When you’ve had a career as long and impactful as Bob Dylan, you’re going to have a lot of big anniversaries coming up all the time, and you could pretty much just pick a year since 1962 and find something to celebrate at any interval. But when you do this, you’ll find that there are just certain years that stand out more than others and in the case of 1965, fifty years ago, that impact was not just from Dylan, but it could be argued he led the charge. That year he released 2 albums that changed everything. The first was Bringing it All Back Home, on March 22nd.
This is about the music, which in Dylan’s case, remains timeless and relevant today. Just listen to the driving, frenetic jam of the opening track, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and you’re getting a history lesson and timeless advice all in one, without getting preached at. It’s a rundown of cryptic and yet very specific events of the time, but to this day, “don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters” is relevant to anyone with any kind of counterculture mentality and ability to decipher the implications of that statement.
This was also the year Dylan went electric, which while it alienated him from some of his folk-purist fans, I would say only made him that much more relevant. He couldn’t really be credited with inventing electric folk, but he sure did give it credibility, relevance and ultimately, acceptance. You don’t need to know the specifics to get the restless and righteous spirit of a track like “Maggie’s Farm,” which is basic working man’s folk music, amplified and rocked out for dive bars. Hell, it’s almost punk rock if you think about it. It’s not his first or most angry track by any stretch of the imagination (that honor probably goes to “Masters of War” from 62’s Freewheelin Bob Dylan), but it is among his most biting and sick of it all type songs. Next time you get frustrated with your job, this is the song you should play on the way home; but be sure you can afford to quit, because it may just inspire you to pull a Half Baked.
There’s a reason we still refer to artists in 2015 as being “Dylanesque,” but what we mean by that usually varies by the artist and what it is they are taking from Dylan. When I first heard Courtney Barnett, like everyone else, I thought of Dylan. In her case the track that immediately came to mind was “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” a surreal, rambling story about an actual dream Dylan had that fits perfectly alongside Barnett’s “Avant Gardener,” and many of her other tracks. The beauty of this comparison is that one is not a throwback and the other is not necessarily ahead of it’s time. What it demonstrates is the timelessness of both, achieved by their focus on the human experience, regardless of specifics. These conversational type songs somehow find poetry in lyrics that can barely be called a song, but Dylan obviously is very capable of the more traditional as evidenced on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” about which so much has been written that I am not sure what else to say about it beyond “perfect song.” But then that could be said about every track on this album, really.
One important thing to note about the socio-political climate at the time is that 1965 was a year where things were not looking good. Everything seemed to be falling apart. This album is not a hopeful one and the best expression of that is “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” one of my favorite Dylan songs of all time. Every time I hear it, something else hits me that is relevant and revelatory about life in general. Like I said, it’s not a hopeful song, but I also don’t think it’s necessarily nihilistic. It just points out the truths and realities of life, for better or for worse. Some can and should be changed; some should but can’t, and the repetitive rhyming structure of the song that connects lines after a long series of breathless secondary rhymes highlights certain thoughts. The first 3 verses link the ideas “there is no sense in trying” with the fact that after we are born we are “busy dying,” and that you’re just “one more person crying.” It’s tough stuff, but it’s brilliant and after all, “it’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.” Ultimately, this simple acoustic, 7 minute plus song, contains one of my favorite lines to quote and paraphrase of all time. A line that either reminds us of the meaninglessness of life in any grand sense or is meant as an ironic and final biting critique of what we do to each other: “it’s alright Ma, it’s life and life only.”
Any artist could release an album this important and be done for a couple of years and nobody would complain. There’s so much in here to absorb. But of course, this is Dylan we’re talking about, and contrary to the last lines of the last song on this album, it’s actually not “all over now, Baby Blue.” Not by a long shot.