One of my all-time favourite songs, not just favourite Dylan songs, is “Positively 4th Street”. Recorded in the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited, the song was not included on that album, but was released as a stand-alone single in September 1965 (with “From a Buick 6” as the b-side). Dylan never placed it on an album, though it appears on Greatest Hits and Biograph.
All my life I took this to be a sort of generalized fuck you song. One of the most bitter things ever to crack the top ten of the pop charts, I always assumed that it was about someone specifically, but to me it never mattered who it was. It was not until December of last year that I think I twigged to the fact that it was actually about the Greenwich Village folk scene. A review of Inside Llewyn Davis in the Boston Globe concluded by mentioning this particular interpretation of the song, and it all suddenly made sense: how could I have been so blind?
Certainly in late July 1965, when the song was recorded, Dylan had had it with the folkies. His UK tour had come to an end, and he had played the fateful Newport electric show – his connections with the Greenwich Village scene were being severed. 4th Street in New York was the home of Geerde’s Folk City, and the cover of Freewheelin’ was photographed on that street. The specificity of the title, and the time of its recording, make the target of the attacks clear.
It has been suggested, of course, that the target of Dylan’s ire was even more specific. Izzy Young, who ran the Folklore Centre, is rumoured to have been the “You” of the song, as has been Irwin Silber of Sing Out!. Both were quite critical of Dylan’s development as an artist, the turn away from tradition, and the decision to go electric. Dylan began singing it live in October 1965, logically because it was a hit single by then, but it also served as an announcement of his new intentions.
To me, it doesn’t matter who it is about. It’s just such a great song to be sung at the top of your lungs when you’re feeling bitter. It’s the original song about haters. The lyrics are fantastic:
And now I know you’re dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don’t you understand
It’s not my problem
But beyond the lyrics, it’s Dylan’s tone and phrasing that are so powerful. It’s the way that he punches the final short phrase of every verse, spitting out the venom every time. The song is just such an unrelenting bellowing of anger and spite, and it never lets up. The final verse:
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you
Well, I’d hate for someone to be singing that about me. Although, maybe a few people already have….
Here’s Lucinda Williams. She’s bitter too!