So, which Fourth Street is paved with Bob Dylan’s nastiest thoughts?
When Dylan sneers and slices his way through his 1965 single, “Positively 4th Street,” is he taking aim at the mid-1960s hipsters and posers in New York City’s Greenwich Village? Or is he looking back to the Midwest, slashing and lacerating his way through the remembered slights from his days at the University of Minnesota and its Dinkytown district? Both the Village and Dinkytown have as one of their main thoroughfares a Fourth Street.
I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone besides the Bard of Hibbing knows for sure. The heavy money, I would guess, is on New York City’s Fourth Street, simply because the Village was where Dylan became famous as a folkie and then – after turning to rock – became an infamous pariah among the folk set in the Village. Add that New York was where he was living when the song was written and released as a single, and you might have a case. But I have a sense, and I doubt that I’m alone in this, that when Dylan was writing the song, he was very much aware that there was another Fourth Street in his rear-view mirror and if folks from his Dinkytown days were wounded because they thought the tune was about them, well, that would be okay.
Whatever street provided the inspiration for the song, the song itself provided listeners with a lot to take in. The lyrics – starting with the snarling “You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend. When I was down, you just stood there grinning.” – have always sounded to me like the 1 a.m. party rant of guy all the guests have been sidestepping all evening. He’s like the character on a new Tarot card for the modern age: The Volatile Man. He’s the one who eventually spews his bitterness over everyone, halting every conversation like an Icelandic volcano grounding air traffic. And he never stops as everyone else makes excuses and heads for the door.
The vitriol makes “Positively 4th Street” a one-of-a-kind rant that went to No. 7 in the autumn of 1965, with a performance that Dave Marsh called “an icy hipster bitch session” that turned out to be “brilliantly poisonous.”
Given the tune and its indelible origins, one would think that cover versions would be scarce. Well, they’re not plentiful, but there are more than I expected. The Byrds took a shot at the song with a live version on their untitled album from 1970, and it’s not bad. Others who’ve recorded the song include the Jerry Garcia Band, Johnny Rivers, Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia, punk band Antiseen, Spirit, Bryan Ferry, Simply Red, Sue Foley, Scottish performer Junior Campbell, Scott Lucas & The Married Men, Lucinda Williams, Deb Callahan, the Stereophonics, the Persuasions, Winston Apple and someone named Farryl Purkiss.
I’ve heard a few of those, and I’m interested in hearing a number of the rest. Williams’ take on the song is, as might be expected, idiosyncratic, and I’ve read a lot of praise for Simply Red’s version, but I find it a little bland both in vocal and in backing. I like very much the version Johnny Rivers presents as the closer to his 1968 album, Realization. But in sorting through the covers I had at hand this morning – and I could spend more time and money digging, but I won’t – I was more pleased than I expected to be with Ferry’s take on the tune.