’t drive a truck and then offers him a simple “good luck”.

By bookending the song with these two pillars of American History, Dylan deconstructs our own view of history in his own bizarre image. Dylan may have sang “it’s easy to see that no much is really sacred” elsewhere on the album, and here he proves it.  In between, Dylan also pokes fun at other events.  He takes on the purchase of the island of Manhattan  (“Captain Arab he started, writing up some deeds, he said, “Let’s set up a fort, and start buying the place with beads”), the whaling for industry (“this cop comes down the street crazy as a loon, he throw us all in jail, for carryin’ harpoons”), Captain Kidd as a wanted pirate in New York City (They asked me my name, and I said, “Captain Kidd”, they believed me but, they wanted to know, what exactly that I did).  Could Dylan be referencing France’s aid during the Revolutionary War and then subsequent War of 1812, when he meets a French girl who invites him up to her house, only to eventually throw him out?

Current events are also met with cynicism and hilarity as well.  Naturally, protesters are skewered when he jumps in a protest line and asks if he’s not late.  The British Invasion also gets similar treatment when a random Englishmen says, “Fab!” to him.

For all the sly (and not-so sly) references littering the song, it stands as Dylan’s most humorous outing. The song even begins with a false start where Dylan and producer Tom Wilson are heard laughing for a good 30 seconds, before starting again. Some of the other weird things things that happen to him include getting knocked over by a bowling ball, narrowly escaping an exploding kitchen and taking a parking ticket off of his ship.

“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is one of Dylan’s forgotten gems.  I’ve never seen it mentioned among his greatest songs, and Dylan himself hasn’t played the song since the late 1980s.  But it totally fits in the spirit of Dylan circa 1965 – irreverent, funny and intelligent.

Album of the Week: “Bringing It Back Home” – Bob Dylan

To kick off the “Album of the Week”, I thought I’d start with one of the greatest albums of time, and what is perhaps my favorite record.

“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” was the song that caught my attention as a 14 year-old kid.  My older brother had picked me up from school and popped a cassette of Bringing It All Back Home.  “Check this out,” He said pressing the fast-forward button.  “This song is hilarious.”

I rolled my eyes. Not that I didn’t like Dylan, but Pete was playing him every time he picked me up.  The song seemed like any other Dylan song to me. “Did you hear that?” Pete asked pressing the rewind button.

“Hear what?” I demanded.

Pete hit the play button and Dylan’s voice came through:

Just then the whole kitchen exploded from boiling fat. Food was flying everywhere, I left without my hat.

It might have been the funniest line I had ever heard in a rock song. It was so silly, and cinematic. It was easy to imagine a kitchen exploding, and the narrator running for his life, like a scene right out of Ghostbusters.

Once the song was over, I asked Pete to replay the song one more time, and found myself engrossed and laughing at almost everything Dylan sang. It’s a wonder that Pete’s rewind button didn’t break that day.  We barely made it 20 seconds without hitting the button trying to figure out what exactly was going on. From one stanza to the next, Dylan’s “dream” gets wilder and funnier. And it just keeps going.

At this point, I’ve listened to “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” hundreds of times, and each time it has never failed to make me laugh. As a teenager, its absurdity reeled me in.  In college, it was the surrealistic imagery.  Now, it’s the historical jokes and how Dylan re-writes American History.

And that is the essence of Bringing It Back Home. Rock music was split into the two distinct eras once the album was released. After Bringing It All Back Home, rock lyrics no longer had to be curtailed specifically for the music. Topics were as wide open, as anyone’s imagination. Everyone noticed the shift.  Even the Beatles, who were the biggest celebrities in the world at the time, realized that they had to change their approach.

Being groundbreaking only tells part of the story of Bringing It All Back Home, though.  More so than any other Dylan album, it showcases every facet of his personality.  It’s funny (“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream)”, heartfelt (Love Minus Zero/No Limit”), angry (“Maggie’s Farm”) and socially aware (“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”).

If there is a theme to the album, it’s Dylan as the outsider ready to fire back at his detractors and critics. He’s slaving away during “Maggie’s Farm”, but ready to tell off Ma, Pa and whoever else gets in his way.  His friends end up in jail in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and goes on a mission to rescue them, only to abandon them later.  On “Outlaw Blues” he “looks like Robert Ford, but feels like Jesse James” and hides behind his dark sunglasses.  “Don’t ask me nothing about nothing,” He threatens later in the song, “I just might tell you the truth.”

