Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” is a condescending song about false friendships and people who want to see you fail while smiling in your face. A wise friend once told me that it’s the most eloquently-written middle finger of all time.
Released as a single in September 1965, the track never appeared on an album, but did come between two of Dylan’s most famous albums: Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966).
Recorded during the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited, the song features many of the same bright tones and upbeat stylings as the rest of the album. It was an international hit for Dylan.
So, Who Is It About?
It’s not entirely clear who Bob Dylan is singing about in “Positively 4th Street,” and I don’t think it truly matters when relating to the song’s meaning, because it works so well as a general “F*ck the haters” type of song that it can be applied to anybody who treats you poorly.
However, since we are all curious, I will do my best to determine who Dylan was writing about prior to dissecting the lyrics.
Greenwich Village in the 1960s
It’s well-documented that Bob Dylan lived in Greenwich Village, where 4th Street is located, for a time during the early 1960s, when the city had a booming independent folk music scene.
It’s even more well-documented that his first ever rock & roll performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, also known as “Dylan Goes Electric,” is one of the defining moments of American music history.
During that performance, Dylan was booed by the crowd and ridiculed for playing rock music. This is such an ironic moment considering not five years later rock music would overtake the American airwaves for the next thirty-plus years.
Afterwards, Dylan became a polarizing figure in the NYC folk scene, with some people hating the move to rock music. Thus, many assume that he wrote “Positively 4th Street” about his former folk music friends in New York, who turned their backs on him as he changed the world with his music.
There are many names that come into the ring here when people talk about this song, such as Izzy Young, Irwin Silber, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and more. However, my own personal conclusion is that the song is more of a general feeling of “let me do what I want, and if you don’t like it, then leave me alone.”
The lyrics support this, and represent, once again, Bob Dylan’s status as one of the greatest songwriters to ever walk the Earth.
“Positively 4th Street” Lyrics Meaning
Let’s highlight the lyrics to “Positively 4th Street” and explain them line-by-line, as best we can.
“You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend / When I was down you just stood there grinnin”
The fairly straightforward, yet iconic, opening lines introduce Dylan’s feelings and the song’s theme. It is directed at someone who claims to be his friend, but couldn’t bring themselves to help him when he was in a tough spot.
“You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you got a helping hand to lend / You just want to be on the side that’s winnin”
Now that Dylan is successful, everybody wants to be his friend. He can see through their motives and intentions, and knows that they are just trying to get in his good graces for their own personal gain.
“You say I let you down, ya know its not like that / If you’re so hurt, why then don’t you show it?”
Dylan addresses the things that people say about him, including that he disappointed or otherwise hurt them. He isn’t buying it, because they aren’t acting hurt. Reading between the lines, this is an accusation of jealousy.
“You say you’ve lost your faith, but that’s not where its at / You have no faith to lose, and ya know it”
This is one of the most scathing lines in the whole song. Dylan tells them that they can’t lose their faith ib him, because they never had any to begin with. Going deeper, he is almost calling them spineless, saying that they don’t truly stand for anything at all.
“I know the reason, that you talked behind my back / I used to be among the crowd you’re in with”
Dylan was once jaded and jealous, too. But he’s moved past that.
“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?”
Again, calling the target of the song a phony, and someone who refuses to admit when they are wrong or when they don’t know something. He is saying that to even talk to them is a waste of time.
“You see me on the street, you always act surprised / You say “how are you?”, “good luck”, but ya don’t mean it”
People seeing him out on the street, and pretending to be happy to see him. He knows the truth, he says.
“When you know as well as me, you’d rather see me paralyzed / Why don’t you just come out once and scream it”
Dylan knows that they’d rather see him fail, and he invites them to just go ahead and admit 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”
This couplet is pretty abstract. Dylan seems to say that the targets of the song enjoy causing pain. Then, Dylan addresses how many critics said he was a thief for borrowing from so many musical and literary traditions in his songwriting. He says that if he really were a thief as they say, he would rob them.
“And tho I know you’re dissatisfied with your position and your place / Don’t you understand, its not my problem?”
They’re unhappy with their own lives, and it’s none of his concern.
“I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes And just for that one moment I could be you”
While Dylan clearly dislikes these people, he does seem to be open to finding common ground. The idea of standing in another person’s shoes is akin to seeing things from their perspective.
“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”
If these people could see themselves from Dylan’s perspective, they would understand how much they suck.
As you can see, “Positively 4th Street” truly is an eloquently-written “f*ck you” to whoever. It has more in common with hip-hop’s diss tracks of the future than it does with any other folk song written in the 60s. And for that (and not only that), Bob Dylan is a visionary.
Bob Dylan – “Positively 4th Street” (1965)
Jerry Garcia Version
One artist who truly did “get” Bob Dylan was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. Jerry was known for playing a large number of Dylan songs, including “Positively 4th Street.” There is one version in particular, released on the live album Garcia Plays Dylan, that served as my introduction to the song.
I prefer Jerry’s rendition, joined by Merl Saunders, to Dylan’s. It has such a beautiful, warm melody, just like almost anything Jerry ever touched.