Digging “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is like smoking your first joint — your mind stretches, and you laugh and laugh.
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The song, which caps off side A of 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, tells a madcap tale in which Dylan discovers America, gets tossed in jail, realizes he hasn’t eaten in five days straight, gets knocked unconscious by this girl from France, gets refused like Jesus did, goes looking for a cop, flips a coin, heads back to ship, and high tails it out of there.
One way Bob Dylan got fans to love him in the early 60s — he made them laugh. Like a good coffee house entertainer, Bob knew to mix it up on his early albums, cutting the somberness of songs like “Hollis Brown” and “Masters of War” with the levity of tracks like “I Shall Be Free” and “Motorpsycho Nightmare” (from which “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” inherits its melody and chord progression).
From Woody Guthrie, he assimilated the talking blues format, used to devastating effect on “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” and “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.” While his moods changed like mercury, his sense of humor always went with him, from “Highway 61” to “Clothesline Saga” to “Wiggle Wiggle,” to recent lines on Love and Theft like “Freddy or not here I come” and the way he asks for “eggs” on Time Out of Mind. Those Victoria Secret commercials were a pretty funny gag, too.
In interviews he took it a step further, coming off like a long lost Marx Brother from the French new wave. Would his career have as much resonance if he was just the feverish wordsmith who penned songs like “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall?” Ultimately, no. Dylan’s humor greatly inspired the Beatles, and rock music conventions in general — John Lennon found a kindred spirit in Dylan and his delight for surrealist wordplay. When Lennon wrote about “rockinghorse people eating marshmallow pies” two years after Bringing It All Back Home, he probably had this song in the back of his mind.
“115th Dream” comes off like a way for Dylan to show off his exploding verbal abilities: look how easy it is for me to spin a yarn, just based on whatever comes in my head next. The song is famous for it’s false start and Dylan’s stoned laughter. “Start again!” the bemused producer’s voice says over the intercom. And then the band comes crashing in, locomoting along for six and a half minutes, and playing by the seat of their pants. Together they whipped up a loose-and-bluesy sound that has never been recreated (though the guy behind the Dylan Hears A Who project came pretty close).
For all it’s surrealist twists and turns, the story hangs together. Characters include Captain Arab, a cartoon take on Herman Melville’s Ahab, whose name surely wouldn’t fly today. Then there’s a cook, a talking cow, the Pope of Eruke, and an Englishman who says “fab.” Dylan compares himself to Jesus (satirizing his fans’ reaction to him), Captain Kidd, and the editor of a famous etiquette book, and sends up straight society with a madman’s glee.
Along the way he bends the conventions of language in pursuit of a rhyme. Here’s one example:
The waitress he was handsome
He wore a powder blue cape
I ordered some suzette, I said
“Could you please make that crepe”
There’s also the moment where he flips a coin to see if he should go “back to ship or back to jail…It came up tails, it rhymed with sails, so I made it back to ship.” Tails also rhymes with jail, of course, just like indecision rhymes with prison. But Dylan would prefer you figure that out yourself.
As great at it as he was, this is the last time Bob would be so overtly funny. Maybe he felt like he had more important things to do. But the slurred imagery and goofy visions on The Basement Tapes (“yea, heavy and a bottle of bread”) are all offshoots of the same madness.
The song’s sly ending brings it all back home, literally:
Well, the last I heard of Arab
He was stuck on a whale
That was married to the deputy
Sheriff of the jail
But the funniest thing was
When I was leavin’ the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin’
They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck.”