Thursday, August 12, 2010

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

1. “Precious Angel” (1979). As we all know by now, Dylan wanted to record Slow Train Coming the way he would later record Saved--by going into the studio, singing and playing everything live in a take or two, then hitting the road. But Jerry Wexler--God rest his card-carrying, Jewish-atheist soul--would have none of it. He insisted on approaching the album as he had his many previous classics, convinced he could get a classic out of Dylan. So the rhythm tracks got cut first, the other instruments came next, and then and only then did Dylan sing. Wexler also brought in Mark Knopfler, who, despite the success of “Sultans of Swing” the previous year, was hardly an obvious choice. Wexler also apparently slowed “Precious Angel” down: The live version from the May 1980 Massey Hall (Toronto) show sprints by so fast you’d think Dylan thought the race went to the swift rather than the worthy who can divide the word of truth. In short, the song is as powerful a testament to the Wexler genius as anything else in his justly celebrated canon. Without Wexler, Barry Beckett’s glowing organ virtuosity would’ve barely glimmered. Without Wexler, there’d have been no deftly deployed Muscle Shoals horns. Without Wexler, Dylan would’ve been too impatient (and distracted by simultaneously strumming his acoustic) to have delivered what just might be to this day the clearest singing and enunciation of his career. And without Wexler, Knopfler wouldn’t have come through with guitar playing so beautiful it can break your heart.

2. “Positively 4th Street” (1965). This song captures the righteous indignation of anyone who has ever been resented to the bone by those with a heart of stone so accurately that it’s almost worth being laughed at behind your back when you come walkin’ through just to be able to shout “I wish that for just one time / You could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is / To see you” at your tormentors. And to break the icicles off the chilliest organ riffs ever and do one to others before they do one to you.

3. “Please Mrs. Henry” (1968). O.K., so am I the only Bob Dylan and Cheap Trick fan in the world who didn’t know until the recent release of Setlist: The Very Best of Cheap Trick Live that Cheap Trick had recorded a maniacal ten-minute live version of this song under the title “Mrs. Henry”? (That’s what I get for not acquiring the Sex, America, Cheap Trick box fourteen years ago.) In case you haven’t heard it yet: Nielsen and Co. pound it out of shape then pound it back into shape again: It could make Manfred Mann roll over and tell Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, and Flint the news. It is, in other words, ridiculous. But so is the song itself, with “Now, I’m startin’ to drain / My stool’s gonna squeak / If I walk too much farther / My crane’s gonna leak” as fully deserving of a Best Restroom-Stall-Verse Grammy as anything by George Clinton.

4. “Political World” (1989). The word “politics” was big on Dylan’s mind in the ’80s if only because interviewers kept asking him about it. Responding to Martin Keller in 1983, Dylan said that politics is “like a snake with a tail in its mouth. A merry-go-round of sin.” The next year, responding to Kurt Loder, he said that “politics is an instrument of the Devil.” So perhaps this song was Dylan’s way of saying, “You wanna know what I think of politics? Here it is. Now shut up!” It’s not a pretty picture: faceless crime, nameless gods, homeless kids, loveless technology, ruthless cowardice--everything is broken. And, in case future Dylan interrogators should miss the point, Daniel Lanois keeps piling coal into the engine until what had started out as a slow train quickly picks up steam and ends up smokin’ down the tracks like a runaway streetcar named desire.

5. “Po’ Boy” (2001). Heard in sequence on Love and Theft, “Po’ Boy” is a change-of-pace old-timey shuffle, a sepia-tinted respite of wry comic relief between the smoldering twin towers of “Honest with Me” and “Cry a While.” If memory serves, this is one of those songs with lyrics lovingly stolen from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of Yakuza. (A la “Union Sundown”: “Well, this melody’s from Tin Pan Alley / And these words are from Japan.”) The lyrics also echo Dylan’s late-’90s obsession with telling corny jokes between songs in concert. (Note to Sony’s Bootleg Series overseers now that there’s no Col. Parker--er, Albert Grossman--to put it out: Having Fun with Bob on Stage.) Weirdest or coolest (or both) of all, though, are these lines: “My mother was a daughter of a wealthy farmer / My father was a traveling salesman, I never met him.” Does this mean the singer is the love child of those two crazy kids in “Motorpsycho Nightmare”?

