Bob Dylan and the Art of the Insult Song

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Bob Dylan has never been shy about expressing his feelings. Anyone who has seen a Dylan interview, press conference or the documentary film Don't Look Back is familiar with this side of his personality. He can be rude, condescending and scathingly hurtful. Bluntly speaking, he is frequently a jerk. However, he is arguably a jerk in a number of very interesting ways. Perhaps most intriguingly, throughout his career, Dylan has expressed his ire through a number of songs.

Suze Rotolo

The iconic cover of Dylan's seminal album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan features the artist walking through a snowy New York city street with shoulders hunched as a beautiful dark-haired woman latches onto his left arm. Dylan appears to be happy, which is not a naturally tenable state for him.1 If he is happy, it is likely because this dark-haired woman named Suze Rotolo.

Dylan had a complex relationship with Rotolo. They met backstage at a concert. His memoir Chronicles features this description of their first encounter:

Right from the start I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blooded Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin.

Suze and Bob began dating just before he began to receive significant attention for his music. However, the Rotolo family were unimpressed by young Bob, and nicknamed him 'Twerp'. When Suze's mother remarried in 1962, her new stepfather took her on an extended trip to Italy. She later complained about Dylan's possessiveness and saw her trip to Italy as a way to escape being 'a string on his guitar.' Dylan was unable to cope with this separation, and wrote several songs about his heartache. In particular, his beautiful song 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right' features lyrics that appear to be aimed at Rotolo, including, 'I once loved a woman, a child I'm told, / I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul... / I ain't saying' you treated me unkind, / You could have done better but I don't mind, / You just kinda wasted my precious time.' The song 'Down the Highway' complains, 'the ocean took my baby, / My baby took my heart from me. / She packed it all up in a suitcase, / Lord, she took it away to Italy. Italy.'

Suze remained in Italy for about seven months. Upon her return, she reunited with Dylan for a short while (during which time the cover photograph of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was taken). However, Dylan's possessiveness, combined with the revelation that he had affected the pose of the jilted lover during her time in Italy, led her to quickly end their relationship. At that point, Dylan began to be more biting in his insults of Rotolo. His 1964 songs 'Boots of Spanish Leather' and 'Ballad in Plain D' clearly express his anger towards her. The former song, from his album The Times They Are A-Changin', functions as a dialogue between two lovers as one prepares to go 'across that lonesome ocean.' She repeatedly asks him what souvenir he would like from Europe. He eventually feels insulted by her insistence, and then receives a letter from her, 'Saying I don't know when I'll be comin' back again / It depends on how I'm a-feelin'.' From this, he concludes, 'I'm sure your heart is not with me / But with the country to where you're goin'.' These references to Rotolo clearly present him as a victim of her selfishness and neglect. Poor Bob.

'Ballad in Plain D', from Another Side of Bob Dylan, takes another tack. This strange song blames the Rotolo family for poisoning Suze ('the could-be dream-lover of my lifetime') against him. It claims of Suze, 'she was easily undone, / By the jealousy of others around her.' With no attempt at subtlety, he sings that he has not respect for 'her parasite sister'. Additionally, Dylan suggests that Suze's mother and sister were jealous of her affection for him: 'Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day, / With strings of guilt they tried hard to guide us.' He also described a 'screaming battleground' between himself and his sister.

In light of later songs, Dylan's treatment of Suze is relatively gentle. He even later admitted regret over recording and releasing 'Ballad in Plain D', as well as acknowledging what his fans already knew, that the song 'wasn't very good.' Over the year, Dylan appears to have maintained his fondness for Suze, and his account of their relationship in his memoir is exceptional for its lack of bitterness. Many of the other figures in his early years were not so lucky.

The Folk Police

Dylan began his career as a folk-singer. When he first moved to New York City, he made several pilgrimages to see the dying folk icon Woody Guthrie, and even penned an obsequious tribute called 'Song to Woody' in his debut album. Dylan gained fame through his performances in the folk-friendly coffee houses and bars clustered around Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. Many of his most well-known and well-loved songs sprang from the folk tradition, including 'Blowin' in the Wind', 'Times They Are A-Changin'' and 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall'.

However, Bob Dylan is a ramblin' man, and in 1965 he rambled away from folk. Most famously, he performed a set of electric songs at the Newport Folk Festival on July 24, 1965. The reaction of the audience members that day, and of the folk scene more generally, was explosively negative. He later derided these folks2 in his memoir. He described one 'folk music purist' named Jon Pankake as a 'part of the folk police, if not the chief commissioner'. Indeed, as Dylan transitioned to rock music, many of his former supporters and fans became hostile and abusive. For example, during his 1965 tour of Britain, Dylan generally performed a first half of acoustic, folk songs before switching to a second half of rock and roll. Famously, at a Manchester concert, an audience members responded to this switch by crying out 'Judas!'

