Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "A"

1. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” (1966). Smokin’ organ riffs and Dylan’s wildest harmonica wailing spur the music into a gallop. But the best verbal moment is the couplet “Well, anybody can be just like me, obviously, / but then, now again, not too many can be like you, fortunately,” which are also the only lines that Jason & the Scorchers changed (for the worse) in their otherwise definitive cow-punk rendition. (George Harrison’s at the Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration was just so much Concert for Bangladesh by comparison.) Many an honest outlaw prefers the line “But to live outside the law you must be honest” (come to think of it, Jason & the Scorchers changed that line too--by adding “darlin’”), but that's just the old honor-among-thieves theme expressed in different words, which is maybe how Dylan later ended up on a Sopranos soundtrack.

2. “All Along the Watchtower” (1968). The best verse is the second one, in which Dylan kicks the penny-ante, Godot-lite existential despair so prevalent in 1968 to the curb then revisits his honesty-among-outlaws theme by putting “So let us not talk falsely now” in the mouth of the Thief. But would anyone consider this initially acoustic, three-verse sketch of a song a classic if Jimi Hendrix hadn’t plugged it in and dropped it into the cultural bathwater, thus inspiring Dylan himself to electrify it on the ’74 tour and forever after that (except on MTV Unplugged), eventually making it the song he would perform in concert more than any other? Maybe not. But Hendrix did plug it in.

3. “All I Really Want to Do” (1964). Dylan’s funniest song up to and maybe including The Basement Tapes and the Traveling Wilburys. Obviously Dylan found it amusing too, as he couldn’t get through the cockamamie rhymes with a straight face. Usually, one only laughs at his own jokes when they first pop into his head and catch him by surprise, so I’m guessing Dylan hadn’t written it too long before the tapes got rolling. (I know that one of the world’s several thousand Dylan books has probably already detailed the circumstances of this song’s composition, but I quit reading Dylan books after my 136th.) And you have to love the yodeling, as effective a slap in the face of protest-folk’s grimness as the Going Electric would be one year later. But, speaking as someone who used to have in-laws and who therefore now refuses to have anything to do with women whose parents are still alive, I sing along to “I don’t want to meet your kin” with not only relish but ketchup and mustard too.

4. “All over You” (1963). Dylan’s second-funniest song up to and maybe including The Basement Tapes and the Traveling Wilburys. And speaking of the Wilburys, the third verse (“Well, you cut me like a jigsaw puzzle / You made me to a walkin’ wreck / Then you pushed my heart through my backbone / Then you knocked off my head from my neck”--a verse missing from the live Town Hall version) would’ve fit in very nicely with that bunch of woman-bedeviled funsters’ misogynistic jokes.

5. “All the Tired Horses” (1970). Yeah, it’s a few syllables too long for haiku. And Dylan doesn’t sing on it. And it’s from his “worst” album. But Self Portrait is not Dylan’s worst album. It's simply 180 degrees away from what his audience wanted from him after the mellow and mellower twofer of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. (As a fan, I’d like to say he hasn’t made his worst album yet, but that would be to deny the existence of Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove.) And Delores Edgin, Hilda Harris, Carol Montgomery, June Page, Albertine Robinson, and Maretha Stewart--who do sing on the song--not only floated their voices into a soothing glow evocative of sunsets on a lonesome prairie horizon but, by repeating the song’s only two lines for three minutes and twelve seconds, also softened up a generation of rock-and-roll fans for Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

(Bob Dylan's Top-Ten 21st-Century Love Couplets: http://arsenioorteza.blogspot.com/2010/07/bob-dylans-top-10-21st-century-love.html)


  1. Great analyses of the best of 'A'. I'd have to say that 'Angelina', 'Abandoned Love' and 'As I Went Out One morning' should have been contenders. Nice blog.

  2. As I went out One Morning is a great song. Good info on your website here.

  3. Please tell me you're planning on a 26-part series...

  4. Just curious, are you counting "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" as an "h" song?

  5. The case for Angelina:

    "Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases/Pass the tree of smoke, pass the angel with four faces/Begging God for mercy and weepin’ in unholy places/Angelina"

    Case closed.