All I really want to do: What you really want


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

By  Wouter van Oorschot

I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me
(‘All I really want to do’ – 1964)


Perhaps you have been in a situation before where you were in love, but your feelings were not immediately returned. The object of your affections may have been insecure or needed more time to ascertain whether they felt the same way. You will have needed to exercise patience, though nobody can wait forever.

At a certain point, if you were not able (or willing) to wait any longer, you may have attempted to win the other person’s favour by… I don’t know… writing out an interminable summary of all the horrible things that two human beings can do to one another, concluding with the sentiment ‘All I really wanna do is, baby, be friends with you’.

This is precisely the strategy of the I-figure in Dylan’s song, behaviour with which you can perhaps identify. And for some reason you may have also found it necessary to communicate all of this to the other party, in order to give clearer expression to your heart’s desire: all i really want to do.

I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you, classify you
Deny, defy or crucify you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you

Surely we can agree on this point: that it is unimaginable for somebody in the midst of love to try to approach the object of their affections in this way. It is therefore difficult to identify with this song. But since we have it anyway, what are we do with it?

When I first started looking into it in late 1965 at the age of thirteen, a few things were already clear. Despite not yet having had my first boyfriend or girlfriend, all of these atrocities – or at least, the ones I understood – so obviously had nothing at all to do with that process that I paid them no heed whatsoever (in other words, I made no effort to look up the list of unfamiliar, unpleasant-looking verbs in my dictionary). The longing in the refrain was enough for me, although it did not help me to fully comprehend the song’s complexities. It was not aimed at thirteen-year-olds, after all.

‘All I really want to do’ is a love song in the minor. The I-figure speaking is not in love – or in the best-case scenario, not any more – and wishes to keep somebody at arm’s length who wants more than to be ‘just friends’. But who on earth resorts to such a long string of inhumanities merely to say so? Are they desperate to exaggerate for fear of being misunderstood? This interpretation therefore raises doubts. And why choose this particular song to open his fourth LP, Another side of Bob Dylan?

‘All I really want to do’ may take the I/you form and seem like a love song, but in reality, it is the deliberate overture to an album full of songs in which a barely 23-year-old man tries to liberate himself from the adoring masses who had won his heart but demanded his soul, and who erects a barbed-wire fence in response to deter anyone who wishes to pin him down based on any of his previous work. All the song’s misery is therefore a summary of that one feeling: you are standing in my way, so I am willing to be friends, but no more than that. It isn’t even a love song; it merely has the trappings of one.

Irwin Silber (1925-2010), activist and then extremely authoritative co-founder of the folk-music magazine Sing Out! (1950-2014), had it all wrong. He was there when Dylan premiered ‘All I want to do’ along with three other songs from Another side during the Newport Folk Festival on 26 July 1964. These included ‘It ain’t me, babe’, which concludes the album, effectively bookending the other nine songs and jointly constituting Dylan’s declaration of independence. Four months later – when Silber ought to have had plenty of time to listen to the entire album and collect his thoughts, – he wrote an ‘Open Letter to Bob Dylan’, which included the following remark: ‘‘…your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, inner-probing, self-conscious […] I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people… some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way.’

Despite the potential accuracy of these observations – the ‘other side’ shown by Dylan did indeed provide a glimpse into a self-assured inner existence, and at a time when barely anybody else on the mid-1964 American music scene had been saddled with any comparable expectations – Silber nonetheless had his wires crossed, and many others along with him. They could not imagine that Dylan’s intellectual existence had more to offer than mere social engagement and I/you songs that reinforced orthodox love values, as thousands had done before him. It would take Silber another four years to retract his criticisms, which he did in 1968 in the weekly journal The National Guardian (1948-1992): ‘Many of us who did not fully understand the dynamics of the political changes… felt deserted by a poet’ and ‘Dylan is our poet – not our leader… Dylan… is communicating where it counts.’ In Chronicles Volume One (2004), Dylan himself said the following:

I liked Irwin, but I couldn’t relate to it. Miles Davis would be accused of something similar when he made the album Bitches Brew… what I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new images and attitudes into them.

In contrast to the claims of many of Dylan’s early admirers, Another Side of Bob Dylan is, as a whole, not even a break with his earlier work. It can, so soon after the assassination of President Kennedy and partly thanks to his introduction to ‘mind-altering substances’ in the spring of 1964, even be considered an ‘expansion’ thereof. We only need realise that all the compounded suffering that constitutes the opening declaration in ‘All I really want to do’ also symbolises the holy trinity of patriotism, piety and ultra-capitalism that gave rise to a society in Dylan’s country of birth where citizens can abuse their power to morally stifle, impoverish, humiliate, dishonour or even murder others (presidents, for example).

This song is therefore also about keeping the kind of people at bay who want to be more than just friends – such as those who are undesirably in love with you, or a group wanting to hitch you to their political wagon – as well as fending off a morality that impacts well-being and individual freedom under the guise of wanting to be ‘friends’. Dylan objected strenuously to all such practices, and it is hard to find fault with him. This time, however, he packaged his protestations in the form of a nuanced song of desire, of a kind that had never been written before.

Researchers have ascertained that Dylan has given 102 live performances of ‘All I really want to do’ – relatively few, given 3761 documented concert appearances between 1960 and 2019 (the outbreak of the corona pandemic). I have personally determined that he performed the acoustic version as it appears on the album only ten times in public during the initial year after its completion. There is some nice video footage of these performances: one is a 30-second fragment of only the first verse, that is nonetheless of interest since it is of the American premiere given on 26 July 1964. Several complete recordings exist from his brief tour of England in April and May of 1965, however, that give a good impression of Dylan’s image as a ‘coming young man’, such as that from Liverpool in May 1965.

At the final performance, which was again in Newport but this time on 24 July 1965, he was introduced by a female voice in a manner that clearly reveals the extent to which the folk movement regarded Dylan as its own communal property: ‘I don’t have to tell you… you know him… he’s all yours: Bob Dylan.’

Two days later, there on the hallowed folk grounds of Newport, Dylan showed them just how wrong they were when he appeared as a rocker for the first time since his secondary-school days, astonishing the mainstream folk crowd with, among other things, the premiere of ‘Like a rolling stone’, which had appeared barely one week before as the new single that would make him world-famous.

To put it briefly, he was already busy working on material completely different to that other ‘folk song’ that was already a year old. The practical reason why he stopped after ten renditions was probably the fact that by smoking so regularly, he had quickly become unable to perform the challenging octave leap on the word ‘do’ in the chorus. On 28 August 1965 he had also started a 42-concert tour through Canada and the United States with a rock band, where the song would have been extremely out of place.

He did not perform ‘All I really want to do’ again for another thirteen years. Then out of nowhere, in 1978, he once again gave 92 performances during a world tour, as a big-showtime oom-pah version with bells, whistles and backing vocals. The double LP Bob Dylan at Budokan illustrates just how horrendously tacky the oom-pah version is, and can therefore be safely left by the wayside.

After 1978, he never again presented ‘All I really want to do’ on stage. I am personally not aggrieved, as it is virtually impossible to improve on the simplicity of the acoustic version with the octave leap. I believe, moreover, that musicians incapable of pulling off the octave should not even be permitted to hazard an attempt at this beautiful, bittersweet song.


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