Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #83: Positively 4th Street

In the wonderful essay he wrote for the official release of the 1966 Manchester show, Tony Glover mentioned the release of "Positively 4th Street", Dylan's follow-up single to "Like A Rolling Stone". I wish I could remember exactly how he described the song, but it was something to the effect of "a paler version of 'LARS' with inferior lyrics". Which sounds harsh, certainly, but I'm pretty sure that's the opinion that many of this site's readers may have about the song. On a surface level, the songs have quite a bit in common - the arrangements both prominently feature signature organ lines, and the lyrics are a harsh indictment of somebody that the songs' narrators seem to know a lot about. And when you compare the two songs that way, "Positively 4th Street" is always going to come out the loser. That's why I said it was unfortunate in the last entry that Dylan chose to play both of them at the same show in '66 - by playing them back to back, not only does it highlight how similar they both sound, but it actually robs both songs of their power because of those similarities. That's never a good thing.

"Positively 4th Street" has always sort of been "LARS"'s little brother, from the moment that it was slotted to follow "LARS" as Dylan's next single. It's hard enough to have to be the follow-up to that masterpiece, but its very nature tends to open it up to a lot more criticism than it might deserve. I mean, "Positively 4th Street" is a great song. It might not be up there amongst Dylan's best (depending on who you ask), but it's certainly worthy of consideration. After all, the song came out of the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, where Dylan was just a factory of great songs to begin with, and he had the same crack band behind him to give the tune life and power. Everybody remembers that organ bit, but for me the real highlight of the musical portion is Michael Bloomfield and Dylan's guitars interacting with each other, the rhythm guitar track laid on particularly thick and Bloomfield's fills just working its way around it. I've always loved that jangly guitar that (I assume) Dylan's playing, and it's probably at its most prominent here.

So you've got that exceptional band laying down the music, but that's only half of the battle. What is most interesting to me about the lyrics to this song is how utterly direct they are, especially in this period of Dylan's career. I would say that they have more in common with the emotional soul-baring of Blood on the Tracks than most of the Electric Trilogy, but even the lyrics of songs like "Tangled Up in Blue" have that impressionistic mind-picture quality (with the heartache neatly mixed in) to link them with the Dylan of the 60s, so that you knew you were listening to the same guy even when everything sounded so much more different. There's no wild imagery, no oddball poetic touches, nothing to soften the acidity of Dylan's lyrics here. He's just laying his anger and bitterness right out there, in twelve verses that spare absolutely no quarter. And I can certainly see how people might not like that, in their lack of any sort of literary cushioning, and would demean the song for it. I actually find Dylan's directness bracing, and kind of refreshing; after all the "Dylanesque" songs I've posted about, it's kind of nice to get a song that dispenses with the Tarantula shit and just gets nasty.

I realize that this appeals entirely to the baser instincts of both myself and mankind in general, but there's something kind of...I don't know, brilliant about the way Dylan could just release that venom into such an exceptional song. The venom isn't entirely coherent and seemingly bounces between pathos and self-pity and anger from verse to verse, but it's still there and it's still tremendously potent. And it's hard not to be jealous of that talent - Bob's ability to take these pent-up emotions and just let them go, in those words, is something I've often wished that I've had throughout my lifetime. And it's not because I'm some sort of hateful guy; on the contrary, I always do whatever I can to be nice to people and to avoid conflict (some of you that actually know me in real life are probably rolling their eyes, but I'm being serious here). All the same, I've had my moments in my life where I've had some anger towards somebody, and I've wished I had the ability to just bring it out, to really sting somebody with my words and make them feel as badly as I felt. Sadly, I don't have that kind of ability. But Bob does, or did, and we have the proof.

I often wonder if Dylan, as he's reached the twilight of both his lifetime and his epic career, looks back at the songs that he wrote as a young man, often full of vitriol and sharp words against his foes (real and imagined), and feels any regret about the way he wielded that sword he kept tucked away in his mind in those years. We know that he's felt remorse about "Ballad in Plain D", saying that he "wishe(s) he'd left that one alone", so it's entirely possible that he feels the same way about songs like these. I wouldn't doubt it - after all, the things that seem so very important to you when you're a young man (Bob was in his mid-twenties when he wrote these songs; it is impossible to conceive of somebody that young being that successful at his craft, unless he plays professional sports or something) seem much less important, maybe not even important at all, in your older days. Somehow, though, I don't really think that's how Bob feels. I like to think that he looks back on those days, when everything moved and changed at a speed nobody could conceive, smiles that little enigmatic Bob smile of his, and says to himself "man, that was a hell of a burn, wasn't it?" And not of malice, or because his hatred still burns within him - simply because it was one hell of a burn.

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rob! said...

Considering he still plays P4S at shows, he must not feel too bad about it.

Conversely, when--if ever--has he played Ballad in Plain D in concert? I think that might be the one song in his entire canon that we can guarantee he will never, ever do live.

Anonymous said...

Honest expression is a good thing,as long as we don't get stuck in a negative place.Time moves on and so should we,but reflecting on our past thoughts and growing is a good thing That's probably why Bob still sings the song,he can sing it with feeling,and like it or not it's a feeling alot of us can relate to.

Pete said...

I've always thought P4S was laugh-out-loud funny, too. Hmmm, is "She's Your Lover Now" coming on up? Now, there's a barrel of laughs.

That's not to disagree with the point about directness; I like this post a lot.

Anonymous said...

In the summer of 1967, a friend started using marijuana. When he sensed my condemnation of him, he invited me to his parents' living room and played POSTIVELY FOURTH STREET for me on the stereo. I had never heard Bob Dylan before that day. I thought the song was wretched, but somehow I got hooked on Dylan. The friend and I hitchhiked thousands of miles together the next summers. When we were in San Francisco in 1969, he sang WICKED MESSENGER into the faces of some straight tourists, who promptly beat him up.

maready said...

I've just discovered your blog and am having a fun time reading your excellent and insightful analyses. Believe it or not, I never even thought to compare 'Rolling Stone' and 'Fourth Street' before, either musically or lyrically! The point you make about the unusual directness of 4th street is a very good one --- unlike LARS or 'Thin Man' Dylan doesn't bother to hide behind metaphors or catch-phrases. Philosophically, however, the songs lyrics are so much more than just a put-down --- 'you just want to be on the side that's winning' and 'what a drag it is to be you', in the context of the confrontation the singer stages here have a political and epistimological weight that is very very deep.

Despite the song's provenance in the Highway 61 sessions, my preference is (in this ITunes age) to substitute it for Rainy Day Women to kick off Blonde on Blonde. It's a killer of an album opener, and fits so well lyrically with songs like "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat", and musically with the other organ-based tunes on the record. "rainy day women' was always the one flaw in my personal Blonde on Blonde experience, but this makes the whole thing flawless to my ears.

Thanks again for such a great blog --- really making the hours go by at the office!

David George Freeman said...

Hello Bob Dylan fans, had enough reading about this great song? Then lift the lid on Bob Dylan's Music Box and come inside and listen to the original and all the top versions