On January 13, in the Columbia recording studio in New York City, Bob Dylan played solo on acoustic guitar or piano for the first day of sessions. On the 14th, however, producer Tom Wilson brought in a whole platoon of musicians: three guitarists (blues guitarist Bruce Langhorne, pop guitarist Kenny Rankin, and general session guitarist Al Gorgoni), two bassists (William E. Lee, father of filmmaker Spike Lee; and Joseph Macho Jr.), a pianist (Paul Griffin), and a drummer (Bobby Gregg).
In three and a half hours, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., the eight of them recorded almost all of Bringing It All Back Home’s first side: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (captured in one take), “Outlaw Blues,” “She Belongs to Me,” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” They didn’t rehearse; Langhorne later described their chemistry as telepathic. That evening, Dylan did another session with future Lovin’ Spoonful John Sebastian on bass and John Hammond Jr. on guitar, but no cuts from that session made the album.
The following day the original musicians returned for another 2:30–5:30 p.m. session, except pianist Paul Griffin, who couldn’t make it. (Frank Owens covered for him.) The day went as smoothly as the one before. Dylan would demonstrate a track on piano, and then the ensemble would try it at a couple of different speeds. “Maggie’s Farm” was captured in one take, and they also got the electric rocker “On the Road Again” in the can.
Dylan recorded the entire second side that same day. Langhorne played electric guitar for “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and Lee joined Dylan on bass for “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Dylan recorded “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Gates of Eden” by himself on guitar. (Electric versions of the songs of side two were recorded but never released.)
The album’s single “Subterranean Homesick Blues” synthesizes the Beat Generation, Chuck Berry, and Woody Guthrie. The title is a reference to Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. The rhythm comes from Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” The opening lines come from “Taking It Easy,” written by Guthrie and recorded by Pete Seeger’s Weavers. The latter song features a father in the basement mixing up the hops while the brother watches out for the cops. In “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dylan’s associate mixes up a different sort of (unnamed) medicine, but the cops are shaking them down nonetheless, and planting bugs in preparation for a bust. The protagonist realizes it’s time to go straight: get sick (street slang for giving up heroin), get clean, join society, and try to be a success. Soon, however, he’s homesick for the underground lifestyle and jumps back down the manhole. But even there, he’s screwed—there’s no water because vandals have stolen the pump handles. The song prophesizes the journey of the hippies, who would soon begin to drop out of mainstream society and into the drug culture, only to find that lifestyle to be equally stressful. Some credit the song with being one of the first proto-hip-hop tracks, more than twenty years ahead of white rappers such as the Beastie Boys, Beck, and Anthony Kiedis (whose group, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, would cover the tune).
Dylan was regarded as the king of the topical song but had become disinterested in writing solemn political tracts. “Maggie’s Farm” was a new kind of protest song, one he could write without being bored. He sings the darkly hilarious portrait of a plantation with such hipper-than-thou confidence that it’s amazing to think the band had been working together for only a few hours. As the song’s sharecropper refuses to go along with the program anymore, Bill Lee booms wryly along on bass; twenty-five years later, his son, Spike Lee, would grow up to embody black dissent.
Dylan’s euphoria at finally living his rock-and-roll dream infuses side one, epitomized by the spontaneous laughter opening “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” The song itself is a near remake of his aborted rock single “Mixed Up Confusion,” almost as if he were resuming where he left off two years before. Set to a piano that evokes Chaplin’s silent comedies, the song is an endless cartoon about pirates let loose in an anarchic New York where bowling balls come rolling down the road to knock you off your feet and where feet pop out of telephones to kick you in the head. It’s the moment when rock lyrics went psychedelic.
Most of the songs of side one are variations on the same basic blues-rock groove, but two are mellow tributes to Dylan’s muses, Joan Baez and Sara Lownds. (Like the heroine of “She Belongs to Me,” Baez wore an Egyptian ring.) Baez visited the studio during the sessions.7 She had been the much bigger star when she and Dylan first met, almost two years before, and took Dylan on tour with her, giving him a solo spot during her shows. They were now perceived by many to be the “first couple” of folk.
