(long post…fair warning)
The record came in a flimsy card stock sleeve with what the artist in question would call a striptease title: Doctor Zimmerman’s Genuine Basement Brew. The LP was what the manager charitably billed as “new-old stock”, and the first thing I checked for was bubbles in the vinyl, since some of these things played about as well as a record you’d cut off the back of a cereal box. I’d been burned before. But there were two reasons I was still holding this slab of cast-off underground vinyl when I stood in front of the register at the Record Exchange: the dour face of Bob Dylan (in true on-the-sly fashion, his name wasn’t printed on the cover at all) and a track listing that I wasn’t entirely familiar with. “Sign on the Cross” was legendary among tape traders, although I knew it only by reputation, and what was billed as an alternate take of “Tears of Rage” looked very tempting. But what the hell was this thing at the end of side one they called “Friday”?
The needle dropped, and through the surface noise—like a lot of things that reached us out in the wilderness, this turned out to be an LP copy of yet another beaten-up LP—I heard a simple strum and a set of lyrics coming out of nowhere that would blow my mind.
It’s Friday, Friday,
Gotta get down on Friday
Everybody’s looking forward to the weekend.
Partyin’, partyin’, yeah.
Fun...fun, fun, fun.
Looking forward to the weekend
Robbie Robertson has said that at first, the sessions immortalized as The Basement Tapes were Bob’s way of “educating” the unit which would soon be dubbed The Band to the folk tradition. “The whole folkie thing was still very questionable to us—it wasn't the train we came in on.” Mostly, they were blown away. However, on the unedited “Friday” tapes—what the Internet has is Columbia’s remix of the material—the silence following the last chord was broken by a raucous cackle from off-mike. “Really, Bob? Really?” In response, or possibly surrender, Bob led the Band into the sloppiest version of “Million Dollar Bash” ever committed. On this day at least, class let out early.
Very loosely based on “The Good Thief”, a Russian Orthodox chant typically performed on Good Friday,* Dylan’s lyrics, like a haiku, are deceptively simple. However, once you adjust your gaze past the surface, they take on an unexpected depth.
Seven a.m., wakin’ up in the morning,
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs,
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal,
Seein’ everything, the time is goin’,
Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin’
Everybody’s Russian? Is this a cold war parable? And if everybody’s Russian, is that the ticking of the Doomsday Clock? It’s an easy line to mishear, especially coming from 60s-era Dylan. (Let’s set aside for a moment that, Bob being Bob, everybody knew that when he mentions “[having] my bowl”, he’s not really talking about cereal.) But no, as you keep listening you realize he’s talking about being in a hurry. But hurrying for what? There’s a clue, although not as obvious as it seems, in the end of the verse and the first half of the chorus:
Gotta get down to the bus stop,
Gotta catch the bus, I see my friends.
Kickin’ in the front seat,
Sittin’ in the back seat.
Gotta make my mind up.
Which seat can I take?
In the rather lively discussion that has evolved around this piece after a Dylanologist posted the song on YouTube, it seems fairly obvious that most true believers think Bob was talking about the civil rights movement. User Rorschach567 shared the most plausible of the creation stories which has come down to us: “Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and a bunch of folksingers were in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, smoking bowls and eating cereal, when someone mentioned ‘Friday, Juneteenth,’ when news of abolition reached slaves in the southernmost regions in Texas. ‘And look at us now,’ said Richie Havens, ‘kicking in the front seat, kicking in the back seat,’ speaking of the end of bus segregation. Before anyone checked to see if June 19, 1865 was a Friday, Bob was already strumming the melody of what became ‘Friday.’”
Obviously “kicking in the front seat” sounds like a anachronism until you realize that he’s talking about kicking in (that is, kicking over) the seats which symbolized racial inequality—not just the bus boycotts, but also the lunch counter sit-ins and other non-violent protests which people associate with the early-60s movement. Myself, I’m not quite so sure, since by 1965, the year of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited (not to mention the infamous Newport electric set), Dylan was resolutely marching away from direct statements. I always read “which seat shall I take” as a more universal reference to the Miltonian quandary about whether it’s better to serve in Heaven (sitting in the back seat, a passive supplicant, safe but with many doors snapping shut behind you, possibly forever) or to rule in Hell (kickin’ in the front seat, presumably behind the wheel of your own destiny and driving it into the abyss). Obviously there is danger in the front seat—the driver is the first to go through the windshield, after all—but would you prefer watching through the passenger window as missed opportunities recede behind you? Or grasping the wheel as you hurtle head-first into the world, in control of a screaming steel behemoth? Which seat can you take?
As if that wasn’t confusing enough, now we come to the most cryptic passage of them all:
Fun, fun, think about fun
You know what it is
I got this, you got this.
My friend is by my right, hey.
I got this, you got this,
Now you know it.
