There is a danger in bringing it all back home: once you have gone out to New York city, shot the smack, got a taste of the speed, seen the sun rise over Manhattan, written like a dirty-faced highway Angel, and embraced Rimbaud’s template for visceral artistry, gone out to San Francisco and hung out with the beats on Jack Kerouac alley, and tasted the adulation of fame it is not likely that anything can be the same.
Dylan was hitchhiking south on a completely different road, one that Woody Guthrie had taken him down, when he heard the Minnesota loons calling him home. He left as a fake and returned as the Real Deal™. The boy with a fire in his head who pretended he had been a carnie ‘clean up boy’ and a ‘mainliner on the Ferris wheel’ in his debut interview with Cynthia Gooding in 1962 and who by 1963’s Studs Terkel WFMT interview was spinning tall tales about his own past involving knowing Big Joe Williams, travelling to Mexico just like Kerouac and Cassady, and being a train-car hoppin’ hobo before he came to NYC to make it as a folk-slinger, had been growing up in public. It is hard to reconcile the over-eager to please 21-year-old Dylan of his first foray into the media and publicity with the immensely mature artistic voice that transmits itself through The Ballad of Emmett Till. It is even harder to marry up the boy-howdy enthusiasm of ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ as Terkel refers to him, with the sheer confident genius of Dylan’s output by that point in time. His art outstripped his maturity; Dylan needed to catch up with himself.
I have much respect for anyone who counts these pre-electric albums as their absolute favorites. It takes a certain kind of stubbornness to hold onto the youthful beauty of Girl From The North Country and the strangely accomplished and mature poetry of A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall that came from the mind of the infant terrible, precociously talented young Dylan. Like Dylan said, with the benefit of hindsight in My Back Pages, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Those first two years of Dylan’s output were mythical, magickal. I don’t know who or what zeitgeist or spirit Dylan was channeling, or if he just hit on something naturally which was way beyond his maturity and years. Perhaps he went to that crossroads somewhere along Highway 61 and did a deal with a crossroads devil in exchange for writing like a dirty Angel with a fire in his head that flowed out onto the six strings and the page and the harmonica reeds. Whichever, whatever, Dylan’s youthful genius is set in 20th century rolling stone, pure vinyl, like some secular ten commandments of poetry and protest.
The very strange young man who wrote like his pen was on fire and played music as if he was hotwired into the American consciousness by way of folk traditional songs and the delta blues – some really strong ‘Texas medicine’, or else the ‘railroad gin’ of the Blonde on Blonde years, had to grow up sometime. He could not remain that holy figure whose spirit came from the Highway by way of Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac, but whose corporeal body was pure Minnesotan Iron Range homeboy. New York got hold of him, and for me, that is when things got really interesting.
Dylan was hitchhiking south on a completely different route, tearing into the rich goldmine of traditional American music, when he suddenly changed direction along with the wind, and started to bring everything, the ‘it all’ of the title of perhaps his most musically and poetically accomplished album, all the way back home to Minnesota, where time runs slow, and they get things quite a considerably longer amount of time after the urbane and sophisticated world of New York City ever does. Young Robert Zimmerman found a new self in New York, and New York found who Dylan was in return. He went there a tall-tale telling kid, and brought it all back home a Rimbaud-infused iconoclast with ‘one hand waving free’ on his way back to Highway 61 in Duluth.
Bringing It All Back Home serves as a prelude to his blistering debut on the electric hip scene shortly after, the earth shattering, Highway 61 Revisited. The two albums were written, recorded and released within five months of each other. It was a fast progression from the dalliance with electric that began with Subterranean Homesick Blues, and ended up with Dylan being called “Judas” at the Royal Albert Hall and launching into Like A Rolling Stone telling his thoroughly electric and rocking band to play it fucking loud. It is worth noting that Dylan’s blues were ‘homesick” and his statement of intent – the title of the album, draws the listener to the conclusion that he is fixing his blues by grounding himself back in his real roots, not the imagined ones of those early interviews. ‘Home’ is a theme that runs throughout the album.
Dylan exists in multiple realities: is as much the boy from the North Country as he is the ‘thin wild mercury’ antique who defined the music scene of New York City for an entire generation. He is both that earnest young man holding onto Joan Baez for dear life, like she is the life raft, and he is lost at sea, and also the supremely confident poetic voice of Gates of Eden, Girl from the North Country, and all those other numerous instant classics of his first four albums. He is both still the fresh-faced kid in a fiddler’s cap stealing the melody line for Dave Van Ronk’s reimagining of House of the Rising Sun, every piece of rare vinyl he could find, and a voice from Woody Guthrie, and an imagined early life too, and the sophisticated young man who re-emerged from New York City, to bring it back to Highway 61 and all those kids waiting for the 60s to hit the Iron Range.
