by Jochen Markhorst
They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to keep your seat …
When Dylan sings these words, it is only ten years after December 1, 1955, the day that Rosa Parks in a bus in Montgomery refuses to give up her seat for a white fellow passenger. She is returning home from her job, she has bought a ticket and is on the front row of the ‘coloured’ section, the back half of the bus.
At the Empire Theater stop the white-only section fills up – not all whites can sit. Driver James Blake follows the guidelines, walks to the back and orders four black passengers to give up their seats. Rosa refuses, Blake calls the police and from that moment on, America has a heroine: in the end the commotion leads to the abolishment of the segregation laws. After her death in 2005, the first lady of civil rights is the first woman whose body is laid out in the Rotunda, the heart of the Capitol.
“Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35” is much more complex, multicoloured and more serious than a first acquaintance with the carnivalesque party song suggests.
Of course, Dylan does go all out to avoid any suspicion of seriousness. The stories surrounding the nocturnal recording session have indeed grown quite wild over the years, but it is farcical anyhow. Biographers like Howard Sounes report that Dylan orders in alcohol and marijuana, because he does not want to do such a song with a bunch of straight guys. Admittedly, the session is coloured with shrieks and laughter, and sounds like it was recorded in a pub. Equally, the previous rehearsal, which can be heard on The Cutting Edge, does not sound like a tightly directed rehearsal by level-headed professionals.
But tipsy or otherwise intoxicated, no. After Rainy Day Women the session continues for hours and final recordings of three songs are realized (“Obviously 5 Believers”, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “I Want You”) – sober and focused, and in the studio chatter there is neither any trace of burly fun or suspicious fog. The only thing that Al Kooper reports in his superior autobiography Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards about the Rainy Day session is: “Dylan was teaching us Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35 one night when Johnston suggested that it would sound great with a brass band, Salvation Army style. Dylan thought it over and said it might work.”
No word about alcohol and drugs.
So the rather mood-defining idea of the brass players comes from producer Bob Johnston. Session musician Charlie McCoy himself plays some trumpet, calls a friend who plays trombone and when he arrives, the recording can start.
It is a simple and brilliant move by Johnston. The basis of the song is a simple straightforward three-chord twelve-bar blues, and the pun with the double entendre of stoned is pretty much exhausted after one verse plus chorus.
The song therefore benefits from extra ambiance, from an extravagant upgrade. The addition of the corny wind instruments and the Comedy Capers piano part will appeal to Dylan’s sardonic, rancorous state of mind during this period; after his farewell to the acoustic folk music he has been booed around the world for months and confronted with the most insane reproaches, been called Judas, jester and liar, and everyone, even the most nit-witted journalist, feels justified in calling him to account.
Dylan has already responded with some vicious lyrics (“Positively 4th Street”, for example) and overpowered audiences at concerts by playing ‘f*cking loud’, but this time he chooses the weapon every tyrant fears: humour. And for that, the oom-pah-pah arrangement is exactly the coup de grace Dylan needs to knock out the fundamentalist ex-fans – that should end the moaning.
The humour is mainly brought on by the outrageous arrangement, the pun and the horsing around in the background. The verses as such are actually pretty sad. It is a woeful litany of a Calimero, paranoia seems to disturb his perception. He really can not do anything right, this narrator – even if he tries to do good, ‘they’ stone him.
In addition, Dylan gives enough hints to justify a biographical interpretation. They stone him when he plays his guitar, in “Positively 4th Street” there was also such a sneaky interlocutor who hypocritically wishes him good luck and that he feels so lonely, we’ve heard disturbingly often, lately. In “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, “Obviously 5 Believers” and “It’s Alright Ma”, for example. Depressing, all in all.
But he endures it with dignity; the storyteller counters the daily setbacks and inadequacy of life with happy resignation, with humour. Humor ist, wenn man trotzdem lacht, as the German writer Otto Julius Bierbaum teaches, “if you laugh anyway.”
After Blonde On Blonde, Dylan is hardly attacked anymore on his ‘betrayal’ of the folk movement, on his move to electrically amplified rock music. Now, however, on this ‘drug song’. Dylan’s response to questions about Rainy Day Women slaloms, and initially he denies that it has anything to do with drugs. “I never have and never will write a drug song,” he explains defensively and solemnly, and we hear that same tone years later with President Clinton (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”).
