Jesus, what can I say about Bob Dylan? The guy has bestridden the art world like a colossus since he came rheuming and cackling out of Hibbing, Minnesota in 1960, and there is not a song, poem or novel written by anyone since that doesn’t owe a debt to the greatest bard of the 20th century.
My problem here at Cloth Monkey Radio was keeping perspective. If this was a list of my 200 favorite songs, 150 of them would be Dylan. So I had to narrow it down. I came up with four of them.
“Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” is a great little folk song by Eric Von Schmidt, who Dylan met when he first rolled into Greenwich Village. What makes it great is that weird Eb chord in the middle of it. This song was one of the songs on my parents’ “Chicago Tape,” that we all listed to endlessly in the summer of 1962, so I’ve been listening to this pretty tune for over 50 years. (They had borrowed the brand-new album from my Uncle Bill, who had a pretty neat record collection, including a full-length album of “The Bickersons” radio shows, which even as a little kid I thought were hilarious.) It was on Dylan’s first album with Columbia, which you really need to listen to in its entirety. Bob was 20 years old and new in town, and even though most of the songs are covers, you are struck with how worldly and wise he sounds. (I can’t seem to find a YouTube of the original recording – the above is a god-awful version from 1976.)
I first owned the Highway 61 Revisited album on an 8-track tape (yeah, I’m that old). Because of the way the tracks changed at the end of the loop, sometimes the order of the songs was different on an 8-track than it was on an album. (I had a Jim Croce album where they faded out “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” in the middle of the song, *chunked* to the next loop, and faded it back in again. Whenever I hear that song, I can still tell you exactly where the break was.) But Highway 61 Revisited was such a long album that Columbia made the brilliant move of just leaving a song off the 8-track. It was “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” and for years I didn’t even know the song existed. It wasn’t until I bought the vinyl at a $1 sale at a funky little record store in Charlottesville that I found out what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s because of the late reveal, but “ITALTLITATTC” has ever since been my favorite Dylan song. It’s the choogaloog rhythm that matches the train, and the first line (“Well, I ride on the mail train, babe/Can’t buy a thrill”) and the final capper (“I wanna be your lover, baby, I don’t wanna be your boss/Don’t say I never warned you when your train gets lost.”) Ah, Bob.
The beauty of Bob Dylan songs was that they were so symbolic and impressionistic that you could insert yourself into them. This was certainly true with “Visions of Johanna,” from the Blonde on Blonde album, possibly his masterpiece. (If you want to get a really good argument going, get five Dylan fans in the same room and let them debate which was his “best” album.) It was easy to interpret the lyrics to directly address people I knew and relationships I was in. The verse starting “Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously” evoked a friend of mine at the time perfectly, although I am at a loss to point to a particular detail that made it so. Other lines talk to other folks, other situations. (The whole album is shot through with moments like that – Queen Jane, Queen Mary with her amphetamines and her pearls, even the sad-eyed lady, although I can no longer sit through that 11-minute lugubrious whine about her.) And my all-time favorite Dylan line: “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face.” And my second-favorite Dylan line: “Jewels and binoculars hang from the neck of the mule.” Can’t beat that. The particular track on Cloth Monkey Radio was recorded live in London on May 26, 1966. The video above is a portion of the same performance.
It may seem weird, since Dylan has been on an endless tour since basically 1988, but for a while in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he kind of disappeared. In his autobiography (which you really should read; it’s excellent), he said that basically being considered by some as the voice of generation and some kind of god was very scary, and he just wanted to be a real boy for a while longer with his wife and kids. After the tepid response to his 1973 album Planet Waves, he decided to come out of hiding and go on a big tour. It was huge. He was one the cover of Time and Newsweek and every other magazine, and the tour was the big event of 1974. (He later put out a live album of the tour, Before the Flood, which I can take or leave – it’s a little bombastic, and he had already started that damn “upsinging” thing he’s always talking about.)
When his next album, Blood on the Tracks, was released in early 1975, nobody expected much. God, were we wrong. It is fucking brilliant. Every song “glowed like burning coal,” to use one of Bob’s own metaphors. It was wise and mature and mostly acoustic, and I remember listening to “Simple Twist of Fate” the night I bought the album, my mouth hanging open in stupefaction that someone could make such a perfect song.
You could argue that “Simple Twist of Fate” or “Shelter From the Storm” or especially “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Heart” are the best things on the album, but the opening track, “Tangled Up In Blue” is the perfect example of Dylan’s skill as a storyteller. This album was the catalyst of me going off and buying a $59 guitar at JC Penny’s, and the first song I wrote was a bald copy of “Tangled Up In Blue” called “Woman Born in May.” Get me drunk sometime and I’ll play it for you. I played it at a party once and it went over pretty well. It just occurred to me, though, that I never actually sang it to the girl I wrote it about. (And no, it wasn’t the girl I pursued all through high school and college. It was her best friend. God, I’m a heel.)
And just for kicks: Bob at his folky best, performing “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, introduced by Pete Seeger.