In 1964, Bob Dylan was trying to escape his image as Mr. Political Statement. Everyone who had grown to love him eagerly awaited his next brilliantly incisive civil rights anthem or anti-war polemic. But Dylan rebelled, as he would for most of his artistic life. “All I really wanna do, is baby be friends with you,” he sang on the first track of Another Side of Bob Dylan, which was cut in one night with the aid of a few bottles of red wine.
It’s an album that often seems to go overlooked and undervalued, as Dylan released what are arguably the finest records of his career both before and after it (the acoustic Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’, and the electric Bringing it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited.)
The lyricism on Another Side is off the charts — “Chimes of Freedom,” “My Back Pages,” and “Spanish Harlem Incident” represent some of his finest word alchemy. The album captures a brief moment in time before his writing evolved into a swirl of grotesque and surrealist imagery, yet was more reefer-and-Rimbaud-fueled than his previous efforts. “Ballad in Plain D” turned autobiography into art, detailing his relationship and breakup with Suze Rotolo and her ever-present sister (when asked in a 1985 interview if there were any songs he regretted writing, Dylan said “I look back at that particular one and say…maybe I could have left that alone.”) “I Don’t Believe You” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” are a jilted lover’s kiss-off classics, spiritual cousins to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
And then there’s “To Ramona.”
It’s a song that expertly mixes the personal and the mystical, arriving at a similar destination, in a more straightforward way, than later songs like “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.”
Dylan is at the top of his game as a lyricist and solo performer, using simple words to create head-spinning poetry through careful placement and associations.
“Ramona come closer, shut softly your watery eyes….” The “come closer” line and rising melody pull you in and transport you instantly into the heart of the song. The lyrics find Dylan deploying a rarely-used weapon in his musical arsenal — tenderness:
Your cracked country lips
I still wish to kiss
As to be by the strength of you skin
Your magnetic movements
Still capture the minutes I’m in
But it grieves my heart, love
To see you tryin’ to be a part of
A world that just don’t exist,
it’s all just a dream, babe
a vacuum, a scheme, babe
that sucks you into feelin’ like this.
His empathy for a girl caught between forces, fixtures and friends is palpable. Dylan, whose masterful way with words had the world hailing him as a prophet with “all the answers,” concludes the song with a bit of zen advice to his troubled lover, while admitting that it may or not be worth following:
Just do what you think you should do
And someday, maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.
It’s a song struggling to define the best way to “make it” in society, written from the perspective of youth, when you’ve had a few important revelations about the world, but know deep in your subconscious that there are more on the way. And yet, as a whole, it feels as wise and as fully formed as a passage from the Bible.
A Grams Parsons-less Flying Burrito Brothers covered “To Ramona” on their third album, 1971’s Flying Burrito Brothers, and in 2007, David Gray tackled the song on his live covers album, A Thousand Miles Behind. Dylan still pulls it out in concert from time to time, which puts the song in rarefied air.
It remains one of the best songs based on a woman’s first name, up there with Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and John Lennon’s “Julia.”