Smarter men than this writer have tried to decipher the lyrics of Bob Dylan and failed miserably, so I’m not going to try. Like many of my peers, I really discovered Dylan when I entered college. Something about the first taste of independence from the parental units seemed to connect with the music of the man. Oh Mercy was the first of his albums that I truly discovered on my own and it remains my favorite of his. But my affection for this man’s body of work also extends to the times it was playing in the background while I grew into a man. In particular, my late friend, Matt, who became so fanatical about Dylan that people were calling him “Bob” in college. It took me a long time to get back to Dylan’s songs after Matt passed away in 2005. The past few years have been about rediscovering his music and finding a new place for him in my life. Here are some of my favorites, along with the lyric that has always jumped out at me when listening to it.
Where Teardrops Fall ( from Oh Mercy) Dylan’s triumphant comeback (produced by Daniel Lanois) may have started with the jangly “Political World,” but to me, the record really begins with this second song. With the snap of the snare and a moaning guitar, Lanois’s New Orleans swampiness melts with Dylan’s music perfectly. Favorite lyric: “We banged the drum slowly/ And played the fife lowly/ You know the song in my heart/ In the turning of twilight/ In the shadows of moonlight/ You can show me a new place to start”
Simple Twist of Fate ( from Blood on the Tracks) I came to Blood on the Tracks late, diving into it soon after my wife and I moved to California. This song takes me back to our stifling first apartment and the blistering hot summer when we had to drag our mattress from the bedroom to the living room and place it under the crappy air conditioning unit just so we could get a good night’s sleep. Favorite lyric: “A saxophone someplace far off played/ As she was walkin’ by the arcade/ As the light bust through abeat-up shade where he was wakin’ up,/ She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate/ And forgot about a simple twist of fate”
In the summer of 92, just before I met my wife, Matt and I spend a couple weeks holed up in my parents’ basement, smoking cigarettes in the dark and listening to Dylan. Later that year he made me one of the few compilation tapes I’ve ever held on to, all of it Dylan. These three songs were on that tape and they were one of the first ones I listened to when Matt died.
Percy’s Song (from Biograph) Favorite lyric: “And at that the judge jerked forward/ And his face it did freeze/ Turn, turn, turn again/ Sayin’, “Could you kindly leave/ My office now, please”/ Turn, turn to the rain/ And the wind”
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue (from Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert) Favorite lyric: “All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home/ All your reindeer armies, are all going home/ The lover who just walked out your door/ Has taken all his blankets from the floor/ The carpet, too, is moving under you/ And it’s all over now, Baby Blue”
She Belongs to Me (from Bringing It All Back Home) Favorite lyric: “She’s got everything she needs/ She’s an artist, she don’t look back/ She’s got everything she needs/ She’s an artist, she don’t look back/ She can take the dark out of the nighttime/ And paint the daytime black”
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Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) One of Dylan’s simplest songs, and one of his most beautiful. Favorite lyric:”Mama, put my guns in the ground/ I can’t shoot them anymore/ That long black cloud is comin’ down/ I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door”
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Silvio (from Down in the Groove) I saw Dylan in concert once, in 1988. It was in support of Down in the Groove and it was the worst concert experience in my life. 75 minutes of jangly, mumbling nonsense and he didn’t even acknowledge the crowd. I’ve never see him since. But I still love this song, which is a keepsake from my summers working with my best friend, Steve, on a college paint crew. “Silvio/Silver and gold/ Won’t buy back the beat of a heart grown cold/ Silvio/ I gotta go/ Find out something only dead men know”
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Born in Time (from Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8) I used to argue with some of my pretentious college friends who were music majors. They hated Dylan because “he couldn’t sing.” I replied that Dylan can sing, he just doesn’t have a good voice. I wish I’d had this song back then. Man, the urgency that Dylan brings to this song, an outtake from the Oh Mercy sessions, is just about some of the most dramatic singing you’ll hear, ever. Favorite lyric: “Just when I thought you gone, you came back/ Just when I was ready to receive you/ You were smooth, you were rough/ You more than enough/ Ah, babe, why did I ever leave you/ I breathe you”
Every Grain of Sand (from Shot of Love) Favorite lyric: “I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame/ And every time I pass that way I always hear my name/ Then onward in my journey I come to understand/ That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.” ‘Nuff said.
