The 60s Official Site


Bringing It All Back Home

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere In The Distance


OK, so Bob Dylan’s lyrics have been broken down, put through the mangle, trodden underfoot, interpreted and misinterpreted, brought to their knees, thrown up in the air, dismantled and dismissed, and criticized for being too full of obscure symbolism, but, hey, hasn’t it been fun along the way?


We all have our views and opinions, our personal tastes and preferences and all these things make for different ways to listen to and enjoy the words, the sounds and rhythms as they whirl around inside our heads, creating images that take us on strange, exciting, wonderful journeys. Wow, did I just write that? I must be under some sort of spell that Dylan has woven and into which I’ve been drawn in to hook, line and sinker, sailing on some magic swirling ship, swaying this way and that and not quite knowing when I’ll be back on dry land. Now how’s that for an image?  Is it deep thought or just utter nonsense? Take your pick. Either way, it’s all over now. So don’t be blue. Right, that’s enough of that. It’s all gone a bit subterranean and I need to put my head above ground and stay focused. Which brings me neatly to the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s seminal masterpiece Bringing It All Back Home. If ever an album has been analyzed to within an inch of its life this is it. Millions of words have been written, and no doubt millions more are still to follow. Even Dylan must be wondering what kind of a monster he created back in March 1965 when an unsuspecting world first heard it.


The album was so different from those that came out before it. It was bolder, brasher, packed full of enigmatic imagery and far-out mysteriousness. It caused an instant stir. It wasn’t so much a question of whether or not you liked it or understood it, more a question of how much of a challenge it was to ones emotions, moral outlook and take on life, and made you ponder on what importance, if indeed any, music had in the greater run of things. Very deep indeed! Hey, hold on minute, wasn’t it just a hunk of vinyl contained inside an offbeat, evocative cover, after all was said and done? Again, it all depends on your personal perception.


Anyway, six of the album’s songs/poems/stream of consciousness outpourings, call them what you will, deserve all of the attention they’ve received over the years.


I would wager that there are many who, like me, consider the album’s opener, Subterranean Homesick Blues, to be the most teasing, fun-filled track. Whatever it’s about, it zings along at a fair old lick. It borrows a whole lot of influences from earlier folk and rock songs and styles and shapes them into a vehicle for Dylan’s hypnotic delivery and clever wordplay. It’s a feast of oddball observations, and that’s its strength. It’s never boring, even if it leaves you puzzled at times. But the joy is in trying to unravel the threads and make some kind of sense of them.


I suspect much of what Dylan is saying, albeit often referring to serious matters, is very tongue in cheek. He’s not expecting the listener to dig too deep, simply absorb the overall feel of the piece. Have fun, enjoy the sun, go for a run, and don’t be afraid to use a pun! See how quickly you can fall under the spell!


Coupled with the song is the promotional film clip that opened the classic D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back, a record of Dylan’s 1965 British tour. The use of cue cards showing words from the song was a stroke of genius, and the fact that several of the words and phrases were misspelt or incorrect added to the mischievous mood.


There have been myriad interpretations of the lyrics to Maggie’s Farm. Some critics swear it’s a song about Dylan’s rejection of the folk-protest scene as he shifts to a rock, electric-led style of music. Others put a case for it attacking the giant industrial system where the downtrodden workers earn little for their efforts. And in between there are a bizarre mishmash of theories, opinions and pontifications, some simplistic, some way off the wall. Who’s right? Who’s got it completely wrong? Who really knows? Me? No, don’t expect me to solve the riddle. I’m just a simple soul who just loves the song for its delightful dexterity. All I can say is listen closely and you’ll discover nimble nuances, a masterful delicacy of suggestion, and a knockout knack of surprising you just when you thought you had cracked the code. Listen again and it could sound completely different, as if the words had suddenly leapt about and reconfigured themselves to give new emphasis and direction. So, maybe everybody’s on the right track. It could just be a song that takes you where you want to go, and if that’s the case then it’s not worth working on Maggie’s Farm too intensively. Just simply let it work for you.


Songs about a man’s love for a woman don’t usually paint such vivid pictures as those evoked in Love Minus Zero/No Limit, the album’s most melodic track. Here, Dylan’s voice is at its best, soft spoken, tenderly expressing his deep affection. He tells us how much the woman means to him and it’s clear that he wants to protect her from hurt and harm. She’s tough in some respects, fragile in others. The song’s use of symbolism is beautifully controlled. I could write lots more about the song but I think here is a good case for saying that less is more! Let the beauty of the lyrics simply do the talking.


When I first heard Mr. Tambourine Man I knew straight away here was a composition that would stand the test of time. It was an instant hit on the singles chart and introduced a whole new set of fans to Dylan’s music. There was hardly anyone around in 1965 that hadn’t come into contact with the’ jingle jangle morning’ exuberance that the song generated. There was no danger of getting sleepy while this was playing.


Apparently, Dylan was greatly influenced by the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud and traces of his descriptive technique are echoed here. At the time of course there weren’t many people around that would make the connection. I certainly didn’t. But, perhaps more importantly, it didn’t really matter. Mr. Tambourine Man was eminently full of life and you could sing the words without having to analyze their deeper meaning. Dylan appears to be seeking inspiration and finding it in the tambourine man’s honest, uplifting craft. Some say they can detect a drug theme to the song but I don’t see it. I like to think of it as more of a spiritual journey.


The album’s darkest track by far is It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). From the outset the mood is bleak, downbeat. There’s so much that comes under attack here. The grinding exploitation of big business, hypocrisy, political dishonesty and corruption are just some of the targets for Dylan’s disdain. It’s a relentless tirade that leaves you asking questions of yourself. Could you do more to stop these things happening? Surely it’s wrong to just sit back and do nothing? A defeatist shrug of the shoulders isn’t the answer, is it? The song resonated at the time of its release and hit a nerve, but 50 years on the same questions keep being asked. The shadow of the song still hangs across our lives.


Who’s getting the big heave-ho in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue? Joan Baez? Folk music? Dylan’s early fans who disowned him when he went electric? Or even the old Dylan himself? You choose. As with most of the tracks on Bringing It All Back Home the possibilities seem endless. You’re grabbed by the song’s poetry, you hear it clearly, but you’re not quite sure if you’ve grasped it totally. And don’t worry if the carpet is moving under you, it’ll all make sense … eventually, maybe, just a little. Like all good art, this song, and indeed the whole album, is very much of its time, the burgeoning mid-Sixties, and, yes, timeless too.

David SoulsbyDavid Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex, England, and is now Somewhere in the Distanceretired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.