Dylan responded to his critics with some of his angriest insult songs. In fact, the first electric song he played at Newport was 'Maggie's Farm', which had been released as a single in January and as a part of the album Bringing It All Back Home in March. 'Maggie's Farm' mocks and derides these folk music purists. He moans that even though he has 'got a head full of ideas / That are drivin' me insane', he's made to scrub the floor - implying that he wants to go beyond the artistic limitations of the folk genre. In the rest of the song, he mocks the folkies' stinginess, hypocrisy and superficiality, before memorably concluding,

Well, I try my best

To be just like I am

But everybody wants you

To be just like them

They say sing while you slave and I just get bored

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

Far more direct is his scathing denunciation of the folk police in the song 'Positively Fourth Street'. This song's title is generally said to refer to the folk establishment clustered around 4th street in New York. It begins bitterly: 'You got a lotta nerve / To say you are my friend / When I was down / You just stood there grinning.' He mocks the folk purists for talking behind his back and for never truly supporting him. He then describes an (imagined?) encounter between himself and a folk purist on the street. He claims that while the purist might wish him well to his face, he would actually 'rather see me paralyzed.' Finally, he implores his purist audience to imagine his feelings: 'I wish that for just one time / You could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is / To see you.'

'Positively Fourth Street' is the song that most readily comes to mind when discussing Dylan's expansive insult oeuvre. He does not even attempt to disguise his hatred, which prompted even greater hostility from the folk scene.

The Media

In the 1967 documentary film 'Don't Look Back,' Dylan famously castigated a Time Magazine reporter:

You know the audience that subscribe to Time magazine, the audience of people who want to know what’s happening in the world, week by week. The people that work during the day and can read it small, and it’s concise, and there’s pictures in it. You know, there’s a certain class of people, that's a class of people who take the magazine seriously. Sure, I mean, I can read it, you know, I read it on the airplanes but I don’t take it seriously. If I want to find out anything I’m not gonna read Time magazine. I’m not gonna read Newsweek. I’m not gonna read any of these magazines. I mean, they’ve got too much to lose by printing the truth. You know that... I know more about what you do, and you don't even have to ask me how or why or anything, just by looking, than you'll ever know about me, ever.

Indeed, for most of his life, Dylan postured, lied to and evaded the media. His press conferences and interviews tended to be combative and painful. In his memoir, he would write,

The press never let up. Once in a while I would have to rise up and offer myself for an interview so they wouldn't beat down the door. Usually the questions would start out with something like, "Can we talk further upon things that are happening?" "Sure, like what?" Reporters would shoot questions at me and I would tell them repeatedly that I not a spokesman for anything or anybody and that I was only a musician. They'd look into my eyes as if to find some evidence of bourbon and handfuls of amphetamines. I had no idea what they were thinking. Later an article would hit the streets with the headline "Spokesman Denies That He's a Spokesman." I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs... What did I owe the rest of the world? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The press? I figured you lied to it.

However, Dylan's most enduring attack on the media came in his song 'Ballad of a Thin Man' from his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan's vocal is sneering and angry, with a somber piano emphasizing the song's harshness. While the lyrics of the song are particularly difficult to penetrate in place, it is clearly an attack on reporters. The song is structured as a monologue directed at a man named 'Mister Jones'. As the song develops over its six-minute runtime, Jones roams around something resembling a carnival. He encounters a number of perplexing and disturbing things, including a geek (who asks him 'How does it feel / To be such a freak?"), a sword swallower and a one-eyed midget. The song's biting chorus alludes to Mister Jones' mounting confusion and frustration: 'Because something is happening here / But you don't know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?' The most common interpretation of the song casts Mister Jones as a pretentious reporter (the song's opening lines note that Jones is carrying a pencil) who is completely bewildered when he leaves his Ivory Tower. Subsequent comments by Dylan have essentially confirmed this interpretation.

'Ballad of a Thin Man' has mystified listeners ever since. Even without a sophisticated interpretation of the song's meaning, it is easy to sense that it was intended as a dark, insulting song. It is unclear whether the character Mister Jones is meant to represent the media as a whole, or a particular reporter. Some reporters who knew Dylan during the 1960s - including at least one with the surname Jones - have responded to claims that the song was about them. Perhaps most memorably, New York Times music critic Robert Shelton disclaimed associated with 'Ballad of a Thin Man'. He simply pointed out, 'I'm fat.'

