Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home – [Record 118]
Bringing It All Back Home is the fifth studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on March 22, 1965 by Columbia Records. The album is divided into an electric and an acoustic side. On side one of the original LP, Dylan is backed by an electric rock and roll band—a move that further alienated him from some of his former peers in the folk song community. Likewise, on the acoustic second side of the album, he distanced himself from the protest songs with which he had become closely identified (such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”), as his lyrics continued their trend towards the abstract and personal.
The album reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart, the first of Dylan’s LPs to break into the US top 10. It also topped the UK charts later that Spring. The first track, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, became Dylan’s first single to chart in the US, peaking at #39.
1. Subterranean Homesick Blues.
2. She Belongs to Me.
3. Maggie’s Farm.
4. Love Minus Zero/No Limit.
5. Outlaw Blues.
6. On the Road Again.
7. Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.
8. Mr. Tambourine Man.
9. Gates of Eden.
10. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).
11. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.
Recording sessions: Dylan spent much of the summer of 1964 in Woodstock, a small town in upstate New York. Dylan was already familiar with the area, but his visits were becoming longer and more frequent. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, also had a place in Woodstock, and when Joan Baez went to see Dylan that August, they stayed at Grossman’s house.
Baez recalls that “most of the month or so we were there, Bob stood at the typewriter in the corner of his room, drinking red wine and smoking and tapping away relentlessly for hours. And in the dead of night, he would wake up, grunt, grab a cigarette, and stumble over to the typewriter again.” Dylan already had one song ready for his next album: “Mr. Tambourine Man” was written in February 1964 but omitted from Another Side of Bob Dylan. Another song, “Gates of Eden”, was also written earlier that year, appearing in the original manuscripts to Another Side of Bob Dylan; a few lyrical changes were eventually made, but it’s unclear if these were made that August in Woodstock. At least two songs were written that month: “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.
During this time, Dylan’s lyrics became increasingly surreal. His prose grew more stylistic as well, often resembling stream-of-consciousness writing with published letters dating from 1964 becoming increasingly intense and dreamlike as the year wore on.
Dylan eventually returned to the city, and on August 28, he met with The Beatles for the very first time in their New York hotel (during which Dylan reportedly turned the band on to marijuana), a meeting which would bring about the radical transformation of the Beatles’ writing to a more introspective style. Dylan would remain on good terms with The Beatles, and as biographer Clinton Heylin writes, “the evening established a personal dimension to the very real rivalry that would endure for the remainder of a momentous decade.”
Dylan and producer Tom Wilson were soon experimenting with their own fusion of rock and folk music. The first unsuccessful test involved overdubbing a “Fats Domino early rock & roll thing” over Dylan’s earlier, acoustic recording of “House of the Rising Sun”, according to Wilson. This took place in the Columbia 30th Street Studio in December 1964. It was quickly discarded, though Wilson would more famously use the same technique of overdubbing an electric backing track to an existing acoustic recording with Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. In the meantime, Dylan turned his attention to another folk-rock experiment conducted by John P. Hammond, an old friend and musician whose father, John H. Hammond, originally signed Dylan to Columbia. Hammond was planning an electric album around the blues songs that framed his acoustic live performances of the time. To do this, he recruited three members of an American bar band he met sometime in 1963: guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, and organist Garth Hudson (members of The Hawks, who would go on to become The Band). Dylan was very aware of the resulting album, So Many Roads; according to his friend, Danny Kalb, “Bob was really excited about what John Hammond was doing with electric blues. I talked to him in the Figaro in 1964 and he was telling me about John and his going to Chicago and playing with a band and so on…”
However, when Dylan and Wilson began work on the next album, they temporarily refrained from their own electric experimentation. The first session, held on January 13, 1965 in Columbia’s Studio A in New York, was recorded solo, with Dylan playing piano or acoustic guitar. Ten complete songs and several song sketches were produced, nearly all of which were discarded. None of these recordings would be used for the album, but three would eventually be released: “I’ll Keep It With Mine” on 1985’s Biograph, and “Farewell Angelina” and an acoustic version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.
