Bob Dylan is 70 years old today. And, though I haven’t enjoyed much of his recent output, his early albums have a very special place in my heart. There’s a reason this dude was considered the voice of his generation (note to Kanye West: Dylan was elected to the job and had the good sense not to want it). To celebrate Dylan’s 70th, I thought I’d share with you my favorite hour of his music. As recorded by him. So if you’re one of those weirdos who thinks that all of Dylan’s songs are better sung by other people, you can have the day off from reading Bollocks! today. (And yes, I realize most of these songs are taken from Blood On the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited. They’re my favorite Dylan albums. If/when I do this for David Bowie, you can expect a whole lot of Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.)
I’m guessing a lot of people would rank “Tangled Up in Blue” among their favorite Bob Dylan tunes. It’s a great story song, the tale of a lonesome dude who no longer knows if he has the blues or if they have him. It’s got a lot of great lines in it (“I helped her out of a jam, I guess/ but I used a little too much force” is one of my favorites) and I actually really like the way Dylan sings the melody.
“Desolation Row” is far and away my favorite Bob Dylan song, even though it was recently butchered by My Chemical Romance. I just love the imagery he uses; he creates a universe and populates it with lovable losers (characters who show up time and time again in Bob Dylan songs). And then stupid My Chemical Romance comes along, chops that universe into little pieces, and sells it at Hot Topic.
My favorite fact about “Idiot Wind” is that it was quoted in Hootie and the Blowfish’s “I Only Wanna Be With You.” Despite appearing in a Hootie and the Blowfish song, “Idiot Wind” is one of Dylan’s best bitter songs: “You’re an idiot, babe/ it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”
I think Bob Dylan was my first introduction to what I call “broken-ass music” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is probably the first of his songs (Highway 61 Revisited was the first Bob Dylan album I ever owned. On cassette. I know.) that really gave me that feeling, though it was years before I could articulate it as such. I love the charging, chugging feeling of the song and the line “If I don’t make it/ You know my baby will” kills me every time.
I’ve said about a billion times that one characteristic of the best blues songs is that sense of laughing to keep from crying. Pretty much all of Blood On the Tracks has that element, but “Buckets of Rain” is my favorite example. Dylan has buckets of tears and can still crack a joke and carry buckets of fucking moonbeams in his hands. Truly, this is a dude who can take a beating and remain on his feet. The song is sweet and sad and one of Dylan’s best: “I like the cool way/ you look at me/ everything about you is bringing me misery.”
I’m pretty sure “Dignity” is, by a wide margin, the most recently recorded song on this list. It’s about the worldwide search for that titular quality, it’s one of Dylan’s more simple and direct songs (like “Masters of War”), and that’s pretty much all I have to say about that (okay, one more, very dorky thing: for no particular reason, when I’m playing Red Dead Redemption, I always think of my horse as being named “Dignity,” largely because of this song. Don’t judge me).
Dylan sounds kinda like a Muppet on “I Want You”, but that’s part of its charm. Here’s a dude who is definitely not handsome, who seems to wander around playing a guitar instead of getting a real job, and all he has with which to woo you is a song. This is one of those love songs that borders on the creepy, though. You might not wanna call this in as a dedication to your sweetheart unless she/he is also a big Dylan fan.
“Highway 61 Revisited” is all about the first verse for me, wherein God bullies an incredulous Abraham into taking his kid out to Highway 61 for a little prove-you-love-your-god sacrifice (“God said, ‘you can do what you want, Abe but/ the next time you see me comin’/ you better run”).
Because Highway 61 Revisited is the first Dylan album I owned, “Like a Rolling Stone” is one of my first favorite Bob Dylan songs. I still love it. And yeah, it’s basically Bob Dylan reveling in someone else’s fall from riches to rags, but I’m perfectly okay suggesting that some people deserve to lose everything.
Dylan was always great at employing a faceless, omnipotent Them to instill a sense of paranoia in his characters. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is one of the finest examples of that. Dylan sings, “Look out kid/ it’s something you did/ God knows when/ but you’re doing it again.” It’s not exactly Kafka-esque, but mostly because it’s funny (okay, I think The Trial is kinda funny, but I have a pretty fucked up sense of humor).
Some folks will probably read this and be all, “What about ‘The Times, They Are A-Changin’?” Well, the times didn’t a-change, did they? The same people who were pissed about Vietnam were pumped about Iraq. They spent a decade fucking each other in the mud and then spent the rest of their lives becoming everything they used to despise. “Masters of War,” as compared to “The Times,” is still true. “You fasten all the triggers/ for the others to fire/ then you sit back and watch/ while the death count gets higher.” (This song, then, is a great ancestor to Jarvis Cocker’s “Running the World”).
If I include “Just Like a Woman,” I’ll technically be going over sixty minutes. But fuck it – “Just Like a Woman” is one of the all-time best break-up songs ever (“Please don’t let on/ that you knew me when/ I was hungry/ and it was your world”).
So happy birthday, Mr. Zimmerman. And thanks for all the nasally, strident, harmonica-laden awesomeness. I’m gonna go listen to “Desolation Row” like a hundred times (which will take me all day).