Riffing on Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’: Rainy day women, Leonard Cohen and the Old Testament?
12.03.2012
05:46 am

Topics:
Literature
Music

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Bob Dylan
Leonard Cohen
Al Kooper


 
I recently found myself wondering–as you do–what, exactly, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” was all about. Precluding, that is, getting high (Dylan: “I never have and never will write a drug song”). My curiosity led me to the following observation by Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin, who observed that the title seems to allude to the following beauty from the Book of Proverbs (chapter 27, verse 15): “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.” (Well if that ain’t the Old Testament’s lightest moment!?) Heylin suggests the title was meant to throw off the censors. Better yet, though: a continual dropping: stoning! “Everybody must get stoned”: Every man (the ones that shack up with women anyhow) must get nagged. The “They” being none other than (Rainy Day) “women.”

Well, they’ll stone you and say that it’s the end
Then they’ll stone you and then they’ll come back again
They’ll stone you when you’re riding in your car
and they’ll stone when you’re playing your guitar

It all comes into focus when you picture a henpecked hubby– even, I fancy, “sent down in your grave,” which suggests the dirt dropped on hubby’s coffin lid by the surviving widow.

While Heylin’s sourcing of the title in Proverbs arguably seals the deal, it turns out plenty of sharper-eared listeners have long held this interpretation of the song (fair enough: it’s hidden in plain sight), and I found it suggested online that the “#12 & 35” element coincides with a woman’s peak fertility. “A continual dropping in a rainy day…” The song’s about PMT!

Having finally sussed “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (it’ll do me!), I moved on to the similarly enigmatic Blonde on Blonde classic “Just Like Woman.” Immediately, of course, we find ourselves assailed by a further “continual dropping” (Bob’s standing “inside the rain,” no less), but – as I chewed again on the song’s famous words – light was shed in an unexpected and entirely different direction…

Does the following verse of “Just Like a Woman” remind you of another famous song at all?

Ev’rybody knows
That Baby’s got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.

How about Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”?

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

And if you’re still not convinced that Cohen is here (Dylan’s “new clothes” suggesting “no clothes,” after all) paying subtle tribute to the source of his song’s indelible refrain, remind yourself of the following verse also…

And everybody knows that it’s now or never
Everybody knows that it’s me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you’ve done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

Which is a stunningly imaginative way to recycle Dylan’s rhyme. Those guys eh!

Finally, here’s Al “right place/time/riff” Kooper specifically reminiscing about recording Blonde on Blonde in Nashville, describing his role as a “human tape recorder” who would go learn Bob’s emerging songs and then go prepare the musicians (sketching the odd arrangement too, by the sound of it).
 

Posted by Thomas McGrath

 

 

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