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The Story Behind The Song: Bob Dylan’s ultimate musical middle finger on ‘Positively 4th Street’

@TomTaylorFO

If there is a better break-up middle finger in music than the lambasting that Dylan offers up in ‘Positively 4thStreet’ then it needs to make itself known. Somehow, he coupled all the hysterical rage of stubbing your toe while completely emersed in flame, with the subdued air of superiority and above-it-all apathy.

The target of his scorn is apparently a muse who spawned a multitude of masterpieces. Edie Sedgwick was the poster girl of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and despite losing her life so painfully early, at just 28-years-old, she lived it to the fullest and cut herself out as a prominent figure in the New York art scene. It is this high-flying lifestyle of parties, possessions and the crowd she was in with that has led many to believe that Dylan was taking aim with his empowered go forth and multiply rebuke. 

The model and actress was born into an incredibly powerful and wealthy family in 1943. Her ancestors had moved to America from England in the 1600s and went on to become one of the most illustrious families in the whole of North America. Whether this colonial context of ancestry has anything to do with the imagery that Dylan musters in this song and its twin brother of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is open to interpretation, but you certainly wouldn’t put it past him. 

It is widely reported that Dylan began an affair with Sedgewick shortly before marrying Sarah Lownds. It is even claimed by Sedgewick’s brother, Jonathan, that his sister fell pregnant to the folk star. As Jonathan remarked according to the New York Post: “One day, she called me up and she said, ‘I’ve met someone.’” She didn’t tell him who it was at first, but when she added that he was a fabulously talented folk singer full of conviction, it became clear it was Dylan. 

Jonathan continues: “She told me she was totally in love with him. She also explained she lost a child which she claims was Bob Dylan’s child. She had gotten into an insane asylum, and she was so whacked out on drugs that they aborted her because the child would’ve just been strung out. She said that was the saddest moment of her life.”

While these claims from Jonathan Sedgewick remain uncorroborated, there is no doubting that Dylan and his sister did indeed have a relationship. Thus, if they are true then the visceral edge to the song is imbued with even more caustic furore as Dylan embarks on a scathing condemnation of her decadent ways. While her departure from high society to the art scene was all well and good, it was her dive into the darker side of the counterculture that led to Dylan’s sonic lambasting.

What remains, beyond the gritty rumour mill that requires judicious dissecting, is a song that, thankfully, spares its target the indignity of specifics. As such it soars with a universality as Dylan truly marked himself as an unflinching electric folk iconoclast during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions. It would never make the album and as such resides as one of the greatest B-sides ever written, although, in fairness, ‘Positively 4th Street’ was intended as an A-Side and only found itself usurped by ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’ as an error while printing.

By modern standards, it seems incredulous that a song of this quality could go without an album home, but back in Dylan’s pomp, he was pumping out classic after classic for fun, and a new little seven inch from the master would have been a nice little way to spend some loose change. What’s more, the standalone nature of the song almost makes it seem like he simply, befittingly, wanted to get his great break-up rant off of his chest in a hurry. 

The beauty of the track is the juxtaposition that Dylan offered, with an unbridled disdain which he parades on a sanguine soundscape to give the impression of pure hard-earned indifference. It packs all the same punch and caustic acerbic wit, riding along on a slightly sweeter organ tone. The gem in the crown of this piece of folk-rock perfection is the very last verse, perhaps one of the best break-up verses ever penned: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / And just for that one moment I could be you / Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”

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