The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #18, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (Biblical saying)

“So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

Rainy Day Women is the product of two forces.

By 1966, Dylan was appearing on camera stoned out of his gourd on camera. You can see it in Don’t Look Back, and you can definitely see it in Eat the Document. He’d need a rest soon enough. An entire lifestyle change. Thankfully, he was good at those.

The other thing — by this point, the 26-year-old Dylan had been analyzed, lionized and criticized more than the Mona Lisa, and who could blame him for feeling a little persecuted. Eight months prior, he had “sold out” the folk movement by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Mr. Jones didn’t understand him, and neither did Ms. Jones.

And so a musically historic double entendre was born.

“Well, they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good,
They’ll stone ya just a-like they said they would.
They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to go home.
Then they’ll stone ya when you’re there all alone.
But I would not feel so all alone,
Everybody must get stoned.”

“Rainy Day Women” has a drunken, New Orleans party vibe, complete with trombone and tuba, and shouting revelers in the background (the musicians), with Dylan himself cracking up several times. Even his harmonica playing manages to sound inebriated. Howard Sounes’ book “Down The Highway” tells the tale of the studio recording. According to Sounes, Dylan, who didn’t like to interact too much with the musicians on the album, preferring to keep them on their toes, finally approached the band and told them he “wasn’t going to record the song with a bunch of straight people.” This lead to the prompt consumption of several joints and a strange, green-colored drink from a local bar known as “leprechaun cocktails.” Charlie McCoy, who added the second guitar part to “Desolation Row,” stayed sober however. The musicians all swapped instruments so as to keep with Dylan’s request to not to sound too polished. The guitar player played the organ, etc. etc. Bassist Henry Strzelecki, feeling the effects of his imbibing, started laughing during the take, which had a snowballing effect, part of why Dylan fumbles with the words here and there (“they’ll stone you when you are ‘ung and able”). The take, which the band assumed was just a warm-up, was released as a single one month later.

The song was banned on many radio stations in both the States and abroad (contrast that with all the things you can get away with on the radio now.) Despite the partial ban, it managed to reach #2 on the charts.

“I never have and never will write a drug song,” Dylan said in 1966, further cementing his reputation as a man who was not afraid to obfuscate the truth in print.

Here’s a more elaborate explanation Dylan gave that same year:

“Well, you know my songs are all mathematical songs. Now, you know what that means so I’m not gonna have to go into that specifically here. It happens to be a protest song. …and it borders on the mathematical, you know, idea of things, and this one specifically happens to be … Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 happens to deal with a minority of, you know, cripples and Orientals and, uh, you know, and the world in which they live,…. It’s another sort of a North Mexican kind of a thing, uh, very protesty. Very, very protesty. And, uh, one of the protestiest of all things I ever protested against in my protest years…”

The impact of this song on the burgeoning youth movement cannot be denied. After all, it was Dylan who first turned the Beatles on to “grass,” paving the way for albums like Revolver, Sgt. Peppers, and all that would follow. College kids were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, and Bob Dylan was their lyrical and spiritual guru in many respects.

Waylon Jennings wrote his own “Rainy Day Woman” in 1975. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers blasted their way through “Rainy Day Women” during 1992’s Bobfest celebration at MSG. The Black Crowes recorded a version for the Hempilation benefit, and Flatt and Scruggs gave it a bluegrass twist on the 1970 album Nashville Airplane.

But what’s with the title? No one really knows for sure. There are some interesting theories on Songfacts.com:

– The “official” explanation of how this song got its name: A woman and her daughter came into the recording studio out of the rain. Dylan guessed their ages correctly as 12 and 35.

– A less official explanation: The song is about 2 women who came into the studio on a rainy day. Dylan apparently read an article about punishment for women in Islamic states – hence “Everybody must get stoned” because relationships are a trial and error thing.

– If you multiply 12 by 35, you get 420, a number commonly associated with smoking marijuana.

The song’s Dr. Seussian lyrics are not necessarily Dylan’s finest — they have a spur of the moment, improvised feel. In fact, on 1974’s live Before the Flood album, he rattles off a whole list of new ones. But “Rainy Day Women” remains a fan favorite, a defining moment in pop culture history, a riotous period piece, and a rite of passage for anyone delving into Dylan’s catalog and Blonde on Blonde for the first time.

Ultimately, not everybody must got stoned. But everyone must smell the smoke.