80 Artists Pick Their Favorite Bob Dylan Song For Bob Dylan’s 80th Birthday
In the almost 60 years since Bob Dylan released his debut album, countless words have been spilled on his singular legacy. There are books and movies and over half a century’s worth of music journalism trying to dissect the mystery and pin down the multitudes. College courses unpack his lyrics. A Presidential Medal Of Freedom and a Nobel Prize and who knows how many other honors mark Dylan’s towering, seismic presence as not just a musician but a cultural and literary icon of the American Century. All of which is to say: You and I both know about Bob Dylan, and there’s little I could say to celebrate his 80th birthday that hasn’t been said many times before.
Instead, we chose to celebrate the occasion by surveying a vast array of musicians on their favorite Bob Dylan song. (Technically, there are picks from 86 musicians here, but we didn’t want to wait another six years to publish this. Consider it a bonus.) Below, you’ll find singer-songwriters working in a tradition most obviously indebted to Dylan, but you’ll also find young country stars and ascendent art-rockers and jazz boundary-pushers. You’ll find David Byrne writing an essay about one of Dylan’s most recent songs, and you’ll find David Crosby remembering the first time he saw Dylan play in the Village, and a whole lot more. All spoke to Dylan’s incomparable influence, the way he kicked open some kind of door or another no matter what form an artist works in. We were excited and stunned by all the thoughtful responses we received for this project, and we think you will be too. Happy birthday Bob Dylan!
The first time I heard the song, I was maybe 16 or 17 years old. I was immediately impacted by it. I was born and raised in New Orleans, and some of the energies he’s speaking to in this piece are pretty prevalent in that environment. I found a lot of synergy between the things he was speaking to and the things my grandfather and his peers and a lot of the other folks in my neighborhood would say about their experiences. At that point, those things had also crossed into my lifetime. The first time I had a police officer pull a gun on me, I was walking home from school. I was about 13 years old. The song broke down that cognitive dissonance that can easily be created in this country, where you think only people who look like you have your perspective or can see your experience.
I heard those things coming out of the mouth of a person where, if you put me in a lineup next to him, you might arguably say we had completely contrasting experiences. But here it was that this person was able to see what those people were enduring in that moment and took some agency in being clear that that wasn’t the right way.
We speak a lot about the types of impediments that exist in the maintenance of white supremacy and also the maintenance of the institution of whiteness and the institution of anti-Blackness in this country, but the frame Dylan created for it is, I think, a very necessary one to consider. Which is: What does it do to the man that is carrying out the most abhorrent and horrible tenets of it? The Southern politician or the sheriff, he speaks about all of them getting paid and this person guiled into being their agent. If you actually look at the experiences of the people that that person is terrorizing, they are going through more similar things than anyone in this situation. The Southern white person who says he hates a Black person and decides he’s going to murder that person — if he actually takes a closer look at his life reality and the reality of the Black person who’s scratching for freedom and to have the types of life we are promised in the American republic, those two people’s experiences of living in resource deserts or being food insecure are actually the closest together. But because we’ve created this energy in this place, they view each other as nemeses.
To hear that as a 17-year-old kid, it sparked so much thought. We don’t talk about what racism actually does to the person who decides they’re going to impose that on other people, what it does to their humanity. How it reduces them. For him to make it plain and clear that the person who was murdered, who was seeking out light and taking agency to subvert the energies that impede human beings from progress, was lowered as a king, and that person that took it upon themselves to assassinate this person for this institution of whiteness — when they go into the ground nobody remembers them. Nobody says their name again. Even on a spiritual level, there’s a lesson there as well. What are you choosing to champion?
It bears consideration for us to also look at the notion of killing-at-a-distance that has been built in the West. The notion of hiding while terrorizing or killing. He references in the song, “A bullet from the back of a bush” or hiding beneath a hood, but I think there’s an interesting correlation between the full history of this country and those energies. It’s not lost on me that when the Boston Tea Party happened, these folks dressed up and feigned being Natives so they wouldn’t bear the consequences of their actions. I don’t know what the root of that energy is. To me, when a man decides he’s going to hide his face to do something as heartbreaking as murdering another man, it tells you that the man knows the action is wrong.
All in all, as a teenager looking at the picture of Bob Dylan on the cover of The Times They Are A-Changin’, and basically seeing another kid, another teenager, that had the ability to see these things, in that moment — to be able to see me — is something that engendered him to me. I will always be grateful for him. He’s one of the pillars of my musical life, because of his willingness to speak truth and be morally upright during his experience in this place.
The first song I actually heard of his was “The Times They Are A-Changin.'” My grandfather used to do this thing where he’d play one or two tracks from a record, then switch the record out — much like Millennials and Gen Z now after the iPod, but this was a man doing it on an actual record player. I was familiar with Dylan’s work; my mom used to play Blonde On Blonde. But this song actually touched me. I had my Walkman CD player and I went to Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans and I bought a bunch of Coltrane records and I saw this Dylan record and remembered my grandfather having it. He had passed away at the time, so I bought it to see what it was he saw in it. Once I got to “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” I understood. He must’ve felt the same way about Dylan. He was born in 1933. Medgar Evers was a peer of his and Dylan’s. I’m sure he was affected by that and felt seen by Dylan as well. How cool is that? That I had the same experience that my grandfather had when I was born in ’83 and he was born in ’33. It speaks to the power of Dylan’s contribution.
There’s a record I made in 2010 that was fully inspired by some of those records I got as a teenager. It was our equivalent to the same energy of The Times They Are A-Changin’. We recorded it in the same space where John Coltrane recorded so many great records, and a lot of the music was coming explicitly out of — not just in terms of the subject matter, but also the textural elements of what Coltrane and Dylan were doing in those recordings I got as a teenager. That record, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, would not exist if not for what he had contributed not just to my musical life but also my life in building the courage requisite to actually speak to these things. I don’t think I would have the same type of ire if I had not been exposed to Dylan as a child.
As told to Stereogum
“Mississippi” is one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs. Written in his more introspective later years, the language is wise and comforting. His nostalgia is palpable, sonically and lyrically. Simple lines such as “So many things that we never will undo/ I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too” verbally pierce listeners with universal truths.
The narrator is both wise and naive, but accepting of his older condition. He has reached the other side, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have regrets. This type of writing brilliantly taps into the endless complexities of the human condition.
As far as ballad writing goes, this song belongs up there with the timeless folk ballads such as “Danny Boy” or “Red River Valley.” His authorship need not even be named — the song speaks to time.
My favorite Bob Dylan song is “Girl From The North Country” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. When I was maybe 16 or 17 I used to play The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album on my Zune MP3 player (throwback lol) and skate around the neighborhood. I have a distinct memory of skating around in the autumn and just watching the leaves fall and feeling the wind blow while “Girl From The North Country” played through my headphones. The song drops you in the middle of a memory and keeps you there, with all of the loving and the aching and the remembering. It’s a recollection of love in its purest form — unconditional, unguarded, and unwaveringly tender. There’s a soft melancholy and a peaceful longing brimming just beyond the edges of this song, and I love it so much.
All the songs of Bob Dylan that I know, I love, but one of my favorites is “Tangled Up In Blue” from Blood On The Tracks. What I also love is that he invited me in 1978 to perform at his Blackbush concert in the UK. He still holds the record for the most attendance at a concert that was not a festival in England. This means it was his gig with guests. It’s 2021 and I still get people coming up to me to talk about that fantastic concert. That’s the power of Bob Dylan. What I love about him is his artistry. The way he crafts words, the way he tells his story and draws people into the plot is something that he is expert at. If you want to know about good songwriting, look to Bob Dylan. Not really known as the best singer, but he is the best at conveying an emotion with his powerful lyrics and phrasing.
This was probably the first Bob Dylan song I became attached to and would play over and over again. It was very influenced by traditional English folk so I think that plays a significant role in why I like it so much. It’s a song that viscerally conveys melancholy and longing, not just in the lyrics, but in the way he’s able to build sonic tension. There are moments that sound almost cheerful, but then linger for a while somewhere not quite resolved or drop into a minor chord. One of my favorite moments is the harmonica part that concludes the song: He holds out a single piercing note, which finally splits into harmony and resolves. It’s an intense moment that no matter how many times I’ve heard it always has me wondering if it will ever resolve.