Dylan had asserted his place within the folk tradition, with his big fish tales (any good Minnesotan boy has a few Big Fish stories), and unlike Ronk and his ilk, moved beyond covering the standards and the hidden gems, to write his own material. Dylan was a creature in flux, a walking contradiction, a man way ahead of his time. In fact, he was a man in his own time entirely. The first leap he made was to write his own material and float it onto the scene successfully. The next logical step along that lonesome highway was to continue his meteoric rise into the public consciousness by not getting bogged down in tradition, but to make new traditions for a new generation of travelers. Dylan looked towards the future, whilst being the most perfect personification of our collective poetic past that had managed to be birthed into a creative world in the last couple of hundred years.
Cohen wrote of Dylan in his Stranger Song, “when he talks like this you don’t know what he’s after’, and I sometimes wonder what it must feel like to be Dylan with people talking in superlative terms about his work, in a way that verges on secular idolatry. I am not ‘after’ anything when I talk like this, though I am wondering what Dylan is ‘after’ in his transitional period between his acoustic early years and his electric butterfly emergence from the roots and folk scene. How did a boy from the Iron Range find this creative wind that blew into his mind and blew all of our minds in return? From the very start he was not a human jukebox; he was not there to play what we expected. He was there to play the songs he was inspired to write and play. Dylan was not an instrument of the establishment, but a tool of change. Dylan was the wind of change blowing that inspired some of his greatest lines.
People who are prone to cliches often state that the journey is more important than the destination. Is the journey to Bring It All Back Home more important than the destination of Highway 61, visited once more? I would argue that they are two sides of the same coin. It is both important that Dylan left the Iron Range to seek his muse and fortune in New York City, and that he brought it all back home to that Highway that leads all the way down to the Delta blues and New Orleans, in a roadmap of what helped create his sound. It is vital that he returned to visit that intersection of home, Highway 61, that ran through Duluth until 1991 when the powers that be took it upon themselves to redesignate that which should have been left thoroughly alone. America is a young country intent on destroying its own history. Dylan sought to memorialize his own past whilst looking towards the future. Dylan brought his treasure back ‘home’, looked at his past through the lens of New York, and thus Highway 61 Revisited was born. That is a whole lot of milage to mine for inspiration, in fact it is thousands of miles of frustration, and yes, desolation too.
Desolation Row is not just a beat masterpiece, it is a re-examining of his past. It is an introspective look at Duluth from a man who left, made it big, and came back again, if only temporarily. Dylan is putting the ghosts of the Iron Range to bed. He is making his peace, paying his respects and moving on. None of us can move on from our pasts without examining and making our peace with them first.
Desolation Row is the companion piece to Subterranean Homesick Blues. His homesick blues is song of longing and yes, of being homesick for a world and place he understood, even if he did not quite fit in. He is telling his friends, those that grew up with him, all about life in the Big Apple. He is existing in a different kind of mine than the one he grew up around, probably expecting to be working in, just like any other Iron Range boy. He is underground just like they are, yes, but in a totally different way. Underground in New York City in the early 1960s was mining a seam of culture and beat sensibilities. He was digging for that vinyl gold, that big sound, that rare song that would break it all open, and put him on the path to musical and literary fame and fortune.
Being underground in Minnesota, with its taconite mines, is a somewhat less appealing prospect, and one that I have heard does not sound very sweet at all. It is loud and dirty and desperately unhealthy down there in the Minnesota mines. The musical mines of New York City are loud, dirty and desperately unhealthy in whole other way. The danger in the NYC musical gold mines are clubs where you have to fight for your sound to be heard over others. The danger in the Minnesota taconite mines is that your voice cannot be heard at all, drowned out by tumbling rolling stones. Lungs in the taconite mines fill up with toxic dust as they mine veins of mineral rocks. Veins in New York City, Dylan’s included, get filled up with the toxic fairy dust of heroin and amphetamines pretty fast on that brutal scene. The dirt of the New York City gutter breeds Desolation Row, but the desolation of living in one of those Iron Range towns, is one of knowing that your life begins and ends right there, in the cold, with very little happening in between. Dylan escaped. I suspect his mind escaped from Minnesota before his corporeal body made it to NYC. His mind is no stranger to the ‘roamin’ mind that he sings about in Boots of Spanish Leather: where the mind goes the body soon follows after, at least if you have the kind of indominable wandering soul that Dylan clearly possesses.
