Saturday, August 7, 2010

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

1. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973). Well, this was bound to happen eventually: Dylan hasn’t recorded five songs starting with K. Chances are, though, even if he had, that this amazingly resilient classic would’ve topped the K chart. In a sense, it barely exists. Not only do its two verses, two refrains, and essentially only seven lines make it seem over before it begins, but its ghostly sound descends with all the incorporeality of a long black cloud beyond which there may be nothing and is all the more moving for doing so. (Albeit not nearly as moving as the version Warren Zevon would cast to The Wind exactly thirty years later.)

2. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (from Bob Dylan Is the One, 1981). I’m not cheating by treating this version as a different song: Except for (most of) the lyrics, it is a different song. And the (few) different lyrics make a difference. By changing the last line of each refrain to “just like so many times before,” he linked being the property of Jesus to the rest of the chain he’d forged over the course of his then forty-year life. But it was by extending the music into an upbeat reggae jam in a major key with gospel background singers maing joyful noises that he really distanced this version from its namesakes.

3. “Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence” (1966). Yeah, I know this song’s title starts with S, but before it made its official debut on Disc Two of the first Bootleg box, it was a.k.a. “Barbed Wire Fence” or “Killing Me Alive.” And since I’m already through with the B’s and like five other S songs better, I thought I’d deal with this song here. As music it’s the funkiest wild mercury blues ever captured while it was rolling, Bob. As words it’s simply four (more) disconnected glimpses into the smoke rings of Dylan’s mind--disconnected, that is, unless what Dylan’s woman is killing him alive with in Verse Three ex[lains why he has to get a shot from an Arabian doctor in Verse Two. P.S.: The changes he made in the lyrics before he officially published them make for inferior reading, but, lucky us, those aren't the ones he recorded (or else this song's alternate title would be "Thrilling Me with Her Drive" and I'd have to wait until the T songs and bump "Things Have Changed" or "This Dream of You" to write about it).

4. “Kingsport Town” (1962). I don’t know how many songwriters were coming up with interracial Romeo-and-Juliet scenarios in 1962 and setting them in the almost completely white town of Kingsport, Tennessee, but I’m sure there were more people writing such songs than singing them. Decent young white men--or at least those who didn’t go looking for reasons to be chased out of town by the high sheriff--just didn’t do things like falling for a girl with dark eyes, curly coal-black hair, and sandy-colored skin. Surely, the subject matter is the main reason the song became an early-Dylan outtake; it couldn’t have been the performance or Dylan’s singing, both of which are among the sweetest and most tender in his long and impressive catalogue of gotta-travel-on songs addressed to women he forgot to remember to forget.

5. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (from Real Live Outtakes, 1984). I’m cheating a little by treating this version as a different song. Except for the musicians, the absence of gospel women, and the age of the singer’s voice (and maybe some lyrics--the last verse is hard to make out), it successfully recreates the sunny buoyancy of the version on Bob Dylan Is the One. But the age of the singer’s voice matters. In ’81, when Dylan still had at least one foot in pulpit-pounder territory, he sang like someone who fully believed that if he knocked, the door would be opened unto him. By ’84 he was singing as if he’d been so much older in '81 and was younger than that now. (By ’97, he was simply trying to get to the door before it closed.)

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

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