1. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965). It’s amazing how much poetry Dylan could wring from what was really nothing more than a bad case of insomnia. And unlike Christian Bale in The Machinist, the almost-as-thin twenty-four-year-old Dylan actually makes sleeplessness sound fun (well, maybe not the part about losing feeling in your hands and feet). The Byrds’ transformation of Dylan’s original launched a genre or three, which in turn launched their own), but Dylan’s original remains the one to play over and over if you’re only going to play one over and over. The instrumentation, melody, and vocal combine to do exactly what the lyrics say: They cast a dancing spell our way, they take us on a trip on a magic swirling ship, and they spin and swing madly across the sun. But mostly the music and the words combine to map out an ideal to-do list for life and life only (or at least for what to do on a date with someone whose hometown isn’t hell): “[T]o dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands / With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves / Let me forget about today until tomorrow”--because, as even Elvis Presley knew, tomorrow is a long time.
2. “Motorpsycho Nightmare” (1964). The proof that this song works as comedy is that you don’t even have to know Psycho, La Dolce Vita, or the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter to find yourself laughing. Knowing a thing or two about Fidel Castro, however, is a prerequisite, as well as knowing what a subscription to Reader’s Digest says about the capacity for sophisticated thought possessed by one’s assailants. Of course, knowing Psycho, La Dolce Vita, and farmer’s-daughter jokes makes the song a lot funnier. So if you haven’t already watched or heard them, do it now. Tomorrow all activity might cease.
3. “Man of Peace” (1983). A rolling if not quite thunderous blues about the seductiveness of evil that features Dylan’s best singing of the ’80s until he blew his voice out altogether and began singing even better on Oh Mercy. In his 1984 Rolling Stone interview with Kurt Loder, Dylan said, “[Y]ou can just about know that anybody who comes out for peace is not for peace,” and this song fleshes that idea out. Nowadays, Dylan seems to be implying, we incorrectly define peace as the absence of conflict, and, as long as we do, we’ll always be at the mercy of those who have no interest in the absence of conflict. What Dylan doesn’t imply (but which Frederick Buechner does in his book Wishful Thinking) is that peace, properly understood, is not the absence of conflict but the presence of love--of that, in other words, which will see us through everything from the burden of two thousand-pound troubles to the falling of trees that have stood for a millennium. My favorite line is “He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull” although I have no idea what it means. I’d also have no idea what Dylan meant if he were to sing “He can ride down Viagra® Falls in the barrels of your skull,” but it might get him another chunk of ad revenue to go with his Victoria’s Secret windfall.
4. “Moonshiner” (1963). This trad., quiet descent into the dark night of the hooch still hath charms to soothe even the most savage breast. In his liner notes to The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, the late John Bauldie correctly wrote that “Moonshiner” “certainly stands as one of the finest Bob Dylan performances of the early ’60s” and “if anyone should ever dare question Bob Dylan’s ability as a singer, play them this track.” Apparently, the song has stuck with Dylan over the years as he recycled the lines “Let me eat when I am hungry, / Let me drink when I am dry” on “Standing in the Doorway” thirty-four years later. And not until Slow Train Coming and Saved would he put as much raw emotion into a verse as he did when he sang, “God bless them pretty women, / I wish they was mine….”
5. “My Wife’s Hometown” (2009). To feel the caldron boiling at the heart of this nasty blues, it definitely helps to be, or to have been, married--namely, to a woman whose relatives are still alive and living in the same suffocatingly small town you refused to settle down with the Misses in because it was suffocating (and because her relatives still lived there). All of what I just wrote, however, only makes sense if you interpret the refrain, “Hell's my wife’s hometown,” as meaning “My wife’s hometown is hell to spend time in.” You can also interpret the refrain to mean “My wife is a demon,” i.e., from hell--an interpretation supported by the lines testifying to her power to make you rob, lose your job, go on the lam, kill someone, and lock yourself away in a house with no sign on the window saying “lonely.”
(Bob Dylan's Top-Five Songs Beginning with "L": http://tinyurl.com/2eb6jgm)