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

This series will now take a hiatus. I must tend to the life that meanwhile has been going on outside all around me. Thank you to everyone who has been along for the ride so far.

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

1. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” (1966). The lyrics don’t do much more than recycle those of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine),” but set to the second most exciting musical rush of Dylan’s electric phase (“Like a Rolling Stone” was the first), they take on a significance sufficient to the musical rush thereof. The straightforward patronizing of lines such as “I didn’t realize how young you were” and “then you told me later … that … you weren’t really from the farm” may come across as mere self-justification, but the not-at-all straightforward refrain rights the balance and maybe even tilts it in the faux farm girl’s favor. The flipside, in other words, of “Sooner or later, one of us must know / That I really did try to get close to you” is that, sooner or later, one of them won’t know it too. And since there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the one who won’t know it is the singer himself, it’s possible that he deserved to have his eyes clawed out.

2. “One Two Many Mornings” (1964). Of a piece with “Girl from the North Country” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” this poignant contribution to the bulging folksong cache of regretfully abandoned love says its piece with a succinctness that not only proves less is more but that also helped it to withstand the far-from poignant treatment it received on Hard Rain. And, as usual, there’s a twist: It’s not the torched-up nights the singer misses, but the waking up to gaze through bleary but sleep-blessed eyes at a woman asleep on the side of the bed from which she was just as right as he was.

3. “Odds and Ends” (1968). “Lost time is not found again” is hard to argue with, but it’s the way the hi-jinx of the ramshackle music matches the lo-jinx of the playful dirty talk that makes it hard not to wonder what the Traveling Wilburys would’ve done with both. As for the juice mentioned in each verse, something tells me it was the freshly squeezed kind.

4. “Oh, Sister” (1975). You can almost transplant this song from the Rolling Thunder years (during which it originated) into the Slow Train and Saved years, where it would make a nice triptych with “Precious Angel” and “Covenant Woman.” In all three, God is a father bequeathing rebirth and salvation to those love and follow him and danger or worse to those who don’t. The difference in “Oh, Sister” is that the singer uses that danger or worse as a threat: His angel had better stay precious and not break the covenant or she’ll “create sorrow”--but is it sorrow for the singer, for God, or for the woman herself as she faces the fury of the man she scorned? In the sad, weeping-fiddle versions on Desire, Hard Rain, and Bootleg Series Vol. 5, it would seem to be the singer; in At Budokan, however, where Rob Stoner’s musical re-arrangement simmers with resentment, its clearly the sister whom we’d hate to be on that fateful day.

5. “Obviously Five Believers” (1968). “From a Buick Six” gets retooled for what’s basically a throwaway no better and no worse than “Sitting on a Barbed-Wire Fence,” “She’s Your Lover Now,” or any of Dylan’s other worthy mid-’60s rockers left off the albums for which they were recorded. In the two funniest verses, not even fifteen jugglers and five believers “all dressed like men”--so I’m guessing they were women--or the absent lover’s mother can cure the singer of the empty-bed blues. His lover may not be one in a million, but one out of twenty-two ain’t bad.

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

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

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

1. “Not Dark Yet” (1997). Don’t hate this song just because Mel Gibson hand-selected it for inclusion on Songs Inspired by the Passion of the Christ (Universal South/UMG Soundtracks). Gibson still had his marbles then, and in a way “Not Dark Yet” prefigures his recent meltdowns. I mean, walk a mile in his shoes: You reach a spiritual peak by making The Passion of the Christ and watching it become a worldwide smash, and then the high wears off and you crash, as it were. Meanwhile, you’re still getting invited to Hollywood parties, being hit on by hotties with dollar signs in their eyes that you mistake for true lust because you’ve had a few drinks too many, and, let’s face it, a marriage as old as yours has seen better days. So you throw it all away only to realize (after you’ve knocked her up) that, despite her dark eyes, your Russian concubine wasn’t as emotionally yours (or you hers) as you’d thought. That’s when you’re soul turns into steel, when you don’t see why you should care, when your burden seems unbearable, and when you don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer. It’s almost enough to make you pity the poor immigrant.