Other songs and sketches recorded at this session: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, “She Belongs To Me”, “Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence”, “On The Road Again”, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, “You Don’t Have To Do That”, and “Outlaw Blues”, all of which were original compositions.
Dylan and Wilson held another session at Studio B the following day, this time with a full, electric band. Guitarists Al Gorgoni, Kenny Rankin, and Bruce Langhorne were recruited, as were pianist Paul Griffin, bassists Joseph Macho, Jr. and William E. Lee, and drummer Bobby Gregg. The day’s work focused on eight songs, all of which had been attempted the previous day. According to Langhorne, there was no rehearsal, “we just did first takes and I remember that, for what it was, it was amazingly intuitive and successful.” Few takes were required of each song, and after three-and-a-half hours of recording (lasting from 2:30 pm to 6:00 pm), master takes of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Outlaw Blues”, “She Belongs to Me”, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” were all recorded and selected for the final album.
Sometime after dinner, Dylan reportedly continued recording with a different set of musicians, including John Hammond, Jr. and John Sebastian (only Langhorne returned from earlier that day). They recorded six songs, but the results were deemed unsatisfactory and ultimately rejected.
Another session was held at Studio A the next day, and it would be the last one needed. Once again, Dylan kept at his disposal the musicians from the previous day (that is, those that participated in the 2:30 pm to 6:00 pm session); the one exception was pianist Paul Griffin, who was unable to attend and replaced by Frank Owens. Daniel Kramer recalls “the musicians were enthusiastic. They conferred with one another to work out the problems as they arose. Dylan bounced around from one man to another, explaining what he wanted, often showing them on the piano what was needed until, like a giant puzzle, the pieces would fit and the picture emerged whole…Most of the songs went down easily and needed only three or four takes…In some cases, the first take sounded completely different from the final one because the material was played at a different tempo, perhaps, or a different chord was chosen, or solos may have been rearranged…His method of working, the certainty of what he wanted, kept things moving.”
The session began with “Maggie’s Farm”: only one take was recorded, and it was the only one they’d ever need. From there, Dylan successfully recorded master takes of “On The Road Again”, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, “Gates of Eden”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, all of which were set aside for the album. A master take of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” was also selected, but it would not be included on the album; instead, it was issued as a single-only release in Europe, but not in the U.S. or the UK.
Though Dylan was able to record electric versions of virtually every song included on the final album, he apparently never intended Bringing It All Back Home to be completely electric. As a result, roughly half of the finished album would feature full electric band arrangements while the other half consisted of solo acoustic performances, sometimes accompanied by Langhorne, who would embellish Dylan’s acoustic performance with a countermelody on his electric guitar.
Songs and Themes: The album opens with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, a romp through the difficulties and absurdities of anti-establishment politics that was heavily inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business”. Often cited as a precursor to rap and music videos (the cue-card scene in Dont Look Back), “Subterranean Homesick Blues” became a Top 20 hit for Dylan. “Snagged by a sour, pinched guitar riff, the song has an acerbic tinge…and Dylan sings the title rejoinders in mock self-pity,” writes music critic Tim Riley. “It’s less an indictment of the system than a coil of imagery that spells out how the system hangs itself with the rope it’s so proud of.”
“She Belongs to Me” extols the bohemian virtues of an artistic lover whose creativity must be constantly fed (“Bow down to her on Sunday / Salute her when her birthday comes. / For Halloween buy her a trumpet / And for Christmas, give her a drum.”)
“Maggie’s Farm” is Dylan’s declaration of independence from the protest folk movement. Punning on Silas McGee’s Farm, where he had performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” at a civil rights protest in 1963 (featured in the film Dont Look Back), Maggie’s Farm recasts Dylan as the pawn and the folk music scene as the oppressor. Rejecting the expectations of that scene as he turns towards loud rock’n’roll, self-exploration, and surrealism, Dylan sings: “They say sing while you slave / I just get bored.”
