Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #53: On The Road Again

When you think about the Bob Dylan of 1965 and the place he was inhabiting in the musical landscape, a song like this one can tell you just as much about where he stood as any of the classics on the album. That's not to say that this song is a classic the way "Subterranean Homesick Blues is"; what I'm saying is that "On The Road Again" shows you exactly where his head was at and why this album became as popular as it did. Lest we forget, it peaked at #6 on the Billboard charts, a great showing for what (as I'd previously mentioned) was essentially Dylan's debut album in the popular music market. And a song as seemingly innocuous as this one, which might (unkindly) be viewed as filler for the electric side of this album, is actually an example of the looser, more relaxed Dylan we saw on Freewheelin', capable of funny imagery and jokey lyrics, only translated to his new metier.

It is interesting, and a little informative, to take a look at the albums and the hit singles that were released in 1965, the year after Beatlemania and the British Invasion changed everything, and the year where rock music expanded outside songs about fucking (or, in most cases, implied fucking). In a funny way, as much as an entire year can be seen as a transition year, 1965 can. What the Beatles did on their arrival in America in 1964, along with sell ungodly amounts of albums and cause untold amounts of young girls to lose their voices at their concerts, was to legitimize the idea of rock music as something that could be more than three chords and a nifty guitar solo; in other words, rock wasn't just something you could dance to at a high school prom, but something you could admire on a deeper level. But, as intricate and introspective as many great songs from this year were ("In My Life" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" were released in this year, for starters), rock hadn't quite reached the next level of 1966 (Revolver and Pet Sounds pushed both the limits of production and lyricism) or 1967 (which I don't need to spell out for you). It was like music knew which way it had to go to become viable as an art form as well as a popular medium, but was struggling to figure out that path.

And into that void leapt Bob Dylan, who was still trying to figure out how to properly match his increasingly crazy, out-there lyrics to that "rock" stuff all the kids were talking about (in some cases, he didn't quite succeed, and that's why we have Tarantula - you don't think he'd have turned that book into 20 more songs if he could have?). While there were previous artists that had tapped into the surreal, that had tried to expand their lyrics outside the well-worn realm of boy-meets-girl or hey-guys-let's-party, and that had tried to marry the worlds of the poetic and the mainstream, none of them knew quite how to do it the way that Dylan did with his Electric Trilogy. This isn't something any of us Dylan fans didn't know - hell, it's something we're all incredibly proud of - and yet it bears repeating: in a world where the Beatles still sang songs like "The Night Before" and Motown hadn't quite expanded their boundaries of subject matter yet, there was Dylan, pushing the limits of rock, and bringing a whole new aesthetic to what you could write about in song form. Hell, we probably wouldn't have gotten Rubber Soul and everything that came after without him, and that alone is worth it.

All the same, Highway 61 Revisited did not spring fully formed from Dylan's head like Athena tearing out of Zeus's skull; there had to be moments of Dylan learning to fly, figuring out where he could take his mind in terms of writing lyrics, and what worked as brilliance and what just made people laugh. "On The Road Again" is an example of that transition, where Dylan took his Tarantula style of writing (non sequitur after non sequitur), jammed some lyrics into a conventional song verse style, and set it in a band environment (I'm amused to mention that the song only uses three chords - hey, he was learning!). The result is a song that works both on an entertainment level (when are monkeys ever not funny?) and a historical level as well - this is Dylan learning the ropes of what he wanted to do, not quite hitting a home run, but settling for a solid double instead.

I suppose, then, that this album is often cited as the weakest of the Electric Trilogy (with, again, "weakest" being a relative term). To me, what makes the second and third albums so incredible is that they feel so seamless, like every song contributes to the greater whole, and even the weaker songs (say, "Temporary Like Achilles" or "From A Buick 6") contribute to the fabric and feel almost indispensable when it comes to assessing what makes the album so great. You don't quite get the same feel on Bringing It All Back Home - a song like "Outlaw Blues" or "On The Road Again" aren't as strongly tied into the rest of the album, and the whole "two sides" concept makes the album's overall arch suffer just a little bit. Maybe it would be different if the songs had been mixed together - say, if "On The Road Again" had been a bridge between "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Maggie's Farm" or something like that, then maybe there would be more of a "fabric woven together" feel. But they aren't, so there isn't. Instead, "On The Road Again", with its off the wall imagery and comic-book feel, makes you realize what Dylan had to achieve in order to make a "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and a Blonde on Blonde, and how far he had to come in his musical style.

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Alan Hughes said...

I always thought this song had something to do with his relationship with Joan Baez. Perhaps she was upset at him for leaving the folk music scene and going electric, and he retaliates by pointing out all the things wrong with the music scene from the dysfunctional family to the violent pets. She asks why he doesn't "live here" - "honey, why don't you move?". Dylan is chastising Baez for being angry at him for leaving folk, as he sees electric as the more easy, fun and frankly enjoyable scene.

Thoroughly enjoying your blog, its great to read while listening to the master himself.

Gronk said...

"Even the butler, he's got something to prove" ... Love it! I agree that 'Outlaw' and 'On The Road Again' are lesser songs, but of the two I much prefer this one. An interesting idea about whether the album would have worked better with a shuffled tracklisting, I might give it a go and see how it sounds. Would've certainly been different. Having 3 12-bar blues songs in a row does get a little samey I guess.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, thanks again for your interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.