Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #37: All I Really Wanna Do

the colors of Friday were dull / as cathedral bells were gently burnin / strikin for the gentle / strikin for the kind / strikin for the crippled ones / an strikin for the blind

-Bob Dylan, 1963

(1)

As the time to start Another Side of Bob Dylan approached, I had a conversation with fellow uber-fan and long-time commenter Justin Shapiro about the triumvirate of acoustic albums that launched Dylan into the public consciousness, a triumvirate not as well-known as his electric triumvirate but nearly as strong musically and in terms of his career. I can't remember how Justin summed them up (it was better than mine, for the record), but my way of thinking of the 3 albums is Dylan's musical equivalent of Freud's 3 sections of the human consciousness. In this metaphor, Freewheelin' would be Dylan's best of both worlds ego, The Times his stentorian super-ego, and Another Side his blissfully uncontrolled id. This is a simplification, of course, but it seems to work pretty well - especially when it comes to Another Side, the end of Dylan's acoustic period and the key to what lay next in Bob Dylan's career.

The months between the release of The Times They Are A-Changin' and the recording of Another Side were as tumultuous as any in Dylan's life. The death of JFK, commemorated in the lines of poetry that began this post, had an obviously profound impact on Dylan, as seen in the now-infamous ECLC Tom Paine Award dinner speech where Bob said he saw a little of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. In the months afterward, Dylan met Alan Ginsberg and Carl Sandburg, drove across the country "talking to people in bars", ended one relationship (with Suze Rotolo) and started another (with Nico), began his walk down the dark corridor of extensive drug use, and - oh, yes - dramatically revamped his style of lyricism to match the more personal, introspective style he was writing about at the time. The stark clarity and monochrome us-vs-them words of The Times were gone, replaced with wild imagery, poetic phrases, and a dearth of issues-related writing. The Dylan that entered Columbia Studios on June 9th, 1964 was about a million miles away from the man that peered down at us, stern and serious, on the cover of his previous album.

And the album that Dylan of 6/9/64 created is as interesting as any he'd ever record, if not as good. It is an album without clear direction, without a unifying thread, full of amazing songs and somewhat less than amazing ones, practically carrying the weight of his career up to that point on his shoulders. Recorded with a couple of bottles of wine floating in his system, it bears the loose spontenaity that Dylan would bring to his official albums through his whole career. The lyrics are as outright poetic as he'd ever get, with less of the crazed, strung-out absurdity that marked his next few albums, but just as cryptic in many ways. And, as some Dylanologists have asserted, there are coded messages galore throughout, potshots at critics, the folk movement, and anybody Dylan felt like lashing out towards. The album is so rich in so many ways that you could almost excuse Bob for not including "Mr. Tambourine Man", with or without Bruce Langhorne's accompaniment, or "Mama, You Been On My Mind" (but that's just my personal opinion - it's impossible for me to love the song any more).

To me, after living with The Times for a month, Another Side feels like a breath of fresh air, an album that is allowed to open up and breathe without the weight of history and Important Issues resting on its back. As we all know, things were not so easy for Bob when it was released; the folk press castigated him for turning his back on the movement he'd done so much to advance, and the record-buying public didn't take to the album as much as his last two. Another Side has always been a challenge from a historical standpoint, not quite good enough to be in Dylan's galaxy of masterpieces, but far too good to simply be consigned to the dustbins like Down in the Groove. Some praise it as a creatively strong bridge between Dylan's acoustic and electric self, others see it as a simple transition album that holds only weak interest outside of its historical importance. It's a pretty hard album to properly contextualize.

Which is why I won't bother. Another Side has a ton of great songs on it, songs that I return to over and over again in their various incarnations, including the ones on the album proper. It's fun to listen for clues to who Dylan was giving the finger to, but it's just as fun to simply listen to the incredible lyrics to "My Back Pages" and "To Ramona". And, in the end, it's very satisfying to think about how long and hard the road was for Bob to reach this point, the pitfalls he avoided and the barbs he had to dodge, to reach the point where he could write music for himself that he knew he would enjoy listening to and singing on stage. As much as any in his career, this is a Bob Dylan album for Bob Dylan, and that's very cool indeed.

(2)

It makes sense, even if Dylan didn't mean to do it, to start this album off with "All I Really Want to Do", both the most playful song on the album and (if you believe some people), the most meaningful as well. "It Ain't Me, Babe" would've served the same purpose, but it feels right as a closing song, and I don't think it'd work as well as an opener. "All I Really Want to Do" lets you know right off the bat that things are taking a 90 degree turn from The Times - it's silly, playful, and delivered with the aural equivalent of a smile on its face (Dylan desperately tries not to crack up during the take, and finally loses it on the final verse). I mean, how can that "all I really wanna do-ooooooooooo" not put a smile on yours?