“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is a low-key love song, described by Riley as a “hallucinatory allegiance, a poetic turn that exposes the paradoxes of love (‘She knows there’s no success like failure / And that failure’s no success at all’)…[it] points toward the dual vulnerabilities that steer ‘Just Like A Woman.’ In both cases, a woman’s susceptibility is linked to the singer’s defenseless infatuation.”
“Outlaw Blues” explores Dylan’s desire to leave behind the pieties of political folk and explore a bohemian, “outlaw” lifestyle. Straining at his identity as a protest singer, Dylan knows he “might look like Robert Ford” (who assassinated Jesse James), but he feels “just like a Jesse James.”
“On the Road Again” catalogs the absurd affectations and degenerate living conditions of bohemia. The song concludes, “Then you ask why I don’t live here / Honey, how come you don’t move?”.
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” narrates a surreal experience involving the discovery of America, “Captain Arab” (a clear reference to Captain Ahab of Moby Dick), and numerous bizarre encounters. It is the longest song in the electric section of the album, starting out as an acoustic ballad before being interrupted by laughter, and then starting back up again with an electric blues rhythm. The music is so similar in places to Another Side of Bob Dylan’s “Motorpsycho Nitemare” as to be indistinguishable from it but for the electric instrumentation. The song can be best read as a highly sardonic, non-linear (historically) dreamscape parallel cataloguing of the discovery, creation and merits of the United States.
Written sometime in February 1964, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was originally recorded for Another Side of Bob Dylan; a rough performance with several mistakes, the recording was rejected, but a polished version has often been attributed to Dylan’s early use of LSD, although eyewitness accounts of both the song’s composition and of Dylan’s first use of LSD suggest that “Mr. Tambourine Man” was actually written weeks before. Instead, Dylan said the song was inspired by a large tambourine owned by Bruce Langhorne. “On one session, Tom Wilson had asked [Bruce] to play tambourine,” Dylan recalled in 1985. “And he had this gigantic tambourine…It was as big as a wagonwheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind.” Langhorne confirmed that he “used to play this giant Turkish tambourine. It was about [four inches] deep, and it was very light and it had a sheepskin head and it had jingle bells around the edge—just one layer of bells all the way around…I bought it ’cause I liked the sound…I used to play it all the time.” In addition to inspiring the title, Langhorne also played the electric guitar countermelody in the song, the only musician to play on the song besides Dylan. A surrealist work heavily influenced by Arthur Rimbaud (most notably for the “magic swirlin’ ship” evoked in the lyrics), Heylin hailed it as a leap “beyond the boundaries of folk song once and for all, with one of [Dylan’s] most inventive and original melodies.” Riley describes “Mr. Tambourine Man” as “Dylan’s pied-piper anthem of creative living and open-mindedness…a lot of these lines are evocative without holding up to logic, even though they ring worldly.” Salon.com critic Bill Wyman calls it “rock’s most feeling paean to psychedelia, all the more compelling in that it’s done acoustically.” Almost simultaneously with Dylan’s release, the newly formed Byrds recorded and released an electrified, abbreviated treatment of the song which would be the band’s breakthrough hit, and would be a powerful force in launching the folk rock genre.
“Gates of Eden” builds on the developments made with “Chimes of Freedom” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”. “Of all the songs about sixties self-consciousness and generation-bound identity, none forecasts the lost innocence of an entire generation better than ‘Gates of Eden,'” writes Riley. “Sung with ever-forward motion, as though the words were carving their own quixotic phrasings, these images seem to tumble out of Dylan with a will all their own; he often chops off phrases to get to the next line.”