“But that song has a lot of other meanings,” Dylan finally says to L’Expresse in 1978, before he reluctantly implies that it also sings drug use: “Marijuana isn’t a drug like the others.”
When Dylan is a guest in a radio program in 1986 and answers telephone questions from listeners, he nibbles out any drug references again: It’s about “when you go against the tide,” but throughout history people have always “taken offence to people with a different viewpoint on things. And being stoned is just a kind of way of saying that.”
The most hilarious though are the Monty Python-like dialogues that unfold in the first hectic weeks shortly after publication, especially at press conferences. And with a praiseworthy persevering radio host in Sweden:
“Rainy Day Women happens to deal with a minority of, you know, cripples and orientals and, uh, you know, and the world in which they live, you realize, you know, you understand, you know. It’s another sort of a North Mexican kind of a thing, uh, very protesty. Very, very protesty. And, uh, one of the protestiest of all things I ever protested against in my protest years.”
That North Mexico will resonate for a while, by the way. A week later, in London, a reporter asks for a title explanation. “Have you ever been down in North Mexico?” Dylan asks. The reporter has to deny. “Well, I can’t explain it to you then,” the bully says, full of pity.
The mysterious title has occupied many. The most academic solution is offered by Clinton Heylin, who finds among all those stonings in the Old Testament: a continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike (Proverbs 27:15).
Yeah well. Okay, in one verse we find both rainy day and woman and ‘stoning’ could be a metaphor for ‘contentious’, but then still: why would a Bible-inspired poet add #12 & 35 to it?
Even more desperate are the readers who stick to the story that two ladies came in during these nighttime sessions, hiding from the rain. A 35-year-old mother and her daughter of twelve.
A convincing key there is not. With good reason: it does not exist. Dylan very well understands that he can not call the song “Everybody Must Get Stoned” and improvises a random one off the cuff, neatly in line with a dozen other song titles. During the rehearsal we can hear him shake another, equally meaningless, title from his sleeve: A Long-Haired Mule And A Porcupine Here – Dr. Seuss could work with that, but what would a Clinton Heylin come up with?
Still, rainy day woman is a relatively traceable metaphor. A rainy day means, after all, something like the lean years or bad times. Following that thought, a woman for a rainy day would be a poetic depiction of a one-night stand, of a lady one visits out of boredom late at night because she happens to live nearby and there is no more attractive option. By now we know our promiscuous protagonist; on Blonde On Blonde, more nightly passersby, friends for one night, road gigs are sung.
The Louise in “Visions Of Johanna”, the worshipping devotees in “One Of Us Must Know” and “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way”, the adulterous trollop from “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, Sweet Marie (but she is not at home) and damn it, Achilles’ girlfriend keeps the door closed too. It is a whole procession of rainy day women which the singer only on Side Four, in the arms of his Sad-Eyed Lady, can finally leave behind.
The fellow artists consider it a popular party song. There are dozens of covers and most of them like to copy the infectious, festive surface – during concerts, success is guaranteed, with the audience invariably cheering along with the chorus. Sammy Hagar, the Red Rocker, is an excellent example and also The Black Crowes, the band of seasoned Dylan fan Chris Robinson, regularly switches over to Rainy Day Women when Robinson feels the atmosphere is getting too languid.
Studio recordings, however, rarely come close to the original, especially because the monkeying around in the background soon feels artificial and little spontaneous. Also the more radical variants, such as the trance-approach of the British band Saint Etienne and the uninspired copies, such as the stale, perfunctory attempt by Lenny Kravitz, are usually lifeless and unsuccessful. Brian Stoltz’ funky approach (on the tribute album Blues On Blonde On Blonde, 2003) is more bearable, as well as the somewhat alienating bluegrass version by Flatt & Scruggs (on Nashville Airplane, 1968).
Most entertaining is Mavis Staples’ band leader, Rick Holmstrom, who on his album Late In The Night (2007) molds an instrumental, fascinating mix of Chicago blues and Duke Ellington-like jazz from Dylan’s bizarre smash hit, but most infectious is The Old Crow Medicine Show, opening their brilliant 50 Years Of Blonde On Blonde tribute show.
One may try, but it is impossible to keep your seat.
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