I always thought of "Mr. Tambourine Man" as one of Bob Dylan's earliest songs. I guess that's because when I first heard of Dylan or 'learned' about him in school, that was one of the songs I was told to listen to (along with "The Times They Are A Changing"). For this reason, I never really liked the song. I thought of it as a simplistic tune with some strange political message that escaped me.
I was wrong. Dylan's first album was recorded back in 1962. Though he had been playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" for years earlier, it wasn't actually recorded until his sixth album, Subterranean Homesick Blues, the album where Dylan goes electric (though ironically the best songs are acoustic).
I thought of this song as the typical Dylan song, but it's far from it. Many die-hard Dylan fans hated the song when it first came out. It had no political message or protest theme that marked many of his most famous songs (think "The Times They Are A Changing").
Actually, this song would mark Dylan's switch from topical protest songs to the more intrspective, commercial tunes about personal, emotional subjects (soon after would come "Like A Rolling Stone" on his next album, Highway 61 Revisited). I guess it just goes to show that the telling of history is more important than how it actually happened.
The song is an amazing example of how stream-of-consciousness beat-poetry can be put to music to say something significant and universal yet tell us nothing at all. There is not story or grand message, just a description of feelings and visions.
I've read that it's about "the transcendence of music." Not sure what that means, but I can't think of a better way to describe it. Here are a few verses I find amazing, though they were written to be heard, not read. Reading doesn't do it justice:
Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me
I'm branded on my feet, I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me