The Bard of Hibbing celebrates 70 years above ground today, and Popdose has a group project up to celebrate. We did a collective write-up of 70 songs from the man’s vast archive. Space restrictions held us to just a couple of lines for each song. As per my usual method when writing blurbs, I worked up a shitload of notes and then ruthlessly whittled them down.
Or maybe not without ruth. I was pretty pleased with some of what I’d written, so I’m presenting the uncut versions here as an adjunct to the Popdose piece. Not my ten favorite Dylan songs, necessarily, nor the ten that I necessarily consider the best or greatest; but the ten that I felt most confident in writing about at this time in my life, and in no particular order.
All Along the Watchtower
It’s only three verses. Twelve lines. A mere haiku, by Dylan standards. But these three chords, these 135 words, evoke an entire world; a society in decline, an apocalypse in slow motion, theft and treachery and doom. It’s a fleeting glimpse of a grand vision, a tiny corner of a big picture — miniature in scale, epic in scope, a mystery with no bottom.
What Daniel Lanois has done in his collaborations with Dylan — the simple, obvious thing that never seemed to occur to any other producer — is to let the arrangements build as the song progresses. Earlier Dylan records tended to lay all their sonic cards face-up from the start; the sixth minute of “Like a Rolling Stone” doesn’t sound appreciably different from the first. “Political World,” which opens Oh Mercy, announces a new approach, emerging as an ever-evolving series of crescendos, rising from a solitary murmur to a raging full-band firestorm, fuelled by Mason Ruffner’s churning lead guitar. It’s the first Dylan record in forever to seduce you with the way it sounds.
All I Really Want To Do
Dylan’s catalog has never been noted for any particular generosity of spirit. He’s been doing a fine line in pissiness and spite since Elvis Costello was Declan MacManus. In Don’t Look Back, we see him barely able to contain his contempt for the pie-eyed kindliness of Donovan.
Yet he outdoes his acolyte and rival in the sweetness-and-light steeplechase with “All I Really Want To Do,” an almost impossibly openhearted song. Now, Dylan being Dylan, there’s always a chance he wrote it as a piss-take — maybe even as a shot at Donovan. But whatever the song’s origin, its benevolence is relentless, from the sunny bounce of its descending chord sequence to the inimitable brio of its language. With “All I Really Want To Do,” Dylan does the impossible; he makes selflessness sound cool.
A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall
The paradoxes of “Hard Rain” are what lend it force. In its structure — derived from the traditional “Lord Rendal” — it is as rigidly formalist as anything Dylan has ever written, but its elastic stanzas and unhinged imagery give it the feel o spontaneous prophecy. The performance is aggressively plain, just rudimentary guitar strumming and Dylan’s gawdawful Fauxklahoma bray, but the language is crazily ornate. The scenario could be a medieval allegory, or a sci-fi nightmare. But what makes “Hard Rain” so powerful, even today, is its emotional vacuum. The Anglo-Irish murder ballads on which Dylan modeled the song do not editorialize; they lay out their horrors with a cool detachment. Just so, Dylan declaims his phantasmagoria with neither pity nor scorn, and effect is mesmerizing — and terrifying.
The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)
Songs like this make me wonder if Bobby Dylan might have been born at the wrong time — if he was forced by circumstance into the role of (as he puts it) “a song and dance man,” when in an earlier day he might have been a song-pitcher. His recording of “The Mighty Quinn” sounds like a songwriter’s demo. That’s not a knock: What I mean is that although Dylan’s own performance on the studio cut sounds leaden and exhausted, you can hear between the lines the exuberance and playfulness that other artists would bring to it in their covers.
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Encapsulates all that Dylan was up to in his early electric work — raw, ragged, and dense, end-to-end packed with aphorisms, catchphrases, and more characters than your typical Broadway play. And its famous promo film cleverly literalizes the songwriter’s method; the illusion of life’s hurlyburly, spun out in real time by one man, alone in a strange place with paper and ink.
Gotta Serve Somebody
I’m not going to argue for a wholesale reassessment of Slow Train Coming, Dylan’s first “born again” record. Yes, it’s patchy as hell; yes, lots of the songs sound lazy and half-assed. But that’s true of most of his 70s output — meaning Slow Train isn’t quite the departure it may seem. In poaching most of Dire Straits for a backing band and keeping the emphasis on swampy, slinky grooves, Slow Train Coming is at least consistently listenable. And its best track, “Serve Somebody,” even preaches the old-school Dylan gospel of self-integrity, albeit dressed up in new theological language — and leavened with nicely self-deprecating humor; you may call him Ray, indeed.
House of the Risin’ Sun
The Animals’ iconic version was still a couple of years out, but this tune was already a venerable auld whorehorse of the folkie repertoire. It’s not a great song for Bob — he hasn’t got the bottom end to really kill it, and his pickin’ hand lets him down badly — but in the recording you can sort of hear him making the break from troubadour to singer-songwriter. Clearly frustrated with the limitations of the folk medium, and with his own limitations within that medium, he’s trying to conquer “House of the Risin’ Sun” through force of will, to sell it with sheer power of personality. Good folkies were meant to “respect” the repertory, to stay out of the way of the material. Dylan’s performance here — big as life and twice as loud — is a clear signpost that interpretation of the canon would no longer be his primary concern, and that his own songwriting would inevitably come to the fore.
Cold Irons Bound
You know that spaceship that we sent out into the cosmos with the golden LP record on it, carrying music and greetings from all the cultures of the Earth? Some day, somebody somewhere is going to find that probe; and they’re going to hear the recording of Blind Willie Johnson that’s on there, and their minds are going to be blown. And they’re going to do what any culture does, no matter how alien — they’re going to assimilate and incorporate and synthesize the influences of what they hear on that record into their own music. And what goes around comes around; just as the Beatles came to America, those extraterrestrial rock ‘n’ rollers are gonna bring it all back home and come a-knocking on our planet’s door, with their warpdrive soundsystem-slash-starships blasting out their mutant interstellar juke-joint stomp. It will be something to hear. Thing is, the universe is vast and life is short: odds are the human race will be long gone by the time the spacemen get here. At least we’ve got “Cold Irons Bound” to give us a preview. Because that’s exactly what it sounds like: a scratchy blues 78 found in a time capsule and reinterpreted by an ensemble of Andromedans, some time after the Sun goes cold.
Positively 4th Street
The greatest fuck-you song in rock ‘n’ roll history, and it works because of the absolute focus and conviction that Dylan brings to it. The personal grudge at the song’s heart is ultimately less important than the principle — the subject’s real sin is hypocrisy. It would be easy for the singer to come off as a prig or a scold. But by implicating himself — by refusing to let himself off the hook for his own darker thoughts — Dylan elevates “Positively 4th Street” from self-righteous to righteous, full-stop.
Don’t bother with David Hajdu’s book of the same name, though. That guy’s kind of a tool.