“Murder Most Foul” is my current favorite Bob Dylan song…
With “Not Dark Yet” and “He Was A Friend Of Mine” following close behind in an ever rotating “What part of Bob’s insanely brilliant career am I listening to at the moment” carousel…
From his THIRTY NINTH album!!! has a number of fascinating elements…
From its myriad of cultural and political reference points, its heartbreaking time traveling dream gospel prophetic lucidity, and its gentle matter of fact delivery…
But it’s the totally set in stone arrangement that somehow also has the feeling of being totally ethereal and structureless that really blows my mind…
It has the ability to stealthily float through the windows of your consciousness or completely ensnare your attention depending on where your focus is at that moment… This is not easy to do…
Released at the beginning of the pandemic, it feels like this whole year.
You can find the exact right words with laser precision but nothing translates quite like the sonic battle wound Dylan lets out in the middle of every verse in “You’re A Big Girl Now.” I tried to avoid picking a song from Blood On The Tracks because what makes this record so special, in my opinion, is the big picture. The songs hold each other up like lattice. Regardless, I can’t deny it’s my favorite of his albums so I chose a song that could encapsulate the casual anguish that Dylan tends to wear so nonchalantly on his sleeve. “Tangled Up In Blue” at first seemed an obvious choice. After all, legend has it he was listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue at the time he wrote it. It will always amuse me to think of the world’s greatest songwriters buried in each other’s records. “Idiot Wind” slams into me like a wall and is as subtle as a brick. His anguish gets less casual and bubbles into indignation. This record seems to cover all the stages of grief. Anyway, back to “You’re A Big Girl Now,” it’s fun to hear the evolution from the original NY version to the final album version. The biggest distinction for me is him humming versus moaning the “ohhh!” They’re both great but the latter has a visceral effect of longing like hunger pangs.
Scrolling through the Bob Dylan section of my iTunes library, I can find a contender for my favorite Dylan song on pretty much every album in my collection. But you’ve asked for one, and so I shall reluctantly oblige. In the midst of lockdown, in the loneliest, most angst ridden part of Spring 2020, I was awake in the middle of the night switching between doom scrolling and listening to pandemic related podcasts, when my feed was suddenly bathed in the light of excitement about this new Bob Dylan song, a really really long song about the JFK assassination. There was something very comforting about going back to immerse yourself in a good old fashioned OG conspiracy theory, not one of these newfangled right-wing Facebook-sponsored ones, and I totally escaped 2020 in the middle of the night for about an hour while I listened to the song and then googled every unknown reference in the lyrics. For that reason I’m nominating “Murder Most Foul” as my favorite. Bob’s still got it, and by the way, I’m looking forward to Chronicles volume 2!
My favorite Dylan song is probably one of his least mysterious ones: “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” I love the way he creates such a vivid world in a three-minute song, and as a former constant traveler myself he captures the often delightful feeling of disconnection in a new unfamiliar place, and then the line about the land of Coca-Cola brings it all back home. Happy birthday Bob! Don’t ever stop!
I moved to the Irish Channel in New Orleans in 2012 with my clothes, some records, a guitar, and one poster of Senior Dylan. I don’t know when I started to listen to him or when I bought the poster, but I do remember feeling like I could learn something from the man. I hung him up on the wall, like a periodic table or world map.
He’s given me more than I ever could have asked for, but, unlike other artists, I rarely get a glimpse of the man behind the songs. But, on “I Threw It All Away” I think he’s looking us straight in the eye. That’s why I love this song. The notorious Casanova who threw everything he had into becoming a legend had made it, but not without regrets.
I love the wild-eyed and weary, lexicon-scrambling Dylan of Blonde On Blonde. I love the mystical, minimal Dylan of John Wesley Harding. I love the ferocious, finger-pointing Dylan of The Times They Are A-Changin’. And I love the bitter and regretful Dylan of Blood On The Tracks. But I also love the playful, jukebox Dylan — the song and dance man who tips his hat and tips a wink knowing he’s given you a rollicking good time. That’s mostly the Dylan on show on Nashville Skyline and especially on the slinky, sexy “To Be Alone With You.” The band are crisp and soulful and the vocal lines are punctuated by understated stinging guitar. Maybe when it was released people were disappointed to hear Dylan making an album of country-soul toe-tappers and singing it in this oddly-entrancing muted honk, but he followed his whims and, come on, it’s Bob Dylan — he can (and should) do whatever the hell he wants.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a song I’ve practiced singing. It’s one of the only songs I ever did at karaoke, for one — if I can find it on a karaoke machine. I just always really liked how fast that thing was. I remember driving home from my grandpa’s funeral, one side of a tape was nothing but “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” just doing it over and over again. I still can’t quite get it. After years and years of really trying to get that song, I still trip up and fall somewhere three-quarters of the way through. It’s a pretty fascinating bit of writing. For a while it seemed to have shifting meanings, but I eventually figured out it was ’60s politics that I didn’t quite get because I was learning about it in the ’90s. And then “Days Of ’49” is probably the song I’ve listened to the second most. It’s like the embodiment of a manly friendship in a weird way. That’s not very all-inclusive, I guess. It’s more like historical fiction.
As told to Stereogum
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was the first Bob Dylan song I ever heard. Besides the fact that it’s a powerhouse of an opening track, the feel the whole way through is so infectious. Seconds in, the whole vibe is set, and you’re off, along for the ride — you’re not 100% sure where you’re going, but once you’re there, you don’t quite want it to end. As a teenager, this song was a great wake-up call. The iconic line “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” left an indelible mark. I was such an obedient kid and was just beginning to realize that what I’d been taught about America was an illusion in so many ways. That little reminder that you don’t need to wait to be told that what you’re seeing around you is truly happening, that you just can trust yourself, really stuck with me. Dylan cited Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” as a key inspiration for the song, released amid the 1960s civil rights movement, and that hit me too. Black people are behind so many cornerstones of American culture — even when no one’s shouting it from the rooftops.
I was a kid when I first heard it. My father was a big blues and Woody Guthrie fan, and he started bringing Bob Dylan records home when I was probably about six or something. From The Times They Are A-Changin’ on. As it got more and more complex, I would often discuss lyrics with my father. “Visions Of Johanna” is one we would talk endlessly about. It’s a very mysterious song. You can’t really put your finger on it.
It’s a brilliant lyric. I love “Inside the museums/ Infinity goes up on trial.” It’s almost like you’ve gathered all the evidence to see whether infinity exists. His voice has a very smoky, late-night feel to it as well. Where he talks about a person and he says, “He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all.” I love the addition of “and all” at the end of the line, it makes it kind of casual in a way.
It’s a corny thing that’s often said about Dylan, but he changed the popular song to where it could become more abstruse and it didn’t have to be so direct. It could more poetic, if you like. I think he effected it for a lot of people, and I was one of them. It was Dylan that really captured my imagination.
As told to Stereogum
My first exposure to a Bob Dylan song was probably the Byrds version of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I heard it on a crappy transistor radio in my bedroom in Arbutus, a Baltimore suburb. It blew my little mind. The words were, to me at that time, impenetrable. They spoke of another world — a place both weird and magical, a bohemian land with links to the Beat poets, with whom I was familiar, a little. Late nights huddled in cafes blathering about what must have been incredibly interesting ideas. Here was a missive from that world. Not sure I was aware that Dylan wrote the song.
The music too was revolutionary to me — the chiming 12-string guitar sounded like a Balinese gamelan orchestra. I’d heard recordings of those from my local public library. God bless the public libraries. The vocal too, with its soft dreamy harmonies, was familiar — folk groups often sang in harmonies like this — but in this very different context it implied a kind of trippy reverie. So, not just the words but the sound itself was a message from another world, far from this little suburban town. Someplace I had to know more about.
A lot of ink has been spilled on Dylan’s songs and their impact over the years. I’ve learned to take some of it with a grain of salt. He’s written his fair share of throwaways and clunkers. But what encourages me is that every so often he can break the mold again and surprise us. The last song to do that for me was “Murder Most Foul,” one of his epic songs — a form he lifted from old folk ballads with their many many verses, but then he added a genetic mutation to the form — surreal imagery and metaphors rather than the traditional narratives of the old ballads.
In most of these he sets up an idea — a looming apocalypse in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and the world as a twisted corrupt place in “Desolation Row” — and then it’s mostly a matter of filling in the blanks. It’s like a Cole Porter list song, in a way. Each verse being one more example of the guiding idea, and then maybe there might be a meta verse at the end to tie things up. As long as one can think of examples it can go on for a long time. I tried something similar with the song “Life During Wartime” — imagine an urban guerrilla war — then simply fill in the details in each verse.
