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Bob Dylan’s alternative lifestyles

The 1960’s were a period when changes and new ideas for society were explored by the counter culture. While these ideas played out in many aspects of the culture, they especially made themselves ever the more present in the popular music of the time. Band such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and The Beatles took popular music to a new place, a place of exploring political ideals and alternative lifestyles. Those who lead these lifestyles chose a different direction than that normally accepted by the society of the time; lifestyles based in searching for new spiritual plains with the use of chemicals; lifestyles adopting socialist and communist notions, while rejecting capitalism; lifestyles that were looked down upon by the status quo lifestyle of white, suburban, middle class America. Not least among the musicians of the sixties was Bob Dylan. Dylan’s music explored alternative lifestyles such as the drug user, the drifter, and even the prostitute.

In 1962, Dylan recorded a version of the traditional song, “House of the Rising Sun.” While Dylan did not write this song, Dylan’s version of the song gives an interesting perspective to this song. Consider the following: In 1964, The Animals recorded the same song with a change in gender. The Animals changed the lyrics to accommodate a male singer. By changing the gender of the song, The Animals also change the meaning of the song. The point of view changes from the original whore, to a whore monger, from the prostitute to the john. Interestingly enough, Dylan’s version of the song keeps the original gender. By keeping the traditional gender in tact, the male Dylan transcends gender; the male Dylan, in a sense, becomes a whore. Dylan puts himself in the shoes of the alternative lifestyle of a prostitute. While prostitution appears as a forced lifestyle for desperate women, the song makes it clear that prostitution is, in fact, an alternative lifestyle; the whores do have a choice in their lifestyle. The fifth verse of the Dylan version states:

Oh tell my baby sister
Not to do as I have done
But to shun that house in New Orleans
They call the Risin’ Sun

What is commonly referred to as “the oldest profession,” is often times seen as a forced occupation to poor women. However “House of the Rising Sun,” shows prostitution as a lifestyle choice. The “baby sister” can choose to “shun” the “house in New Orleans.” Dylan could never, truly put himself in the shoes of the whore in this song. Dylan had too much money, and gender transcendence is almost impossible. However, by singing “House of the Rising Sun” with the traditional lyrics in tact, Dylan in appearance at least, gives his mind a chance to explore an alternative lifestyle.

Drug usage, whether for exploration of spirituality or recreation, certainly fall into the “alternative lifestyle” category. Dylan, who was fond of calling himself “pro chemistry” explored this lifestyle at length in his music (Lee 135). The song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” explores the drug culture lifestyle, and offers some advice. The song points to three people that a user is forced (in some way or another)to associate with: a narc, a bathtub chemist, and a pusher. “Johnny” the bathtub chemist seems to be the lesser of the three evils. In fact, perhaps the chemist is not an “evil” at all. For a chemist in the basement could be quite beneficial to a drug user. The chemist in the basement most likely would provide the user with a steady source of LSD. What a great service to the user! However, the production of LSD in one’s basement could in fact lead to more visits from the narc. The narc is probably Satan incarnate to the user; both the narc and the Biblical Satan have come “to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). The Narc will take a bribe for his “bad cough.” However, the narc, if the user does not have a bribe, could send the user to jail. Once more, the narc’s bribes could cut into the money set aside for the pusher. The pusher wants “eleven dollar bills, and you only got ten.” Where did that extra dollar go? Did the User ever have the extra dollar? Did the narc take the eleventh dollar from the user? The three personas represented in the first verse of this song show the daily ins and outs of drug use: the dodging of narcs, and securing of the substance, while constantly having narcs and pushers take financial advantage of the user. This is the lifestyle of the user, but Dylan goes beyond simply exploring the lifestyle of the user in this song; Dylan offers the user some advice. Consider the following lines:

Walk on your tip toes
Don’t try “No Doz”
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows

In this song, Dylan tells his listeners (particularly those who lead the lifestyle of a drug user) to keep a low profile, but pay attention to one’s surroundings, and above all, follow your intuition (Lee 136). Perhaps this song serves as a sort of retribution to Dylan’s fans, for Dylan got rich off of his music. In any other time of popular music, this was not a problem. The musicians always get rich off of the fans. However, in the 60’s, the rich were highly scrutinized by the counter culture. Conceivably, this song was a way of “giving back to the people;” a way of giving his listeners some free and good advice from Dylan’s own experiences. However, one might argue that this advice was not felt from Dylan’s experience, because Dylan was rich. Dylan could in fact afford to get his drugs and pay off any narcs that may have come after him. Subterranean Homesick Blues explores the alternative lifestyle of a user, but again, the explorer of the lifestyle had too much fame and money to really experience this lifestyle.
“Like a Rolling Stone” examines the alternative lifestyle of a drifter. The song tells the story of a woman, who once led the lifestyle of an aristocrat, but then falls to financial ruin and thus must lead the life of a “rolling stone.” The real message of the song lies in the chorus:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone

This song explores the dark emptiness felt by many of the time, those who stepped out of the lifestyle of middle class America (Lee 137). The song shows a paradigm shift. The lifestyle choice to “Tune in, turn on, and drop out” is not as glamorous as it appears. Freedom from societal controls also means freedom from societal protection. The following lines show where such protection breaks down.

