Following David’s lead, I’m posting a playlist. This one is entirely Bob Dylan. Some thoughts:
My friend Joey has said somewhere: There are a lot of really great Dylan songs. There are also a lot of bad ones. There’s just a lot of Dylan.
After I had lived in CO for a year, a college friend of mine gave me an album called Live at the Gaslight. It was a collection of traditional folk ballads sung by a 20- or 21-year-old Dylan at the Gaslight Cafe in NY. He sings “John Brown”, “Barbara Allen”, “The Cuckoo”, and strums G, C, Ami. I thought it was beautiful. Especially “Moonshiner”. Dylan holds these long notes, and they seem to resonate inside of his guitar. It’s such a lonely song.
On long drives sometimes I listen to my favorite Dylan songs. I put in a cd, skip to the song, play it, and then hit eject. By the time I get to where I’m going I think, “Why do I like this guy?” On my way back I listen to whole Dylan albums, everything together, the things I like, the things I don’t. By the time I get home I think, “Wonderful.”
Is there such a thing as a best-of Dylan playlist? Surely I would find it self-defeating, implosive.
Before my 23rd birthday I decided it was time to figure out Bob Dylan. I bought the album Blonde on Blonde. I didn’t like it. There were a lot of poetic or funny lines. But some of the songs were monotonous, and there was so much harmonica! I forced myself to listen to it. It was the same thing when I read Moby Dick in high school or when I started eating beets in my late 20s. I saw people all around me mysteriously enjoying these things. I figured you had to work at it.
Here’s a representative situation: a few years back in my bike shop I am listening to “Hurricane”, the epic ballad about Rubin Carter, the black boxer who was controversially imprisoned for triple homicide back in the 60s. I’m just really digging it, the fiddle, the rattling guitar, drums, the story. I listen to it over and over. Then in walks my boss for his shift, a young guy who really loves old music. I know I can trust his opinion. He immediately says, “Oh man, I hate that song.”
It’s not that Dylan is hit and miss, it’s more than that. It’s as if he keeps pulling messiness into every song he sings. Is there something intrinsically valuable about that kind of messiness in art? I’m inclined to say, no. But I like that I have to take it down whole; it’s not tailored to me. That’s like friendship.
Moby Dick shares limited shelf space in my office with my text books. It’s just a great stop-and-go read. I think of each chapter as a poem. I’m growing beets in my garden this year because I like them. It’s still a bit of a task for me to listen through Blonde on Blonde.
So here’s a playlist of Bob Dylan songs, some that I love, some that I dislike. All of them are worth a listen.
Idiot Wind, Blood on the Tracks
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth,
Blowing down the back roads heading south.
Commentary: This song feels pretty raw and personal. He’s angry and mean. And in the end he turns in on himself. When I find myself enjoying it, it’s usually a sign I should talk with someone.
Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues, The Bootleg Series Vol 6
Well I finally started thinking straight,
When I run out of things to investigate,
I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,
So now I’m at home investigating myself,
I hope I don’t find out too much. Good God.
Commentary: This is a satire about the McCarthy witch hunt. What really makes it go are the extra phrases he drops at the end of the real verses. In different versions he says different things. I read he got this model of a loose talking blues song from Woody Guthrie: Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues, Mean Talkin’ Blues. I think Dylan does it way better. Still I can’t help but feel that some of his old timey phrasings are affected. It’s like he’s trying to sound like Guthrie.
Girl from the North Country, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Many times I’ve often prayed,
In the darkness of my night,
In the brightness of my day.
Commentary: This is the first song I tried to learn on the guitar. The finger picking is very pretty. I think his song strikes just the right tone. He’s longing for a girl, and at the same time he has already let her go.
I’ll be Your Baby Tonight, John Wesley Harding
Kick your shoes off, do not fear,
Bring that bottle over here.
Commmentary: This is a rainy day piece of drunken cowboy revelry. I love it.
Po’ Boy, Love & Theft
Othello told Desdemona, ‘I’m cold cover me with a blanket,
‘By the way what happened to that poison wine?’
She said, ‘I gave it to you, you drank it.’
Poor boy, laying them straight, picking up the cherries falling off the plate.
Commentary: I think Dylan’s gravelly voice is comforting in this song. It feels like a conversation with an old man. This is full of clever lines.
Precious Angel, Slow Train Coming
We are covered in blood girl, you know both our forefathers were slaves,
let us hope they’ve found mercy in their bone filled graves.
Commentary: Who’s playing the guitar in this song? It’s really great, bending and crying. It seems Dylan’s really wrestling with his faith here. Sometimes he sounds over confident, sometimes he sounds completely lost.
Changing of the Guards, Street Legal
She’s smelling sweet like the meadows,
where she was born on midsummer’s eve near the tower.
They shaved her head, she was torn between Jupiter and Appollo,
A messenger arrived with a black nightingale.
Commentary: Oh man I love the imagery in this song. It’s so large. It’s a love song. Or a song about the apocalypse. I have no idea. As much as I love the poetry, this is one of those songs that makes me question whether he’s squandering his listeners’ trust. A clever poet can sound like he’s saying something when he’s not. And I think that’s wasteful. But I keep enjoying this one.
New Pony, Street Legal
I had a pony, her name was Lucifer.
She broke her leg and needed shooting.
I swear it hurt me more than it coulda hurted her.
Commentary: This is such great, dirty rock-n-roll song. I don’t think he’s really talking about a pony. I think he’s talking about a girl. Or several.
The Boxer, Self Portrait
Commentary: This whole album is weird. It’s a hack country album. This is a cover of Paul Simon’s song. Dylan rushes through it, I don’t understand why it was even recorded. But then again it’s kind of fun to listen to. He even sings Garfunkel’s backup harmonies. Tries to.
Not Dark Yet, Time Out of Mind
I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will.
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still.
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb.
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from.
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer.
It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.
Commentary: Bob Dylan is old when he sings this, and it shows. There’s a beautiful, somber guitar interlude right in the middle. Sometimes I play that portion again.
Masters of War, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
You hide in your mansion while the young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud.
And I hope that you die and your death will come soon,
I’ll follow your casket in the pale afternoon.
Commentary: Like a lot of protest songs I’ve always found this one a little preachy. There’s a lot of bald, righteous anger in these verses. I think that anger has its season, but it sits ill with me when he describes the evil out there or in those people and turns a blind eye to our own contribution.