2. “New Pony” (1978). The 2009 version of this raw, serrated blues by the Dead Weather put it back on the cultural map if only for awhile. It deserves to be there more often. It’s similar to but even nastier than “My Wife’s Hometown”--similar because the hometown of the woman being scornfully addressed in “New Pony” is also hell, and because the new pony uses voodoo (and because the old pony’s name was Lucifer); nastier because at least the wife in “Hometown” is a woman while in “New Pony” Dylan has shape-shifted his female nemesis into a member of the species equus ferus caballus, one so nasty and so bad that even her long, black shaggy hair and great-big hind legs cry out, “Mount me.” So Dylan does (or at least wants to). But not out of love--to teach her a lesson, maybe. Pet peeve: Shouldn’t the line “I’ve seen your feet walk by themselves” go “I’ve seen your shoes walk by themselves”? Surely the woman-pony’s feet bones remain connected to the ankle bones.

3. “Nettie Moore” (2006). This song’s slow and steady pace wins the race, and apparently the prize is Nettie Moore herself, whom the narrator misses and for whom he’d gladly pass through blazing flames. The tender sorrow in Dylan's voice, however, implies that the time to win her has passed, perhaps irretrievably. So he’s settling for attractive bad-luck women who cook up more than he can eat (at least in a single bite) and convincing himself that he actually loves one of them. Maybe he does. But she can’t make him forget the mundane (research gone berserk, dances that split pants, whiskey) the way Nettie Moore could. Yet somewhere along the greasy trail he's wandered ever since his happiness was o'er, he finds it in himself to enjoin Nettie, wherever she may be, to think twice because it’s not all right--calling him dirty names, that is. Apparently the tender sorrow in Dylan's voice may result from his suppressing a few choice epithets as well.

4. “Neighborhood Bully” (1983). Perhaps the best commentary on this song (and the best reason to be grateful that Dylan attended Bible studies at the Vineyard Fellowship) came from Dylan himself in an interview he gave to Martin Keller shortly before Infidels hit the stores. Keller: “What about all we’ve been reading about your search for your so-called Jewish roots?” Dylan: “My so-called Jewish roots are in Egypt. They went down there with Joseph, and they came back out with Moses, you know, the guy that killed the Egyptian, married an Ethiopian girl and brought the law down from the mountain. The same Moses whose staff turned into a serpent. The same person who killed three thousand Hebrews for getting down, stripping off their clothes and dancing around a golden calf. These are my roots. Jacob had four wives and thirteen children, who fathered an entire people. Those are my roots too. Gideon, with a small army, defeating an army of thousands. Deborah the prophetess. Esther the queen and many Canaanite women. Reuben slipping into his father’s bed when his father wasn’t there. These are my roots. Delilah tempting Sampson, killing him softly with her song. The mighty King David was an outlaw before he was a king, you know. He had to hide in caves and get his meals at back doors. The wonderful King Saul had a warrant out on him--a ‘no knock’ search warrant. They wanted to cut his head off. John the Baptist could tell you more about it. Roots man--we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check upon Elijah the prophet. He could make rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn’t want to bust their brains for telling it like it is, yeah--those are my roots I suppose.”

5. “Nothing Was Delivered” (1968). “I wish I’d have been a doctor,” sang Dylan in 1983 on “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight.” “Maybe I’d have saved some life that had been lost.” And on the basis of the evidence contained in “Nothing was Delivered,” his fantasies of finishing med school must have gone back a quarter of a century at least: The injunction to “take care of yourself and get plenty of rest” sounds like nothing so much as the beginnings of a bedside manner. But unless you interpret “delivered” in the OBGYN sense, there’s nothing else that would make sense being uttered or sung by a doctor or even an orderly (a disorderly, maybe) in any hospital ward where getting well was the object. “I tell this truth to you,” moans Dylan, sounding none too healthy himself, on The Basement Tapes, “not out of spite or anger / But simply because it’s true.” Or maybe simply because it rhymes.

