Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bob Dylan -- "Positively 4th Street"

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is to see you

This may be the number one "O-T-R" song of all time.  (I haven't used that one in years . . . way too politically incorrect.)

There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to "Positively 4th Street."

Let's start with the title.  Which 4th Street is Dylan talking about?

Probably the 4th Street in New York City's Greenwich Village, which was where Dylan and many other singer-songwriters lived in the early 1960s.  But it also could refer to the 4th Street that passes through the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis, where Dylan had been a student and a performer before he moved to New York City.

(Did you notice that the words of the title don't appear anywhere in the song's lyrics?  That's quite unusual.)

Here's another unanswered question about this song: who is its target?  Dylan was pissed off in a major way at someone, but he never revealed who the song was about.  (A lot of folkie types in Greenwich Village thought the song might be about them.  That wouldn't have necessarily been a bad thing.  Pretty cool to be the guy who got under Bob Dylan's skin to such a degree that he wrote this song to tear you a new one, although it would have been even cooler to be the inspiration for "You're So Vain.")

Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village (1963)
The structure of this song is unique.  It has no chorus, for one thing.  "Positively 4th Street" consists of 12 four-line verses.  The music never really varies, and the lyrics never really rhyme.  It's a very peculiar song, and it's hard to figure out why it became a top ten AM radio hit in 1965.  Perhaps its success is at least partly explained by the fact that it was released on the heels of Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," which had been a huge success.

The most notable thing about "Positively 4th Street" is (in the words of one reviewer) is its "level of bile."  Dylan is relentless from the beginning to the end -- he never lets up.  Someone who had pretended to be his friend has stabbed him in the back, and Bob was not amused.

Al Kooper, Bob Dylan
"Positively 4th Street" was recorded at the same as Dylan's sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited.  For some reason it was not included on that album, but released only as a single.  

Dylan's words may have been the element that contributed the most to the success of the song, but the inimitable Al Kooper's inspired Hammond organ playing was a close second.  It's not as wonderful as his organ playing on "Like A Rolling Stone," but what is?  

Three final notes.  First, Positively 4th Street is the title of David Hajdu's 2001 book about folksingers Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña.

Second, in 1989, an English music promoter bought an old jukebox that once belonged to John Lennon at an auction.  Lennon had stocked the jukebox with 40 singles in 1965, and one of them was "Positively 4th Street."  Click here for a complete list of the records on Lennon's jukebox, which was a 30-pound portable that Lennon bought to take on tour -- sort of like a very primitive iPod.

Third, there have been relatively few cover versions of this song.  The Byrds and the Jerry Garcia Band covered the song in some of their live shows, and both released live recordings of it.  (Garcia's live version is pretty limp.  Come on, Jerry --  have some coffee.  Wake up!)  But the first studio cover of "Positively 4th Street" was recorded by Johnny Rivers, of all people.  

Dylan said many years later that he preferred Rivers' recording of the song to his own, but I don't see that at all.  There's nothing wrong with it, but Johnny is too nice a guy for this song -- there's no snarl in his delivery -- and there's no Al Kooper on Hammond organ.

But I'll let you decide for yourself which one you like better.  Here's the Johnny Rivers cover of "Positively 4th Street":

And here's Dylan's "Positively 4th Street":

Click here if you'd like to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. Can't beat Bob Dylan...a great song to listen to or sing when someone really yanks your chain! - Joyce D