1965 has often been described as the year when Dylan was an “angry young man”. There are many songs during that period where Dylan cut down ex-lovers (“Like a Rolling Stone”), journalists (“Ballad of a Thin Man”), and society in general (“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”). While “Like a Rolling Stone”‘s attack was visceral and sadistic its intent was covered in word-play and drugged out literary images. This of course ensured that its meaning and lyrics could be deciphered for years to come. But it’s “Positively 4th Street” that is downright nasty – Dylan eschews his surrealistic imagery that he was custom to at the time. It’s so direct and simple, that there is no question exactly how he’s feeling.
For years Dylan had been living in Greenwich Village – (4th Street may be a reference to where he once lived) and cut his teeth performing at the coffee-houses in the area. “America is changing,” Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles Volume 1. “I had a feeling of destiny and I wasd riding the changes. New York was as good a place to be as any.” Dylan was always good at picking up on change. He came into New York just as the folk-scene was beginning to explode, and in the mid 1960’s he released followed the cues of the Beatles. Of course his version of amplified music, would send ripples across the counter-culture.
It was inevitable that there would be a backlash once he decided to go electric. The famous performance at Newport got the most press, but back in Greenwich Village, some of his supporters viewed him a sell-out. The topical songs were gone. Just as everyone else was trying to catch up to Dylan, he quickly moved the opposite direction.
“Don’t you know, it’s not my problem”, He declares near the end of the song. Dylan wasn’t just being apathetic here – he had moved on, and felt that the scene was also moving on as well. The Folk Scene in Greenwich Village might have started out as progressive, but sometime between 1960 and 1965 it seemed to become very constricted its own ideals. Dylan used to live on 4th Street in Manhattan (there’s also suggestions that 4th Street refers to his time at the University of Minnesota, but I find this doubtful) so he makes it clear from the beginning his targets in the song are those who used to come to his shows, old friends journalists, and anyone else who was now crying foul on his new direction.
“You got a lot of nerve,” Dylan says in the song. As if to reinforce the idea, he says it twice (although it’s followed up with a different reason.) Dylan calls out his “friend” for talking behind his back. He knows his target is guilty, because he used to do the same thing, and hang out with the same people. This line reminds me of the chorus of “My Back Pages” – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” – Dylan is realizing how pathetic the “scene” is to him.
In contrast to the song’s light tone, and an organ that you can almost whistle to, Dylan imagines that his friend would rather see him paralyzed. “Why don’t you just come out once and scream it?” Dylan demands. The weight of the song is put upon this line. In his mind, much of the folk-scene complained and bitched about what was taking place, but very few actually made the change themselves. They couldn’t come up and “scream it”. Dylan did in more ways that one, and that’s why much of the scene was pissed. It wasn’t about Dylan being a sell-out. They knew the change had come, and missed their opportunity.
(For some reason, Youtube only has covers of “Positively 4th Street”. Sorry that there’s no video/audio.)