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

Monday, August 9, 2010

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

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":

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

1. “Like a Rolling Stone” (1966). Although I’ve always assumed that the “everybody” who must get stoned included me, there's no way I'm risking death by stoning for something really stupid--like not placing this song at the top of this list. Neither am I going to join the rogues gallery of critics who would block it up, lock it up, analyze, and categorize it. All I really want to do is say that if you have to ask why it’s the greatest rock-and-roll song ever, I can't tell you. I will, however, number myself among those who insist that having nothing to lose because you ain’t got nothing is hardly one of life’s Seven Curses. And being invisible ain’t so bad either.

2. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (1975). It takes some work, but if you rip Masked and Anonymous into a format compatible with Windows Moviemaker or its Mac equivalent, you can chop up and arrange the scenes to make a video surprisingly compatible with this song. Penélope Cruz can be Lily, Jessica Lange can be Rosemary, John Goodman can be Big Jim, Luke Wilson can be the hangin’ judge, Jeff Bridges can be the backstage manager, and, of course, Bob Dylan can be the Jack of Hearts. (Why not? His character’s name in Masked and Anonymous is “Jack Fate.”) And after you’ve spent the better part of a day or two editing the video together and then upload it to YouTube only to have the YouTube police take it down and mark your account for cancellation, you’ll know better than ever that failure’s no success at all.

3. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (1965). You can cynically deconstruct the lyrics of this song then reconstruct them as little more than the smart man’s “Just the Way You Are”--i.e., ostensible praise that upon examination turns out to be a veiled threat: “What I like about you is that you don’t talk very much, so if you want me to keep liking you, you’d better not be so fast that you cannot see that I must have solitude. Oh, and I also like that you can’t be bought with Valentines--saves me money on cards, roses, and boxes of candy. Best of all, you don’t argue with me or judge me. Speaking of which, I have to work late again tonight at the office….” The extent to which Dylan sells his slick talk derives from his sounding too naïve to know he’s being insincere and by camouflaging his insincerity in unforgettably vivid images that actually have nothing to do with what he’s saying: people drawing conclusions on walls, dangling cloaks and daggers, resentful chess pieces, spoiled rich girls for whom nothing less than gold, frankincense, and myrrh will do--all set to a melody so lovely that you really can’t blame a raven with a broken wing for choosing the window through which the music is floating as a good place to recuperate.

4. “Lay Lady Lay” (1969). What over-obsessive editor at added commas to this song’s title ( I mean, for someone who can’t even spell Charley Patton’s first name, that takes a lot of nerve ( And if we really must fix Dylan’s punctuation errors, why not fix his grammatical ones too and change this song’s lyrics to “Lie, lady, lie”? I’d heard “Lay Lady Lay” on the radio for years without ever knowing whose it was when in 1980 or thereabouts a friend of mine told me it was Dylan’s. (I’d been “into” Dylan for several years by then, but I’d yet to listen to Nashville Skyline or Greatest Hits Volume 2.) I didn’t believe my friend at first, but I hoped he was right because then I’d have yet another song to add to my songs-I-really-like-by-Dylan list. Pete Drake’s steel guitar drenches the descending chord changes of this invitation to foreplay-with-benefits the way Matthew Fisher’s organ drenches Procol Harum’s invitation to get stoned at a party where Bach’s on the jukebox, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” But it’s the pillow-talk tenor of Dylan’s sublimated vocal urgency that really makes this song glow like a candle on the bedside of an irresistibly sad-eyed lady. (The fed-into-a-sausage-maker version captured on Hard Rain tastes pretty good too. A friend of mine says it was Dylan’s way of responding to having audiences shout, "Play 'Lay Lady Lay'!" one too many times.)

5. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” (1966). Pillbox hats, leopard-skin or otherwise, aren’t in fashion nowadays, so it can be hard to imagine why the subject of this electrified barbed-wire blues inspires prickly heat in the singer, her doctor, and those who like canoodling in garages. But a Google-image search of “pillbox hat” brings up pictures of Jackie Kennedy in a pink one, and everyone knows she was only the hottest First Lady of all time. When Dylan wrote this song, the widowed former Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was still two years away from marrying Aristotle Onassis and was therefore available for the fantasizing. Who knows? Maybe it was Onassis envy that inspired Dylan to make the man who hanged himself in “Black Diamond Bay” a Greek.