Faces come and go in Dylan’s life. Maggie’s face in Subterranean Homesick Blues, is ‘full of black soot’ – indicating that Maggie has come straight from the land of a 1000 lakes and even more taconite mines, which leave everybody who works in them, the only game in town, covered in black soot. Maggie is fresh from the journey to NYC, right from Minnesota, but she ain’t handling the transition well, paranoid and talking about being busted. The dangers Dylan faced, the path to success in NYC fraught with pits and traps and potential downfalls, are clearly exhibited in Maggie’s behavior. She is talking her way to jail on drug offences like any good paranoid druggie always does. Maggie has got those underground homesick blues, and Dylan has too. The medicine – the drugs, the alleyway drug dealers, the cops posing as underground purveyors of inspiration and chemicals, the struggle to find a dime for a bag is at the forefront of Dylan’s marvelous mind. There is never enough money, you are always a dollar short and a day late. Keeping a ‘clean nose’ and watching out for ‘plain clothes’ cops, dodging the jail which looms over the song as if Bob is living a real life game of Monopoly. The song chugs along in its boogie-woogie jive talking brilliance, capturing Dylan’s early days in New York City, before he became the rich and famous icon of the Underground he blossomed into. He is bringing the experience of New York back to Duluth. Those who didn’t make it out, who never made it free of the tiny towns, the bars in people’s front rooms, the snowy car crashes and the grimy lives of mediocre stability working in the mines and fields get to live vicariously through Dylan. The grainy recording of Dylan, Ginsburg and Bobby Neuwirth, with Dylan holding up cards, a kind of round robin letter home, shows Bob in his new native habitat. Desolation Row declares the ‘doornob broke’ – there is no way back home permanently, that door is closed to him as an option. The news coming in letters from home is mundane and rudimentary. How care? Play it fucking loud!
Meanwhile Dylan is living a more frenetic kind of life in New York City. The song is detailing both his early life in New York City, and those from back home who told him he was ‘gonna fail’ and have to ‘join the army’ if he failed like they just knew he would, and perhaps wanted him to as well. Sage advice born out of a small-town fear of the Big Smoke, warns the ‘kid’ about ‘getting hit’, going to jail, and being wary of unsavory characters. In return Dylan reports back that it is hard to tell if his songs are ‘gonna sell’. I suspect he was less forthcoming about news that he was ‘mixing up the medicine’ with Johnny in a basement, still underground, but in a way which suited the young poet better than taconite mining, and that his time was spent ‘getting sick’ and ‘getting well’ – procuring smack and codeine (and no doubt amphetamines too) doing the drugs, getting sick and copping and getting well again. The speed of life in the City, mirrored in the helter-skelter break-neck pace of his rap.
This earlier song is mirrored in the opening track of Highway 61 Revisited, Desolation Row that came hot on the heels of the slightly earlier album. Instead of the perfect little snapshot of the young Dylan, fresh from the road headed out from Minnesota, fighting to make an impact in the coffee shop and folk houses, we have a more experienced young man. Dylan might have made his journey sound more romantic than it was – I can’t imagine him having the same impact telling the radio shows that he struggled to escape a dreary and freezing cold mining town in Minnesota’s Iron Range, and thus bravely changing his destiny against all odds. It is lot less mythically appealing than saying he was hopping railroad cars and hanging out with the hobos and Carnival fairground workers, which is the lie he chose to go with instead. Perhaps it was not truly a lie, but instead a wish he had previously failed to fulfill. Gypsies might have appealed to Bob on a creative level, he is always telling ‘it’ to a gypsy of some sort, but he was not one. He was something more improbable: Bob was a Mid-Western escapee. His future seemed set, and despite parental pressure, having to leave his home and friends behind, he set out alone for the biggest baddest place he could think of that had some possibility of forging a future that he could embrace and find satisfaction in. Dylan gambled, thankfully, and it paid off for him. A possible future of being jailed for drug offences, sent out to Vietnam, and being not welcome back in his family home sat down a slightly different path where he failed to sell his songs. “20 years of schooling and they put you on the day shift” says it all: that was not a future the young Dylan was going to accept. It was do or go to Vietnam. Dylan was going to escape to Desolation Row.
Five months later, Dylan’s voice is full of smoke and smack, his rasp has taken on a dreamy quality, and so has his music. That initial meteoric rise and smashing into fame and fortune has mellowed out into a daily big city routine and a set of new faces. Much has been written about Desolation Row that need not be repeated here – there is much speculation of who each of those faces were that Dylan renamed so he could take his artist’s palette knife to their lives.
