In 1964, Bob Dylan spent the summer away from the city at his manager Albert Grossman’s home in Woodstock, New York. When Joan Baez, fellow folk singer and girlfriend at the time, came to visit, she found Dylan living in a dreamlike state, fully engrossed in his writing. Baez recalled that “Bob stood at the typewriter in the corner of his room, drinking red wine and smoking and tapping away relentlessly for hours. And in the dead of night, he would wake up, grunt, grab a cigarette, and stumble over to the typewriter again.”
It turns out he was writing what would later be known as his March 22, 1965 release Bringing It All Back Home. In contrast to his previous protest ballads, his lyrics became increasingly surreal, and his sound, heavily influenced by a momentous meeting with The Beatles when he returned to New York in August, turned electric. Although this move seemed to anger and delight fans alike, Dylan created a new sound by fusing folk with heavier rock, and in the process, made what would later be regarded as the best rock n roll album of all time.
The record opens with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, a dumping ground for Dylan’s frustration, cynicism, wit, and sarcasm. With a fast-paced lyricism that’s often cited as a precursor to rap, this style truly sets the tone for the rest of the album. This mood is matched in ‘Maggie’s Farm’, his desire for freedom from the protest folk movement, and especially in one of Dylan’s most ambitious compositions, ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’. With lyrics like “He not busy being born, is busy dying,” we get a taste of this new stream of consciousness composition style he was creating.
But despite the acidic tone the album takes, the recording process ran a lot more smoothly. Photographer Daniel Kramer, who was present at the time, recalls of the experience: “The musicians were enthusiastic. They conferred with one another to work out the problems as they arose. Dylan bounced around from one man to another, explaining what he wanted, often showing them on the piano what was needed until, like a giant puzzle, the pieces would fit, and the picture emerged whole.”
Adding: “Most of the songs went down easily and needed only three or four takes… In some cases, the first take sounded completely different from the final one because the material was played at a different tempo, perhaps, or a different chord was chosen, or solos may have been rearranged…His method of working, the certainty of what he wanted, kept things moving.”
Though Dylan was able to record electric versions of almost every song on the final album, he supposedly never intended the record to be completely electric. This is why the album includes electric, full-band compositions as well as acoustic ballads like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. These prove to lighten things up a bit with a softer tone and melody but still manage to bring the Dylan-Esque edge.
On the cover of the album sits Dylan and manager Albert Grossman’s wife, Sally Grossman, surrounded by cryptic trinkets such as LPs by the Impressions, Robert Johnson, and Ravi Shankar, a Time Magazine with President Lyndon B. Johnson on the cover, and his cat named Rolling Stone, among other things. A bit like a hidden objects game, Daniel Kramer managed to capture a composition as scattered as the content and even received a Grammy nomination for the best album cover.
In the liner notes of the album, Dylan provides a stream of consciousness rambling to accompany the cover. He writes, “I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening. I do know that we’re all gonna die someday an’ that no death has ever stopped the world. My poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion/ divided by pierced ears. False eyelashes/subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. With a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness — seen at times through dark sunglasses an’ other forms of psychic explosion. A song is anything that can walk by itself/i am called a songwriter. A poem is a naked person…some people say that I am a poet.”
His inner poet truly shines through in Bringing It All Back Home, which, despite the shock of going electric, and the bitterness in tone and lyrics alike, proved to be the honesty the public was searching for in mainstream music. This was Dylan’s turning point musically, and as he often did, tremendously influenced the direction music would take in music’s integral late ’60s years. It set him on a path of musical experimentation and defiance that exceeded what he’s done before, and even 56 years later, it still is seen as one of the most influential albums ever created.