By Tony Attwood
Having delivered a straight 12 bar blues on track 5 of Bringing it all back home, with Outlaw Blues, Dylan then delivers (in terms of lyrics if nothing else) a post-modern quirky variation on track 6 with Outlaw Blues.
The harmonica wails, the lead guitar starts its three note arpeggio which is maintained throughout the whole of the song, apart from the odd occasion where the guitarist forgets, and off we go.
Everything is classic blues in terms of the chord sequence (I, I, IV, I, V, IV, I) with the penultimate chord change implied as the band stops and Dylan sings his last line of the song.
There is however a surrealism here which is not seen in your traditional “Woke up this morning” blues. We get that traditional first line and maybe we expect something akin to the blues (although incidentally Dylan clearly sings “wake” not “woke” as given on BobDylan.com):
Well, I wake up in the morning
There’s frogs inside my socks
Yes, well, this ain’t gonna be normal. Is it?
Your mama, she’s a-hidin’
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearin’
A Napoleon Bonaparte mask
Then you ask why I don’t live here
Honey, do you have to ask?
And that is the most sensible verse! After that we have costume changes, a pet monkey, Santa Claus in the fireplace, a dirty hot dog… and eventually Dylan says what we are all thinking:
Honey, I gotta think you’re really weird
It is just crazy… and not something that is tried very often, although Jack White has had a go with the Raconteurs many years later.
This is not a song that most Dylan fans would play over and over, but it is an interesting statement on this album, being about as far away from side 2 of the original LP as it is possible to get. Dylan is saying, “Look what I can do to the blues” in four of the songs on side one, with just the two ballads (She belongs to me, Love minus zero) standing out as different.
But the question we were left asking is, “well, yes, ok you can write surreal lyrics and fit them into a blues song. But…?” Sometimes the mixup of the blues is indeed truly original, as with Subterranean Homesick Blues, and sometimes, as here, the best we can say is, its an experiment, but is also most likely to be a dead-end.
And so most of us wore out side two of the original LP, playing Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s Alright ma, and It’s all over now baby blue, and gradually Outlaw Blues was forgotten.
But then to have Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It’s Alright ma, and It’s all over now baby blue, all on one side of one album would be a lifetime’s achievement for most writers. For Dylan it was just one side of one album.
And in some ways it was just the start.