It was June 1964 and folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was standing in front of the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village. A car pulled up and Bob Dylan popped out, just back from a trip to Europe. At first, Elliott didn’t recognize his old friend. For one thing, he was taller, thanks to what Elliott calls “boots of Spanish leather, with high heels.” But Elliott realized it was Dylan after all. “Why don’t you come with us?” Dylan beckoned. “We’re gettin’ ready to go uptown to do some recording. Get in the car.”
Elliott obliged, and soon enough, they arrived at Columbia Records’ midtown studios. Dylan hadn’t recorded any music for the label since the previous October – a veritable lifetime during a period when artists would pump out two or three releases of new material a year – and the time had come to make a new album. Elliott carried a couple of bottles of Beaujolais in from the car and joined a bustling crew of friends and colleagues – producer Tom Wilson, journalist Al Aronowitz and others – as they gathered around to watch Dylan, in jeans and at times wearing sunglasses, cut his fourth album. “We’re going to make a good one tonight,” he told Wilson. “I promise.”
It would certainly be an atypical one for Dylan. He’d recently broken up with girlfriend Suze Rotolo, and the new songs that poured out of him – some written during vacation time in Greece and Paris, where he visited after playing London’s Royal Festival Hall in May – reflected those life changes. There were love songs alternately frisky (“All I Really Want to Do”), bittersweet (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Ballad in Plain D”) and scathing (“I Don’t Believe You [She Acts Like We Never Have Met]”). In an homage to the past that only insiders would know, the album’s cover photo featured Dylan wearing jeans that Rotolo had cut to fit over his boots.
The lyric sheets Dylan propped up on his music stand at Columbia’s Studio A also included surrealistic talking blues (“I Shall Be Free No. 10,” “Motorpsycho Nitemare”) and a wistful old-soul ballad, “My Back Pages,” that housed one of his most poignant refrains: “I was so much older then/ I’m younger than that now.” As Dylan told writer Nat Hentoff, who was observing the session, “There aren’t any fingerpointing songs … you know, pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman.”
That night, the Columbia studio was hardly tranquil; Dylan’s friends drank and talked, and three children ran around, Dylan teasing one of them with a good-natured “I’m gonna rub you out.” But Columbia needed a new album for the fall. Over the next six hours, Dylan, accompanying himself on guitar or piano, worked his way through different takes on all the material, including his first recorded piano tune, “Black Crow Blues.” He also tried out a new song, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” that he’d premiered at that London show. Spontaneously, he invited Elliott – who’d heard someone else sing the song but didn’t know any of the lyrics – to sing it with him. “Most of the songs he was recording, he was reading off a typewritten sheet,” Elliott recalls, “but this one he didn’t need the sheet because he’d memorized it.” Under the circumstances, Elliott did the best he could and made up a harmony that was game but off-key. That version ultimately wasn’t used (Dylan would recut it for his next album, Bringing It All Back Home).
Even without “Mr. Tambourine Man” (or another outtake, “Mama, You Been on My Mind”), the album was clearly a turning point for Dylan and his writing. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s more like it,'” says musician and Dylan pal Tony Glover. “I thought it was more what he was capable of, and it was good that he was doing that rather than being a spokesman for this group of people who had these axes to grind. It was good to see him using some of the poetic and surrealistic imagery.”
That was definitely the case with “Spanish Harlem Incident,” where Dylan asks a gypsy girl, “Come and take me/Into reach of your rattling drums.” When Dylan finished recording it, he asked a friend in the studio if he understood it. When the friend nodded, Dylan responded, “I didn’t.”
Only one song on the album vaguely fit the protest-music mold, and it was more elliptical than specific. “Chimes of Freedom” was written around the time of a cross-country road trip Dylan took in early 1964 with three friends. He played three shows along the way, and they partied in New Orleans. During their time in the South, Dylan was inspired by the changes taking place there to finish the anthemic song. Still, “Chimes of Freedom” was a far cry from “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
In “To Ramona,” he seemed to make a veiled allusion to his sense that his time as a spokesman was coming to an end: “I’ll forever talk to you/But soon my words they would turn into a meaningless ring.” As Jackson Browne said of the song, “He’s always an advocate for finding your own way.”
In a sign of the constricted way many of Dylan’s fans saw him in 1964, even an album as cohesive and emotionally expressive as Another Side of Bob Dylan was viewed, shockingly, as a letdown. Unlike the two records before it, it failed to break into the Top 40 and received mixed notices. Dylan himself wasn’t thrilled with the title, which, he said, was the work of Wilson: “I begged and pleaded with him not to do it.”
Dylan said later, “You know, I thought it was overstating the obvious. I knew I was going to have to take a lot of heat for a title like that, and it was my feeling that it wasn’t a good idea coming after The Times They Are A-Changin’, it just wasn’t right. It seemed like a negation of the past, which in no way was true.”
Yet the album would be a milestone for him – his declaration of independence from his protest-song typecasting and phase one of an exploratory period that would lead to places even he couldn’t have imagined at the time. As he left the studio that night, he told Hentoff, “My background’s not all that important, though. It’s what I am now that counts.”
Watch five things you didn’t know about Bod Dylan.