On January 20, 1964, Meet the Beatles! hit America's record stores to explosive demand. Two days earlier, Bob Dylan's The Times They Are-A Changin' was released to much less fanfare, constituting his most politically charged album to date. However, despite the growing popularity of Dylan's topical folk songs, the 23-year-old had already moved on to new musical terrain. His infatuation with Beat literature, Rimbaud, and the French symbolist poets beckoned him to untether himself from the confines of political songwriting, resulting in the October 1964 release, Another Side of Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan On the Road
In February 1964, Dylan, his road manager Victor Maymudes, journalist Paul Karman, and folksinger Paul Clayton piled into a blue Ford station wagon and made a three-week road trip from New York to California, via New Orleans. The journey amounted to an asphalt purging, with Dylan living out his own “On the Road” adventure in the spirit of Jack Kerouac.
It was on this trip that Dylan that the Beatles inspired Dylan to take his own music to other destinations. As he later reflected, “We were driving through Colorado, we had the radio on, and eight of the top-10 songs were Beatles songs... They were doing things that nobody was doing... I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.”
If odes to poor Hattie Carroll and Medgar Evers were the mainstay of his catalog thus far, now "crimson flames" roared through Dylan's head as he pounded out new lyrics featuring "majestic bells of bolts" and "skippin' reels of rhyme." Tapping away on a typewriter in the back seat, on his way through the south, Dylan wrote "Chimes of Freedom" (purchase/download), constituting the first song inspired by his expanding vision.
During his May tour of Britain, he would debut "Mr. Tambourine Man" (purchase/download) and "It Ain't Me, Babe" (purchase/download) - two more songs from his growing repertoire of apolitical music. Onward to Paris, Berlin, and Greece, Dylan finished writing the rest of the lyrics on London's Mayfair Hotel stationary, including "All I Really Want to Do," "Spanish Harlem Incident," "I Shall Be Free No.10," and others - enough to fill out his forthcoming album.
No More Finger-Pointing Songs
Recorded on June 9, 1964, Another Side of Bob Dylan was captured in a single day under the direction of producer Tom Wilson. Journalist Nat Hentoff was invited to the session for a profile he was writing for The New Yorker, and Dylan told him, “There aren't any finger-pointing songs in here. Those records I've already made, I'll stand behind them; but... now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs... From now on, I want to write from inside me... having everything come out naturally.”
On top of the songs that made it onto the album, Dylan also recorded several tracks that ended up as outtakes, including "Mama, You Been On My Mind" (which he gave to Baez to record), and "I'll Keep It With Mine," (which he gave to folksinger Nico of Velvet Underground fame, although she never recorded it). Both outtakes would appear on 1991's Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3. Meanwhile, Dylan also did two takes of "Mr. Tambourine Man," deciding to save the song for some later effort.
Dylan didn't like the album title (it was producer Tom Wilson's idea). By calling it Another Side of Bob Dylan, Columbia Records seemed to be playing it safe, indicating that this could be a temporary departure from the norm, as if to say, "stay tuned, if this album is a flop, he will be back with some finger-pointing songs." But, for Dylan, the album was an artistic breakthrough, spelling out not only his permanent departure from topical lyrics, but his complete immersion into the undiscovered frontier of literary songwriting—a frontier he would soon come to own.
With his new album in the can, when Dylan made his second annual appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1964, rather than arriving with a pocketful of freshly penned topical songs, he took the opportunity to showcase his latest work, including "Chimes of Freedom," "All I Really Want to Do" (purchase/download), "To Ramona" (purchase/download), and "Mr. Tambourine Man." His selection created quite a fuss behind the scenes. Expecting Dylan's political wares, these new songs were anything but.
For the sake of anyone who hadn't got the message yet that Dylan was out of the business of politics, soon after the Newport he reiterated, "All I can say is politics is not my thing at all. I'm not really part of any society, like THEIR society... I'm not going to make a dent or anything, so why be a part of it by even trying to criticize it? That's a waste of time... The kids today, by the time they're twenty-one, they realize it's all bullshit. I know it's all bullshit."
Throughout the year, Dylan had suffered much criticism from the purists, who scolded him for abandoning "the cause" and writing apolitical lyrics. The attacks were so intense that even Johnny Cash—a distant admirer—wrote an open letter to Broadside magazine back in March, telling Dylan's detractors to "Shut Up... And Let Him Sing!"
Open Letter to Bob Dylan
It all came to a head when Another Side of Bob Dylan was released in October. Dylan's cheerleaders from the Greenwich Village folk scene who had championed him and helped his career along now felt betrayed at losing their prize poster boy. There was a lot of private back-biting, culminating in the “Open Letter to Bob Dylan” published in November's Sing Out! Magazine. In no uncertain terms the magazine's publisher, Irwin Silber, laid out the general sentiments of the folk community:
“Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, inner-probing, self-conscious, maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion. And it's happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now—rather than to the rest of us out front. Now, that's all okay—if that's the way you want it, Bob. But then you're a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.”
Despite the attacks, Another Side of Bob Dylan became a necessary springboard to much greater ambitions which would unfold over the next year and his two forthcoming albums. Although it remains one of his lesser-appreciated and underplayed early records, on it Dylan stretched the boundaries of both folk and popular music, proving that the mediums could be canvases for more literary forms of expression—an idea the Beatles and other bands would expand on in coming years.