One of Dylan’s most ambitious compositions, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is arguably one of Dylan’s finest songs. Clinton Heylin wrote that it “opened up a whole new genre of finger-pointing song, not just for Dylan but for the entire panoply of pop,” and one critic said it is to capitalism what Darkness at Noon is to communism. A fair number of Dylan’s most famous lyrics can be found in this song: “He not busy being born / Is busy dying”; “It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred”; “Even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked”; “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”; “If my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” In the song Dylan is again giving his audience a road map to decode his confounding shift away from politics. Amidst a number of laments about the expectations of his audience (“I got nothing, Ma, to live up to”) and the futility of politics (“There is no sense in trying”; “You feel to moan but unlike before / You discover that you’d just be one more / Person crying”; “It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred”), Dylan tells his audience how to take his new direction: “So don’t fear if you hear / A foreign sound to your ear / It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.”
The album closes with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, described by Riley as “one of those saddened good-bye songs a lover sings when the separation happens long after the relationship is really over, when lovers know each other too well to bother hiding the truth from each other any longer…What shines through “Baby Blue” is a sadness that blots out past fondness, and a frustration at articulating that sadness at the expense of the leftover affection it springs from.” Heylin has a different interpretation, comparing it with “To Ramona” from Another Side of Bob Dylan: “[‘Baby Blue’ is] less conciliatory, the tone crueler, more demanding. If Paul Clayton is indeed the Baby Blue he had in mind, as has been suggested, Dylan was digging away at the very foundation of Clayton’s self-esteem.” However, the lyric easily fits in with the main theme of the album, Dylan’s rejection of political folk, taking the form of a good-bye to his former, protest-folk self, according to the Rough Guide to Bob Dylan. According to this reading, Dylan sings to himself to “Leave your stepping stones [his political repertoire] behind, something calls for you. Forget the dead you’ve left [folkies], they will not follow you…Strike another match, go start anew.” The only musician besides Dylan to play on the song is Bill Lee on bass guitar.
Van Morrison and his band, Them, released their own version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” in 1966; a dramatic re-arrangement featuring a repeating, low-key Mellotron pattern, it’s often hailed as one of the best Dylan covers ever recorded. Later, Beck used a sample of this version of the song as the basis for his single “Jack-Ass” which appeared on his critically acclaimed 1996 album Odelay. Another version was done by Roky Erikson’s 13th Floor Elevators on their 1967 album Easter Everywhere.
Cover art: The album’s cover, photographed by Daniel Kramer with an edge-softened lens, features Sally Grossman (wife of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman) lounging in the background. There are also artifacts scattered around the room, including LPs by The Impressions (Keep on Pushing), Robert Johnson (King of the Delta Blues Singers), Ravi Shankar (India’s Master Musician), Lotte Lenya (Sings Berlin Theatre Songs by Kurt Weill) and Eric Von Schmidt (The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt). Dylan had “met” Schmidt “one day in the green pastures of Harvard University” and would later mimic his album cover pose (tipping his hat) for his own Nashville Skyline four years later. A further record, Françoise Hardy’s EP J’suis D’accord was on the floor near Dylan’s feet but can only be seen in other shots from the same photo session.
Visible behind Grossman is the top of Dylan’s head from the cover of Another Side of Bob Dylan; under her right arm is the magazine Time with President Lyndon B. Johnson on the cover of the January 1, 1965 issue. There is a harmonica resting on a table with a fallout shelter (capacity 80) sign leaning against it. Above the fireplace on the mantle directly to the left of the painting is the Lord Buckley album The Best of Lord Buckley. Next to Lord Buckley is a copy of GNAOUA, a magazine devoted to exorcism and Beat Generation poetry edited by poet Ira Cohen, and a glass collage by Dylan called ‘The Clown’ made for Bernard Paturel from coloured glass Bernard was about to discard.
Dylan sits forward holding his cat (named Rolling Stone) and has an opened magazine featuring an advertisement on Jean Harlow’s Life Story by the columnist Louella Parsons resting on his crossed leg. The cufflinks Dylan wore in the picture were a gift from Joan Baez, as she later referenced in her 1975 song “Diamonds & Rust”.
