‘I was beginning to believe that all black men were bad men
and white men would reign again
I was beginning to believe that I was a mindless drugs freak that
couldn’t control my sanity or my sexuality
I was beginning to believe that I could not believe in nothing except nothing
and all I ever wanted to do was to get you and to do you.
I’ve been listening to the wrong radio station.’
Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘Rong Radio’
Stereotyping is a hot topic at the moment. Simmering at the heart of the recent, controversial shooting of Alton Sterling is the criminal stereotype of black, male Americans. Without a doubt, negatively stereotyping people can cause strife, sometimes resulting in violence and vile racism.
However, despite the bad press stereotypes often attract, they are an essential aspect of how our brains work. They operate as shortcuts, reducing the vast amount of information our brains would normally have to process by categorising our knowledge of the big, bad world into neat pigeonholes. And most of the time, it must be said, they actually come in pretty handy. You’re walking in a field and come across a bull. You’ll most likely run as a bull fits your dangerous animal stereotype. It saves you precious time having to assess from the animal’s body language whether it poses a threat to you or not. You’re not going to stick around to find out if this is a friendly bull!
It’s when a stereotype doesn’t fit with the reality of a situation that it becomes an obstacle to understanding of others and of self instead of an aid to it – when we’re listening to the ‘wrong radio station’ as Zephaniah would put it . Sometimes, negative stereotypes can restrict a person’s taste in music. Perhaps the most damaging one is ‘chart music is the best music.’ Certain genres can also suffer: ‘all there is to techno music is BOOM TISS BOOM TISS!’
Individual artists too can fall victim to the oversimplified categorisation stereotypes encourage. Until about two years ago, I had little time for Bob Dylan. I was aware of the sky-high regard he is held in but for some reason I presupposed his music to be fusty and boring… and that harmonica was far too screechy! How wrong I was…
I took the leap and listened to ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.’ After about three or four listens, I was hooked. Fast forward two years and ‘BIABH’ is the fourth Dylan record I’ve listened to and it’s a strong contender for my favourite. The first instalment of the electric trilogy, ‘BIABH’ was a deliberate bridge between his early folk stylings and later rock leanings – the seven tracks on side one comprise the electric half; meanwhile, the four songs on side two are just Dylan, his acoustic guitar and his harmonica.
The song writing on side two in particular is mesmerising: four breathtakingly vivid, elegantly weaved, lyrical masterpieces. But we’ll get to them in a bit…
Side one opens with the rollicking ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ Dylan’s highest charting single at the time. The top-tapping lilt of the busy drums and lively bass jangle along urgently while Dylan cautions against the various ways the government shaft you, ‘Twenty years of schoolin’ / And they put you on the day shift.’
* As you’d expect, the copyright control on Dylan is very tight so most of the videos below are slightly different versions of the studio mixes that appear on the album.
‘She Belongs To Me’ offers an interesting, wry view of obsessive love. The song title jars with the lyrics which suggest the opposite is true, ‘She’s a hypnotist collector / You are a walking antique.’ A gorgeous little tune. ‘Maggie’s Farm’ is one of his more well-known numbers, Dylan reverting back to the blues of the opener. The metaphorical ‘Maggie’s Farm’ can represent whatever it is the listener has a gripe about – your boss, your other half, the government, your mother! Whoever is getting your goat right now, listening to this is bound to send a surge of injustice through your veins. Dylan’s drawl is the epitome of a man at his wit’s end, brimming with fatigue and disgust.
Another sweetly crooned love song – ‘Love Minus Zero / No Limit’ – arrives next and sees Dylan contemplating an idealized, absolute love, ‘She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful / Yet she’s true like ice, like fire.’ Meanwhile, ‘Outlaw Blues’ sketches the restless mind state of a man on the run, a twitchy guitar setting a tense tone to Dylan’s wanderlust, ‘Oh, I wish I was on some / Australian mountain range.’ It’s hard to imagine a place more remote than that! A whim that reveals a yearning for solitude and anonymity, something we all seek from time to time.
‘On The Road’ sees Dylan in humorous mood. Full of absurd meanderings, it’s quite a catchy song, ‘Well, I go to pet your monkey / I get a face full of claws / I ask who’s in the fireplace / And you tell me Santa Claus.’ ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ is my least favourite on the album. It’s amusing but too long and rambling for my liking.
