Everybody Must Get Stoned
It took me a while to come around to Bob Dylan.
For a long time, I didn’t see his appeal. While I understood the significance of his role in rock music, he was not an early favorite.
His music isn’t listenable in the way other folk artists are. Like many great singer-songwriters, his words often sound better when sung from the mouth of another. I place him alongside Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen in this category.
Still, I wanted to understand the cult of Bob Dylan.
In high school, I used to go to our local music store and look for used CDs of artists that I knew were important but I hadn’t really given a fair listen. Dylan was certainly in this category, and so in 1994, I picked up a used copy of Blonde on Blonde (1966).
This was a good choice for my first Dylan album, and it remains my second favorite. To me, it contains the best of what Dylan has to offer: strong narrative storytelling backed by incredible intricate melodies.
Like all epic albums, my favorite song has changed throughout the years, but a handful of tracks have always made a deep connection.
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
Most folks know the first track of this album, but few know what it’s called. I think most folks think Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 is called Everybody Must Get Stoned.
As a teenager, this track had obvious appeal. Not only with its obvious drug references, but with the underlying theme that we all must suffer persecution at some time or another:
Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good
They’ll stone you just like they said they would
They’ll stone you when you’re trying to go home
And they’ll stone you when you’re there all alone
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned.
The song perfectly captures both the realization that there’s some futility in the struggle and the subsequent desire to numb the pain of that realization.
One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)
Again, this track highlights Dylan’s ability to portray the complexity of human experience through his lyrics. It’s a song of regret about love that was lost — and probably for the better.
Detailing a love affair built on the white lies we often use to get close to the object of our desire, this song shows that when it comes to love, we often see what we want to see:
I couldn’t see
What you could show me
Your scarf had kept your mouth well hid
I couldn’t see
How you could know me
But you said you knew me and I believed you did
I Want You
This track is pure poetry and is an example of Dylan’s use of figurative language in his work:
The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you
I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you.
Despite what the world says, the singer will pursue the object of his affection. Despite the plaintive and complicated nature of the lyrics, which indicate longing and desire, the full meaning of the song is felt through the music. Instead of a slow, longing tune, Dylan presents a jaunty piano-based number that conveys the feeling he is happy to pursue his love to the end of the earth, come what may.
Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat
This is a contender for my favorite Dylan song. It has a blues rhythm, and the lyrics take a narrative form. I love how Dylan takes a simple fashion item and uses all of the cultural connotations of the moment to convey meaning. In classic Dylan fashion, some of the lyrics make no sense yet you understand the meaning perfectly:
Well you, look so pretty in it
Honey, can I jump on it sometime?
Yes, I just wanna see
If it’s really that expensive kind
You know it balances on your head just like a
Mattress balances on a bottle of wine
Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
There’s also a blazing blues guitar bridge carried by another of my favorite artists, Robbie Robertson. Dylan plays lead guitar on the opening and closing of the track.
Just Like a Woman
Like many Dylan songs, I like a cover version of this song better than the original. I like the Richie Havens version better. Like many relics of the ’60s, the lyrics to this song sound sexist and dated today. In one way, it’s hard to hear a woman’s experience appropriated by a male narrator, which is the norm in rock music. But Dylan has a truth to his storytelling that endures. Indeed, haven’t we all experienced the child inside of us, breaking down when things get to be too much?
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl
We all put on a good front sometimes, even though we feel helpless inside. It’s the last line that maintains the universal appeal since the rest of the song takes a misogynistic tone toward being “just like a woman” who breaks hearts and uses men for her own means.
Over the years I have come to appreciate other Dylan albums. I think his best by far is Blood on the Tracks. While Blonde on Blonde was my first taste of Dylan, sharp and exciting as whiskey, Blood on the Tracks is like a fine wine that I would not come to fully appreciate until adulthood.
If you asked me today, I would say, A Simple Twist of Fate is my favorite Dylan song.
Regardless of where you start, it’s worth diving into the catalog of this American master. Listen to what he has to say. Like any great storyteller, his words are apt to echo in your mind for a long while. He’s not the subject of hero worship for nothing.