So, good ol' Wikipedia relates two of the possible "ulterior meanings" behind this song, which on its surface seems like a sweet little tune about a guy telling a girl (or vice versa) that he wants to keep things simple and just be friends, instead of having to deal with a billion headaches or make things more complicated than they should be. Actually, if you read the lyrics you could use them as the basis for justifying a one-night stand - especially the "I don't wanna meet your kin" line - and who knows, maybe Dylan thought that way as well, but didn't feel comfortable outright saying it in those more innocent times. You know what? Let me go ahead and advance a theory that may or may not already have been advanced, but I thought of just this second: Dylan wanted to parody songs like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Puppy Love" and treacly crap like that by taking the songs to their logical extreme, making a goofy paean to platonic love while actually winking and nudging us at the same time. How's THAT for analysis, Paul Williams?

Okay, sorry about that. So the first theory about the song is that Bob's singing to his listeners, telling them that he's not going to do anything more to the audience (i.e. lecture or proselytize to them) other than be friends with them. That's an obvious shift in focus, one that could only have been brought about by the crazy times Bob had just gone through, and seems rather likely as an interpretation. If nothing else, it speaks to Bob's frame of mind at that time, his withdrawl into more personal songwriting, and how easy it is to attribute a song like that to what we already know about the Dylan of 1964. The other theory, which actually seems equally plausible, is that the song is a parody of how men felt about the burgeoning feminist movement, making the amusing stretch that since women don't want to be put in boxes anymore, men will do everything they can to keep things platonic. Given Dylan's stance on women throughout his lifetime, it's not impossible to imagine him smirking as he wrote those lines.

You can have a lot of fun with these theories, or you can start a modest little online writing experiment in which you attempt to expound on these theories while also adding your own personal reflections on the songs being discussed (ahem). But you can take things a little too far and completely ruin your enjoyment of the song, to the point where you wish there was no such thing as Dylanology to get in the way of simply putting the tune on and letting it soak into your cerebral cortex. I mean, for any of you that have read Greil Marcus' infamous review of Self Portrait, think about Marcus' tortured metaphor about "As I Went Out One Morning" in regards to the Tom Paine Award debacle. While it's a cute little idea, and it serves to point out the larger theme (that Dylan's songs inspire that kind of introspection and deep thought), it also showcases just how much stuff can be pulled from our collective asses when it comes to these songs that we all love so much. To bring up Freud again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. We can occasionally forget that when it comes to Dylan's songs.

Thankfully, "All I Really Want to Do" is so upbeat, catchy, and happiness-inducing that no amount of esoteric theorizing can ruin my enjoyment of the track. It's obvious that Dylan enjoyed the song just as much (even though he can't play it anymore, because he has lost the range for that falsetto over the years), since his live performances always had that aural smile every time he sang the song. And after the oppressive attitude of the last album and its resulting pressures on Dylan's young head, doesn't it just warm your heart to hear him laugh on a song, like he's really enjoying himself and everything in his life isn't even there?

Bonus: A clip of Bob Dylan performing All I Really Want To Do at the Newport Festival 1965, from the "Festival" film (I think), complete with the uncomfortable "you know him, he's yours" intro that Bob probably must've chafed at hearing. Take extra caution to note the evil twinkle in his eye and subtle sneer on his face as he plans to ruin the lives of everybody in the audience with his demonic electric music from hell. Enjoy!

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6 comments:

Nathanael said...

I just discovered this 'blog through "Expecting Rain." Great stuff you've got here.

"All I Really Wanna Do" is one of those songs that one just can't help but laugh listening to. It's got a wicked nudge-nudge wink-wink quality that somehow manages never to get old even after repeated listens.

Pete Shanks said...

I am enjoying this ramble through the past more and more. Thanks! One comment: I'm pretty sure he left Tambourine Man and Mama (which I also love) off Another Side because he didn't nail the performances -- he's been wrong about this judgment over the years (Blind Willie!) but this time I think he was correct.

Keep up the good work.

Cody said...

"All I Really Wanna Do" is one of those very rare songs that I could listen to everyday and not get tired of at all. It works as a fun, litle song, but there is so much more to dig around for and discover inside of it.

Also, where is the opening line that you used in this post from? Is it from a live version of "Chimes of Freedom" with a lyrical reworking by Dylan? I just don't think I have ever seen it quite like that before.

Tony said...

Nathanael, thanks for the compliment. I feel the exact same way about the song.

Pete, thanks as well. I'm kind of surprised by that little tidbit you dropped; to my ears, the outtakes of both MYBOMM and Mr. Tambourine Man sound fine and perfectly releasable. But Bob's judgment is his judgment.

Cody, the opening line of the post is from a poem Bob wrote not too long after JFK's assassination. He ended up reworking the poem as "Chimes of Freedom".

Justin said...

I really enjoy the 1978 version of AIRWTD; I think it's one of the most successful of the '78 arrangements.

I think Mama You Been On My Mind is pretty well-realized, but that Mr. Tambourine Man doesn't approach the same heights as the next try, which is just one of the four or five most perfect performances he's ever done. I can do without Jack Elliot's harmony too. Waiting on that and Mississippi do bear out Bob's judgment a bit in the face of some of the other famous acts of album masochism. Although I can only think of about five other times when he returned to a song for another attempt after setting it aside at the previous album's sessions.

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