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":


  1. So many great "I" songs i.e. It Takes A Lot To Laugh.., It Ain't Me Babe, If Not For You, I'll Be Your Baby Tonight.. Wow!

  2. I Shall Be Released, It's All Over Now Baby Blue, If You Gotta Go Go Now...