Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Was Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" actually written by a 13-year-old girl?

Bob Dylan circa 1965; Inset: 8th grader Janice Pembroke


Bob Dylan's blistering 1965 single, "Positively 4th Street," holds a vaunted place in popular culture. A Top 10 smash in both the United States and Canada in the year of its release, the song was soon covered by numerous artists including The Byrds and Johnny Rivers. Over the ensuing decades, it has been included on several popular Dylan compilations (such as Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits and Biograph) and even landed a place on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Still to this day, it remains a staple on oldies and classic rock radio. By all accounts, the song was a major success and helped to define the Dylan mystique in the early years of his career.

But was it also an example of musical theft?

Let's examine the facts. Rock historians have long debated the exact meaning of "Positively 4th Street" and its scathing, bitter lyrics. Who is the true target of Dylan's screed? Is it Sing Out editor Irwin Silber, who criticized Dylan's decision to "go electric?" Is it a rival folk singer, like Phil Ochs or Tom Paxton? Is it an ex-girlfriend? Or is it a general attack on the residents of Greenwich Village?

Here is my dark horse theory: the song's lyrics were actually the work of a 13-year-old junior high school student named Janice Pembroke, who was going door-to-door in the Village trying to sell candy bars as part of a fundraiser for her school's Spanish Club. Although she failed to sell the up-and-coming Dylan an Almond Cluster bar, the two did get into a discussion of poetry, during which young Miss Pembroke shared with the singer a poem she had written after breaking up with her best friend, Cheryl Dusenbery. Dylan asked Pembroke if he could keep the poem as a souvenir. She agreed, only to be shocked to hear her own words coming out of the radio a few months later.

A quick examination of the song's lyrics demonstrate that this theory is not entirely far-fetched. Read them and decide who is the more likely author: a rock 'n' roll genius or a petulant and moody adolescent girl?

You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning

You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that’s winning

You say I let you down
You know it’s not like that
If you’re so hurt
Why then don’t you show it

You say you lost your faith
But that’s not where it’s at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You’re in with

Do you take me for such a fool
To think I’d make contact
With the one who tries to hide
What he don’t know to begin with

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, “How are you?” “Good luck”
But you don’t mean it

When you know as well as me
You’d rather see me paralyzed
Why don’t you just come out once
And scream it

No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I’d rob them

And now I know you’re dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don’t you understand
It’s not my problem

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

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

Perhaps we will never know the true origin of "Positively 4th Street." In any event, here is the famous, controversial song. Listen and make up your own mind.

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