Positively 4th Street; “Black Dally Rue” and poisonous green

by Jochen Markhorst

Johnston: What’s the name of this Bobby?

Dylan: Ah… the name of this is ah…the name of this is… Black Dallyroo! Hehehe.

Johnston: (laughing) “Black Dally Rue!

Dylan: Dallyroo is D – A – double L – Y – R – O – O.  No no! R – U – E! (pause). Right. Or Crimson Dally Rue, take your pick.

Johnston: “Pink Dally Rue.” Pink Bird.

The most famous working title is probably “Scrambled Eggs”, the title McCartney uses as long as he hasn’t written the lyrics for “Yesterday”. “Eleanor Rigby” is first called “Miss Daisy Hawkins” and “It’s Only Love” is actually more promising when it is still named “That’s A Nice Hat”.

Of the Stones are quite a few working titles known as well. “Sympathy For The Devil” is initially called “Fallen Angels”, for example, and “2000 Light Years From Home” is “Toffee Apples”, for lack of better. “Angie” was just a working title, Keith Richards reveals, no more than a noun that got stuck by accident. “It was just a working title, like, who’s gonna call a song “Angie”, how boring, another chick’s name, ya know”, and the same goes for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

One of the many delights of The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge, the 18-CD set of studio outtakes from the mercury years ’65-’66, is the studio talk, the conversations between Dylan and the producer and musicians. More than once we hear the producer on duty (first Tom Wilson, later Bob Johnston) ask for the title of the next song. And more than once it turns out that Dylan hasn’t chosen a title yet, only to dash something off on the spot.


Corniness is the strongest motivator, as in “Alcatraz to the 5th Power”, “Just A Little Glass Of Water”, “What You Can Do For Your Wigwam” and especially in “A Long-Haired Mule and a Porcupine” (respectively “Farewell Angelina”, “She’s Your Lover Now”, “Pledging My Time” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”).

A few times the working title seems to be a serious option, later rejected for whatever reason. “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is first called “Bank Account Blues”, “Obviously 5 Believers” has the less remarkable but more fitting title “Black Dog Blues”, and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Take A Train To Cry” sounds just as poetic and if possible even more mysterious under the name “Phantom Engineer”.

Real, but unfortunately rejected beauty only have a small handful of working titles. “Temporary Like Achilles” initially has the beautiful, dreamy and suggestive title “Medicine Sunday”, but the most beautiful of all is the original name of “Visions Of Johanna”: “(Seems Like A) Freeze Out”.

That title combines Dylan’s profession of art from Bringing It All Back Home’s liner notes (“I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening”) with the perfect articulation of the impact a Renoir, or any other impressionist masterpiece, has on the viewer: it really does seem like a solidified moment from a hectic life. It would be a perfect title for the mercurial splendour of “Visions Of Johanna”, indeed. But perhaps too interpretive, as Dylan decides on reflection – and therefore rejecting it in favour of the conservative, not very adventurous final title, which only refers to the refrain line.

Somewhere in between is the enigmatic “Black Dally Rue”, the title Dylan, clearly à l’improviste, quickly comes up with. The song doesn’t have a chorus or recurring refrain line, so a “self-evident” title doesn’t impose itself – the song poet has to look for a painting-like title, as in songs like “Spanish Harlem Incident” or “Motorpsycho Nitemare”.

Despite the closing laugh and Bob Johnston’s hilarity, corniness does not really appear to be the primary inspiration this time. On The Cutting Edge we can hear how Dylan thinks about a title for eleven seconds. Eleven seconds in which he apparently oversees the lyrics at lightning speed, and then calls out a title that, unlike Alcatraz or that Long-haired Mule, does indeed have a connection with the song. In the first instance “Black Dallyroo”, in the second instance “Black Dally Rue” – and Johnston is allowed to turn that into “Crimson Dally Rue”, if he wishes so.

The colours are not that far out. The song poet knows that when the recording starts, he will have to crawl into the skin of a vile, black, bloody red protagonist. Even for those who, like Dylan, are not blessed with a perception tending towards synaesthesia, it is conceivable to qualify the forthcoming lyrics as “black” or “crimson” – poisonous green or shrill yellow would fit as well.

“Dallyroo” is a more difficult association to trace. It echoes Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which would make an associative jump from way to rue traceable too – but it is unlikely that Woolf’s magnum opus is part of cultural baggage at all. Anyway, “dally” is a word that does not seem to be in his vocabulary. He never uses the – indeed somewhat matronly – word, not in any lyrics, not in any poem, neither in Tarantula nor in Chronicles. It usually means something like “loafing, fooling around”, by the way. “It is time that Prime Minister Johnson stopped dallying with other concepts.”

Also on this same recording day, late in the evening, after the final recording of “Positively 4th Street”, Dylan will have a first go at recording “Desolation Row”. In this monument, it is easy to point out that Dylan has Kerouac under his skin in these mercury days. Fragments like her sin is her lifelessness and a perfect image of a priest literally come from the novel Desolation Angels, and from Kerouac’s “blues-poems” (later collected in Book Of Blues) Dylan borrows images, archetypes and decor pieces.

