Thursday, January 2, 2014

Another Side of Bob Dylan: Goodbye to All That

Release Date: August 9, 1964
Pete Seeger, when asked about Dylan's potential for longevity replied: "Dylan may well become the country's most creative troubadour - if he doesn't explode."  Many around Dylan during those years felt the same way.  Between 1964 and 1966 he recorded four albums (one of them a double LP) of varying styles and increasing complexity.  By 1964 the pace of events began to speed up with hints of foreboding balanced by blinding excitement.  Those looking for more "protest" songs instead found philosophical musings ranging from the serious to outright jest.  Recorded June 9, 1964, Another Side one of the few, maybe the only, in which Dylan gave New Yorker writer Nat Hentoff full access.    

Joining Dylan in the studio were some friends, including "Ramblin" Jack Elliot, and Columbia producer Tom Wilson.  Hentoff reported the session began at 7:30 and ended around 1:30am.  Fueled by bottles of red wine, Dylan recorded a dozen new songs and  announced to Hentoff, "There aren't any finger-pointing songs in here."  

Much had transpired in the past several months. 

The assassination of President Kennedy, whom Dylan affectionately mentioned in "I Shall be Free," had traumatized the country. In December 1963, he was awarded the Tom Paine Award by the ECLU (Emergency Civil Liberties Committee).  He gave a derisive speech calling the audience fat, old, and out of touch and then professed an affinity with Lee Harvey Oswald just weeks after the killing of Kennedy.  The crowd hissed at him.  Dylan wanted nothing to do with the establishment.

In February he embarked on road trip (an attempt to emulate Kerouac) from New York to California partly in homage to Kerouac's On The Road, but also for inspiration.  Robert Shelton's biography gives a detailed account of stops made in coal towns, a visit with an unimpressed Carl Sandburg in North Carolina, experiencing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and ending with a tour of the west coast.  At least two songs were written: "Chimes of Freedom" (his most cryptic song to date) and "Mr. Tambourine Man."  

Dylan and his travel companions also listened to the Beatles on the radio as Beatlemania swept America.  Although Dylan dismissed the Beatles as "bubble gum pop" in interviews, he privately loved their music.

The first track, "All I Really Want to Do" is a sort of parody of all love songs, with its amusing wordplay of a neurotic suitor.  "Black Crow Blues" is all piano and harmonica set to a bluesy riff. "Spanish Harlem Incident" nicely evokes nighttime imagery.  "Ramoma" offers a message of solace and solidarity with a girl "conflicted about staying in the South." "Ballad in Plain D" is mostly autobiographical about the end of his relationship with Suze Rotolo. My favorite track, "I Don't Believe (she acts like we never met) is Dylan at his best playing the jilted lover. "My Back Pages" declares, "Ah, but I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now." The closer, "It Ain't Me Babe," bids a melancholy farewell.

As an album, for what Another Side lacks in coherent themes is made up for by some solid songs.  I'd compare with the Beatles LP, Help.  Both split the difference between their old and new styles, hinting at new directions.  For this was Dylan's last all acoustic album before "went electric" in Bringing It All Back Home.  


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