“Murder Most Foul” starts off like one of these songs, but without the driving propulsive rhythm. It seems at first to be a conspiratorial exegesis on the Kennedy assassination… with a lot of low life humor tossed in.
“Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, ‘Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?’
‘Of course we do, we know who you are’
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car.”
The rhyme scheme is simple, like a children’s song or a poem from Alice In Wonderland, which makes it even funnier. I laughed at “sacrificial lamb” and “know who I am?” Dylan of course is doing his well-established “Dylan” voice and character throughout — which helps him pull off the hilarious rhymes and references.
Then little by little the song begins to veer off and begins to become something else — a meditation on the times, using the assassination as a jumping off point. The verses become littered with quotes and references to Gone With The Wind, the Beatles, Gerry And The Pacemakers, Altamont, Woodstock — on and on. Not all of it makes sense, but the sheer amount of clever comedy and portentous humor keeps me smiling. Soon it goes from third person — the story of the assassination plot — to first person. “I’ve been led into some kind of trap,” “I hate to tell you mister only dead men are free,” “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline” — the songwriter, and by implication all of us, are also the victims of this fiendish plot.
We’re in Dylan’s head now — the songs he heard over the years make the world in there. “Only The Good Die Young,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Don Henley and Glenn Frey — they’re all rattling around in there. And the rest of the song, like one of those earlier list songs, is a long list of artists and songs he’s asking Wolfman Jack to play on the radio — songs that paint a picture of what’s in Bob’s head but also of the whole 20th century, evoked through its popular songs. The Old Weird America, in the phrase Greil Marcus coined. It’s a hilarious hodgepodge of a list — jazz, gospel, pop, soul, rock — it could go on forever, and it almost does. The goofiness of the rhymes keeps it from getting pretentious and tedious — it’s deep and dark, but there’s joy and jokiness here too.
The music is key. It ebbs and flows but never establishes a clear delineated groove. I suspect if it did it would gain some temporary energy but soon it would get repetitious and we’d lose interest.
So this song was inspiring to me — not as earth-shattering as “Mr. Tambourine Man” was to a wee lad, but important in a different way. I hear Dylan finding, at this stage in his career, a new way to approach these epic songs. He’s not done exploring yet. That’s inspiration for me for sure. Not that I want to do a song like this — he’s already done it — but the idea that around the bend I might find something new that I’ve never done before keeps me pushing on and hopeful.
Chrystia Cabral (Spellling): "Mr. Tambourine Man" (Rolling Thunder Revue Version), 1975
I love “Mr. Tambourine Man” because it reminds me of my favorite era of Bob Dylan with what he was doing with the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. I felt really inspired by the troubadour-circus family style scene he created while working on my upcoming album The Turning Wheel. I love how intimate and mythical the performances on that tour were and how he incorporated all of these other artists, visionaries, and poets. If I were to make a musician themed Tarot deck, Bob Dylan would definitely be the “Fool” card. “Mr. Tambourine Man” especially captures the energy of “The Fool.” The tune and lyrics are just embedded with this bittersweet feeling of embracing the infinite potential of the world when you have nothing left to lose.
Picking one favorite song by Bob Dylan is quite a task. For me personally I would have to say “Like A Rolling Stone.”
I love everything about this song and the record. I first heard it on AM radio when I was in high school and I had no options or prospects for my future. The song was an epiphany, and I felt like he was writing directly to me and how I felt. I’ve never had that experience with any other song before, or since. The rhyming couplets are so clever and deep, things like “juiced in it, get used to it,” and so many more in the song are just brilliant. The music is exuberant. I think he uses every chord in the key of C, and since I was learning guitar it was very inspiring to sit down and try to learn them.
I was also aware of Mike Bloomfield at the time, and I love his playing on the song. Not his typical blues playing, but lyrical and right in sync with the singer. Speaking of the singer… the character, the sneer, the sarcasm and delivery are so unique and engaging. The song made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my plight, of having no direction home, on my own, like a complete unknown. It gave me hope and inspiration, and it still does today every time I hear it, the hair stands up on the back of my neck and I gush with enthusiasm for life.
Flashing forward a few decades, to have the opportunity to tour the world with Bob Dylan, and get to play that song every night is one of the greatest joys of my life.
My favorite Bob Dylan song is one of his most recent: “Murder Most Foul.”
I first heard it when it suddenly materialized on the internet on the 27th of March 2020. That was four days after the UK entered its first coronavirus lockdown. The timing is important, I think, because there was a real feeling of anxiety about the future and where the whole planet was heading. People began to overuse words like “surreal” and “unprecedented.” And then this song came, seemingly out of nowhere, about the day the USA got “un-presidented.”
It really felt like the right song at the right moment — a fevered summing-up of the pop culture of the Western world at the very instant that world appeared to be on the point of disappearing forever.
Dylan reveals himself as a fan as well as a creator in “Murder Most Foul”: Pop hits, Wolfman Jack, Stevie Nicks, the Birdman Of Alcatraz all drift through your consciousness as you listen. It’s a dream in song form. Or it’s like Kennedy’s brains splattered all over the page and somehow Dylan managed to scribble down their dying thoughts before they fizzled out.
It’s a complete work of genius.
In this time of scrolling… Where everything (music, art, songs, paintings, etc.) is already collected and you can scroll through them in a matter of seconds. It reminds me of walking through the Louvre Art Museum in Paris and seeing all the world history of art displayed in one gigantic endless sprawling overwhelming museum. You quickly walk past masterpiece after masterpiece and before too long you are exhausted because it’s too much to take in… The Bob Dylan catalog is like this in a sense, masterpiece after masterpiece. You can scroll by them and say “Yes that’s a masterpiece” and “That’s cool.” And it’s easy to scroll by song after song in the Bob Dylan catalog and think because you have listened to five seconds of each one (which would be a lot of listening… good luck…) that you may understand and appreciate how great Bob Dylan is… And I’m not saying that that isn’t, a little bit, true. But without stopping and examining and really giving his songs some time and some thoughts and some reflection and curiosity — which leads to bewilderment and amazement!! Yay!! — you might not really understand why he’s so badass and why these songs are masterpieces and why he is is so wonderful.
In these days of endless scrolling it is hard to imagine a time when there wasn’t very much Bob Dylan music available and you had to listen, over and over, to the eight or nine songs that he put out every year. The Bob Dylan catalog is said to, now, be over 600 songs.. I’m going to go back to when there was only 50 or 60 songs available… a song on his fifth album. So I am going to slow down time, or stop time completely, and just examine and relish and wander over just ONE portion of just ONE Bob Dylan song. When you do this you do it because you get to notice things… what it’s like is noticing the leaves on the trees in the fall. Or like you noticing the clouds in the sunset. .
The song “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” is not an obscure song. It’s a well examined big important song, yes, and no song has ever been written that is so “right on” and so “on the mark” (Dylan himself is the human god who is aiming for his mark) as he sings about the corruption and lies of the “powers that be” he can’t help but to insert himself and be part of it cause he knows we can’t tell the difference. He is the advertisement that says all advertisements are fake. Look at these words:
“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred”
Dylan is best (in my opinion) when he’s pissed off and he knows he’s right. But really, isn’t that everyone. We all LOVE it when we are right, but then, we get to collectively SCOLD whoever (or whatever) part of modern society (billionaires/corporations/governments) that we think are doing the WRONG. And this type of scolding is the most exciting. It is a David vs. Goliath tale. The little, smart, and righteous entity battling the giant, dumb, mean bully.
And, of course, in the tale, David wins…
But what happens then…
Well, in the hands of Bob Dylan, the fight is so glorious and glamorous that we don’t ever want to stop fighting. We aren’t looking for peace… we are actually just looking for another fight — that we know we will win!! And maybe Dylan knew this even way back then. He knew he wasn’t leading us into battle. We just wanted to hear him and watch him and be like him. We didn’t want to ACTUALLY DO the battle we just wanted to SING about (someone somewhere) doing the battle. We didn’t ACTUALLY want to DO anything about what was wrong. We just wanted to SING SONGS about what was wrong.
Hearing Bob Dylan back then… I was just four years old so I don’t really know. It must have seemed like you were hearing, at long last, finally, after years of hype and lies, finally the truth. And it was a truth that was so colorful and so dramatic and so cool sounding and so cool looking that if you ran upon a truth that was ugly and old and dumb you would be suspicious of it..
