By Tony Attwood
Can you perform a 12 bar blues using a trombone, tuba, piano, bass, percussion, and a constant tambourine sitting on each and every beat? And a load of extras shouting interruptions and comments too?
Well, yes, here it is. The opening track of Blonde on Blonde.
And so we ask the question: why bother? Why produce this song? Why put it as the opening song of your first double album?
We had had “Bringing it all Back Home” in 1965 which started with Subterranean Home Sick Blues and concluded with Tambourine Man, Eden, It’s Alright Now, and Baby Blue. An utterly stunning set. Subterranean was a bit of a knock about extended 12 bar blues but it has meaning and message.
Then we had “Highway 61” which opened with Rolling Stone (perhaps the greatest Dylan song of all time) and ended with Desolation Row (ditto). And then in 1966 we were offered Blonde on Blonde which opens with Rainy Day, and ends with Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and takes in Visions of Johanna and Just like a woman en route.
Is there a pattern? In one sense no, for neither Rainy Day nor Sad Eyed Lady are remotely near the quality of the opening and conclusion of those two previous albums. But in a sense yes, because this is the time when Dylan got a lot of criticism for moving from the folk of the solo guitar and singer, and instead gave us a rock band. But what he also gave us after moving over to an electric band was incredibly serious and insightful, often mournful songs, songs which compound metaphor upon metaphor, challenging us to see everyday life in a totally new way. He gave us vicious songs, love songs, atmospheric songs and yes comic songs. Just consider for a moment the lyrics of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Well, you look so pretty in it
Honey, can I jump on it sometime?
Yes, I just wanna see
If it’s really that expensive kind
You know it balances on your head
Just like a mattress balances
On a bottle of wine
Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
How silly do you want to be? And if that’s not enough, consider the Mighty Quinn.
Dylan has always loved the standard three chord 12 bar blues, and I think he probably wanted this knock about farce as the opening either talk about criticism, or to stick his fingers up at all sorts of people; the pretentious who (like me, I must admit) were reading deep meanings into his lyrics, the purists who refused to go beyond the first three albums, the protesters who wanted more “Times they are a changing”, the post-modern poet-musicians who wanted more “Please Crawl Out your Window”, the social commentators who wanted more “Desolation Row”. Everyone wanted Dylan to do what they wanted.
So like Duchamps famous Toilet, Dylan simply says, “take that and work it out for yourselves.” But as I will try and show below, I think it is also about the whole nature of being a creative person in a society of critics.
So we have a song that starts each line with “They’ll stone ya” and which ends “everybody must get stoned!”. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, as the old saying went – and became, almost literally, in this record. “It’s all about drugs,” screamed the moralists and the radio stations that refused to play it (just about the best recommendation Dylan could get).
Actually, I want to break off for a moment, and think about that banning by radio stations. The notion presumably is that people will find what they take to be a pro-drugs song as offensive, and an encouragement to break the law. Really? Were there really any people who heard Rainy Day and thought, “oh, I’ve never tried dope – let’s have a go”. I doubt it.
So, what to make of it as a piece of music? Well, apart from the accompaniment, in one sense, not much. The shouting of “Yes they will” is amusing for a couple of listens, and then becomes just plain annoying and painful. The lyrics go nowhere in particular…
Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good
They’ll stone you just a-like they said they would
They’ll stone you when you’re trying to go home
Then they’ll stone you when you’re there all alone
…unless of course it isn’t about smoking dope at all. Who are the Rainy Day Women? What if they are a metaphor for the critics of Dylan’s music – in which case the stoning is a metaphor for criticism. And maybe the title is just a throw-away line with no meaning at all. “Hey guys, let’s call it Rainy Day Women numbers 12 and 35, that should keep the pretentious idiots arguing for a while, and let’s put a full brass section in as an accompaniment – that should really tie them up in knots.”
If so, the music is perfect, because it is the same old same old 12 bar blues. But with a brass band accompaniment.
This interpretation means that the “stone you” of the song simply means”to criticise”. For any creative person, getting utterly negative criticism of a work that has taken you months and years to get right by your own standards, can be utterly hurtful. The criticism that ignores what you are really trying to do, and focusses on something else totally can be utterly frustrating. We hear a song in three or four minutes and make a judgement – but that three or four minute song can take weeks to write. Perhaps months. A month slaving over the thing, for it to be dismissed on one hearing… if you are not involved in the creative process just try to imagine what it must feel like. It really can make the blood boil, and in such a light, Rainy Day can be seen as a very good response.
Stoning here has now become an equivalent to the stoning of a “criminal”, where the criminal has just expressed him or herself in a particular way that is deemed by the state or religious groups to be unacceptable – something which I believe continues even now in some countries. Stoning can be a physical attack, or a mental attack by fans and critics who really don’t get what you are doing.
And it is relentless.
Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ ’long the street
They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to keep your seat
They’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ on the floor
They’ll stone ya when you’re walkin’ to the door
Which makes the chorus rather good – no matter what the criticism, I’m still ok…
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned
The next verse gives some credence to my theory… You pick up the paper, and there’s another criticism of you. You are learning your trade as a songwriter and they get you…
They’ll stone ya when you’re at the breakfast table
They’ll stone ya when you are young and able
They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to make a buck
They’ll stone ya and then they’ll say, “good luck”
And they will say you have had it, you are past it, “it’s not nearly as good as his early albums”, “he’s lost it”. It is the journalist’s trade. I remember, years and years ago seeing a front page of the New Musical Express (a UK weekly music paper) which had the headline that took up most of the front page, “Give up Lou” – this being a critique of a new Lou Reed album. Not exactly constructive criticism.
Well, they’ll stone you and say that it’s the end
Then they’ll stone you and then they’ll come back again
And it never, ever stops. Because even the compliments are backhanded…
They’ll stone you and then say you are brave
They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave
But in the end, everyone gets stoned, because criticism is part of the human condition – and sadly there are far more critical people out there, than there are creative people.
Everybody must get stoned. I can’t prove “stoned” means criticised, but I do think this analysis of the song makes much more sense than just seeing “stoned” as meaning “out of your mind on a drug”.