Dylan became a Van Gogh of words and notes, splattering piercing cerulean blue and Magen David star yellow, his sword and his shield, against a canvas of tape and stage to see what stuck. The entire song is a love letter to his old friends in Minnesota, reporting ‘home’ from his new home away from home. I can almost imagine Duluth gathered around the radio, all those little Minnesota towns full of good people, and all those reservations with their deprivations and community in groups and alone, waiting for more news from New York from their favorite native-son. “What does the kid have to say now, Ano?” “What is Robert doing now, Toivo?” Dylan is speaking directly to them, dragging back his knowledge, both good and bad, all the way back home; all the way back to Highway 61 where it rises up the banks of Lake Superior, freezing along the way. Dylan’s life before New York is set out simply in Homesick Blues:
Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Born into the freezing cold snowy Minnesota frozen wasteland, as unforgiving as any wasteland TS Elliot ever wrote about. Keeping warm is a constant concern and endeavor. Then comes the short pants. Grow up a bit, and then there are girls, dances, developing a sense of personal style, go to ‘get blessed’ in his bar mitzvah…and before you know it, try and ‘be a success’. Please your mother. Please your father. Be good. Be moral. It is only a few lines to the day shift at the taconite mine and a life that for someone like Bob, would barely be worth living. The advice to ‘look out’ and that ‘they keep it all hid’ sounding like fatherly concern to his young wayward New York-bound son. Like Lou Reed sang years later in Coney Island Baby, “You gotta stand up straight unless you’re gonna fall/Then you’re going to die.” Dylan must have known the risks he was taking in heading out to bring home the gold, instead of the taconite with a sooty face, instead of a dirty opiated and speed-filled brain that somehow found a groove to settle into that benefitted not just him, and his old home town, but also all of us who cared to listen to the audible postcards and snapshots of pioneering spirit and bravery that Dylan sent to us through the airwaves.
The girl of She Belongs To Me is an idealized fresh-faced poppet. She has everything she needs, and everything the head-over-heels Dylan needs too. She is a sophisticated girl who is the essence of New York: her Egyptian ring, her very New York sophisticated style, her exotic ‘hypnotist’ collections, and her trumpet and drum, and the eager to please adulation: Dylan is bringing his girlfriend back home to meet his friends and family. It is a loving and gentle song of adoration, every bit as folksy and cute as his ‘Girl From the North Country’, and so is she. The wholesome but enticing portrait of his girl, the one that belongs to him, stands in stark contrast to Queen Jane, of Desolation Row. Innocence is lost. The Death of Queen Jane was a folk standard played in the coffee houses and folk bars of the Village. Queen Jane of the folk standard, is dying in labor. . His girlfriend at the time, the lovely Suze Rotolo, abortion of Dylan’s baby is brought to mind. No writer exists in a vacuum. To have the baby would have killed his career, killed his labor of love. Dylan is both the King and the soul birthing a new era. His Queen Jane is no longer idealized and put upon a pedestal to show off back home. This Dylan is a far more louche and loose creation, than the kid who threw himself upon the New York scene, with his future put as stake upon the table. He lost his Queen Jane, his relationship with Suze did not survive the abortion, but she at least did not die from a back room abortion, she lived and went along her way, just another casualty of Desolation Row.
The girl who belonged to him, is now being mocked, with some of that cutting spite making it onto the tape, a bad taste in the mouth left by the vitriol of Ballad in Plain D, of the stand out track of Another Side of Bob Dylan, the album that precedes Bringing it All Back Home. He doesn’t want the girl to be his. He has no desire to play King Henry to her Queen Jane. He has no desire to puppy-dog after this girl, instead he is offering to see her, conditionally, whilst pointing out her various failings. The Dylan that cared, that still was solely affectionate and sweet, has got a sour edge, and boy oh boy does it sound good. Is it a surprise, though that the young people were calling him Judas? Queen Jane, I bet was not feeling so friendly towards Dylan and his snipes and devil-may-care louche, ‘take it or leave it, babe’ attitude. Dylan has grown up and into himself. He knows what he wants, and he is a man not taking any prisoners, nor putting up with any velcro-girl antics, and who knows his worth and he knows what direction the wind is blowing. he has got a taste of success and nothing is going to stand in his way. There is growth and there is regression between the two albums, but no matter if Dylan is being a folksy-sweetheart, or he has a little growl in his voice and steel in his attitude, there is progression. No one stays the same forever, and Dylan proved himself not one to be dictated to.
After all Dylan broke out away from his Iron Range destiny, and forged a new destiny, a new future, to bring back home and write about. He was about to bring it all back home, and the real magic that really happened once he got there was about to set the scene, and indeed the world, on fire.