Things Have Changed (from Wonder Boys Soundtrack) My favorite movie from 2000 was Curtis Hanson’s lovely adaptation of Wonder Boys, based on Michael Chabon’s novel. Without actually singing about the plot of the movie, Dylan captures the spirit and mood of main character, Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), with ease. I could listen to this song a thousand times and never get sick of it. Favorite lyric: “I hurt easy, I just don’t show it/ You can hurt someone and not even know it/ The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity/ Gonna get low down, gonna fly high/ All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie/ I’m in love with a woman who don’t even appeal to me”
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The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar (from Shot Of Love) You stumble around a discography like Dylan’s until you find something you can hang onto, and for me, this was the first song that stuck, thanks to the Biograph box set, which I got for Christmas one year as a high schooler. I wasn’t ready to dive in to Dylan’s work yet; will I ever be? “What can I say about Claudette/Ain’t seen her since January/She could be respectably married/Or run a whorehouse in Buenos Aires…”
Tangled Up In Blue (from Blood On The Tracks) This tune came next, and slowly but surely, I was being introduced to the labyrinthine depths of Dylan’s storytelling. More than just short fiction set to music, his songs marry words to melody in a way that conveys a feeling beyond the lyrics.
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Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (from Highway 61 Revisited) Some of my favorite Dylan tunes are ones I grew to first love through cover versions; here, it’s Nina Simone’s essential version of the song that resonates even more than Bob’s original. So many of Dylan’s songs are about people lost in their own skin; here our narrator is quite literally “lost in the rain in Juarez.” I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes but I’m happy to hear about it.
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Saved (from Saved) I can’t say I really understand Bob Dylan’s born-again Christianity; does he still claim it? I’m not nearly as expert a Dylanologist as I would like to be. I do know that whether you can get behind the lyrics or not, this is one fierce goddamned number, with incredible drumming by Jim Keltner and some mindblowing piano from Spooner Oldham.
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Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat (Live in 1966) (from Live 1966 “The Royal Albert Hall Concert” The Bootleg Series Vol. 4) This moment in pop history–this concert that continues to reverberate down the ages, the infamous “Judas” shouted from the crowd, Dylan going electric–seems to provide a template for the majority of the twenty to thirty years of rock music that follows. Rock was always rebel music, but in this moment, Dylan blended in hard blues and folk in a literate, spiteful way. It may have been easy for rock to stand against the bedrocks of straight culture, but from this concert onward, it was also possible for pop music to openly sneer at the world too.
Disease Of Conceit (from Oh Mercy) A beautiful track from the album that some say marked the beginning of Dylan’s late-career renaissance, 1989’s Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois. It’s a song that seems descended from Dylan’s born-again period, revolving around the idea that perhaps it’s possible to believe one is too anointed, by worldly or otherworldly powers.
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Tweeter And The Monkey Man (from The Traveling Wilburys – Vol. 1) As it turns out, Dylan didn’t do much writing as a member of the goof-off supergroup Traveling Wilburys. But it’s widely believed that he did pen this homage to the work of one Mr. Bruce Springsteen, full of references to stolen cars, mansions on hills, and even Thunder Road. Remember that sneer Dylan discovered in 1966? He’s still got it decades later.
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Make You Feel My Love (from Time Out Of Mind) I must stress again that I’m no advanced Dylanologist, but I think it’s safe to say the man isn’t known for his straight-ahead love songs. This one’s about as down-the-middle as it gets, but being a Dylan composition, it retains a gentle beauty and deceptive simplicity. Like “All Along the Watchtower” and the next song on this list, it’s gained a larger life as a cover, with versions by Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, and Adele.
Jolene (from Together Through Life) My favorite thing about Bob Dylan might be the fact that he just keeps going, year after year, tour after tour, record after record. There’s plenty of musical “legends” who are content to sit on achievements from decades ago, or who allow complacency to keep them in the studio for years trying to peck at a new album while they cash royalty checks and hang out. This is one of my favorite tracks from Dylan’s 2010 release, Together Through Life, featuring lyrics from Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. At this point in his career, Dylan’s essentially a journeyman blues singer and songwriter, with impeccable taste in sidemen–this album features amazing accordion work from Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. On this track, grok that tasty guitar riff, which I believe is doubled by harmonica.
Mississippi (from Love and Theft) This is my favorite Bob Dylan song. I think trying to explain why is a fool’s effort, but I have to try. Dylan’s lyrics are amazing, his melodies underrated; in his most sublime moments, they combine to somehow peel back the veil between what we know and what we cannot understand, to give us a glimpse of something greater than we could ever be. That’s how I feel when I hear the last verse of this song: “Now the emptiness is endless/Cold as the clay/You can always go back/But you can’t come back all the way…” Then again, if writing about pop music is dancing about architecture, then trying to put Dylan’s essential appeal into words is doing a shitty fox trot for Frank Lloyd Wright.