Side two opens with the inimitable ‘Mr Tambourine Man:’ a fascinating song with interesting parallels to the poem ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ by John Keats. Both narrate a metaphysical escape to a fantasy realm; but while Dylan chooses the medium of music to leave behind ‘The ancient empty street too dead for dreaming,’ Keats uses wine to forget a world ‘Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.’ There’s an abundance of memorable lines, among my favourite being:
‘Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.’
To me, this is a supreme expression of music’s power to defy the mundane and ‘lift’ you up, to totally absorb your attention for a moment in time and inspire you to forget about your worries at least for a while. Dylan’s languid delivery – the way he strings out the lines like musical notes drifting into the air – aptly mirrors the wandering nature of the speaker’s thoughts. Enchanting, poetic and surreal, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is that rare type of song that can tip you into the uncanny region between a deep thought and a trance.
‘Gates Of Eden’ is decidedly more pessimistic in tone but the imagery is equally abstract. I read this song as a criticism of the double standards of religious zealots who believe life should be all doom and gloom for everyone but for them the chosen ones. It’s a particularly powerful message when viewed through the lens of the recent, uncovered, historic abuse committed by the Catholic Church, ‘As he weeps to wicked birds of prey / Who pick up on his bread crumb sins / And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden.’ The ‘Gates of Eden’ can be interpreted as any religious institution that promises its followers passage to paradise in exchange for unyielding devotion – the ‘gates’ being the means by which you gain access to a place just like a church is the means by which you gain access to God and ultimately the afterlife, ‘And on their promises of paradise / You will not hear a laugh / All except inside the Gates of Eden.’ I love how he delivers the last three lines of each verse in that knowing, doleful air of finality.
‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ is yet another Dylan masterstroke, matching the bleakness of its predecessor. Here, he confronts more of the inconsistencies he sees in modern society. At one point, he decries the influence of consumerism on our lives,
‘Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.’
Not much has changed since the 60s then! There’s a goldmine of unforgettable lines in this song too – without a doubt, one of his most poetic pieces of song writing. The guitar chords sound so lonely and sparse, echoing Dylan’s sense of alienation. That refrain always floors me too, especially the closing one, ‘But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.’ It sounds quite nihilistic yet also so liberating at the same time: I read it as Dylan declaring ‘Life is short and ultimately meaningless so be sure to carve out you own path – don’t be limited by the shackles society places on you which I have outlined to you in this song.’ Addressing this to his ‘Ma’ just makes this sentiment all the more personal and moving. A powerful tune.
Having listened to the three previous works of genius, you might be forgiven for thinking Dylan might run out of steam by the album’s denouement… but you’d be terribly wrong. ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ may just be the greatest album closer ever! Like the other three gems on side two, this song is wide open to interpretation and that’s what makes this one in particular so brilliant – you can listen to it anytime you are undergoing a big change in life; it will suit the mood perfectly! Dylan paints a variety of unstable images, conveying the periods of turbulence we all have to endure during times of change, ‘This sky, too, is folding under you.’ However, we can rest assured we will be entering this new dawn stronger for having gone through the change, ‘Take what you have gathered from coincidence.’ Also, we’re told, sometimes it’s grab the opportunities that life haphazardly throws at you, ‘Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.’ So, though on the surface this wonderful song is about the heartache and pain that change can cause you, at its heart I think Dylan is communicating that ultimately change is something to be embraced. In the end, a fresh start is better than a stale ending, ‘Strike another match, go start anew.’
Only being four albums in, I can lay no claim to being an expert on Dylan; however, I strongly doubt that he will match the refined eloquence and condensed, poetic drama that side two of ‘BIABH’ has on offer. Surely, it has to be the most hallowed suite of songs on any Dylan album?
So there’s living proof that sometimes it does us the world of good to challenge our negative stereotypes. I wouldn’t advise you to pet a bull the next time you see one, but definitely give this album a listen if you’re currently harbouring your own negative stereotype of Bob Dylan, folk music, your dad’s music or just tunes that don’t make it into the charts – there’s more to life than this as Björk would say.