Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 & 35: the meaning, the music and the live versions.

By Tony Attwood

Updated 8 August 2018 with occasional text changes and four new video presentations 

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?

And if you could would you call it “A long haired mule and a porcupine”?  That was, it seems the working title.  Allegedly the final title came from Proverbs 27 v 15, “A continual dripping on a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike,” the religious input coming from the fact that the accompaniment (and afterthought once the recording session was underway) was added to give it a “Salvation Army” appeal.

And so we ask the question: why bother?  Why produce this song?  Why put it as the opening song of your first double album?

Well part of the answer was that it got to number 2 in the charts.  Another is he liked playing it on stage.  He played it once as an instrumental and once put the lyrics of “Watching the River Flow” to the tune in a show in 1991.


And Dylan does like to mix things up.  “Subterranean” which opened “Bringing it all” was a bit of a knock about extended 12 bar blues but it has meaning and message and it gave us a merging of beat poetry and rock.   “Highway 61” opened with Rolling Stone (perhaps one of the greatest Dylan songs of all time) and ended with Desolation Row (ditto).  And then in 1966 we were offered Blonde on Blonde which opens with Rainy Day.

No one could ever accuse Dylan of standing still.

Of course it is hard to compare Rainy Day with Rolling Stone or Subterranean.  But in a sense yes, because Dylan had been giving us, with the rock band, 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.

Here’s Old Crowe taking in on with great gusto and fun… it is the sheer energy I love here, and it was this version that brought me back to the song after years of not hearing it.

Bob has played the song nearly 1000 on stage shows, so clearly he has enjoyed the knockabout throughout much of his career.  And it has appeared on around a dozen Dylan LPs.  So it seems we have to take it into serious consideration, even if it sounds like a knock about.

Dylan has always loved the standard three chord 12 bar blues, and I think he probably wanted this knock about farce as the opening 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”, and the social commentators who wanted more “Desolation Row”.

In short everyone wanted Dylan to do what they wanted. And he didn’t

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.

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, leaving that aside, 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 focuses 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.   And another month slaving over the thing in the studio, 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, and the last to survive the onslaught of digital tech) 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”.

Here, to end, is Farm Aid, with added “hey hey”

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  1. While I agree with your understanding of the song, I can’t help but ask why you think “stone=criticize” isn’t obvious to everyone but the most rabid radio-censors?

    Are there really people who think this song is just about drugs?

    On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think that the other meaning of the chorus (“The world would be a better place if everyone smoked pot”) wasn’t apparent to Dylan and therefore intended as well.

  2. I also agree that the song is obviously about criticism, and most likely the criticism that Dylan received from his fans when he went electric, but it can be read in a more socio-political sense as about people who suffer any kind of ostracism, prejudice, or oppression. When read that way, the line “Everybody must get stoned” becomes particularly meaningful. It’s very close to the “How does it feel?” line in “Like A Rolling Stone.” Only when people have been experienced hardship or suffering, been the object of scorn or down and out, can they develop empathy for others and, by extension, political awareness. I think Dylan places the song in the context of a party in order to throw the listener off and suggest the song is merely about drugs. It’s even more ironic when you realize that maybe he doesn’t feel he is part of the celebration at all. In fact, there’s really nothing in the song to suggest that he does.

  3. I think this song is about the drug of infatuation, the drug of hormonal attraction, and the drug of obsessive love, drugs which many have experienced. “Everybody must get stoned.” As the first song of the album, it establishes the theme of “Blonde on Blonde,” an album which is all about relationships.

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