So I don’t know if the world really learned anything from Bob Dylan or if the world just wanted to be Bob Dylan, and that’s the dilemma. It’s hard to teach people when they just wanna be entertained. Or maybe it’s hard to learn anything when the teacher is so charismatic and charming that you never question or put to use any of their lessons. You just want to keep hearing the lessons. But maybe Bob Dylan is really teaching people who haven’t been born yet. You can see eventually — if everyone who has an ego, and wants masses of humans to love them — if all of them want to be Bob Dylan (or the Beatles or Radiohead or Tame Impala or Beyoncé) there will be no one left that wants to be Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump. We will, perhaps, know in a hundred years.
You see… I first heard this song when I was probably 10 years old, in 1971, and I just thought it was some cool shit sung by a cool guy and I actually WANTED a flesh-colored Christ that would glow in the dark — and I wanted that flesh-colored Christ to spark too, I just connected it all together. Right now I bet i could Google that and find an actual toy that is a flesh-colored Christ that glows in the dark and sparks in about two minutes.
Appropriately enough, my favorite is “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Our manager knew Bob’s manager [when I was in the Byrds], and got an early tape of Bob singing this thing with another folk singer. It was really terrible, it was a really bad demo. They were out of tune and they were all screwed up. It was absolutely nonsense. But we heard these words. “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” We were entranced.
Bob is a freaking wonderful poet. He’s a really skillful, inspired poet. His handling of words at that point in his life, is about as good as anybody is, period. That’s what really struck me. Musically, it’s a really simple old tune. It’s no problem. But the lyrics are stunning. You’ve read ’em, didn’t they stun you? That’s the case over and over again with his songs. Even simple songs, like “Girl From The North Country.”
The first time I saw Bob, I was still a folk singer and Bob was still a folk singer. He was playing at one of the big clubs in the Village. He was playing there and I snuck in. I sat there and I listened to him and I said, “Well, shit, I can sing better than that.” Then it penetrated to me what he was singing. I listened to the words. Then I thought seriously about just quitting the business and taking up another line of work. I knew I couldn’t match that.
I met Bob when he came to our studio. I might’ve met him before back in the Village, but I don’t remember. I do remember he came to the Byrds’ studio in LA. We would go and play there because it was soundproofed and the cops wouldn’t come. He came to hear us do the song. It was a crucial moment in Bob’s life. I don’t think he had heard anyone play his stuff electric before that. I’m pretty sure. We were the first ones. When we played “Tambourine Man” for him, you could hear the gears going in his head, man. He was watching intensely. He went straight out and got himself an electric band. Right away. Like, the next day. He knew what that was. He knew what we did. He understood how well it communicated. He got the whole picture. He’s a very bright guy. He was very deeply moved by it because he knew he could communicate with more people if he could do that.
The song was a huge success for us. We were driving around in a 1956 Ford station wagon, and “Mr. Tambourine Man” comes on KRLA. We pulled it over, because it was the first time we heard it on the radio. Then they played it again. They had never done that. We had never heard them do that with any record, ever. They played it and then they said, “God, I’ve gotta play that again.” We were dancing in the street. We were freaking out. We got out of the car and we’re jumping around, thrilled.
The demo was terrible. If you ever hear it, you will laugh. But the songs are relatively simple musically. That makes it easy for us to take them and go a little further with them. “All Along The Watchtower” is a perfect example. “Watchtower” is a really fine set of words and a really good story song and it takes you with it. Musically, very simple. It made it possible for somebody like Jimi Hendrix — and a lot of other people who recorded that song also — to make it their own. Bob never really did anything musically sophisticated. It was the words.
He’s friendly, but he’s not out front. He doesn’t let you in. You’ll say, “Bob, where do you live?” And he’ll say, “Well, you’re looking at a man that has no home.” He’d be telling you about life instead of telling you he lived in Malibu. He’s not an easy guy. To this day, he’s not an easy guy. He doesn’t welcome you in with open arms and show you who Bob is. He likes being mysterious. He likes being oblique. And he’s smart enough to pull it off. He’s a very interesting guy to be friends with. Very interesting.
As told to Stereogum
The main reason this song sticks with me is the three-note descension on the line “nearly any task” and how endlessly satisfying it is. In a song about finally allowing someone into the part of yourself that you keep from the world, these simple steps feel like an exhalation. The instruments spend most of the song playfully dancing and weaving but these three big notes feel like crashing into a chair and taking a moment to appreciate that you’re capable of being vulnerable and happy. There’s gratitude and love and joy here, and I have a feeling this song will feature prominently on all of my summer playlists as the weather warms and we gather with people we’ve missed.
If you could, what would you give Bob Dylan on his 80th birthday? You might send flowers. Peonies are always welcome. He’d probably enjoy a recording by Ray & Ina Patterson or a complete history of… pretty much anything. You wouldn’t have a jet ski delivered. It’s near impossible to imagine Bob on a jet ski. He probably doesn’t need patio furniture or mustache wax either. But a B-day card signed by Dolly Parton, Little Richard, and Willie Nelson might bring him a smile. Or possibly Spanish boots of Spanish leather? Nah. How about a session with a disguise artist so he could breeze through the city or town of his choice unrecognized. I would wish him all the wishes he wished in “Forever Young” because somehow he is.
“May your song always be sung.”
Happy B-day from J. Doe.
I heard it for the first time on the Biograph box set. When I was a kid, outside of buying bootlegs, it was the first time I remember a major label releasing outtakes and live stuff. I thought that collection was fantastic, but specifically that song blew my mind. It’s an outtake from Blood On The Tracks, which is my favorite Dylan record as well. I just love that period of his, it’s so romantic. I love the band he had, I love the way he was singing. How melodic it is, how beautiful all those songs are. “Up To Me” came out of nowhere when I heard it.
It’s very much a companion piece to “Tangled Up In Blue,” which might be my second favorite Dylan song. I don’t know why he left that song off it, because it’s so good. He’s one of those guys where he left a lot of great songs off records because they probably just didn’t flow like he wanted them to. I’ve left some of my favorite songs off of records, too.
As told to Stereogum
It’s all about Bob for me. I define myself as a post-Bob Dylan songwriter. You know, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were post-Dylan songwriters, too, but they were adolescents and adults. Guy was already a folk singer when Bob Dylan happened. It was all about Bob for them, too. I had part of my songwriting course that I originally called “The Moment In 1965 When John Lennon Wants To Be Bob Dylan And Bob Dylan Wants To Be John Lennon And Rock ‘N’ Roll Becomes Art.” I really, truly believe that lyrics are what elevated rock ‘n’ roll to a higher art form. So, that means it’s about Bob.
Bob did it on purpose. Everybody was reading translations of French Modernist poets, but everybody else was still writing songs that sounded like Woody Guthrie. Bob suddenly wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and every-fucking-thing changed. Favorite Bob song, favorite Beatles song, favorite Stones song, favorite Townes song — those things change for me. Ask me again next year. Right now, it’s “Just Like A Woman.” It’s been “Just Like A Woman” a lot over the years.
My first firsthand Dylan record is Highway 61 Revisited. I backtracked to everything else. A lot of it was that my dad wouldn’t let me have an electric guitar, so I became a folkie by default. Bob was already playing electric guitar, so that’s what I knew about Bob Dylan. And I met Townes Van Zandt when I was 17. It took me a while to understand it was all about Bob. I’m always quoted that Townes Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world — that was something I said when I asked for a sticker for a Townes record that was coming out. That was a bumper sticker. It was marketing. Bob’s never had any trouble promoting Bob. Townes always shot himself in the foot. Townes’ response to that was: “I heard what you said and that’s very nice, but I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards and I don’t think it’s a very good idea.”
I was listening to the Beatles and the Stones. I was a 14-year-old boy when Led Zeppelin II came out. What I was paying attention to changed. I always cycled back to songs, and I came back to more acoustic music. Blonde On Blonde is one of the very first Dylan records I got firsthand. My uncle bought it. That’s where I got everything — first guitar, first Hendrix, and my first joint. Everything on that record, I heard for the first time at his house.
That record — there’s a lot to take on. There’s a lot of songs. I always gravitated towards “Just Like A Woman.” It’s one of those songs where everything he’s learned pushing past a decimal point comes back and gets applied to what’s a more traditional pop song form. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is a postmodern love song with a huge amount of language in it, but he’s just flexing those muscles still. I think it becomes second nature to him by the time he writes “Just Like A Woman.” At some point Bob said he was trying to move away from being a topical songwriter. He used to refer to the political songs he wrote in that period as “finger pointing songs.” Some of his emotional songs, his relationship songs, are finger pointing songs too. “Just Like A Woman” is talking about her, and it’s about the end of a relationship, but it also talks about him a little bit, and how he feels. I’ve heard women argue about which songs of mine are about them, and the truth is they’re all about me. It’s one of those things.
As told to Stereogum
Craig Finn (The Hold Steady): "Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)," 1978
Today my favorite Dylan track is “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).” The closing track on Street-Legal begins with funky percussion before sliding into an easy groove. And it is this part that I love especially — the comfort and confidence of Dylan already deep in an astonishing career fronting a band with this knowing soulfulness. I’ve been listening to this song for many years, and I still don’t know what it’s exactly about, but it seems to mix the modern and personal with the ancient and biblical. Thus it comes off as a piece about all of it, a sweeping arm gesture at everything from birth to potential afterlife, shooting off as spokes and paths from the trailhead of a seemingly benign beginning couplet: “There’s a long distance train/ Rolling through the rain.” And while the parenthetical “Journey Through Dark Heat” comes closest to capturing the essence of the song, the main title and refrain asks one of this life’s most pertinent and important questions to listeners, lovers, friends, and fellow humans: “Where Are You Tonight?”
Since I moved to Brooklyn, New York in 2008, I’ve always lived off of the G train. “The Ghost Train,” as it was called back then, because it never came. The platforms always had great performers, especially the Metropolitan stop in Williamsburg. One guy, Joe Crow Ryan, was known for performing Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup Of Coffee” from the Desire album. Funny enough, each time he played it, the train would come and Ryan would yell, “Train solo!!!”
I liked this song before I heard his version. The melody vaguely reminded me of old Sudanese music. Ryan’s cover was much simpler. Just his voice, a banjo, and the cavernous echo from the platform. All of the fluff, bells, and whistles gone to give room to Ryan’s vulnerable croon singing Dylan’s lyrics.
This transformed the song for me. It stopped being an interpretation of the existence and relationship between a man and woman. And became an interpretation of the existence and relationship between me and myself. Instantly, this song turned into an existential mantra.
I became obsessed with this song and always looked forward to going underground to hear it. Every time, as I heard the words to the verses (under this new meaning of the song that I created), I’d laugh. The lyrics are a bit schmaltzy. But when framed around the idea of existentialism? Lol.
I heard the Swedish punk legend Joachim Thåström sing a version of this song at a arena concert in Gothenburg, 2016. Håkan Hellström was playing to 70,000 fans including me and among the guest singers was Thåström. “Tomorrow is a long time” was translated to Swedish by Nationalteatern — a prog rock group from the ’70s — released on the album Barn av vår tid that came out the year I was born, 1978. I’ve heard all their songs and albums but didn’t pay that much attention to their version. But then in the warm summer night hearing Thåström singing it struck a nostalgic chord in me:
“Men bara om min älskade väntar
Om jag hör hennes hjärta sakta slå
Bara om hon låg här tätt intill mig
Kan jag bli den jag var igår”
“Yes and only if my own true love was waitin’
And if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’
Yes and only if she was lyin’ by me
Then I’d lie in my bed once again”
And the last sentence is slightly different in Ulf Dageby’s translation compared with Dylan’s original:
“Can I become who I was yesterday?”
Now when I listen to both original versions by Bob Dylan and Nationalteatern I hear them as unpolished jewels. As has happened so many times before with Bob Dylan. A master songwriter!
There are so many great songs to choose, on another day I could say “4th Time Around,” “Boots Of Spanish Leather,” “Gates Of Eden,” etc., etc. But today my answer is “Buckets Of Rain,” the fitting finale to his 1975 album Blood On The Tracks. And talking of tracks, this is a sensational one. Despite being quite simple, it is a slowly addictive, infectious song, one of his most melodic. The words are sparse and natural, strengthened in their purity by his undeniably emotive performance. While not a complicated narrative or vividly painted scenario like some other songs on the album, the track still makes room for some dynamite lines. One example being, “Everything about you is bringing me misery,” which, coming as it does after a string of compliments to the unnamed second person, is a punchline almost as hilarious as it is devastating. Wonderful song.
As a teenager I’d read in a newspaper that Bob Dylan was considered one of the greatest songwriters of all time, so I downloaded Bringing It All Back Home off Limewire. I immediately connected with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” not because of what the lyrics meant, but because of the strange, hypnotic “wah-nah-nah-nah” rhythm I heard in how he sang the words. I learned it was inspired by Chuck Berry and was fascinated by playing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Too Much Monkey Business” back to back. Sometimes the word rhythm sound got stuck in my head. I tapped it out with pencils on my desk and clicked it with my tongue, keeping loose time with my feet if I was walking. It made me not only certain that I wanted to write songs and lyrics, but also that maybe the stuff I was already writing were real songs, and not pretend as I’d assumed.
I didn’t go see bands play as a teenager; I wasn’t immersed in any kind of underground culture. I lived in a suburb and read books I found at Barnes & Noble about music I liked. I was a big fan, and though I wouldn’t have articulated it this way, assumed that people who were artists got that way by invitation, not by virtue of having something they felt they needed to say. To me, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was like an invitation showing up to say you don’t need an invitation at all. Bob Dylan’s lyricism, and the fact that I’d read he was considered great, seemed to suggest that songwriting could be a matter of entertaining yourself with the way you fit your words together, and the way their meanings both reveal and disguise what you’re saying.
There’s a great Bob Dylan interview in American Songwriter where he says nobody needs to write any more songs unless they are pure of heart and have something to say. There is a hilarious audacity and preternatural insight to nearly everything that comes out of his mouth. It’s hard for me to pin down a favorite thing about him, let alone a song, because it is less an isolated variable and more the way all of the different variables do and don’t fit together. Listen to Bob Dylan long enough and these truths will find their way under your skin, that you can sing about anything you want. You can tell stories however you want, so long as they are emotionally true. Happy birthday to Bob. Here’s to another 80.
One of my favorite Dylan songs is “Shelter From The Storm,” and lately I’ve been appreciating the version on 1978’s Live At Budokan. I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by Dylan’s ability to continually reinterpret himself. In this version, the delivery is declarative and minimal, holding a steady line and giving the song a different life than the original. There’s a new confidence, which gives one of my all-time favorite Dylan lines new resonance: “I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.” Dylan’s life is full of comeback waves, and the energy propulsing through this song is testament to his genius for looking deeper into his art.
I sing “Oh, Sister” at home all the time. The lyrics can function in many different ways depending on what’s needed. Mostly I think of it as a really beautiful, simple hymn of forgiveness and care. It could also be a cheeky love song, where he is using God as a way to get it in. Those sort of temper each other, making me able to connect to each idea more. Just the math of it is really satisfying too, every word is perfectly placed and fully resonates. It kind of has whatever weight you give it, which is always true but the song feels specifically built that way.
Albert Hammond Jr. (The Strokes): "You Belong To Me," 1994
I didn’t know “You Belong To Me” was a cover; I thought he wrote the song. It’s just a very powerful song. You can’t explain sometimes how songs hit you. It came on, I didn’t know it was him at first. His voice is different. It was from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, which came out when I was 14 years old. I feel like you know Bob Dylan, from parents singing it or because it’s just part of the culture. I was connected to certain songs of his, but I love how he existed as a person. I always wish I could exist like that. It’s just the ebbs and flows of life you don’t realize when you’re younger. It’s impressive to keep going and still create stuff. It’s one of my favorite songs. Any mix I make for anyone, I put it on there. I know it’s not his. But you can definitely have something that’s not yours and own it. He’s done that a lot.
I was still at the age. It affected me. It was the time in my life where a song could literally change your life. You would feel one way, and you would hear a song and feel completely different. I know it sounds ridiculous. But it was true. There were different artists in that time period where I felt like a different human being. It’s the same way when you meet a new friend or fall in love. The colors feel different, your day-to-day feels different.
As told to Stereogum
Luke Muldowney was a childhood friend of mine, son of mean ol’ Ronnie Muldowney. Luke was nothing like his auld fella, didn’t drink, hated the ocean, and wasn’t one for a fight. At 15 he took up harmonica. If he couldn’t be a troublemaker like his dad he could at least play the blues. Luke always talked shite about Dylan. “He can’t play harmonica at all,” he’d whine. “He just wiggles his head around that harp hoping for the best.” Luke found his purpose. He was going to show that hack Dylan who the real bluesman was.
Around this time I thought, if Muldowney’s taken up harmonica I might try learning too. It’s always easier to learn with a friend I figured, so that’s what I did. Picked up a cheap harp in C from a Skibereen music shop and got playing. That was the first instrument I ever learnt, a 10-holed seed that led me on my musical path. I didn’t have a fleck of confidence back then. Harmonica was my foot in the door, and I owe that to a 15-year-old with daddy issues trying to show the world he was better than Dylan.
I listened to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” a lot those days. That’s the main reason I chose it to be honest, but after a relisten for this piece I was struck by how the lyrics mirrored the story I just told, of leaving those stepping stones behind and forgetting your debts, and how the highway is for gamblers. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.
This is like picking your favorite child — it just doesn’t work out; somebody’s gonna get hurt. But, I have one that had an enormous effect on me when I was young, “Like A Rolling Stone.” My mother and I drove into a small town, we were up in a little fishing cabin my grandpa built. She had to go to the drugstore, and she went in and “Like A Rolling Stone” came on the radio. I was certain when she came back out, she wouldn’t recognize me. I felt like the song had changed me that much, just by hearing it.
I was 13 or so. I was transformed. I had never heard lyrics like that. I had never heard a thing put together like that. Then “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” which comprised a whole side of a double album, was my next adventure. I spent an entire summer playing that song in my room over and over and over. It was like Homer’s Iliad or something. It was all about the battle of love.
You can’t listen to something for an entire summer and have it not effect you in terms of what you write. I think, probably, I was trying to write amateur versions of those visions he was having in that song. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times.” Sure, I made a piss-poor attempt to say something like that. I can’t remember the songs I was even writing back then. I think “lonesome” was a theme, the “lonesome teen.” I was a displaced youth. I didn’t fit in. “How does it feel to be on your own?” I put my hand up. I know how it feels! You’re preaching to the choir, Bobby.
It was quite a thrill when Dylan covered one of my songs. His significant other at the time was a woman that had worked at a record label I had made a couple records for — she was my A&R person. He was making this film, and he needed something to sing, so I think it was her doing — she called me and then put him on the phone. I was speaking to Bob Dylan on the phone. He asked me to write some songs for this film. Didn’t tell me much about it. I sent him three songs and they were basically bad Bob Dylan songs and he had the good sense not to record them. So he wound up doing a song I had recorded called “The Usual.” I’ve met him on several occasions, over the years. He’s a lovely man, very funny and dry. He just further cemented his status to me as one my all-time songwriting heroes.
As told to Stereogum
+1 for Jokerman. I feel like I’m being drawn to dance along to a mystery, I feel represented by it but also guilty. I love it. Dylan plus Mark Knopfler is a great sound for the song too. It’s a total desert island jam.
One of the geniuses of Bob Dylan is his particular skill at implicatory trains of thought that spool out over his songs. They’re these morals that are being talked about over and over again but he never gets super specific or on the nose. Each song is this sentiment of political/pop culture wit, there’s some sort of cunning god of wisdom speaking through him when he writes songs. I love how the lyrics of “Jokerman” are these quips of mystic wisdom from a source only Bob is in touch with. It’s like he’s decoded these buds of knowledge through his 1960s “isn’t it all so fucked up man” vibe, filtered through Mark Knopfler’s 1980s roots-pop sensibility. This combination is absolutely perfect for me.
I’ve always considered “Blind Willie McTell” to be one of the greatest of Bob Dylan’s lesser-known songs. It was recorded around the same time as songs that made up Infidels, an album I’ve always loved. Many have wondered why it wasn’t on the album, a valid question since it could be argued as the best song of that entire era. Of course, Dylan has famously boasted of taking his best song off of an album intentionally.
He could count money, gamble with the best of them, and memorized the New York subway system in ways that put most sighted men to shame. He was both a jokester and master songwriter as well as a brilliant performer whose music had humor and pathos to spare.
With McTell as a starting point, Dylan constructed a time travel from slave days through the Jim Crow South with a kitchen sink full of delta imagery, Bible scripture, and vaudevillian shuck and jive. Yet, as it goes with the best of songs, it also remains elusive and mysterious, benefitting as much from what it leaves out as for what it actually says.
From what I’ve read it would appear that Bob looks upon this song with a very certain sense of wonder, a bit amazed that this “came through him.” I can understand that feeling — the song feels creatively otherworldly to me. When I was 14-15 years old some friends and I discovered the word “nihilism” in some school Word Wealth vocabulary book and embraced it and its meaning as our “give a shit, don’t care about anything, nothing matters” attitude exemplar and stance. Parts of this song embody this philosophy, lines such as “I’ve got nothing to live up to” and “there’s no sense in trying,” portraying a resigned and pessimistic view. “It’s life and life only!” Being a bit of a 14-year-old nudnik at the time I only knew the Dylan “hits.” Had we known the song it may have become our “nihilistic” anthem. It grabs me every time I hear it for 50 years now; transcendent and timeless.
I also love “Born In Time” because it’s a gorgeous love ballad and I got to play on the record — thank you, Bob.
The first time I remember hearing Bob Dylan I must have been seven or eight. We used to go camping in Mexico just south of Brownsville, TX in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. We’d drive down in an old beat up, two tone GMC Jimmy. Most people don’t think about how close New Orleans is to Mexico, but it’s not far at all.
At the time my brother had a few cassettes: a red and blue Beatles collection, Cat Stevens, and Bob Dylan’s first two albums. That was the first time I heard “Blowin’ In The Wind.” It was inspiring, it was soothing, the music gave me a sense of hope and longing to be like him, out in the world playing music from my heart, channeling the source.
I always felt like my dad and Dylan were cut from similar cloth. Both came from small town Jewish families. They both followed their hearts and moved to the big city and fell into a life they created. Dylan made my mom and dad feel less alone in their own journey. He was someone they could relate to, someone who said what they believed and stood for, a fellow soldier in the good fight.
Dylan has performed “Wedding Song” only a handful of times in the year following its recording for Planet Waves in 1973. I was 20 years old the first time I heard it, shortly after receiving the news that my close childhood friend had suddenly passed away. When her father pulled me aside at a family gathering and asked me to learn “Wedding Song,” I poured myself into the simple melancholic chord progression and metaphors of constancy and devotion. In my fog of grief, it only occurred to me that I was being asked to perform the song at my friend’s funeral when I was handed a guitar that day.
From that point forward, I could never see love songs in the same way. “Wedding Song” taught me that love songs, like love itself, are inextricably bound with loss, and I will always see the lyrics through that lens. The lines “your love cuts like a knife” and “I love you more than ever and I haven’t yet begun” remind me that love can grow without limits, and it can endure, even when it’s cut far too short.
I was asked to write about a favorite Bob Dylan song in 100 to 200 words. Hell, a single Bob Dylan song dwarfs that number. Throw in the fact that I, myself, am a folk singer, and well. You get the point. We are not a brief people. The anecdote of bare-footed, long-haired singers with rambling introductions is a stereotype for a reason. One that was earned long before me, but of course I try not to be the weak link in the loquacious chain. Crap. This is 91 words right here. I better get to it.
To be brief: Bob Dylan took me on the road to open for him when I was struggling and encouraged me. He gave me books to read (Proust), music to listen to (the Blue Yodeler) and his lyric book with a sweet note written inside. He told me to keep going, even though my first album was failing at the time. And, he let me sing with him. I walked on stage and headed to the backup singer’s mic, with a simple mantra running through my 20-year-old head: “Do not pass out or do anything stupid.” Things seemed to be moving in slow motion. He was waving his arm at me, inviting me up to his mic. “Oh dear Lord,” I thought. “We are sharing a mic while singing my favorite song. Don’t. Faint.” We sang “I Shall Be Released,” the tips of our noses touching. When we were done, he put his arm around me and told the crowd “Does she sing as good as Joan Baez or what?!” My knees buckled and my ears rang loudly. I managed to walk off stage, full of a newfound courage Bob infused me with.
I had arrived to the tour a broken down, beat up, exhausted crooner of sensitive, introspective songs at the height of grunge. All of the ’90s press was telling me to quit. One outlet, I recall, disliked my music so much, the writer suggested my mother should have had an abortion. I was beginning to give up. But when Bob By-God Dylan tells you not to quit, you salute your Captain, pick yourself up, and carry on. And carry on I did.
Although “I Shall Be Released” is said to be the story of a prisoner longing to be set free, to me, its meaning has always resonated deeper than a jail cell-bound convict. As a spiritual message, it is a hymn that strips us of any shoulder to cry on and anything to lean on. Standing naked in the middle of the room, it is a song that calls us to realize that we can all become prisoners of our own minds.