Dylan would go on to make better albums, but none showed the artistic leap forward that Bringing It All Back Home did.  After this Dylan’s genius was already certified, this is the album where he truly showed what he was made of.

 

23: The Age of Rock Genius?

I recently turned 30. Somebody asked me if I felt any different, or expected to have a crisis of age.  I don’t feel any different, yet.  If somebody had asked me the same question when I turned 23, I might have answered differently.

Music has always defined much of my life – whether its through albums obsess over, songs I know by heart, or random bits of music trivia.  Because of this, turning 23 was a turning point. 23 was the age when many of my idols made albums that not only defined them, but in some cases rock and roll altogether.

Some of these artists already had established careers, and reached a turning point.  Bob Dylan recorded Bringing it All Back Home at the age of 23 – an album which is a watershed moment in not only his career, but was pivotal in folk and rock. Dylan himself has said that he caught lightning in a bottle during that period, and even now wouldn’t be able to write a song like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” if he tried.  Similarly, Van Morrison coming off of the success of Them, recorded his immortal and beautiful Astral Weeks, an album that unfolds with each subsequent listen.  Paul McCartney was also 23 when The Beatles recorded Revolver, and much of Sergeant Pepper. 23 was also the age when Brian Wilson created The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which might arguably be the best straight-up pop album ever made.  And who can forget Phil Spector’s beloved Christmas album A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, which released a month shy of his 24th birthday?

For others, 23 was the beginning of a long illustrious career.  Elvis Costello’s debut My Aim Is True, was released in 1977 the year he turned 23.  Though Costello would make better records later on, none of them match the immediacy of that album which combined punk rock with a spirited lyricism.  In 1983, the then 23-year-old Michael Stipe sang and mumbled his way through R.E.M.’s Murmur, which would become a watershed in alternative and college rock.

Though I probably shouldn’t judge myself by what others have done at certain ages, it’s interesting to see how ages can affect people.  23 isn’t quite as romantic as 16 or 17, but in the case of the artists mentioned above it perhaps represents a “make it or break it” moment.  Technically, by the age of 23 you are an adult, but there’s still the fire of youth which is represented in these songs and albums.

 

 

A Portrait of Bob Dylan as the Artist – Dylan and James Joyce

 

Imagine today, if a young rock and roll artist emerged on the scene, writing dozens of songs capturing the zeitgeist. Other popular artists cover his songs, and his lyrics are studied like a pop-culture Bible.  Influential poets and thinkers, even called the “spokesman of a generation”, embrace him. In the process, he changes not only popular music but also the cultural landscape at a mere 24 years old.  Imagine this same artist, at the height of his popularity, turns his back on his audience picking up a new musical direction.  Viewed as a traitor to the scene, his new guise also redefining, becoming a standard by which everything else that follows is measured.  Except this no fictional rock and roll artist.  This is Bob Dylan’s influence and power in the mid 1960’s. 

    No singular artist in the latter half of the 20th century has redefined the popular musical world as much as Bob Dylan. It is often argued Dylan is a true artist because of his achievements and not just one in the rock and roll medium.  But what does being a true artist mean, and how does this apply to Dylan?  The answer might be found in James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel,  A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. In Portrait, Joyce tackles artistic integrity through the protagonist Stephen Dedalus.  Throughout the novel, Joyce presents several forms, which must be followed in order for a person to truly become an artist.  Using Joyce’s outline and Stephen Dedalus as a model, the argument for Bob Dylan being seen as a true artist is even more evident.  

    Portrait follows the life of Stephen Dedalus (a fictionalized version of Joyce) an ambitious young artist conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his artistic visions.  At the end of the novel, he discovers the only way to be an artist is to completely abandon the familiar, leaving Dublin for Paris.  As the novel progresses, Joyce’s words become more complex paralleling Stephen’s own revelation.  When Bob Dylan started his career, his lyrics, music, and persona moved in a similar fashion to Stephen’s.  When Dylan first arrived on the scene, he began as a protest-singe.  When he grew tired of “finger-pointing” (as he called it), he abandoned folk for rock and roll, again creating a standard by which almost other rock and roll is measured. Just as the world caught up to Dylan, he disappeared from the pubic eye, and created some of his best music while no one was watching. Dylan, like Stephen realized you must abandon the familiar and follow your own artistic visions.   

    In Portrait, Joyce (through Stephen) presents three forms outlining the progression of the artist.  The first form is the lyrical form “wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relationship to himself.”  In the epical form the “artist prolongs and broods himself as the center of an epical event…the narrative is no longer personal.”  The third and final form is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life.”  

