Friday, July 30, 2010

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

1. “Changing of the Guards” (1978). In retrospect, this is a Jesus song. Not as much a Jesus song as “Señor” (about which more when I get to the S songs), but there he is--the Good Shepherd himself--right in the first verse, grieving away over the desperate as he is wont to do. Then he goes away for a few verses, leaving it to various mysterious, Tarot-derived archetypes to carry the story. Or maybe the stories. As with so many Dylan songs, each verse seems like a retelling of the one before it from a completely different perspective, changing it in small but significant ways, creating a cumulative Rashomon-like effect not unlike that undoubtedly created by the reflections of reflections seen in the “palace of mirrors” referred to in Verse Six. Also in Verse Six: “The empty rooms where her memory is protected / Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times”--lines every bit the evocative equivalent of “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” Jesus or somebody like him comes back in Verse Nine, promising the arrival of “peace,” “tranquility,” and “splendor” on “wheels of fire” straight out of Ezekiel and at least one of which, one suspects, will be rolling down the road and exploding before long. Yet none of these images would matter a whit if Alan Pasqua’s lonesome grinding-organ cries and Steve Douglas’s golden saxophones weren’t shadowing and-or illuminating them with the intimacy of a precious angel under the sun.

2. “Clothes Line Saga” (1967). My, but this song is useful: It’s amazing how much trouble you can avoid simply by adopting “Sometime, not all the time” and “Some of ’em, not all of ’em” as your default responses to uncomfortable questions. Like that favorite of wives and girlfriends: “Do you love me?” “Sometime, not all the time.” Or the one personnel managers always ask job applicants: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” “Some of ’em, not all of ’em.” Honestly, I’d be sad and blue if not for this song. Essentially, it’s Theater of the Absurd starring Flannery O‘Connor‘s “good country people.” Only they’ve been stripped of all outrageousness and left with nothing but their mind-numbingly mundane smugness--and possibly transplanted to New England, where elliptical Robert Frost-speak such as “What do you care?” and “Well, just because” is the lingua franca. For years the Roches performed this song in clubs to occasional titters and polite applause, and in 2001 Suzzy and Maggie Roche enshrined it on the Dylan tribute album A Nod to Bob. Seven years later, Joe Biden fulfilled the prophecies of the second verse.

3. “Can You Please Crawl out Your Window?” (1965). It’s hard to feed a bunch of your previous lyrics into a centrifuge and make the resulting mélange sound sexy, but Dylan came close on this once-obscure single, and Transvision Vamp came closer still when they covered it (and called it “Please Crawl out Your Window”) thirty-one years later. But poets who know it and hope they don’t blow it sometimes hit the verbal bull’s-eye even when they’re not aiming. Proof that Dylan is no exception: “religion of the little tin women,” “if he needs a third eye he just grows it,” “I’m sure that he has no intentions / Of looking your way, unless it’s to say / That he needs you to test his inventions.” On an unrelated note, just how was the woman whom Dylan was addressing intending to crawl out her window if he had to tell her to use her arms and legs? Head first?

4. “Caribbean Wind” (1981). Dylan was right to leave this off Shot of Love. Its length (5:54), relentlessly epiphanic lyrics, and heavily breathing background singers would’ve taken the focus off “Every Grain of Sand,” which God obviously intended as that album’s pick to click. Also, “Caribbean Wind”’s buoyant melody and bright instrumentation would’ve clashed with the rest of the album’s ragged spontaneity. By the time Dylan recorded this song in 1981, he’d been working on it for two years--he introduced it as a “new” song during his first gospel tour--and by his own admission he kept trying to get both its words and its sound right in the studio. He apparently gave up on the sound, but he kept working on the words: The eventually published lyrics differ from the ones he sang on the version that surfaced on Biograph, and not all of the differences are improvements. In the Biograph version, the men bathing in perfume “practiced the hoax of free speech”; in the published version they “celebrated free speech.” And the former beats the latter (unless, as some people think, Dylan’s singing “hopes” instead of “hoax,” in which case there’s not much difference between what he recorded and what he published). Two lines that haven’t changed: “She said, ‘I know what you’re thinking, but there ain’t a thing / You can do about it, so let us just agree to agree.’” I had a woman say that to me once. Everything about her was bringing me misery.

5. “Cat’s in the Well” (1990). As those who keep up with his set lists know, Dylan occasionally opens shows with this sprightly fractured nursery rhyme. And as those familiar with the unfractured original--“Ding Dong Bell”--know, the line Dylan altered is “Pussy’s in the well.” In a way, it’s too bad he changed it; hearing feminists shout “Judas!” at his concerts would bring back fond memories. But change it he did, and from that point he was off and running, twisting toddler talk into apocalyptic visions of everything from world-wide slaughter and barns full of bull to anxiety-related hair loss and someone named “Back-Alley Sally” who’s “doing the American Jump.” I’m not sure what the American Jump is, but if Back-Alley Sally is related to the title character of Rudy Sooter’s old ditty “Up the Alley with Sally,” I have a pretty good guess. (Hint: It’s not exclusively American, and it doesn’t involve jumping. Usually.) Dylan ends it like a bedtime prayer (“Goodnight, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all”), but all I can say to anyone who can sleep after absorbing this song’s litany of horrors is “Good luck."

(Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "B":


  1. I love what you're doing here, but there will always be disagreement with a catalog as rich as Dylan's. To me, "Chimes of Freedom," "Cold Irons Bound," "Cry A While" and "Country Pie" are better than all the songs above except "Changing of the Guards."

  2. Agree that Chimes Of Freedom, at least, should be in Top 5. IMO instead of Cat's In The Well.

  3. Thanks for the input. There's a certain stratum of early Dylan "classics" that, for whatever reason, I've never been able to relate to. I might like them in theory, but I seldom feel like hearing them in practice.

  4. Great work here. Given your Dylan knowledge am sure you know "Clothes Line Saga" was named "Answer to Ode" by Garth on the original Basement reels and it is an answer song to "Ode to Billie Joe" which was burning up the charts the summer of '67 when Dylan and the boys recorded that one. Agree with you on "Changing of the Guards" ... as great a song as Dylan has ever written.

  5. "Chimes of Freedom" - for all the strung-out ones and worse -

  6. These are really fun. I'm amazed at how this format reveals the incredible depth of high-quality songs in Bob's catalog. Your comments are interesting and thought-provoking, and the suggestions from readers often are, as well. I'll be reading every one of these with interest.