The whole verse is a head-scratcher, but no line more so than “My friend is by my right,” which in the overheated confrontational years of the late 60s was loaded with a dangerous level of political negation. It’s small wonder that the record company had the 45 rpm edit suppressed after a few promo pressings, especially in the wake of 1969’s “country Bob” album Nashville Skyline. How were the heavily radicalized youth of ‘69 supposed to react to a throwaway line like that next to “Oh me, oh my/ Love that country pie”?
The answer, of course, is that it was an exercise in realpolitik—in the German sense of realistic politics—that Dylan realized the destruction of the political system was never really going to happen (not with dope, dancing, and face paint, anyway) and that while compromise isn’t what you truly desire, it can get you more than you had the day before. In the other direction, the youth who have said “no” to the grinding misery of the adult world can pull their elders backwards to type of rejuvenating joy that, before a certain era, had to be surrendered to the onus of supporting/running a household and raising your ingrate kids (“fun, fun, think about fun / you know what it is”). Drawing a “contact high” off of the exuberance of youth could be, and to an extent still can be, a mutual exchange of goods. Bob got this, and by passing this wisdom on to the listener, “now you know it.” That you’re expected to keep up your end of the bargain and pass the advice down the line is so obvious as to be downright crass to say out loud.
But despite all the best efforts of a generation to fend off adulthood--to fend off death--it all comes crashing down, or simply falls apart in a gentle, slow decay, as implied by the most heartbreaking lines of them all:
Tomorrow is Saturday,
And Sunday comes afterwards.
I don’t want this weekend to end.
Friday, it should go without saying, is a symbol of sweet release, the casting off of what came before and replenishment for what is necessary. Does Monday have to come? Can’t we shake off the obligations of adulthood forever, selling handmade candles and hemp wallets out of the back of a VW bus while following jam bands around the country? I don’t want this weekend to end. Do I really have to be a hedge fund manager? Sadly, as the so-called “boomers” (among which we count Mr. Zimmerman himself) push inexorably towards retirement age, many of them are still asking those questions, and the answers aren’t any easier the harder they cling to those faded Fridays of youth. Fun, fun, think about fun. You do still know what it is, don’t you?
All of this, of course, isn’t anywhere near the definitive interpretation (as if one was possible), but much of the discussion around this piece reflects in microcosm Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” argument. Barthes, you’ll remember, gave us the paradigm-busting literary theory that the author of a text (or, in this case, lyric) isn’t the godlike arbiter of absolute meaning, but works in collaboration with the reader (or listener) to build a story that exists between the spaces of what is actually on the page. With the hints from the text, a reader builds the story from their own experiences, joys, and disappointments, so your father’s Great Gatsby won’t be exactly the same as yours—he might have enjoyed his, for instance. This is especially true with the young, wiry Bob, who seemed a little put out by explaining anything, treating us as if we were (horrors!) intelligent, reasoning people who could figure out these things on our own. But something this bare, this deceptively direct, gives us pause. Listen to “Desolation Row”. Get lost in the shrubbery maze that is Dylan’s liner notes for the Highway 61 album...or if you’re a masochist, Tarantula. Then fire up “Friday” again. “Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs”? You can see why we get paranoid when Bobby lays the plainspeak on us.
A major part of it, of course, is contained in the performance. Dylan takes ownership of what Dylan sings, and anybody who takes on the task of untangling his knots does so at their own risk. In a Real Life Rock Top 10 entry on the song, Greil Marcus cut to the root of the discussion: “Only an artist as fully in tune with the nuances of his vocal instrument as Dylan is can take the joyous Beach Boys exhortation ‘fun fun fun’ and turn it into the most desolate, abandoned stretch of desert road in the English language.”
In preparation for this piece, I ran a few of these thoughts by a music critic acquaintance who has a few strong thoughts of her own on the subject, but with Marcus’ comments running through my head, a nagging doubt in the back of my mind had to be addressed. “Let me run a hypothetical situation by you. What if all of this boils down to Dylan as a framing device? What if, instead of this song being a Dylan original, this whole discussion...every last line...was a communal fraud built around...oh, I don’t know, a fluffy work-for-hire jingle written for a 13 year-old girl? What then?”
She gave me an exhausted raise of the eyebrows—I’ve never seen them go higher—followed by a sharp exhale. “Then this would be the most ridiculous conversation in the world, wouldn’t it?”
Coming soon: The semiotics of Janis Joplin’s “My Humps.”
*Footnote: “The Good Thief (Praise Be To God On Friday)”: As diligently researched by Youtube commenter HioPojac, who also mentions that the Soviets later repurposed the melody as "The Party, The Party, Yes." "As resistance to the Party grew, the composer Shostakovitch adapted the Communist anthem into an a political symphony, 'We look forward, beyond oppression, to the weekend.'" return
Scratch and win: (A bottomless pit of gratitude to maestro Mike Bauer and the authors of over 13,000 Youtube comments (which I drew from for this piece) for the inspiration. You are the wind beneath my ass. Special thanks and a tip of the hat to the folks at ARK Music Factory and Rebecca Black. Don't let us online twerps get in your head. This is just the type of thing that happens when you become inescapable on the Internet.)