Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”

Album cover for Bringing It All Back Home

For this week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s fifth album “Bringing It All Back Home” from 1965. He had been listening to rock music and visiting with The Beatles. The first side of this record, an electric band backs Dylan; while the second side remains acoustic and without drums. “Bringing It All Back Home” came out in March with “Highway 61 Revisited” following just five months later.

Between these two album, Dylan infamously performed at the Newport Folk Music Festival with electric instruments. The folk music crowd expressed disgust immediately; they wanted the old Dylan back, not this traitor to folk music. Considering “Highway 61 Revisited” introduced me to Dylan in the early 1990s, the shift from acoustic folk to folk with electric seems rather quaint to me. Granted, he did perform this (what we could call) stunt at a festival for folk music. I also feel that while electric guitars are being used, there’s still plenty of acoustic guitar, and the songwriting is still deeply rooted in folk.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

The album opens with acoustic guitar strumming, then an electric guitar plays an upward glissando to get the motor started. These guitars are joined by two basses, a second electric guitar and drums. The songs rolls at a determined pace. The bass pounds on down-beat, the guitars jangling and improvising driving of the accompaniment along like a full-steam jugband. The chord progression follows a vaguely blues pattern: I7-I7-I7-I7-IV7-I7-I7-V7-I7-I7-I7, which is an unusual 11 bars.

Almost immediately, Dylan’s vocals launch into a continuous stream of lyrics with a paranoid cutup of the sociopolitical climate. Lyrics like these undoubtedly had influence on many later musicians like Beck, whose “Loser” immediately earned him Dylan comparisons in the 1990s. The promotional film with lyrics on cards has been imitated countless times.

He takes brief breaks between verses to play the harmonica. One wonders his lung capacity, especially since he was a considerable smoker at the time. Each verse has 17 short lines run together in an almost monotonous rhythm. The famous opening line tells us where the song is headed immediately:

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government

And of course the song ends with one of the most memorable lines, by anybody: “The pump don’t work, ‘cuz the vandals took the handles.” This rhymes with the earlier lines “Don’t wear sandals, Try to avoid the scandals.” This nonsense set of admonitions about keeping in line remind me also of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” Seems like the vandals might be having more fun, even if they’ve ruined our chances of using the pump, which I assume to be a water pump, but maybe it’s gasoline?

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

This week introduced me to the song “Love Minus Zero,” which I don’t believe I’ve heard before. I hear roots of some of the songs on the Velvet Underground’s debut album here. The song features acoustic guitars, a clean electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums. The performance and chord progression give the song a ballad feel. Like a repeating cycle telling a tale, or in this case, perhaps, more a vignette. He sings about his love, but in praising her qualities he also implies criticism of society in general.

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

Mr. Tambourine Man

At this point, I’m more familiar with the Dylan version, but I knew the Byrd’s recording of “Mr. Tambourine” first. It definitely has more of the rectangle eye-glasses psychedelic feel than the original. I’ve also enjoyed William Shatner’s unique kitschy take, which sounds like it was recorded in front of Laugh-In’s joke wall. “

Many have covered “Mr. Tambourine Man.”: The song even became subject of literary interpretation in the movie “Dangerous Minds” from 1995. I admit I’ve never seen the full movie, but I have seen that clip. In the scene, the teacher suggests that the titular Mr. Tambourine Man is a drug dealer. This is a common, and commonly disputed, interpretation. It’s not difficult to see the possibility, and it’s certainly difficult to unsee it. We cannot trust Dylan to talk about his songs either.

Dylan plays the song in the key of D, which I think tends to sound ballady or jangly. I like that the song break into a chorus which start with the dominant (V) chord of G, rather than the typical tonic(D). Dylan’s voice jump directly into the opening “Hey!”; He sounds caught in the middle of a melody and he’s grabbing the listener into it.

The chord progression for the chorus is V-IV-I-V-I-V-IV-IV for the first two lines, which is unresolved. That resolution to the tonic comes at the end of the last two lines of the chorus. Those last two lines follow the same progression, except finish with the tonic D chord instead of extending the subdominant A.

The verses repeat a similar pattern, though Dylan sings the verses a little lower and more restrained than the chorus. Here the verses repeat the V-IV-I-V-I-V which open the chorus, then deviate with I-V-IV. He plays this twice before returning to the chorus.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

I have been listening to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” for past seven days. This album was all new to me, but I have not looked forward to this week. What little experience I’ve had with Joni Mitchell proved to be unpleasant. This time allowed me to develop an appreciate for the songs. Joni Mitchel is a noteworthy songwriter and a great pianist and guitarist. Many people love her singing, but I’m not one of them. I like her voice in the lower alto range, but too often her singing often dances up to a soprano. Thankfully, everything else on the album is good, so there’s plenty else for me to appreciate.

In contrast to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited“, the instruments play in conversation with each other. The voice provides the primary source of melody, but also takes part in the conversation. Sometimes an instrument will continue a melodic phrase at the end of a verse or chorus. I see this album categorized as Folk or Folk-Country, but I hear a lot of jazz influence. Some of her melodies and the way the piano and voice work together make me think more of vocal jazz than folk. I see now how later musicians that I’m more familiar with like Alanis Morissette, Counting Crows, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos drew much of their influence. I enjoy her oft-clever use of phrasing, story-telling and descriptive language.

Carey” immediately caught my attention and quickly became my favorite song on the album. The breezy strummed dulcimer of this jaunty song appropriately suggests both dancing at a cafe and travel. “Carey” is one of the few songs on the album with percussion and even this is an unobtrusive hand percussion. The lyrics are a farewell letter from one who’s decided living the beach commune life isn’t their thing. They did not always get along, but they were still friends (“Oh you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you”). I love the opening verse that perfectly introduces the setting, topic and tone of the song.

The wind is in from Africa;
Last night I couldn’t sleep.
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, Carey,
But it’s really not my home.
My fingernails are filthy,
I’ve got beach tar on my feet,
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.

The other song that I liked was the album closing “The Last Time I Saw Richard“. The melody flits seemingly aimlessly like bumblebees across flowers, while on the piano she plays arpeggios as if searching for a song. The thing is that this sense of searching without getting there suits the song perfectly. I can imagine the piano player in the dark corner of the cafe at closing time. Maybe there’s a few customers left, but the singer ignores them. She remembers the cynical Richard in the first verse as criticizing her “You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies, pretty lies”. However, when he plays a song on the jukebox, she points out his own hypocrisy and contradiction in one of the best verses on the album:

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.
And a bar maid came by, in fishnet stockings and a bow tie,
And she said, ‘drink up now it’s getting on time to close.’
‘Richard, you haven’t really changed’, I said.
‘It’s just that now you’re romanticizing
some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreaming;
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.’
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet

I love that line “You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are dreaming.”

As these verses from “Carey” and “Last Time I Saw Richard” demonstrate that Joni Mitchell incorporates rhyme in her songs, though not she’s not as strictly formal as Bob Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited.” She doesn’t mind breaking a rhyme scheme, or even having many lines that don’t rhyme. Her use of rhyme is also more subtle and natural. For example, in “Carey”, when she rhymes “not my home” with “French cologne.” The lyrics and melodies maintain natural flow much more than stick to a traditional rhythmic pattern.

I have learned to appreciate Mitchell’s songwriting. Unfortunately, my dislike of most of her singing will keep me from returning to this album after this week. IT’s a shame, because some of the songs are very good.