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So What Is Bob Dylan's 'Rainy Day Women' Really About?

With the infamous chorus "Everybody must get stoned," Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" is definitely about recreational marijuana use, right? The singer - who turns 75 today - has been cagey about the song's alleged cannabis connection. Here's an overview of the song's potential meanings and what Dylan has said about them.

1. Pot song

The most popular theory for the song is that it's about marijuana, which Dylan not only smoked in the 60s but also shared with fellow musicians - including The Beatles. Since its release, critics have detected marijuana references in the lyrics aside from the blatant mention of getting stoned. 1966, TIME magazine published an article claiming that the term "rainy day woman" was slang for a joint. And fans have noted that if you multiply the numbers in the song's title - 12 and 35 - you get 420.

But Bob Dylan disagrees. During a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1966, Dylan addressed the drug theory by telling the audience, "I never have and never will write a 'drug song.' I don't know how to. It's not a 'drug song.' It's just vulgar."

However, the musicians who supplied the tune's slovenly brass and percussion sections have suggested that the song wasn't just inspired by marijuana. It was recorded during an epic smoking session. In the book Down the Highway (2011), biographer Howard Sounes says that Dylan didn't want the band to record the track sober, so he passed joints around the studio. "I got pretty wiped out because I'm not a grasser," bassist Henry Strzelecki told Sounes.

2. Protest song

Dylan offered another take on "Rainy Day Women" in 1966 when he was interviewed in Stockholm by Swedish radio journalist Klas Burling.

"'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35' happens to deal with a minority of, you know, cripples and Orientals and, uh, you know, and the world in which they live,.... It's another sort of a North Mexican kind of a thing, uh, very protesty. Very, very protesty. And, uh, one of the protestiest of all things I ever protested against in my protest years."

But that response might, just might, have been a passive-aggressive way to protest the interview. An overtired Dylan showed up for the chat and quickly became annoyed when Burling asked him to comment on being a protest singer.

"No, I'm not going to sit here and do that. I've been up all night, I've taken some pills, and I've eaten bad food, and I've read the wrong things, and I've been out for 100-mph car rides, and let's not sit here and talk about myself as a protest singer."

But there might also be something to the protest song angle. Some argue that the lyric "they'll stone you when you're trying to keep your seat" could refer to civil rights issues involving segregation in America. (Think Rosa Parks.)

3. Religious song?

Other critics focus on "getting stoned" in terms of stoning sinners, a punitive social practice condoned in the Old Testament. Taken in that context, the lyrics could refer to society's tendency to punish non-conformists - particularly Dylan. Biographer Andrew Muir argues that the "stoning" in the song could be Dylan reflecting on the flack he received from fans and critics who disliked his evolution from folk to rock singer.

Dylan himself has fuelled the biblical interpretations of the song. In a 2012 interview, Rolling Stone asked,

"Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see 'Rainy Day Women' as coded about getting high."

Dylan replied, 'It doesn't surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren't familiar with the Book of Acts,'" which contains the stoning of Saint Stephen.

4. All of the above

Who says that "Rainy Day Women" can't be about all of these things? After all, getting recreationally stoned in the 60s would likely get you figuratively stoned by anti-drug crusaders. And the song's theme of persecution certainly suits the subgenre of protest songs.

Dylan himself noted the versatility of the song in a 1978 interview with Philippe Adler of the French newspaper L'Express. Adler wondered, "Knowing the influence that you exercise over millions of young people, don't you think it's dangerous to go on singing 'Everybody Must Be Stoned'?"

"But that song has a lot of other meanings," Dylan said. Then he defended cannabis use by adding,

"Marijuana isn't a drug like the others....Today there are drugs that are a lot more dangerous than in my time....I think you can do what you want up until the moment when you realize you have to be responsible for yourself, or otherwise you've had it."

Have a listen and tell us what you think the song's about.

Click here to read our Bob Dylan Nobel Prize news.

h/t Song Facts

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