It’s probably not the best Bob Dylan album, but it’s the one I spin the most. Anyway, to understand why it’s underrated, let us examine an excerpt from Irwin Silber’s “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan,” taken from an issue of Sing Out!, the go-to folk magazine at the time, from November, 1964, following Another Side of Bob Dylan’s release:
I’m writing this letter now because some of what has happened is troubling me. And not me alone. Many other good friends of yours as well.
I don’t have to tell you how we at Sing Out! feel about you — about your work as a writer and an artist — or how we feel about you as a person. Sing Out! was among the first to respond to the new ideas, new images, and new sounds that you were creating. By last count, thirteen of your songs had appeared in these pages. Maybe more of Woody’s songs were printed here over the years, but, if so, he’s the only one. Not that we were doing you any favors, Bob. Far from it. We believed — and still believe — that these have been among some of the best new songs to appear in America in more than a decade. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “Hattie Carroll,” “Restless Farewell,” “Masters of War” — these have been inspired contributions which have already had a significant impact on American consciousness and style.
You said you weren’t a writer of “protest” songs — or any other category, for that matter — but you just wrote songs. Well, okay, call it anything you want. But any songwriter who tries to deal honestly with reality in this world is bound to write “protest” songs. How can he help himself?
Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, innerprobing, self- conscious — maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion. And it’s happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now — rather than to the rest of us out front.
Now, that’s all okay — if that’s the way you want it, Bob. But then you’re a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.”
Well, okay then.
The thing is, Mr. Irwin Silber, your criticism doesn’t have any legs to stand on. Yes, Bob Dylan’s basically done writing protest songs, evident from the title (which he apparently doesn’t like, thinking it’s too cheesy, but me, I think it tells you what’s in store for you from the get-go so there’s no reason for buyer’s remorse). But the thing is, it’s not like his previous albums were exclusive to protest songs anyway, it was just sort of a descriptor that was thrown around because people were either a) happy that someone was exposing something about the world instead of the usual platitudes or b) so lazy they couldn’t be bothered to listen to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan past “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Not that the hindsighted criticisms have much to say about this one either; people have been throwing the term “transitional album” at this as if a) it was a criticism with any real weight b) it actually applied here. Yes, Bob Dylan’s about to go electric—and the people at Sing Out! probably suffered heart attacks when the needle dropped on Bringing It All Back Home—but, barring one track, and (for the most part) a shift from outward to inward themes, this is the same Bob Dylan we’re used to by now.
The thing about this sort of record—and this extends to a lot of the singer/songwriter genre in which one person sings while he/she strums—is that it’s easy to replicate. Somewhere, on my university’s campus, I guarantee you, there’s a guy—probably with facial hair that doesn’t agree with him and probably with clothes that aren’t suited for the Canadian fall—sitting under a tree with an acoustic guitar playing the songs on Another Side of Bob Dylan. He’s not doing it because he likes the songs or relates to them in any way though, he’s doing it because he thinks he can impress the girl on the other side of the quad in the polka dot dress, completely ignorant to the fact that she’s giggling at him with her friend because he’s that asshole with the guitar and facial hair under a fucking tree. The chord progressions are pedestrian. I know it, you know it, and Bob Dylan, sure as sunshine, knew it too. Moreover, once you’ve heard Bob Dylan use a harmonica over sing-strum stuff once, you’ve heard it enough to last you a lifetime.
So our attention then, has to turn to the words and the way he sings them, which is the most important part of Another Side of Bob Dylan. In about a year, the Byrds will be known for putting Bob Dylan songs into more bitesized templates, and though they were successful in doing so, they usually had to sacrifice the integrity of the originals. Comparatively, their cover of “All I Really Want To Do” loses three things. Firstly, the words don’t really stick because they don’t deliver them in the same way that Bob Dylan does, subtly dropping in register in alternating lines, “I ain’t looking to compete with you / Beat or cheat or mistreat you / Simplify you, classify you / Deny, defy or crucify you,” inadvertently turning our attentions to the words that he whispers. Secondly, they change the chorus, dropping the yodelled falsetto for something a little more standard, but each time Bob Dylan does it here, it feels incredibly more human. You feel him, you really do. Finally, that human aspect extends to the last verse, where Bob Dylan breaks down into a chuckle at the end of the lines, “I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me / See like me or be like me,” and he’s basically out of breath when he sings the hook right after, breaking the phrasing up to catch some air and simultaneously still chuckling. Few artists have ever been or will ever be that idiosyncratic.
