Spotlight: Bob Dylan – Another Side Of Bob Dylan

The sound of a bridge being set on fire…

Folk fans like sincerity, the truthfulness of roots. They do not like progress. Mike Bloomfield (it’s his visceral guitar on Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’) remembers that “Lightnin’ Hopkins had been making electric records for 12 years,” but at Newport Folk Festival, he looked “like they had just taken him out of the fields”.

Bob Dylan started out by concealing his origins. By 1963, he may as well have sprung fully formed from ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. That song galvanised the civil rights movement. Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ in response to it. No wonder Dylan’s fans wanted to keep him toiling in the fields of this plain-speaking poetics.

Then he started yodelling.

On the first track of August 1964’s ‘Another Side…’, ‘All I Really Want To Do’, he sings: “All I really want to do-ooo-oooo-oo-o-oo is baby be friends with you.” What happened? Why is he cajoling some poor woman into bed with a long list of disclaimers (“I ain’t looking to compete with you / Beat or cheat or mistreat you”)? The sexual politics – the promises and sly equivocation, the insincere offer of friendship – are amusingly outrageous. So are the lines in ‘I Shall Be Free No. 10’: “Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it, hope I don’t blow it.” But 50 years ago, they were alienating and, worse, silly.

On ‘Another Side…’, Dylan’s sometimes a seriously dislikeable bastard. In ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, “Everything inside is made of stone / There’s nothing in here moving”. Dylan is a thing. Nothing’s moving – he can’t feel, he doesn’t have a pulse. He’s heartless and he proves it by admitting that “I’m not alone” without a trace of the old ‘Don’t Think Twice’ sandpapery melodrama in his voice.

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‘To Ramona’

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Dylan’s guitar playing is broad-shouldered and full and clean, without the haste of his first, eponymous album of 1962, the intricacy of his second or the anger of his third. But in a disorientating juxtaposition, the world of ‘To Ramona’ is “a vacuum, a scheme” in which “deep in my heart I know I can’t help / Everything passes, everything changes”. These lines are bleaker than anything on his most recent LP ‘Tempest’, recorded half a century later.

What’s his problem? In ‘My Back Pages’, he remembers when he used to “speak the word [equality] as if a wedding vow,” in a world of sharply-defined “good and bad”. This is “the world that just don’t exist”, in which “I become my own enemy the instant that I preach”. Does that make ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ dishonest? No. But Dylan was older then. He’s younger than that now: he doesn’t want the responsibility.

Fifty years on, ‘Another Side…’ is the sound of marriage vows being broken; Dylan is cheating on the promises (we thought) he made to us. It wasn’t about where he came from – it’s about where he went. He confounded those who wanted to simplify, classify, define, confine, analyse, categorise, dissect or inspect him. It’s a big f*ck you to Newport and to people like me, basically. Bloomfield and company were yet to come, but this album is the sound of a bridge being set on fire.

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Words: Freddy Syborn

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