But within the last few months, Dylan had secretly begun seeing Sara Lownds, a former model and bunny from the New York Playboy Club who was friends with his manager’s wife (Sally Grossman, the woman on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home).8 Lownds lived in an apartment at New York’s Chelsea Hotel with her young daughter, whom she’d had with a fashion photographer, and Dylan rented a room there to be near her. She was the more likely inspiration for “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” as the song concerns a woman who has no ideals and speaks like silence—the opposite of Baez, who’d founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence and constantly pushed Dylan to use his fame for political good. In a year and a half, Dylan would retreat into silence with Lownds as his wife.
The remaining two tracks on the side (“Outlaw Blues” and “On the Road Again”) are comparatively weak retreads of the other rock numbers. Their inclusion is baffling, considering the band had captured “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” a far superior song and already a regular part of Dylan’s act; but perhaps he was sick of it or felt it was too straightforward. He set it aside, allowing Manfred Mann to take it all the way to No. 2 in the United Kingdom. He also demo’d “I’ll Keep It with Mine” and “Farewell, Angelina,” but they were ballads in the vein of his previous album, and Dylan was eager to show off his own blues band (which the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman noted in his memoir sounded much like theirs).9 After all, the title of the album, Bringing It All Back Home, essentially proclaims that Dylan was taking the rock-and-roll crown back from the Brits.
After six tries, Dylan and Langhorne finally got the perfect take of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It opens the acoustic side two, which completes Dylan’s transformation from protest singer to full-time surrealist. For the transition, he had found another role model along with Rimbaud, and this one was alive.
Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg lived on the fault line between social hero and exhibitionist loony, as might be expected from his upbringing. His father was a poet– high school teacher, and his mother was a schizophrenic nudist Communist; Ginsberg authorized her lobotomy in 1947. He was expelled from Columbia University for writing dirty words on his window, and in his poems he boasted that he was everything that repressed postwar America hated: gay, druggie, a Communist when he was a kid. But he maintained that he wasn’t a bad person: he deserved love as everyone deserved love. When Ginsberg went to trial for obscenity in 1957 but was not convicted, it gave courage to outsiders and helped loosen things up, paving the way for the counterculture to follow.
Dylan absorbed the stream-of-consciousness style that Ginsberg and his fellow Beat Jack Kerouac developed together, a musical hipster patois that transformed gritty reality into incandescent wordplay. They found beauty in the modern urban landscape and expressed it in a cadence influenced by their beloved bebop, informed by their quest for spiritual transcendence. Ginsberg cried the first time he heard Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” because he felt the torch had been passed to a new generation.10 The two artists quickly struck up a friendship.
Ginsberg saw himself in the prophetic tradition, confronting America with its soul-sucking dark side in order to heal it. In “Gates of Eden” on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan chants stridently as if he were a biblical prophet. What exactly he is prophesizing is unclear, though, as he deliberately replaces the easy interpretation of his earlier morality tracts with Zen koan-like images that veer into the bizarre. Perhaps Eden was the state of enlightenment, the only thing real in a hopelessly twisted world, or perhaps the song was designed to be impenetrable.
The main message of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” seems to be that society will exploit you if you don’t get hip (a theme that especially resonated as the Vietnam draft kicked in that spring). But what blew people’s minds more than any individual aphorism or cinematic image was Dylan’s ability to endlessly play folk-blues riffs while reeling off stanza after spellbinding stanza in enigmatic emotionless delivery, leaving his live audiences stunned and unsure if he was a mystic oracle channeling divinations, a genius, a charlatan, or all the above.
The album’s final track, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”—with the sky folding under you and orphans crying like a fire in the sun—showed that he had surpassed Rimbaud, just one of many spirits in his magpie synthesis of ancient folk bards, Ginsberg, Guthrie, Berry, Johnny Cash, the Stones. With Bringing It All Back Home, he had created the first rock album that sucked the art of poetry into its bloodstream, the moment in which LPs became not just collections of pop songs but works to stand alongside masterpieces in any form, from Picasso’s Guernica to James Joyce’s Ulysses. But unlike those pièces de résistance, Dylan’s would soon be heard by youth across the planet, listening, as Ginsberg put it, “to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.”