That one’s my favorite track on the album, but standouts are aplenty. I said earlier that only one track here could make a case for the album being transitional and that’s “Black Crow Blues” that follows, which places Bob Dylan in front of a piano for the first time in his studio albums. Had there been drums instead of harmonicas, a faster tempo, and a different singer, we’d basically have a Jerry Lee Lewis song (glissandos and everything). Elsewhere, he’s going full-out on melody as if he were aiming to make the pop charts on both “Spanish Harlem Incident” (also covered by the Byrds) and closer “It Ain’t Me Babe” (surprisingly not covered by the Byrds, who usually pick the Dylan songs with the most melodies. But it was covered by the Turtles). Those who want a protest song half get one in “Chimes of Freedom” (which, surprisingly, was covered by the Byrds), which has Bob Dylan attempting free association poetry for the first time (he’ll do it better elsewhere), while “My Back Pages” (for fear of repeating myself, I won’t say who covers this one) features one of Bob Dylan’s best lyrics, the repeated “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now,” which is what the entirety of the record really boils down to.
But the lesser-known tracks on the album don’t slack around much either. The straight-forward romance of “To Ramona” set to waltz-time helps change things up. “I Don’t Believe You” is much more lively, with the instruments running alongside Bob Dylan instead of lingering in the background. And the way he shoots his voice (“She said she would ne-ver for-GET!”) is easily the album’s second best vocal moment. Meanwhile, I had originally wrote off “I Shall Be Free No. 10” as the worst Bob Dylan song I’ve ever heard when I first laid ears on it. I’ve since retracted that; it’s easily the album’s funniest cut (featuring a brief chuckle at the last verse, same as on “All I Really Want to Do”). He’s rhyming words for the sake of rhyming words, but, as opposed to “Ballad in Plain D” (which I will get to, I promise. How could I resist not taking Bob Dylan down a notch?), he knows it. “I’m gonna grow my hair down to my feet so strange / So I look like a walking mountain range” is probably my favorite of the bunch, but “I got a woman, she’s so mean / She sticks my boots in the washing machine” is a close second. And you’re likely never to hear Bob Dylan yelling “Wowee!” and “Yippee!” in any other song.
As for “Ballad in Plain D?” To put it delicately, it can take its self-pitying attitude, utterly uncreative title, 8-minutes’ worth of repeated chords and melodies that make it hard to listen to more than once in a lifetime and frankly bad lyrics, fashion them into a metaphorical shaft, and go fuck itself for all anyone could care. I mean, I get the old adage, “Write what you know,” but this is ridiculous. Other songs from Another Side of Bob Dylan are likely just as personal and just as influenced from his breakup with then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, but the thing is, they could still be related to by listeners. Not this one, though, because it either a) is so autobiographical, you’d have to be Bob Dylan to understand what’s going on or b) is so abstract, you’d have to be Bob Dylan to understand what’s going on. As an example of the former, he devotes entire stanzas to attacking Rotolo’s older sister, “For her parasite sister, I had no respect, / Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect. / Countless visions of the other she’d reflect / As a crutch for her scenes and her society.” And when we finally arrive at the action, he doesn’t sing the words in any way that signifies anything. “’The tragic figure!’ her sister did shout, / ‘Leave her alone, God damn you, get out!’” should’ve been the most exciting part of the song, but he just sings it with the same damn melody and doesn’t bother inflecting his voice to match the exclamation marks. The last stanza is easily the best of the bunch (if you’ve made it that far), having Bob Dylan compare a relationship to being in prison, but noting that being single isn’t better. Unfortunately, we’re treated to the cheesiest use of a harmonica I’ve ever heard, and the song’s message gets lost. This is the only song that earns Irwin Silber’s criticisms of Bob Dylan being “maudlin” and “cruel.”
Whatever, more than two decades after the fact, Bob Dylan is pretty embarrassed by it, and more than two decades after that, we have the technology to delete songs from playlists, so…