Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #55: Rainy Day Women #12 & 35

This song is a joke. Not in a bad way. The whole song hinges on one joke, and a pretty basic one at that, which is repeated again and again throughout each verse. The crux of the song, if you couldn’t figure out Dylan’s usual subtlety, is a pun on the word “stoned.” Get it? “Everybody must get stoned”? It’s a drug reference!

Dylan’s sense of humor often gets overlooked, but this is probably his most famous joke. It’s also his most hokey. But if you listen to the song enough, you stop hearing the pun.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m favoring this song because it’s the lead track on Blonde on Blonde; if this song were on Bringing it all Back Home, or even Highway 61 Revisited, I’d probably dismiss it as almost as one note as “Nashville Skyline Rag.” But placed where it is, it ends up setting the tone for Dylan’s best album. As a result, I’ve listened to it more than enough times to get beyond the joke.

What’s really important about the song is the sense of camaraderie it inspires. The background noise and laughter on this song give off the sense of Dylan and Co. having fun with it. That you can hear all of this going on, plus the fact that Dylan is backed by a brass band, give off the distinct impression of a group. Even the straightforward lyrics and simple melody support this impression; there is no subtlety or complexity to make this song at all impenetrable. The repeated refrain—“I would not feel so all alone—everybody must get stoned!”—makes a certain “Us vs. Them” feel to the song ring out, except that the “Us” is not a select group, it’s “everybody.”

This sets the tone for all of Blonde on Blonde, which is both a decidedly fun album, as well as one that isn’t very concerned with what kind of message it sends to an audience. It is an inclusive album, and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” opens it on an upbeat and unmysterious note. There is an anti-establishment tone to the lyrics, of course, but it’s so poorly concealed, as if to say that the “subculture” Dylan identifies with isn’t “sub” anymore; everybody knows what he’s talking about.

A few months ago, I took issue with Paul Shirley’s critiques of The Beatles. Part of his argument was that it’s hard, or even impossible, to identify with non-contemporary music. There is certainly some truth to it; I wasn’t around to tell you what the mood was like in 1966. But I don’t think it’s pointless to speculate. I imagine that hearing this song in 1966 would have been incredibly refreshing. It would have been cool to hear something so blunt and upfront about something that had been inconspicuous, and yet so common—not just drug use, but the sense of resentment expressed in the song. It would have sounded simple and hokey, but in a very reassuring way. It would have sounded great…especially when followed by the rest of Blonde on Blonde.

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