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

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":

Friday, August 6, 2010

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

1. “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (1966). My French has seen better days, but I’m pretty sure “Rue Morgue Avenue” means “Morque Street Avenue” in English. And that minor verbal infelicity may be all that’s wrong with the first of Dylan’s two 1966 “Just like” songs. Besides, it’s a funny line anyway, leading as it does into a warning about women apparently made hungry by the “airs” a man might put on. The Juarez women not on the street aren’t much better: Sweet Melinda isn’t known as the “goddess of gloom” for nothing. She’ll even “steal your voice” if you “go to her [room] to soon,” even if you only went because she invited you and you thought, “Why not? She speaks good English” (and you were only early because. as a foreigner, you wanted to make a good impression.) And, of course, the last line, coming as it does after what’s essentially a series of thought dreams that Dylan would’ve rather left unseen (by himself), packs a punch. Not-bad cover version: Bill Kirchen’s on his 2001 album Tied to the Wheel. Not-bad Juarez fun fact: It’s located in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

2. “Jokerman” (1983). The Presbyterian pastor Don Williams argued at some length in his 1985 book Bob Dylan: The Man, the Music, the Message that the subject of “Jokerman” is Christ, and he doesn’t do a bad job, but I’m not convinced. (There doesn’t seem anything particularly Messianic about having your face licked by a small dog.) And clearly the director of the video, who illustrated the verses with a wide variety of paintings and sculpture, didn’t adhere to a monadic interpretation either. Quite possibly Dylan didn’t even have a specific entity in mind: All he told Kurt Loder about the song in his 1984 Rolling Stone interview was that it “was sort of inspired by these [Caribbean] spirits they call jumbis.” (That’s “moko jumbies” to you Wikipedia users.) Of this much I and I am certain: The difficulties he encountered on his (also 1984) punk performance of this song on the Letterman show still makes for seriously fun times (and perhaps the wildest live harmonica solo of Dylan’s career).

3. “Just like a Woman” (1966). I knew a fetching little waif in college who hated this song because she thought the refrain was overbearingly sexist, patronizing--you know the categories. And she might have been right. But you can also hear the refrain as nothing more than an attempt on the part of the singer to differentiate between what’s “womanly” and “girlish” in his “Baby.” (At least Dylan didn’t sing, “She makes love just like a lady”!) Anyway the point of the song isn't "woman" or "girl" but the last line of the bridge leading into the last verse. Dylan dug the chick, but he didn’t “fit” into her world (I’m thinking that her friends--especially the hot ones--were tolerable but that the in-laws were positively 4th Street), and now he wants to save face when they inevitably run into each other at Andy Warhol’s Factory. The last thing a rising young Voice of a Generation needs is people knowing he’d been dumped by someone whom it really would’ve been to his advantage to have been adored by.

4. “Jack-A-Roe” (1993). You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Ye Olde Ballads to love the story: Girl meets boy, girl’s rich father disapproves of less-than-rich boy, boy goes off on a cannon-ball-firing (and receiving) warship, girl dresses like a male soldier and joins boy in battle, girl eventually saves boy's life. Neither do you have to have made straight A’s in love to appreciate the fact that the whole story turns out to be a marriage proposal.

5. “John Brown” (1963). Until a better Dylan version of this song than the one on MTV Unplugged surfaces, the Staple Singers will own this most viscerally anti-war of Dylan’s anti-war songs. Actually, as anti-war songs go, it’s not all that visceral. Anyone who, like John Brown (I'm thinking it's an alias) signs up for combat duty has to know there’s a better-than-remote possibility that he’ll end up with his face shot up and his hand blown off. Brown also seems to have been surprised that his enemy’s face looked just like his. Whom did he think he was going to war against--wombats? Of course human faces resemble each other! Frankly, neither Brown nor his mother, who is also surprised that war is hell, seem especially bright. So maybe Brown's being taken out of the action (not only of the war but also of ever making it as a Soul Train dancer) is just natural selection at work. “Gee,” you might be saying, “you really don’t like this song.” Fair enough. But I really don’t like “Joey,” “John Wesley Harding” (more examples of Dylan’s ridiculously romanticized “honest” livers outside the law), “Jolene,” and “Jet Pilot” at least as much. (“Jim Jones” ain’t bad.)