The black and white pamphlet lying across Time magazine with President Johnson on the cover is a publication of the Earth Society, then located on East 12th Street in the East Village. The Earth Society saw its mission as protecting earth from collisions with comets and planets. Their pamphlet interprets Immanuel Velikovsky’s notion that life on earth was so deeply affected by near-collisions of Venus with Jupiter and Mars that the impressions and interpretations of observers found their way into myths and semi-historical documents of peoples of many cultures. The pamphlet also claims that the Ark of the Covenant is a representation of a comet, which is what the white shape in the center of the pamphlet cover is intended to represent.
Outtakes: The following outtakes were recorded for possible inclusion to Bringing It All Back Home.
“California” (early version of “Outlaw Blues”)
“If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night)”
“I’ll Keep It With Mine”
“Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence”
“You Don’t Have to Do That” (titled “Bending Down on My Stomick Lookin’ West” on recording sheet)(fragment)
The raunchy “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night)” was issued as a single in Benelux. A different version of the song appears on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. An upbeat, electric performance, the song is relatively straightforward, with the title providing much of the subtext. Fairport Convention recorded a tongue-in-cheek, acoustic French-language version, “Si Tu Dois Partir”, for their celebrated third album, Unhalfbricking.
“I’ll Keep It with Mine” was written before Another Side of Bob Dylan and was given to Nico in 1964. Nico was not yet a recording artist at the time, and she would eventually record the song for Chelsea Girl (released in 1967), but not before Judy Collins recorded her own version in 1965. Fairport Convention would also record their own version on their critically acclaimed second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Widely considered a strong composition from this period (Clinton Heylin called it “one of his finest songs”), a complete acoustic version, with Dylan playing piano and harmonica, was released on 1985’s Biograph. An electric recording exists as well—not of an actual take but of a rehearsal from January 1966 (the sound of an engineer saying “what you were doing” through a control room mike briefly interrupts the recording)—was released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.
“Farewell Angelina” was ultimately given to Joan Baez, who released it in 1965 as the title track of her album, Farewell, Angelina. The Greek singer Nana Mouskouri recorded her own versions of this song in French (“Adieu Angelina”) in 1967 and German (“Schlaf-ein Angelina”) in 1975.
“You Don’t Have to Do That” is one of the great “what if” songs of Dylan’s mid-1960s output. A very brief recording, under a minute long, it has Dylan playing a snippet of the song, which he abandoned midway through to begin playing the piano.
“Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence”, first recorded during this album’s sessions, would later be revisited during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions (later issued on The Bootleg Series Vol 1–3).
Reception: The release of Bringing It All Back Home coincided with the final show of a joint tour with Joan Baez. By now, Dylan had grown far more popular and acclaimed than Baez, and his music had radically evolved from their former shared folk style in a totally unique direction. It would be the last time they would perform extensively together until 1975. (She would accompany him on another tour in May 1965, but Dylan would not ask her to perform with him.) The timing was appropriate as Bringing It All Back Home signaled a new era.
Legacy: One of Dylan’s most celebrated albums, Bringing It All Back Home was soon hailed as one of the greatest albums in rock history. In 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, critic Dave Marsh wrote a glowing appraisal: “By fusing the Chuck Berry beat of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles with the leftist, folk tradition of the folk revival, Dylan really had brought it back home, creating a new kind of rock & roll […] that made every type of artistic tradition available to rock.” Clinton Heylin later wrote that Bringing It All Back Home was possibly “the most influential album of its era. Almost everything to come in contemporary popular song can be found therein.” In 2003, the album was ranked number 31 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
In a 1986 interview, film director John Hughes cited it as so influential on him as an artist that upon its release (while Hughes was still in his teens), “Thursday I was one person, and Friday I was another.”
Before the year was over, Dylan would record and release another album, Highway 61 Revisited, which would take his new lyrical and musical direction even further.
The title of the Modena City Ramblers’ album Riportando tutto a casa is a tribute to Bringing It All Back Home.
The mono version of Bringing It All Back Home was re-released in 2010 on The Original Mono Recordings, accompanied by a booklet containing a critical essay by Greil Marcus.