The Beatles

Bob Dylan famously helped to introduce the Beatles to marijuana. Journalist Al Aronowitz introduced Dylan to the Fab Four on August 28, 1964 at the Hotel Delmonico in New York City. John Lennon later recounted this experience to Rolling Stone:

He first turned us on in New York actually. He thought "I Want to Hold Your Hand" - when it goes "I can't hide" - he thought we were singing "I get high." So he turns up with Al Aronowitz and turns us on, and we had the biggest laugh all night - forever. Fantastic. We've got a lot to thank him for.

Shortly after this meeting, The Beatles recorded a song called 'Norwegian Wood' for their 1965 album Rubber Soul. Upon hearing this, Dylan apparently felt cheated. A number of explanations exist for this. According to one account, he subsequently claimed to have played a similar song called '4th Time Around' for The Beatles prior to their release of 'Norwegian Wood'. Others claim that Dylan believed that the poetic monologue style of 'Norwegian Wood' was stolen from him, and that he wrote '4th Time Around' as a response.

Whatever the case, Dylan recorded and released '4th Time Around' for his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. The two songs share a similar melody, and both tell the humorous story of a sexual tryst. Dylan's song ends with the lines, 'I never took much / I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine.' These lyrics have often been interpreted as an insult to The Beatles for stealing Dylan's style. When asked about the controversy, George Harrison offered his view of Dylan's song: 'To my mind, it was about how John and Paul, from listening to Bob’s early stuff, had written "Norwegian Wood". Judging from the title, it seemed as though Bob had listened to that and wrote the same basic song again, calling it "Fourth Time Around".' For his part, John Lennon reacted to the song in a 1968 interview:

Q: What did you think of Dylan's "version" of "Norwegian Wood" ("Fourth Time Around")?

A: I was very paranoid about that. I remember he played it to me when he was in London. He said, "What do you think?" I said, "I don't like it." I didn't like it. I was very paranoid. I just didn't like what I felt I was feeling - I thought it was an out-and-out skit, you know, but it wasn't. It was great. I mean, he wasn't playing any tricks on me. I was just going through the bit.

It is perhaps difficult to tell if '4th Time Around' is intended as an insult or perhaps a good-natured acknowledgement that this music was floating around and being reused. After all, Dylan is a noted plagiarist. He has been caught stealing material from sources as varied as Blues musicians, Marcel Proust and a antebellum southern poets named Henry Timrod. Many, if not most, of his early songs were based on traditional melodies and arrangements. If The Beatles did steal from Dylan (which is by no means clear) then it would be quite hypocritical for him to complain. However, based on the bitter body of Dylan's work within the insult song genre, this does not appear unlikely.

Cold Warriors

Many of Dylan's best early songs were generally considered protest songs. The epic 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' protested nuclear proliferation. 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' and 'Only a Pawn in Their Game' each protested racism. However, while these songs are remembered for their subtlety and beauty, Dylan was not above simply insulting the people he disagreed with.

In fact, his 1963 song 'With God On Our Side,' savagely mocks the self-righteousness of the Christian component of American exceptionalism. He portrays the course of American history, from the Indian Wars through the Cold War, as having been motivated by a religious self confidence. As he discusses the Cold War, he sarcastically says, 'I've learned to hate the Russians / All through my whole life'. He then portrays nuclear brinksmanship within the context of this self-righteousness: 'One push of the button / And a shot the world wide / And you never ask questions / When God's on your side.' He then asks his audience the chilling question, 'You'll have to decide / Whether Judas Iscariot / Had God on his side.' Dylan effectively compares the Cold Warriors of his day to Judas Iscariot.

Even more biting is Dylan's 'Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues'. This song's speaker claims to be worried about Communism. He decides to join the John Birch Society, a far-right group. Dylan then claims, 'Now we all agree with Hitler's views... At least you can't say he was a Communist!' He checks all around his house for Communist spies, including up his chimney and his toilet. He concludes that President Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt as well as 98% of the people he knows are Communists. After all this, he decides to investigate himself: 'Hope I don't find out anything...'

1For examples, see the album covers of Highway 61 Revisited, The Times They Are A-Changing, Blonde on Blonde, Another Side of Bob Dylan and New Morning. Each has an angry mien. On Blonde on Blonde in particular, Dylan appears ready to insult you, or perhaps to spit on you. Nashville Skyline is a strange exception in this regard. It features an almost frighteningly clownish Dylan smiling down at the camera and doffing his cap at his audience. 2Intended.

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