By Tony Attwood
Revised 13 October 2017
This was Dylan’s first successful attempt to integrate the emotions of the Beat Generation which he had understood from Alan Ginsberg and others combining the thoughts of the moment with three minutes of everything that was happening in the world of the mid 1960s.
It’s sources in Dylan’s own writing go back to Gypsy Lou – the song about the Beat Generation and his frustration with it (or with himself for not being able to write Beat Generation music), and its sources in lyrical terms come from Jack Kerouac who wrote a novel called The Subterraneans.
But Bob did have a musical source in Chuck Berry’s “Too much monkey business” Just try some of these lines…
Salesman talking to me tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy it, go on try it, you can pay me next week
Blonde haired, good lookin’ tryin’ to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, get a home, settle down, write a book
Same thing every day, gettin’ up, goin’ to school
No need to be complainin’, my objections overruled
Pay phone, somethin’ wrong, dime gone, will mail
I ought to sue the operator for tellin’ me a tale
Dylan takes this idea and updates it a bit. The fire hoses were used to break up demonstrations then, as much later – although if you get too close to the lyrics the fire hose bit could be taken to suggest that one should NOT get involved in civil rights protests – which given the context of so much of Dylan’s early writing, would seem odd. Or maybe he was just being post-modernistically ironic.
Some “insights” that commentators have found in the song are barely that – “I’m on the pavement thinking about the government” could be an allusion to anti-government protests in the streets, but if so is hardly mind shattering. And really that is not the point. The point is the scatological approach to poetry and life: this can be nothing more than a scatological experience as both Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan said.
Then there’s the Weathermen bit – “Don’t need the Weathermen to know which way the wind blows.” Some sources cite this as the origin of the name of the Weathermen, the radical and violent anti-governmental group. Others say that Dylan was citing an already existent organisation. Either way, given the simplicity of the “I’m on the pavement” bit, he could just be talking about the weather. And again going back to Chuck Berry, it was the everyday that was the source of the story.
And in many ways this is what the Beat Generation poetry was all about – it was taking a scatological approach to lyrics and rhyme, rejecting all that had gone before, linking the future to the past and back again, finding new models, new expressions, new ideas, even if no one knew what they meant.
Maggie turns up as well, and “Maggie’s Farm” puts in its first appearance as track 3 on side one of the album. There’s more interaction with the law (“must bust in early May, orders from the DA”) and so it goes on. If anything it is perhaps a reflection of the turmoil of life (“twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift”).
Quite why it has been so popular and so highly revered is hard to say in any way other than the fact that it so dramatically broke so much new ground right at the start of the album. It is hard to remember this far on but we really had never heard anything remotely like this before – except from Chuck Berry – and his music was pushed off into the backwater of rhythm and blues that appeared to white kids, along with Bo Diddley
Rolling Stone has the song it in the top 500 greatest songs of all time, everyone seems to have quoted it somehow, and yet if taken apart it is just a boppy little rock song with no melody and three chords. In the end its meaning, its important and its sheer memorableness can only be ascribed to the fact that almost every line is quotable somehow, somewhere, it does symbolically catch the moment, and it is the opening to a truly great album. Dylan called it a subconscious poem, and it is certainly that. It’s brilliance is that it taps into a whole community’s subconscious.
The borrowing from Berry doesn’t really matter. It is the transformation that counts.
What else is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews