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":


  1. Good picks.
    Alternates: Nashville Skyline Rag, Never Say Goodbye, New Morning, Nobody 'Cept You, North Country Blues

  2. I think it's possible that Dylan never wrote a good song that started with N, with the obvious except of "Not Dark Yet." The other ones are just garbage, including the ones you left out.