Surrendering to complete personal transparency, we begin to truly see ourselves within the framework of society. Taking an honest look, we realize that humanity shares a collective mind that makes us all responsible for the how the scales of justice lean at any given moment. The reprieve comes only through true self-reflection leading us to personal freedom.
“I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released”
Through every need, any cry, or any call, the light has always been shining. It’s just will we allow ourselves to see it, and will we allow it to be the force that determines our societal structures.
I love a tall tale, and Desire is full of ’em. Growing up around a Dylan-obsessed father, my childhood consisted of many long car rides sitting in the backseat listening over and over to Bob Dylan, going to see Bob Dylan in concert, writing book reports on Bob Dylan biographies, and just plain shooting the breeze about the mythic poet/musician/rock ‘n’ roller dude with family and friends. “Isis” is a real adventure song. Is it a good song? I’m not sure — if I’m honest it’s pretty corny but it’s always been one to move me in a way that no other Dylan tune does. “Who is Isis?” I remember thinking as a kid… the song almost plays out like an Indiana Jones movie or an old western — a real good-guy/bad-guy drama.
Like a classic flick it’s got it all…
“I married Isis on the fifth day of May/ But I could not hold on to her very long”
“She said, ‘Where ya been?’ I said, ‘No place special’
She said, ‘You look different.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess’
She said, ‘You been gone.’ I said, ‘That’s only natural’
She said, ‘You gonna stay?’ I said, ‘If ya want me to, yes’
Dubious plot twister:
“We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice
He said, ‘There’s a body I’m tryin’ to find
If I carry it out it’ll bring a good price’
‘Twas then that I knew what he had on his mind”
But! It’s pure Dylan (albeit a co-write with playwright Jaques Levy, which probably accounts for the direct hero’s journey straight line of it all). And buried in all the cheeky narrative you get gems like:
“Isis, oh, Isis, you’re a mystical child
What drives me to you is what drives me insane”
“If I only could hang on and just be her friend
I still can’t remember all the best things she said”
Like a lot of classic Dylan songs it’s hard to separate the tune from the iconic/not perfect-perfectness of the master recording… Bob’s muppet-like piano tumble, the untethered and driving drumming by Howard Wyeth, as well as Scarlet Rivera’s antagonistic violin weaving are pillars of the track and part of what gets me so excited to put in on, over and over again.
Oh look — there I go, playing “Isis” to my six-year-old on our way to school… “Dad, who IS Isis?” she asks me from the back seat. “Good question, sweetie.”
The conversation continues… the perennial unpacking of another Bob Dylan song.
To be honest, I was never a big Dylan fan when I was younger. In high school, my friends got into Dylan and I just wasn’t into it. My family moved to Belgium when I was a junior in high school, so I finished my senior year of high school in Brussels. I felt this massive sense of displacement. I had my iPod on shuffle, and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” came on. I remember walking down Avenue Louise. It was this combo of the genius of Dylan’s lyrics, the movement I felt internally because of this displacement I felt in my personal life, and this massive sense of purpose that was, from then on, instilled in me. Whatever that feeling I just got from that song was in that moment, that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life — give that feeling to other people.
It was then that Dylan cracked the door open. I used to say it’s ironic, but now it seems to make sense that I started getting really into Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk. All these folkies, and learning about how oral tradition formulated and nomadic cultures and shit like that. I think that was connecting to something that was very, very clearly American as a sense of being in touch with my roots, I guess. Honestly, I hate the term “roots music”; it makes me want to fucking vomit. But I actually understood why I could call it that.
In terms of the social use of the song and what was going on in American culture at the time, you can’t really separate Dylan from that. I mean, I’m sure he would. For me it was less of the specifics of what implications maybe that song had in American culture at the time, and more that his voice seemed to be large and representative of such a large cause. It was more reflective of how music can really, really change the pulse of a generation in three and a half minutes.
As told to Stereogum
I was freakishly obsessed with Bob Dylan in high school. I was a loser with no friends and I would busk Bob Dylan songs in downtown Seattle. It was really embarrassing. But I got super, super into the early Bob Dylan stuff and the folk movement that led to those first couple albums — and not only that, but Woody Guthrie and really old field recordings Alan Lomax did out of the trunk of his car. With Bob Dylan, his being so concerned with his style, and him just being this incredible stream-of-consciousness writer, was inspiring to me to learn more about the roots of Americana.
That song ” To Ramona,” oh my god. It’s some of the most beautiful poetry. It’s super real and honest and I think I identified with it as a 16-year-old and I still identify with it. There’s some lines: “That hype you and type you/ Making you feel/ That you gotta be exactly like them.” As a 16-year-old I was like, “I don’t have to be like everybody else! Fuck those people!” There’s just so many beautiful lines. Don’t feel so bad that everyone’s making you feel different and like an outcast. Not only that, but the melody is so beautiful and so fun to sing. That record is so funny and raw and interesting, and really of its own class. The very first Bob Dylan record, where he still has his baby fat on the cover? He’s like, “I’m going to sing folk songs because I love Woody Guthrie and I hopped one train too.” How many crust punks did I know in high school trying to do the same thing? But on Another Side Of Bob Dylan, it was before he went electric but it’s when he was getting weird. That is such a magic moment in his writing.
As told to Stereogum
When I was 15, my friend John and I both bought Bringing It All Back Home. When I brought it home, I listened to it immediately and called John who did the same. We were blown away. This started my Dylan obsession. Years later I listened to every album chronologically. So many gems emerged. When I was heartbroken, I would play “Simple Twist Of Fate.” When I was in love, I would blare “I Want You,” and when I was struggling with relationships, “Positively 4th Street” was my companion.
The most inspiring aspect to Dylan’s career for me was how he seemed to have documented every moment of his life. Always maturing, always experimenting, and always remaining a creative force. From the beautiful — “All I Really Want To Do,” a song outlining the importance of friendship — to “Love Sick,” a regret to have ever felt those feelings. There is a Bob Dylan song for every emotion.
The track I am highlighting for this piece is a weird one. Every Christmas since its release, my family play Dylan’s Christmas record. “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” is a personal favorite from that album. It is earnest yet fun, serious yet joyful. His voice makes sense and he still means every word.
I like that it playfully resists over-interpretation. The chorus contains roughly a drunk text’s worth of information. The verses border on complete nonsense (and this applies to both existing versions). But I think “meaning” isn’t the whole point here. Could “oh ho” and “oo-ee” be just as compelling a witness to the human condition as “Desolation Row”? Could a song still mean something to you if it didn’t mean anything at all? Wouldn’t that be pretty nice anyway?
It feels homespun and familiar; it’s Bob with no one to impress — the kind of cozy slovenliness of a friend who doesn’t feel the need to tidy up before you come over. It’s a celebration of how little it takes to satisfy us, of how easy it can be to make something really, really good — if you can get over being “great.” And I like to be reminded that I’m a simple creature — or maybe to just be given a three-minute space to pretend that I am. We’re here for the “oo-ee” and the “oh-ho,” and who cares?
There are so, so many excellent Bob Dylan songs. If you asked me on a different day, I might say a different song — but today I am going to say “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is my favorite one. Maybe it is because of the time in my life when I started listening to it over and over — at around age 17. I’ve always thought that record (Highway 61 Revisited) was the single best sonically-recorded Dylan record, and, front-to-back, the one I feel closest to. (There are several others that are right there with this one, so singling it out is almost arbitrary.) But nonetheless, I am choosing this song.
I love the lyrics about being lost in the rain in Juarez on Easter, meeting someone named “sweet Melinda” who speaks good English, not having the strength to take another shot, and then just wanting to go back to New York City at the end. It’s a series of vivid wild images with a great melody, but most important is the raspy, snarling delivery that really sells the feel. Also a sick groove between the maraca and the kick and snare. I love that damned song. Runners up: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Simple Twist Of Fate,” “Standing In The Doorway,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Queen Jane Approximately,” “Highlands,” “Moonshiner,” “Goin’ To Acapulco,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”
To analyze a Bob Dylan song and share it with the public is undoubtedly a mistake, and of any to pull apart, “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” is for sure a fatal one. Still, here I am because, like the devotion displayed in the song from its singer to its subject, I am required by love to show my adoration for this particular work. Something changed in me as a songwriter when I reached the end of Blonde On Blonde. This titan of a song began to so unassumingly, so gradually, but determinedly unfold around me and expose a world filled with wonder, an edgeless landscape that left room for me as a songwriter to contribute to the world of music. In this way, the song is not the masterpiece we traditionally think of (monolithic? no) but instead an ever-changing, breathing, and generative thing. It is an enveloping type song like a breaking wave that spins and twists. Forever setting into motion everything in its path and the fact that it does this in a 3/4 time signature at a snail’s pace is all the more impressive. It helped me realize that though I don’t always heed the advice, songs can be epic and subtle.
