12 x 35 = 420: a Salute to Bob Dylan and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”

Before you even say anything, I know that making any reference to 420 on April 20 is lazy. I really do. I don’t even like that this is what I thought to write about. But it’s happening, so just grin and bear it for me, will you?

But at the same time, no, this isn’t a pot post. I do think marijuana should be legal, but then again so do 68% of all Americans, according to a Gallup poll from November 2020, so it’s not like that’s an original stance. I would also urge any Texans who may be reading this to reach out to your state legislators and tell them you support some of these bills.

So for any of y’all who tried to MacGyver a smoking utensil when you saw the headline, I’m sorry to disappoint, but this is about a Bob Dylan song called “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” For the sake of brevity and my fingers not being used to typing the numbers, the pound sign, or the ampersand, I’m just going to refer to the song as “Rainy Day Women” if that’s okay with y’all. And in case you need to hear the song:

Blonde on Blonde, Generally

In 1966, Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, a revolutionary double album that served two immediate purposes. The first is that it cemented Dylan as more of an all around musical savant as opposed to the pitchy, folksy, Jack Kerouac-reading beatnik he was perceived as. He had already bucked the folk crowd with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, both released in 1965 and featuring instruments that required amplifiers. This made the folk crowd angry, and Dylan was actually booed during many parts of his 1965 and early 1966 tours. However, other musicians loved Blonde on Blonde. The Beatles listened to it and later stole some of the lines from “Rainy Day Women” that can still be heard in the outtakes of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Eric Clapton cited “Blonde on Blonde” as a major influence of his that eventually helped lead him to touring with folk rock duo Delaney & Bonnie.

The second served purpose of Blonde on Blonde was that it really set the trend that Dylan would follow the rest of his career of changing musical and lyrical styles every so often. If one listens to Blonde on Blonde then immediately listens to Nashville Skyline, released just three years after Blonde on Blonde, one might be convinced it wasn’t even the same artist. Dylan’s voice was different, his music was different, his lyrics were different…he completely changed his style. He did it again in the ensuing years with the poetic singer-songwriterness of Blood on the Tracks and Desire, the Christian-heavy lyrics of Slow Train Coming and Saved, and the ’80s-styled protest songs with Infidels and Oh Mercy. The man is a chameleon.

Going back to Blonde on Blonde, this album featured the raucous horns of “Rainy Day Women,” the verging-on-radio-friendly “I Want You,” and the amorous dirge he wrote for his then-wife Sara, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” It’s a complete genius of an album. In fact, I would go so far as to say Blonde on Blonde is one of the few nearly-perfect albums to ever be produced. It was released in June of 1966, but the singles were released earlier, with “Rainy Day Women” coming out in April.

“Rainy Day Women,” Specifically

So why did I choose to write about “Rainy Day Women” on April 20? Is it because the refrain closes with “Everybody must get stoned?” Nope. Is it because the numbers in the title, when multiplied, give you 420? Nope. Truth be told, I wrote about it today because I heard it last night and was once again blown away by the fact that Bob Dylan released a song with a horn section, so I started doing a bit of research. The fact that today is in fact 4/20 is a happy accident.

The song doesn’t make much sense. The message is that “they” will stone you for a variety of reasons, and that in the end, the person being stoned wouldn’t feel so lonely if everybody else was to be stoned, too. But what does it mean? Stoned as in Cheech & Chong, or stoned as in the biblical form of capital punishment? Between Dylan’s giggling during the lyrics and the fact that production honestly included musicians plying instruments that were new to them lent credence to the idea that it’s a drug song, but apparently it’s not.

Or maybe it is. In typically enigmatic Dylan fashion, he has served up some great non-answers regarding the song’s content. On the tour that accompanied the release of the album, Dylan was asked about “Rainy Day Women,” and he told the reporter it was about, “cripples and Orientals and the world in which they live… It’s a sort of North Mexican kind of a thing. Very, very protesty… And one of the pro-testiest of all things I’ve protested against in my protest years.” I know. Not very PC, and not very substantive at all.

But the song, like many on Blonde on Blonde, turned out to be a musician’s favorite. “Rainy Day Women” has been covered by Tom Petty, the Black Crowes, Sammy Hagar, Jessi Colter, Jimmy Buffett, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Grohl and Greg Kurstin, and my personal favorite: Flatt & Scruggs.

The song’s title doesn’t even make sense. The words “rainy,” “day,” and “women” don’t appear anywhere in the lyrics, and the numbers 12 and 35 have no obvious significance. People have since, of course, noticed that 12 x 35 is 420 and between that and the “everybody must get stoned” chorus, the rumor that this is a drug song has persisted.

Whatever the purpose or message of the song, no one can deny that it’s catchy. No one can deny that Blonde on Blonde is a breakthrough album and that it’s opening track was a breakthrough song. And no one can deny that, actual intentions aside, writing something about this song on 4/20 is at least mildly clever, if I do say so myself. So do whatever you want to do today, and give Blonde on Blonde a listen.

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