That drumming is driving me mad: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang

Last week Jochen Markhorst’s eleventh English Dylan book was published, and this week the German and Dutch versions: Bringing It All Back Home – Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang.  Available, as usual, through Amazon.

The book contains an elegant foreword by David Marx, comprehensive analyses of the eleven album tracks and of four songs that we’ll refer to as “BIABH outtakes” for convenience: “Farewell Angelina”, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” and “You Don’t Have To Do That”. Connecting those often wide-ranging song excursions are short key chapters like the one below.

That drumming is driving me mad

by Jochen Markhorst

Mr. Tambourine Man”, 2. “Gates Of Eden”, 3. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and 4. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”… there are quite a few fans for whom Side B of Bringing It All Back Home is the best album side in Dylan’s bulging catalogue, and, consequently for them the best album side of all time.

Thanks to Michael Krosgaard’s exhaustive The Recording Sessions and the fascinating time document The Cutting Edge, we can reconstruct its creation fairly accurately.

All four songs were recorded on the same afternoon, that fruitful Friday 15 January 1965 at Studio A of the Columbia Recording Studio in New York. The studio logs indicate that the studio was at Dylan’s disposal from 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm. Three hours, in other words. The first half of that time is spent on “Maggie’s Farm” (which is a wrap in four minutes, in one take) and on “On The Road Again” (twelve takes). Then come the four songs that will become side B of Bringing It All Back Home.

To begin with, the two songs Dylan will record solo, without any further accompaniment. First “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. A first take is cut short by producer Tom Wilson after twenty-four seconds, “Bob can you back up just a little bit,” – apparently Dylan is standing too close to the microphone. The fun is almost washed away by then. We hear him say “I really don’t feel like doing the song” and “It’s such a long song”, but fortunately he is able to restart his motivation: the next take of “It’s Alright, Ma” is taped in one go and is the definitive, staggering, cosmic 7’32” album version.

 

The Cutting Edge continues with the only take of “Gates Of Eden”, 5’44”, which is also in the can in one, perfect, take. We hear no studio talk or other background noise between the two recordings, but we can assume that Dylan allowed himself a short smoke break or something in between. And probably went for a cup of tea after the tour de force “Gates Of Eden”.

Meanwhile, Bruce Langhorne (electric guitar) and drummer Bobby Gregg are invited back into the studio. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is on the roll. Not for the first time, by the way; six months ago, during the recording sessions for Another Side Of Bob Dylan on 9 June 1964, Dylan already recorded two takes, accompanied by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who provided some back-up vocals.

Those recordings did not pass the selection. In general, Dylan is not really too critical of recordings, which to him are nothing more than snapshots of how a song is played on that particular day, but “Mr. Tambourine Man” is different. He is proud of the song, has been playing it since May ’64, has shown it to friends, has performed it in England and in Newport and at the Halloween concert at the Philharmonic Hall, New York October 31, has actually played it at almost every small and large gig in 1964. And apparently, he feels that the June recording with Elliott doesn’t do the song justice – he moves it on to a next album, saving it for perhaps a Best Album Side Of All-Time.

So, Dylan has “Mr. Tambourine Man” under his belt by the time the song is recorded for Bringing It All Back Home. But for the band, it’s still a bit of a search. Drummer Bobby Gregg, in particular, seems to be inspired by the title to come up with sort of playing like a drum major, choosing a very Greenwich Village Fanfare-like boom-boom accompaniment. Halfway through take 3, Dylan can’t take it anymore. He has kept it up for three torturous minutes, but then abruptly breaks off: “Aww hey, I can’t uh… hey, that drumming is driving me mad. I’m going outa my brain.”

Take 4 and 5 are two short, aborted runs of a few seconds, and take 6 then is perfect. Bobby Gregg is no longer allowed to participate.

In the end, it’s the only song on Side B that takes more than eight minutes to complete, this Friday afternoon. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is recorded in the 4’14” that the song lasts. Gregg is still not allowed to return, guitarist Bruce Langhorne stays put and does basically the same thing as on “Mr. Tambourine Man”, only an octave lower – swirling single notes on almost every beat.

And with that, the recording of the Best Album Side of All Time is done. Without a single second of Bobby Gregg.

 

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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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