Thoughts on Another Side of Bob Dylan

The inside of Bob Dylan’s head is a wonderland to which we are granted fleeting glimpses. Listen to an album and witness a single thought rolling around in his mind and bounding outward in endless lyrical variations–now humorous, now grave, now personal, now universal.

From the outside looking in, Another Side of Bob Dylan finds the artist at a crossroads. His previous album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was explicitly focused on social change and cemented his place in the public ear as the voice of protest. Never one to accept a label, Dylan’s other side refuses the mantle of protest singer. Throughout Another Side, Dylan’s relationship to “equality” is bounced out of his brain and into his lyrics in numerous forms.

Dylan reflects on his activism and youthful idealism in the sweeping masterpiece “My Back Pages,” and comes to the conclusion that maturity has cooled those particular fires. Speaking of himself in the past tense, he sings

“A self-ordained professor’s tongue, too serious to fool,Another Side of Bob Dylan
Spouted out that ‘liberty’ is just ‘equality’ in school.
‘Equality’–I spoke the word as if a wedding vow.
Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

“Equality” was no longer the same sacred principle to Dylan. Going forward, he could not devote his life (till death do he part) to fighting for equality; he could not take himself and his actions so seriously.

That does not mean he did not care about his fellow man. On the contrary, his brotherly love expanded to “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” ring for those who are not free in every context, in every sense. He sings for peaceful “warriors whose strength is not to fight” and for “the outcast, burning constantly at stake.” Dylan recognizes that it is the individual who suffers from within (are birds free from the chains of the skyways?). Prostitutes and prisoners, outlaws and artists–each is fighting for his or her freedom from their personal jail cells, and he “want[s] everybody to be free.” Dylan retreated from being the voice of the people to being a champion of the individual.

Focusing on a specific suffering individual, Dylan pleads “To Ramona”–a woman who cannot let go of her need to act for the cause, who is “torn between staying and returning back to the South.” Dylan tries to alleviate her distress and pass his wisdom on to her, singing,

“I’ve heard you say many times that you’re better than no one
And no one is better than you.
If you really believe that you know you have nothing to win
And nothing to lose.
By fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem,
That hype you and type you, making you feel
That you gotta be just like them.”

The equality that tears at Ramona is the idea of being the same as someone else in both substance and value. Instead of a sacrifice of the self that results in spiritual growth and contentment, Dylan criticizes a self-sacrifice that amounts to self-negation, ending in loss. Dylan wants Ramona to value her individual self (as he has learned to do for himself) and become more than a faceless soldier in a battle for equality.

Dylan takes Ramona’s feelings of equality (i.e. worthlessness) very seriously. On the emotional flip-side, he lampoons the same notion in “I Shall Be Free No. 10.” Framing the concept in an absurd light by taking it to its conclusion, he sings,

“I’m just average, common too.
I’m just like him, the same as you.
I’m everybody’s brother and son.
I’m no different than anyone.
Ain’t no use talkin’ to me,
It’s just the same as talkin’ to you.”

This is egalitarianism in the extreme, ridiculing the misplaced notion of spiritual self-sacrifice that he condemns in “To Ramona.” Within two songs, we see Dylan combat this unsatisfactory equality with both satire and sincerity.

Dylan is certainly not one of Ramona’s friends who wants her “to be just like them.” In “All I Really Want to Do,” he lets us know, “I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me, see like me or be like me.” He does not want to be a part of a scene of assimilating true believers; he just wants to be friends with you. Another Side of Bob Dylan communicates that Dylan doesn’t want to fight anymore. He wants to live–with friends, gypsies, farmer’s daughters, and you.

But say, for instance, that you are looking for someone who’ll promise never to part? Someone who’ll close his eyes for you, and someone who’ll close his heart? Someone who will die for you and more? Dylan is not the one you want, babe. He will only let you down.

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