Then came the alienation. A kind of reverse protest from fans when Dylan “went electric.” To be fair to his dissidents one couldn’t of asked for a more elegant transition from one style to another than with Bringing It All Back Home.
With two radically different sides–the first electric, the latter a return to the acoustic/harmonica formula that so many adored–the though the songs were stark reminders of the end of an era–Dylan proudly proposed to listeners, and now for something completely different. A brilliantly conceived concept that was years ahead of those living in Dylan’s then tired past. Still for those naysayers who cringed at the opening electric blues lick of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan went ahead and turned in three of his finest acoustic tracks to date on side two of Bringing It All Back Home’s.
Knowing now the direction that Dylan was going with his music, Bringing It All Back Home’s is a perfect transitional album and a worthy precursor to the bombshell of Highway 61 Revisited. Even the record’s cover, the first truly iconic image in Dylan’s career, alludes to tossing out the old, bringing in the new. Dylan is framed within a distorted lens surrounded by remnants of his older self–record sleeves from influences like Robert Johnson, a magazine cover featuring a new President, Lyndon Johnson, and even a copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan hiding in the corner.
Upon its release, however, the twangy guitar riff that erupts into “Subterranean Homesick Blues” must have been somewhat of a shock to the anxious listener placing the needle on the groove of record number five.
It could be wishful thinking to link the free form rants on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with that of early rap music, however, it’s safe to say that both R.E.M (with “End of the World”) and Billy Joel (with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”) owe a great deal to this firecracker of an opener.
“Look out kid / You gonna get hit,” is a punch-to-face commencement of Dylan’s radical new direction. For the first time in his recording career Dylan’s songs went from musically simple to fast, crowded, and loud with the addition of an electric rock band. Still beneath the garage rock is still Dylan, the poet.
“She Belongs to Me,” which rightfully follows “Subterranean,” couldn’t be more different from its brethren on side one but is key for showing the more tender side of Dylan’s instrumentation choices. It’s been said that the song is a loving ode to his contemporary (and sometime musical partner) Joan Baez, and what a loving homage it is. When Dylan sings in his harmonious voice (an early sign of where his vocals were headed on the crooning of Nashville Skyline) “She can take the dark out of the nighttime / And paint the daytime black” it’s a startling reminder of what a stunning wordsmith he is how even an electric guitar can radiate beauty.
Of course Dylan carries on with “Maggie’s Farm,” a protest anthem set to electric blues guitars and swinging cymbal crashes. Much has been written about the lyrics to this song, which remains another of Dylan’s immortals. His repetition of certain verses throughout is in synch with traditional blues structures and it is widely agreed that Maggie’s farm is a reference to Dylan’s old persona as the protest poster child. In the opening stanza Dylan sings: “I got a head full of ideas / That are drivin’ me insane / It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor” possibly referencing a fire inside of him to stir things up and tear down the house with his music but a public facade holding him back. The song could be viewed as his official departure from the folk/protest scene.
“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” floats along on guitar harmonics, Dylan’s whimsical vocals and lyrics like, “she’s true, like ice, like fire,” and is on the short list of Dylan’s most ga-ga romantic songs.
The latter side of Bringing It All Back Home opens with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a decent song later made immortal (like many of his songs) by Roger McGuinn and The Byrds. The surreal song references Dylan’s experimentation with drugs (though he often says he never wrote “drug songs”) and the escapism that comes with it. “With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, / Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Since the song is more recognized from its covers–both The Byrds and Sonny and Cher–the original is easy to overlook but Dylan is at his most abstract in its lyrics.
The real gem on side two is “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a magnum opus of poetry and a true sign of the times. The song features some of Dylan’s most puzzling and philosophical verses of any of his songs, with fifteen verses dissecting society’s ills in America and, in reference to the now infamous line “That he not busy being born / Is busy dying,” Dylan’s views on Capitalism’s hold over our lives.
An entire column could be written about this song’s breadth of lyrical brilliance and its links to future dissident genres–punk for example, or how about socially conscious rap–and each verse could be studied and pondered over. And people do.
Throughout the song Dylan wags his finger at the pitfalls of materialism (“toy guns that spark / To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark”), media manipulation (“Advertising signs that con you / Into thinking you’re the one”), the immoral marriage of church and state (“principles baptized / To strict party platform ties / Social clubs in drag disguise”) and the money line on greed (“money doesn’t talk, it swears”). Dylan later closes:
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only
There is some hope buried between the fleshed out maladies. His notion that life needs to be lived, despite the temptation to get lost in suction of the political and social machine that is capitalism., offers a bit of solace in an otherwise desolate song.
In a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley, Dylan commented on the magic that occurred while writing “It’s Alright Ma” and how that magic is gone. It’s one of those songs that’s so hypnotic, so well-written it amazes even Dylan himself, who, after 500+ songs in the bank, still marvels at it.
It’s crucial to note the song order on Bringing It All Back Home. Besides the obvious separation between side one and side two, Dylan carefully follows an A-B-A-B formula on the electric half. The surreal lyrics and barn dance guitar work of “Subterranean” are followed by the gentler jazz guitar of “She Belongs to Me,” while the traditional blues found on “Maggie’s Farm” are followed with “Love Minus Zero/No Limit’s” soft guitar and tender lyrics. As if Dylan intends to blow your mind then take things down a notch. It’s one of Dylan’s more angry records disguised as an exercise in rock and roll. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is the nail in the coffin, a harsh blow to the psyche that is then followed with another warm sounding ballad, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
While on it’s surface the song could be perceived as another breakup song, referencing the end of a passionless love affair, however, the song, like all of its predecessors on the album, is about moving on. It’s as big as F-U to the critics and disgruntled fans of the electric change as “Maggie’s Farm:”
“The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew”
Carefully positioned as the albums closer it really heralds the message of ending one era and starting something new, truly bringing it all back home.
Essential Songs: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”