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

Thursday, August 5, 2010

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

1. “Idiot Wind” (1974). My doubts regarding the “superiority” of the unreleased version of Blood on the Tracks began song when I finally heard this song’s unofficial version on The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3. Not only does it lack the steely sheen of the official version, which is one of the most amazing songs in rock-and-roll (if that’s even what it is), but it also lacks the ragin’ glory of the full-throated live version on Hard Rain. The gallows humor of the first verse sets the tone for the visions of Gehenna to follow, visions encompassing everything from boxcar Christs that smoke in the dark and fortune tellers to the Grand Coulee Dam and the Capitol, visions illuminated by recontextualized Dylan song titles (“down the highway”), those of his buddies (“chestnut mare”), and Everyman assertions you try to justify your latest existential paralysis with (“I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like”). Since it’s a “sweet lady” (a.k.a. a “babe”) on whom Dylan casts his aspersions, the song is obviously of a piece with his other kiss-off classics. But the mournful melody, Paul Griffin’s incessant organ, and the way Dylan makes idiot a three-syllable word suggest heretofore un-assailed heights (or depths) of bitterness. So what is the idiot wind exactly? Easy: any wind the answer isn’t blowin’ in.

2. “Isis” (1975). ”She said, ’You gonna stay?’” / “If you want me to, yes.” (Or “If you want me to, yes!” as belted by Dylan before that Rolling Thunder audience with Leonard Cohen in it). Those eleven words comprise the insanity that the other shaggy-dog details--the tips of the Isis-berg, you might say--go out of their way not to drive the narrator to but end up driving him to anyway. And like “Black Diamond Bay,” “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” and “Brownsville Girl” (all but one of which, interestingly enough, Dylan wrote with a collaborator) this song would make, if not a coherent film, a better incoherent film than Renaldo and Clara, Hearts of Fire, Masked and Anonymous, or I’m Not There. (Note to Hollywood: No more Dylan non-documentaries with three words in their titles, O.K.?) (Note to date watchers and coincidence counters talkin’ in the name of numerology: The fifth day of May is Blind Willie McTell’s birthday.)

3. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965). Has any other Dylan line resonated beyond the time and place of its composition more than “Even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked”? The cathartic roar it elicits on Before the Flood still stands as one of the most thrilling moments in live-album history, even if you think the devil we knew in 1974 (Nixon) was better than the devils we didn’t yet (Ford, Carter). Otherwise it’s nothing less and plenty more than a treasure trove of skillfully sharpened, fire-hardened aphorisms, suitable for wielding against whatever chimeras of the zeitgeist are shaking your windows and rattling your walls: “[H]e not busy being born is busy dying”; “It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred”; “[I]t is not he or she or them or it / That you belong to”; “[M]oney doesn’t talk, it swears”; “Obscenity, who really cares / Propaganda, all is phony”; “[I]f my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” If one of those doesn’t help in your current journey through dark heat, bleeding is probably the least of your worries.

4. “I Want You” (1966). If with “Mr. Tambourine Man” the Byrds beat Dylan at his own game, “I Want You” finds him returning the favor by beating them at theirs. The lyrics of the verses and the jingle-jangle mourning of the instruments conjure a nighttime that may or may not be the right time (for him definitely, for her maybe not), but it’s the kaleidoscopic vortex of a melody and Dylan’s dispensing of all wordplay in the refrain that suggests lust is just a four-letter word too.

5. “I Threw It All Away” (1969). Maybe you don’t have to have thrown it all away to appreciate the economy with which Dylan cuts to the sorrowful quick on this Nashville Skyline highlight, but it helps. (I was going to write, “but it doesn’t hurt” instead until I remembered that hurt is all throwing it all away does.) Unless the relatively newly wed Dylan was thinking of Echo Helstrom, Suze Rotolo, Joan Baez, or Edie Sedgwick (or if you believe her--I don’t--Mavis Staples), he hadn’t yet thrown it “all” away by the time he wrote and recorded this song. But he would. And maybe deep down he knew it. And maybe it was his singing from deep within that well of self-knowledge and ineffable sadness (oh yeah, and quitting smoking) that transformed his voice into the ghost of Roy Orbison’s nineteen years before Orbison was a ghost.

