Bob Dylan in 1965: Surrealism meets rock meets dada meets disdain

By Tony Attwood

My interest in expanding the Dylan Year by Year series is to try and chart the lyrical themes that Dylan explored across time, noting (if possible) how certain themes and ideas took hold of him, and then were later left behind as he moved on.  In short, to answer the question, “What did Bob Dylan write about each year?”

To explain a little further, everyone knows about the religious period, but years outside that two and a half year spell of writing Christian songs have, to my mind, mostly been examined either in terms of Dylan’s personal life, or his touring, or song by song.  I’m trying to look for the ebb and flow of themes that interested Bob.

In my earlier piece Bob Dylan in 1965: the year Dylan invented two totally new forms of music I tried to outline the changes Dylan was making both to his own songwriting, and the whole notion of songwriting for the mass audience.  A list of the other articles in this series is given at the end of this piece.

In this year Dylan composed 29 new songs that have survived.  It was a return to the sort of productivity we had witnessed in 1962 (36 songs), and 1963 (30 songs).  But more than this, this year contained the creation of some of the masterpieces that have ever since been associated with his name.  Farewell Angelina, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Love Minus Zero, It’s all over now baby blue, Like a Rolling Stone, Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna….  I would suggest any one of these songs could have been the summit of a lifetime’s work for most popular songwriters – for Dylan, they just came pouring out in one year.

But what was the theme?  What was Dylan’s subject matter?  Those are the questions I have been toying around with thus far and as before we find Dylan operating in a whole range of areas through his lyrics and musical styles.

For each year thus far I have given each song the briefest of classifications, to try and help me see what Dylan’s key subject matter was.

Before the start of this year the key issues that Dylan was concerned within his writing were

  • Protest (war, poverty, society…): 19 songs so far
  • Travelling on / songs of leaving: 13 songs so far
  • Lost love / moving on 12 songs: so far
  • Humour / satire / talking blues: 12 songs so far

In this year here’s how I would categorise these songs…  And of course this is just my choice, struggling as I am not to create so many categories that the process becomes meaningless.

Surrealism / Dada  (a new category started this year: 11 in all)

  1. Visions of Johanna
  2. I wanna be your lover
  3. Jet Pilot
  4. Ballad of a thin man
  5. Queen Jane Approximately
  6. Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues
  7. Highway 61 Revisited
  8. Tombstone Blues
  9. Sitting on a barbed wire fence
  10. Outlaw Blues
  11. Subterranean Homesick Blues

The Blues (5 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 1 in 1964, 1 in 1965).Total: 7)

  1. Highway 61 Revisited (The world makes no sense, except maybe the blues; Dada)

Love / desire (3 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 2 in 1964, 6 in 1965).  Total: 11)

  1. Long distance operator (Panic because he can’t get through on the phone)
  2. I wanna be your lover (It’s a surreal world that makes no sense; Dada)
  3. From a Buick 6 (I got this woman who does everything)
  4. She Belongs to Me (Love)
  5. Love Minus Zero (Love)
  6. Love is just a four letter word (Is love real?)

Lost love / moving on (7 in 1962, 5 in 1963; 4 in 1964, 7 in 1965.Total: 19)

  1. Medicine Sunday (Moving on – although the song is only a fragment so it is hard to say)
  2. On the Road Again (Moving on, the artist vs society; Dada)
  3. Maggie’s Farm (Moving on, the artist vs society; Dada)
  4. It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry (I’m so tired of all this moving on)
  5. Sitting on a barbed wire fence (Moving on, nothing makes sense; Dada)
  6. California (Blues, moving on)
  7. Outlaw Blues (Moving on, The artist vs society; Dada)

Travelling on / songs of leaving / songs of farewell (8 in 1962, 5 in 1963, 4 in 1964, 2 in 1965  Total: 15)

  1. It’s all over now baby blue (Song of Farewell)
  2. Farewell Angelina (Song of leaving)

Humour / satire / talking blues (7 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 3 in 1964. 1 in 1965. Total: 13)

  1. Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (Beat poetry as rock music; new talking blues, humour; Dada)

Protest (war, poverty, society…) (6 in 1962, 10 in 1963, 3 in 1964, 1 in 1965.  Total 20)

  1. Desolation Row (Political protest; It’s not the world, it’s how you see the world)

The songs of disdain (0 in 1962/4, 4 in 1965.  Total 4)

  1. Can you please crawl out your window? (Song of Disdain)
  2. Positively Fourth Street (Song of Disdain)
  3. Like a Rolling Stone (Song of Disdain)
  4. Why do you have to be so frantic (Lunatic Princess). (Song of disdain)

At the top of the piece, I noted the key subject areas that are occupied Dylan’s mind in his earlier years of songwriting.  Here’s how that running total looked at the end of this year

  • Protest (war, poverty, society…): 20 songs so far
  • Lost love / moving on 19 songs: so far
  • Travelling on / songs of leaving: 15 songs so far
  • Humour / satire / talking blues: 13 songs so far
  • Surrealism / dada: 11 songs, all composed in this year.

Here is a list of the other categories I have created for previous years, but for which in my estimation, Dylan did not compose a song in 1965

  • Gambling (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964).  Total: 1)
  • It’s just how we see the world (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 2 in 1964.)  Total: 3)
  • Personal commentary – do the right thing (2 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total: 2)
  • The future will be fine (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 1 in 1964.  Total: 2)
  • The tragedy of modern life (3 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964. Total: 3.)
  • Death (3 in 1962, 1 in 1963, 0 in 1964: Total: 3.)
  • Patriotism (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 1.)
  • Social commentary / civil rights (4 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 6.)
  • Individualism (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 5 in 1964.  Total: 6)
  • Personal commentary – do the right thing (2 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 2.)
  • Nothing changes (3 in 1962, 1 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 4)
  • The future will be fine (1 in 1962, 0 in 1963, 1 in 1964.  Total 2.)
  • The second coming / religion (1 in 1962, 1 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 2)
  • Justice (0 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 2)
  • Art (0 in 1962, 2 in 1963, 0 in 1964.  Total 2)

Other articles in this series

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1 Response to Bob Dylan in 1965: Surrealism meets rock meets dada meets disdain

  1. Kenneth Short says:

    I would place the song “Stuck inside Mobile with the Memphis blues again” in the surrealism catagory also” Probably my favorite Dylan song.

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