    Dylan’s lyrical stage begins with his early albums and protest songs. Even early on, Dylan had major ambitions.  He wanted to emulate his hero, Woody Guthrie.  Much like Guthrie defined the post-depression era with his songs, Dylan captured the spirit of the early 1960’s with songs such as Blowing in The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing, and Masters of War. Dylan sang these songs in the first person, essential to the lyrical stage. Yet at the same time, these songs connected with the masses because they reflected the turbulence that many felt during the early 1960’s.  These songs and others brought Dylan national attention; earning him the infamous label “the spokesman of a generation.”

    Except Dylan wasn’t just interested in protest.  Much like Stephen feel hinged by Catholicism, Dylan felt similar to protest. Numerous artists were covering his songs, and soon many people were copying his style with less impressive results.  As everyone was waiting for Dylan to make the next profound statement, he had no interest in doing so. In 1964, less than a year after The Times They Are A-Changing, he released Another Side of Bob Dylan, a collection of songs hardly touching on protest.  Another Side presents Dylan as funny (Motorpsycho Nightmare), heartwarming (To Ramona) and even scathing (I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)) – themes barely present on his previous three albums. Following the trends of rock groups like the Beatles, Dylan went even further with his next album Bringing It All Back Home – an ambitious album featuring two sides of music split between rock music and acoustic songs.  

With Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan had no intention on turning back, and writing more protest songs to appease his growing fan-base who worshipped his every single word.  With this stroke of genius, he had now reached the epical stage of the artist.  Joyce says the epical stage is reached when the  artist no longer presents himself in the first person and becomes part of an event.  Whereas Dylan’s early songs were mostly song from the first-person to reflect a greater truth, Dylan himself was barely present.  Even when he was, it was a fictionalized version of himself – as Joyce suggests, less personal.  

    Influenced by a combination of surrealism, drugs, and Beat poetry, Dylan’s lyrics reached a new sophistication and height.      Much like Joyce’s own Ulysses weaves in and out of character’s sub consciousness, narrative, and third person, Dylan was pursuing a similar path.  His songs became filled with literary, Biblical and historical figures doing bizarre acts, and taking part if bizarre situations.  And Dylan also put himself in the middle of all this craziness – the center of “epical event”. No more is this clear than Desolation Row off Highway 61 Revisited (Dylan’s first full rock album).  Desolation Row’s minutes follows characters such as Ophelia, Casanova, and TS Elliot who appear damned on a fictional placed called Desolation Row. Dylan himself does not appear until the last verse, where it is revealed he is on Desolation Row as well.  

    Dylan’s fictional self was no limited to his music, either.  Early in his career, he had been warm and funny in interviews – and most of all appeared sincere. Now, he traded his “every-man” image for that of a cynical hipster.  Constantly under the influence of many drugs, Dylan began answering interviews in a vague and mysterious manner and could sometimes be antagonistic.  When Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966, “the spokesman of a generation” was nowhere to be seen. The music was louder and wilder, the lyrics even more abstract  – but never lacking intelligence. Just as he did with modern folk music, Dylan was changing the rules for rock music.   

   Dylan’s retreat from the public eye leads to third and final form.  Joyce suggests it is “reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible aesthetic life”. Just as Stephen leaves Ireland and goes to Paris for his artistic integrity at the end of Portrait, Dylan created some of his most celebrated music while no one was looking. Taking cues from Americana, he recorded dozens of songs in his New York home with The Hawks (who would later become the known as The Band) at his home in Woodstock, New York. Freer, funnier than anything Dylan had previously recorded these songs with no pretense. More than anything, these sessions showed Dylan truly comfortable in his own skin. Never meant for official release, these sessions became bootlegged for years – eventually released as The Basement Tapes in 1975.

 When Stephen reappears in Ulysses, he is wiser and much more intelligent.  Yet, he lacks self-confidence even at one point dismissing his own ideas near the end of the novel.  Dylan too faced a similar problem after his mid 1960’s peak.  He had a hard time living up to being “Bob Dylan” -releasing almost unlistenable albums including the critically panned Self Portait.  Almost ten years after Highway 61, Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, which is generally considered another highpoint of his career.  In the past 10 years, he has enjoyed a renaissance – he has released four critically acclaimed albums and artists constantly cover his songs in concert. Dylan never stayed in the same place twice, and like Stephen discovered you “gotta keep on keeping on.”

 – Matt Satterfield, 2009.  

(I wrote this last year as a final project for my Graduate Portfolio and put a lot of time into this, so please give me credit if you link to it.)