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

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bob Dylan’s Top-Five Songs Beginning with "H"

1. “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965). Even if Dylan had never recorded Slow Train Coming, Saved, or Shot of Love, he’d still be the king of Bible blues on the basis of the first verse of this rip-roaring song alone. When it came out, general biblical knowledge was still fairly common, so as many people probably followed the conversation between Abraham and God about sacrificing Isaac as followed the references to broken phones, the Welfare Department, and World War III. Nowadays, you have to wonder. Kids cottoning to Dylan for the first time might think that God is talking to Abraham Lincoln--you know, the guy who said, “Half of the people can be part right all of the time / Some of the people can be all right part of the time / But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time.”

2. “Highlands” (1997). This song is as close to taking a long, leisurely walk with Dylan as most of us are likely to get--a long, leisurely walk, that is, with a stopover at a diner for some scrambled eggs, which is where things would really get interesting. There you’d be, skimming the menu, casually explaining to Dylan how to tell a real blonde from a fake, when a waitress with long, white legs would walk up and significantly affect the room temperature. After she and Dylan had finished flirting each other up, you’d say to Bob, “You like Erica Jong too? Wow! I thought I was the only one. What’s your favorite book of hers? Fear of Flying? Sappho’s Leap? Fear of Fifty? I mean, I know it’s a hard call to make but--” Then you’d notice that Dylan was just staring at you. Awkward silence would follow. Finally, he’d say, “I was only joking.” You’d try to rebound by saying that maybe he should record “I Was Only Joking” as a thank-you to Rod Stewart for all of the Dylan songs he had recorded over the years, but it would be too late.

3. “Huck’s Tune” (2007). A gentle, sad waltz with Donnie Herron’s steel guitar shedding tears that the world-weary singer has grown even world-wearier trying to hide. You think he’s blue? You would be too if you had to leave a woman whose lips drip honey and who’s fine as wine. Of the forty-two lines, all but the one ending in “sunshine tan” (is there a “moonshine tan”?) evince the precise expression that, if you’re lucky, you can rise to when you want to have to say something only once--and would rather not say it at all.

4. “Heart of Mine” (1981). The following review ran in either Melody Maker or the New Musical Express in September 1981: “BOB DYLAN: ‘Heart Of Mine’ (CBS). What is this trash! The stuff you can get away with when you’re a Name. This sounds like an out-take from ‘Self Portrait’. As expected Bob delivers the tune in his famous ‘I can’t sing but who cares’ nasal drone while the band rambles along in a sort of folky-thingy type vein. ‘Ragged’ would be complimentary--backwards is nearer the mark. Still, it’s all so real, so pure, so agonisingly dull. PS: I didn’t mean it God--don’t strike me down when they’re still repeating ‘Alias Smith And Jones’. The Zim has written some GREAT songs--this ain’t one of ’em.” Pretty funny, you have to admit, and somehow both one hundred percent right and one hundred percent wrong at the same time.

5. “High Water (For Charley Patton)” (2001). In his book Deep Blues, Robert Palmer has this to say about Charley Patton’s original “High Water Everywhere”: “[I]n the recorded version of 'High Water Everywhere,' … Patton found public events meaningful only insofar as they impinged on his private world--his perceptions, his feelings.” (Like post-protest Dylan, one might add.) “This,” Palmer continues, “is one of the fundamental distinctions between blues and the black music that came before it. Those earlier songs … deal in archetypes. The singer-narrator remains relatively cool and uninvolved. In blues, there is no narration as such, and while one finds signs and symbols and proverbial homilies aplenty, there is nothing as abstract as an archetype.” (Signs and symbols in Dylan’s High Water”: coffins afloat in the flood, a lover’s panties thrown onto the dashboard, Charles Darwin stranded on a highway. Homilies: “I’m preachin’ the Word of God,” “Keeping away from the women / givin’ ’em lots of room,” “It’s bad out there”) “The singer is so involved that in many cases his involvement becomes both the subject and the substance of the work. Such unflinching subjectivity may seem callous and self-involved [Callous and self-involved? Dylan?], but in the context of its time and place it was positively heroic. Only a man who understands his worth and believes in his freedom sings as if nothing else matters.” (Nobody sings Dylan as if nothing else matters like Dylan.)