You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

The “princess” as Dylan refers to her has standards. No matter what happens, the princess will not compromise her virtue for her needs. Before the princess became a drifter, she had the societal protection of money to buy what she needs, or maybe a father and mother to provide for her needs. The princess says she would not compromise, but she could not really make this decision until her stomach was as empty as her wallet. Now, that the princess has to live on the street, she needs to find a way to eat (or perhaps acquire some LSD). This need has pushed the limits the princess set for herself, for the limits were set in a different world, with different rules. The princess really did not have a choice, but to become a drifter. The princess’s “diplomat” took her for “everything she’s got.” However, not all drifters drop out because of such an occurrence. Most drifters have a choice. “Like a Rolling Stone” serves as an identifying song to the existing drifters, but also as a warning for those considering the ways of the drifter. The song shows the lifestyle against the romantic notions of the lifestyle.

Perhaps an even bleaker message than that of “Like a Rolling Stone” is the message portrayed in “Rainy Day Women 12 and 35.” This song explores persecution of the alternative “Tune in, turn on, drop out” lifestyle. However, this song shows that persecution will not end if one decides to go home, or rejoin society. This song shows that one will be stoned in the biblical sense if they have any transgressions on their souls. “They’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good;” “They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to go home;” “They’ll stone you when you’re playing your guitar;” “They’ll stone ya when you’re tryin’ to make a buck” No matter what “ya” do, “they’ll stone ya.” They will never let “ya” forget what “ya” did. “Ya” disgraced the family, so, no matter what, no matter how much “ya” change. No matter how good “ya” try to be, they will always hold on to the fact that “ya” disgraced the family (or society) by drifting. And, don’t even start with anything that even remotely resembles the ways of a drifter. Don’t pick up that guitar. “Ya” might play some music “ya” played while drifting; “ya” might play some Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan. This attitude, while most likely exaggerated, serves the same message that “Like a Rolling Stone” serves. That is, it takes away the romantic notions of drifting. The song shows that if one drifts, and then decides to rejoin their family (or society); they have a rough road to travel, because people do not forgive. Drifting is a lifestyle choice, but once the choice is made, the choice is made. Life will never be the same.

The four Bob Dylan songs represented here show different lifestyle choices; lifestyle choices that are not accepted by society: a whore, an LSD addict, a drifter, and a drifter gone home. However, all four of these songs have a sort of ideology in them that also fails. “House of the Rising Sun,” shows that prostitution is in fact a lifestyle choice, or else the baby sister would have no choice. However, a comparison to the Princess in “Like a Rolling Stone” shows that when someone needs something badly enough (especially a young woman), they might not have a choice. They might have to help themselves any way they can. The drifters will have a nice safe place to stay if they decide against drifting, or will they? Again, the princess from “Like a Rolling Stone” has no choice; she was jilted by her “Diplomat.” Thus, the princess must become a drifter. Even though some of Dylan’s songs de-glamorize such alternative lifestyles, they do not take into account that these lifestyles are not necessarily “alternative,” but rather a choice made because there were no other choices available. The 1960’s counter culture looked for freedom from the current society, a freedom to come and go as they pleased, a freedom to live as they pleased. The songs in this represented here show characters that pay dearly for their freedom. Some characters pay with their hunger pains, some pay with their virtue, some pay with a lack of funds for the drugs they need, and some lose the respect of their families. Regardless of the method of payment, all four must pay.

Works Cited.
Animals, The. ‘House of The Rising Sun.” The Best of The Animals. Abkco, 1964.
Dylan, Bob. “House of The Rising Sun.” Bob Dylan. MCA: 1962.
—– “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Bringing It All Back Home. Special Rider Music: 1965.
—– “Like a Rolling Stone.” Highway 61 Revisited. Special Rider Music: 1965.
—– “Rainy Day Women 12 and 35.” Blonde on Blonde. Dwarf Music:1966.
The Holy Bible. King James Version.
Lee, Martin A. and Shlain Bruce. Acid Dreams. Grove Press, New York: 1985.

I'm Aaron, and I am the owner of this site.


  • oh_mercy

    Interesting article- and interpretation/explication of Dylan’s lyrics.
    One thing about Dylan’s poetry, like all good literature/poetry/scripture is that it is alive and the meanings are unique to each of us. More importantly I think is that the meanings change for each individual as they change and what you hear today is not what you heard yesterday as you journey and deepen through life.

    As far as being an LSD addict- I’m not sure that is possible though of course many have (and continue to?) over the years.

    Dylan’s “House of the Rising Sun.”
    When he recorded it he did not have money at all- in fact somewhere I read a rumor that when he first came to NYC he did some hustling to survive.
    I was just doing a google search for the story when I came upon your article.

    Don’t know that its true but the story has always intrigued me and would add to his mystique and maybe give some understanding to his social justice concerns.

    back to the search.

    • Aaron

      Hey, thanks for your comments. I actually wasn’t saying Dylan was an LSD addict, rather the charachter in Subterranean Homesick blues was an LSD addict. While Dylan admitted to be “pro chemistry” (as cited by the Book Acid Dreams), I have no idea if he was an addict. My guess is probably not actually.