One of those “blues-poems” seems to come to the surface at Dylan’s spontaneous Black Dally Rue eruption:

Rhetorical Third Street
Grasping at racket
Groans 8c stinky
I’ve no time
To dally hassel
In your heart’s house,
It’s too gray

…from the 17th Chorus of “San Francisco Blues”. The step from “Rhetorical Third Street” to “Positively Fourth Street” isn’t that big either. Remarkable idiom from neighbouring poems like “Mexico City Blues”, “Orizaba 210 Blues”, “MacDougal Street Blues” and from Kerouac’s prose at all, can be found outside of “Desolation Row” in more Dylan songs from these days (especially in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and in “From A Buick 6”), so it is quite likely that a Kerouac-echo sounds here as well. More likely in any case than Virginia Woolf.

The final choice for “Positively 4th Street” is all the more remarkable, as it opens the door to biographical interpretation – something Dylan always resists so much. Je est un autre, after all. Still, “4th Street”… the man Dylan, and not some autre singing this song and naming it, has lived on West 4th Street for years, together with the young girl on the front of Freewheelin’, with Suze Rotolo.

Twenty years later, in an interview with Scott Cohen, Dylan confirms the exceptional position of precisely this song:

“Outside of a song like Positively 4th Street, which is extremely one-dimensional, which I like, I don’t usually purge myself by writing anything about any type of quote, so-called, relationships. I don’t have the kinds of relationships that are built on any kind of false pretence, not to say that I haven’t. I’ve had just as many as anybody else, but I haven’t had them in a long time. Usually, everything with me and anybody is upfront. My-life-is-an-open book sort of thing. And I choose to be involved with the people I’m involved with. They don’t choose me.”

…with which the bard also confirms that he – only this one time – lets off steam in this song, “purge myself,” as he calls it, taking out his aggression on hypocritical friendship-pretending acquaintances, on “relationships built on false pretences”. It is in line with what Suze Rotolo remarks about the song, in her autobiography A Freewheelin’ Time (2008):

“He could be cruel. Though I was never on the receiving end of one of his tirades, I did witness a few. The power he was given and the changes it entailed made him lash out unreasonably, but I believe he was trying to find a balance within himself when everything was off-kilter. Some of the songs from that period, such as “Positively 4th Street,” give a sense of the backbiting that thrived in a hermetic environment.”

Mild, understanding words, and in the following paragraph she further condones Dylan’s sharp-toned bitching by pointing out his exceptional talent and stating a general truth: “Artists we admire aren’t necessarily exemplary human beings just because they are exceptional in their chosen fields.”

Dylan, Rotolo means, is only human.

The qualification chosen by Dylan is remarkably to the point as well: “extremely one-dimensional”. Both stylistic and substantive, by the way. In Lyrics and on the site the verse lines are all cut in half and the lyrics are represented in twelve four-line verses, but the recitation is not; in the recitation, they are six four-line, iambic verses in a very ordinary abab rhyme scheme:

You got a lotta nerve / To say you are my friend
When I was down / You just stood there grinning
You got a lotta nerve / To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on / The side that’s winning

Like this, every eight cut lines of verse can be glued back into abab quatrains. More appropriate too, because much tighter, with the “extremely one-dimensional” content of the lyrics.

In terms of content, the song is indeed atypically unambiguous and direct. Six quatrains (or, according to the layout editor, twelve) in which six times the same thing is said in other words: boy, what a hypocritical jerk you are. No building-up, plot twist or climax, and the music complies with this track – chord scheme, arrangement and interpretation thereof does not vary either. Not really a recipe for a smash hit, all in all. Still: the single scores fine, being in the aftermath of “Like A Rolling Stone”. Top 10 in England and the US, no. 1 in Canada.

Despite the distinctly personal touch, the song does farewell with the colleagues too. The version by Johnny Rivers is distinguished by the master himself in Chronicles. Pulsating and vibrantly, even. “Of all the versions of my recorded songs, the Johnny Rivers one was my favorite.” And, after Dylan poetically expresses his soul kinship with Rivers:

“When I listened to Johnny’s version of “Positively 4th Street,” I liked his version better than mine. I listened to it over and over again. Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’s version had the mandate down — the attitude and melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it.”

Like most covers, though, Rivers does not rely on the dramatic power of his recitation and calls in an arranger; per verse more instruments drip in, and towards the end he doesn’t shy away from violins – the whole last minute is even reserved for an instrumental coda.

Comparable to the more obscure cover by John ‘Speedy’ Keen, who on a beautiful, but unfortunately forgotten solo album lends his thin, plaintive voice to “Positively 4th Street” (Previous Convictions, 1973, with again his old Thunderclap comrade, the exceptional Jimmy McCullogh on guitar). Thunderclap Newman, the one-off project under the wings of Pete Townshend is already four years ago, has made one LP (the brilliant Hollywood Dream, 1969), which included the successful Basement cover “Open The Door, Homer”, but especially the unforgettable monster hit “Something In The Air”.



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Copies of the volumes are also available in Dutch from the same source.

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  1. ‘Dali’and ‘Dally’ are considered as ‘almost rhymes’; ‘Dolly’ as a true rhyme.

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