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A Few Words on Bob Dylan March 12, 2009

Filed under: Bob Dylan,lists,Rants and Raves — yourbirdcansing88 @ 4:05 PM
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The "unwashed phenomenon" himself, in 1966.

The "unwashed phenomenon" himself, in 1966.

I think before I post anything else, I should say something about Bob Dylan.  Bob Dylan’s name will probably come up more frequently in my posts than anyone else’s, and there’s a very good reason for this.  Bob Dylan is, quite simply, the greatest singer/songwriter that popular music has ever known.  Yes, I know his voice is anything but conventionally beautiful.  I know he was never an extraordinary instrumentalist (although his backing bands over the years have consisted of quite a few).  I know his lyrics can be indecipherable, or just plain weird.  And yes, I’m well aware that he did that  Victoria’s Secret commercial.  But none of those things matter to me.  If anything, Dylan’s imperfection and lack of convention are what make him the one-of-a-kind artist that he is.

 

Dylan is an acquired taste for some, mostly because of his voice.  For those who’ve never heard Dylan sing, I can best describe his voice using any combination of the following adjectives:  “raspy”, “gravelly”, “rough”, “nasal”, even “whiny”.  I know many people who think Dylan is a lyrical genius, but prefer to hear other people cover his music because they can’t stand his voice.  For me, his voice was never a problem, because I started listening to him when I was about ten or eleven years old, back before I even knew or cared what a “good voice” was.  Furthermore, I find that Dylan’s voice complements his songs like no other voice could.  Especially in Dylan’s earlier songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, in which he sang of suffering, his weathered-sounding voice could convince his listeners that he’d been through all that suffering, despite the reality that he was just a kid in his early twenties from a comfortable middle-class background.

 

Now before I get out of control singing the praises of Mr. Dylan, I should probably take the time now to post some recommendations to those who might want to get more acquainted with the man’s work.  Here are some Dylan songs (and a couple of albums) that I think are essential:

  • “Blowin’ in the Wind” (from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”) – a good song to begin with.  Not really one of his stronger songs, in my opinion, but it is his original “signature song”, it’s the song that first got young revolutionaries in America to notice him, it was probably the first song I ever heard by him, and its message is still somewhat relevant today, even though it was written in 1962.
  • “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”) – probably the first song to have that ambiguity that Dylan later became famous for.  This song, rife with ominous imagery and warnings about an impending “hard rain”, was thought to be about nuclear war, but Dylan has always denied this assumption.  It could be about any huge and catastrophic event that’s just beyond the horizon, but just what it could be is unknown.
  • “Talkin’ World War III Blues” (from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”) – very few artists could pull off a song that’s this hilarious and this tragic all at the same time.  Dylan did a lot of “Talking Blues” songs during the first few years of his career, but this is probably the best.
  • “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (from “The Times They Are A-Changin'”) – perpetually relevant, as long as the world continues to change.
  • “Chimes of Freedom” (from “Another Side of Bob Dylan”) – a powerful song from Dylan’s “protest” period that calls for the freedom of “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe”.
  • “Mr. Tambourine Man” (from “Bringing it All Back Home”) – one of my three all-time favorite songs (tied with two other Dylan songs: “Visions of Johanna” and “Shelter from the Storm”).  The Byrds did a very melodic cover of it which I quite like, but lyrically there’s so much more going on in Dylan’s version.  Many think the song is about drugs (I blame The Byrds for this.  They had to omit every verse except the one about the “magic swirling ship”, didn’t they?), but I think it actually is literally about easing one’s emotional pain through music, and not drugs.  Maybe I’m wrong; maybe I’m naive.  I don’t care.
  • “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (from “Bringing it All Back Home”) – one of Dylan’s contemporaries, folksinger Arlo Guthrie (whose father, Woody Guthrie, had a profound influence on Dylan) called this “the first rap song”.  I’ll let you be the judge.  Rap song or not, I doubt that R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” would have even existed without this song’s influence.
  • “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (from “Bringing it All Back Home”) – it’s a shame Dylan isn’t more well-known for his plethora of beautiful love songs.  This is one of the best.
  • “Like a Rolling Stone” (from “Highway 61 Revisited”) – one of Dylan’s other “signature songs”, this song is not just one of Bob Dylan’s best, but also one of the greatest rock songs from the 1960s, or possibly ever.  “Rolling Stone” magazine (I wonder where they got their name from?) even called this the #1 rock song ever.  It’s also allegedly the song that made Bruce Springsteen realize he wanted to be a musician.  I don’t know If I’d consider “Like a Rolling Stone” to be THE greatest rock song ever, but it’s a darn great song, and I think every music fan should hear it at least once in his or her life.
  • “Blonde on Blonde” (whole album) – one of Dylan’s finest albums.  It includes “Visions of Johanna”, which I consider to be, quite possibly, the greatest song ever.  This was my favorite Dylan album until I got “Blood on the Tracks”.  By the way, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” (better known as “Everybody Must Get Stoned”) is not about drugs.  “Stoned” means “ostracized” in this song.  Although I’ve read that everyone in the studio was stoned when the song was recorded, so one could argue that “Everybody must get stoned” is a double-entendre.
  • “I Want You” (from “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits”) – unbearable longing never sounded so good.
  • “Lay Lady Lay” (from “Nashville Skyline”) – A beautiful seduction song, and a good song to start with if you’re not crazy about Dylan’s voice.  He was apparently getting voice lessons or something when “Nashville Skyline” was being recorded, so his voice sounds a lot smoother on this album than on any other (he started singing again in his regular voice by the next album).
  • “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (from the soundtrack to “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”) – and you thought it was a Guns ‘n’ Roses song, didn’t you?
  • “Blood on the Tracks” (whole album) – truly Dylan’s masterpiece.  Many of the songs are wrought with sorrow, anger, and regret, since Dylan’s marriage was starting to unravel when he recorded this.  Yet, there’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, which, in spite of its title, is a relatively upbeat song.  And “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” tells a story that’s just begging for a movie adaptation.
  • “One More Cup of Coffee” (from “Desire”) – just a cool sounding song.  I recently discovered a pretty awesome cover of this song performed by The White Stripes, which just goes to show you how much Dylan has stood the test of time.
  • “Love Sick” (from “Time Out of Mind”) – Dylan’s a different kind of love sick here:  he’s sick of love.  This song was used in the Victoria’s Secret commercial that marked about the 50th time that Dylan could have conceivably “sold out”.  But who cares?  This song has a hypnotic organ part, that’s good enough for me.
  • “Thunder on the Mountain” (from “Modern Times”) – from Dylan’s latest studio album (at the time this was written.  I hear he’s coming out with a new one soon).  One needs no further evidence than this song to know Dylan’s still got it.  So this song makes a reference to Alica Keys.  Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free” from the early 1960s made reference to Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Sofia Loren, and Anita Eckberg.
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One Response to “A Few Words on Bob Dylan”

  1. Lacey Says:

    Interesting entry, escpecially since I am a fellow Bob Dylan lover. I’ve always felt that Dylan is the best lyricist of all time and one of the greatest overall songwriters as well. I don’t know how much you’d agree with me on this one, but my favorite thing about Dylan (and even the Beatles, for that matter) is that some of the songs that he has written are beyond his own playing abilities. He sometimes writes these amazing songs that he may not be the person to perfect, but that’s what gets them out there in the first place. If his genius didn’t come up with some of those song, we never would’ve had the amazing Jimi Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” that even Dylan said was done the right way. If you look at the insane amount of his work that has been covered and remade, it proves that same thing over and over again.


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