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

Monday, August 2, 2010

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

1. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (1981). Of Dylan’s three gospel records, Shot of Love was the least focused--not only sonically (“loose” and “ragged” can be exciting, but “coming apart at the seams” is something else altogether) but also thematically. Was following “Property of Jesus” with a paean to Lenny Bruce some kind of joke? And if so, on whom? Then Columbia released “Heart of Mine” as a single, and what should be pressed on the other side but this loose, ragged, and very exciting conflation of gospel (Jesus is the Church’s “bridegroom” in the New Testament) and Dylan’s careening mid-’60s epiphany-blues? How was this left off the album? Dylan would later say that he didn’t think he had gotten the recording right, but with the exception of “Every Grain of Sand,” no song on Shot of Love sounds as if Dylan had gotten the recording right. True, the non-album B-side of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the still-unanthologized “Trouble in Mind,” was a buried nugget of considerable worth too, but not nearly as much worth as “Groom.” Apparently Dylan eventually warmed up to it himself as it was later not only added to Shot of Love but also included on his Greatest Hits Vol. 3 and the 2007 compilation Dylan. If learning that Chuck Plotkin sped up the master tape to give the song a little more punch runs afoul of your purist’s instincts, put your instincts in your pocket and your purism on the ground.

2. “Girl from the North Country” (1963). It’s nice to hear the (young) man who wrote or would write “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine),” et. al. get his comeuppance: He’s actually missing someone whom he has no hope of running into again any time soon--possibly one of the very girls he blew off so his boot heels could go wanderin’. Serves him right, you want to say. Only somewhere in the wistful tenderness of both his singing and his gently plucked acoustic guitar, you detect a confidence of tone quite likely deriving from his sensing that he knows there’ll be plenty of others enough (if not just) like her. That’s what’s missing from “Scarborough Fair,” ye olde folk tune Dylan based this song on. And it was even more missing after Simon & Garfunkel got through with it.

3. “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979). I don’t know what’s harder to believe, that this nerve-touching, bluesy gospel anthem was almost left off Slow Train Coming or that it managed to make the Billboard top forty, peaking at the twenty-four spot during the same week that Robert John’s “Sad Eyes” hit Number One. I do know that it didn’t deserve the bitch slapping it got from John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”). First, the terms Dylan uses to describe every stratum of society are funny; second, you don’t even have to believe in God to accept the idea that every choice we make “serves” someone else’s better interests. (Lennon’s labors have certainly left Yoko Ono and his children better off.) Or you can simply switch “evil” for “devil” and “good” for “the Lord.” (Certainly, our more important decisions nudge the world a little in one direction or the other.) Third, although it has become common to regard Mark Knopfler or Jerry Wexler as Slow Train Coming’s musical savior, it’s Barry Beckett’s eerily low-key electric piano that distinguishes this song from anything else on Dylan’s four consecutive albums starting with S.

4. “Get Your Rocks Off” (1967). A lot of the Big Pink tunes left off The Basement Tapes deserved to be. This ridiculously dirty ditty, however, did not. Perhaps the decision makers at Columbia thought it was too slow, but, really, if it were any faster, the punch line at the end of the refrain couldn't sneak up on you and Richard Manuel’s basso profundo “Get ’em off”s would get lost in the rush (as would Garth Hudson’s Labyrinthine Olympics organ runs). And the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version on Messin’ gets its rocks back on. (For some reason, the lyrics aren’t posted at You can find them here:

5. “Got My Mind Made Up” (1986). Slight words, I’ll admit, but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ loco-motorvatin’ Bo Diddley beat was Dylan’s most solid rock of the ’80s. And, actually, some of the words aren’t slight at all--especially stanzas four and five, which anyone who’s ever had his brain charmed away by some young lazy slut will swear are the essence of wit.

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