Dylan is so rarely personal, so rarely intimate. He always keeps us at a distance, slightly, and even though I like that, because its where all the philosophy and questioning of his work comes in, it’s the intimacy of this particular song that draws me in. It feels close to the bone, emotionally. This song hurts me and touches me every time; the feeling of nostalgia and loss, the feeling of forward motion, the way that time and space keep moving forward, even when it feels painful, even when it feels like you don’t want it to anymore. It is a love story, but it also feels analogous to something else, the way the world keeps changing, the relentless push of change and the disconnection this changing world carries with it. The way the characters keep slipping past each other and the lack of satisfaction or calm they find, it touches a specific bruise in me, I guess, and I can’t think of another song that evokes that specific feeling. And of course, that eternal line of being tangled up in blue, resounding on in so many different situations, it’s really the perfect line, applicable everywhere, omnipresent, painful, true, and also beautiful.
It feels absurd to pick a favorite bob Dylan song, but if I had to pick one that I feel I have grown with it has to be “Positively 4th Street.” Hearing it for the first time as a nine-year-old, it felt like something totally of my own, having no friends who would have shared my enthusiasm for it. As a teen it felt even closer to my heart because of course, I was surrounded by phony assholes, like all teenagers are in their heads. As I’ve grown an adult I have at times seen myself in the song, as the villain, in my darkest times. Bob Dylan has of course written more songs than some can imagine, and has had lots of practice at nailing all the sides of a story, at penetrating the heart of so many matters, and I’m grateful for it. Happy Birthday, BD.
Charlie Manning (Chubby And The Gang): "To Fall In Love With You," 1986
The song doesn’t feel like it starts. It feels like you’ve walked in on a man trying to work out the best way to express his love on a guitar. You’re just an observer. It captures that journey in all its aspects — uncertainty, fear, exploring emotion and feeling without any compass. Yet it’s still so uplifting, it makes your heart soar.
I know it was never formally released. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was ‘cos he felt it was too personal. So many of Bob’s songs are amazing because they make you think. They come from the brain of a brilliant man. But to me it’s more interesting to get insight into the heart of a brilliant man. He lays his soul bare, without the intricate lyrics. Sometimes it feels like he’s not even sure what he wants to say.
You think you know Bob Dylan but then you find little gems like this and you realize you barely know him. The words of a genius, now somewhat incoherent. I guess love makes even the cleverest man lose his train of thought. There’s the “Blowin’ In The Wind”s of the world, proud and popular. Then there’s “To Fall In Love With You,” uncertain and tender, whose voice can barely be heard over the roar of his popular songs but still has so much to say.
My favorite Bob Dylan track is “Up To Me,” from Biograph, or a reject/alt from Blood On The Tracks/Tapes, depending on how much of a Dylan nerd one wishes to appear. It contains the line “The only decent thing I did when I worked as a postal clerk/ Was to haul your picture down off the wall near the cage where I used to work/ Was I a fool or not to protect your real identity?/ You looked a little burned out, my friend/ I thought it might be up to me” — which tells more of a story than most people could hope to tell in a lifetime. Swiftly followed by “I met somebody face to face, I had to remove my hat … It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be/ But she ain’t gonna make a move/ I guess it must be up to me” — which tells more about the angst of love than ever needed to be written. And it was a song he essentially threw away. He reused the same chords and wrote an equally brilliant, timeless song — “Shelter From The Storm.” Goddammit.
I don’t think I remember hearing the version by Bob Dylan himself at first. My version was Richie Havens’, and then the Band did it in The Last Waltz. It’s a timeless tune. Richie Havens, to me, was one of the guys who would always make a Dylan song his own. He had that unique way of re-dressing a song by another composer in such an original way. Bob was being awarded by ASCAP in New York City, and Richie Havens was there. Bob asked him if he would sing “Just Like A Woman.” It was just him and Bob sitting in the corner of this restaurant. Some people gathered around to hear it, but for the most part it went unnoticed by most of the attendees. I remember hearing something and I walked over, and just seeing Dylan totally enraptured by Richie’s rendition. I thought, “I’m witnessing a real moment here.”
It was usually another artist who really imprinted the impact of a Dylan song on me. I might’ve heard his versions, and his versions seemed to fall into a sphere of his way of performing things. It’s kind of like when you hear a Beatles song done by a jazz artist. All the sudden they take on a new meaning, hearing someone else interpret them. As much as I love Bob’s versions, it’s Pops Staples’ version of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” that’s the first time I heard that song done in a real gospel genre and I realized it’s truly a gospel song. It makes you realize he was very diverse in his writing.
I had the pleasure of doing “I Shall Be Released” every night, on the 40th anniversary of the Last Waltz tour, with Warren Haynes and Don Was and a lot of guys from New Orleans. We got to sing that song, and it was a highlight for me. We split the verses and then sang the chorus together in three-part harmony. It was almost a folk-gospel version. It seemed to be the one the crowd was touched by the most.
It’s a timeless chorus. When it hits that chorus, it soars. Songs like that, you never know why. It’s not totally unique harmonically or melodically classical or anything. But there’s just something about the marriage of that lyric and that simple kind of folk melody that is so powerful. I think it’s one of those songs that will be around long after we’re all gone. It was a privilege to be one of a million troubadours to perpetuate it along the way.
As told to Stereogum
I’ve always thought it takes the most brilliant and most prolific of songwriters to know when to pull back and keep it simple. Just tell it like it is and don’t worry about the rhyme or the rhythm. That’s why “I Threw It All Away” is my favorite Bob Dylan song. “Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand/ And rivers that ran through every day/ I must have been mad/ I never knew what I had/ Until I threw it all away.” The brilliance of mixing powerful metaphors with brutal honesty of admitting he’s crazy for being the one who messed it up.
I also love the melody change on that chorus. It is so brilliant and original. And the words are so incredible and very accurate. “Love is all there is, it makes the world go round.” I know as a woman, I have always been drawn to songs where the man is sorry and he misses what he has lost. When he is humbled enough to say “I had it all and I threw it all away.” We’ve all been that person, and we’ve all been the person whose love was thrown away.
Another reason this is one of my favorite songs of his is the way he sings it. It just feels like he opens up and shows this super vulnerable side and lets his voice soar like I haven’t really heard before. And it’s so sincere. I’d give him another chance if I was the one he was singing to, that’s for sure.
Bob Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Ways came out four months into the pandemic, just as I was really starting to lose it being stuck at home. A few days after this record was released, I filled my car with cameras and recorders and headed west through a freshly unhinged America. The Black Shark felt like an armored vehicle. Inside the metal frame, behind the dark tinted glass, I played only this record. I played it over and over the whole way across the country. Every time “Black Rider” came on, I imagined myself some outlaw character. The song, the inner dialogue of the solo driver in the murdered-out muscle car gunning it through cuckoo-land, tempting the dark. It all felt right. It was my favorite song. I wound up driving around for the rest of the year. Seventeen thousand miles later, the collective reverberation of engine roar and Dylan’s new record will forever be interwoven in my memories of that strange time on the lost highway. “The road that you’re on, same road that you know/ Just not the same as it was a minute ago.”
“Do Right By Me Baby” is the one I would drop if I was a DJ. It’s a bit like Rolling Stones when they’re a bit disco. It’s got such a clever, poppy lyric. It’s just right up my street; that’d suit me entertaining people. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is very me as well, it’s sexy and it’s got loads of drama. He can be quite camp, actually. “You’re A Big Girl Now,” he has this badass stance in it. He’s at the all-time top of his game anyway on Blood On The Tracks. It’s so honest, and it’s so full of bravado. It makes me think it’s very modern. Then there is “Moonshiner,” an outtake from the ’60s — it’s pure as glass. His early stuff has this parochial expression, just hanging around, and he just picks it up. That’s when he sounds the most of the very moment. He’s a young man projecting into an old man, and then you see he becomes it.
But my favorite is “Simple Twist Of Fate.” I think the greatest things in life have equilibrium, like a basketball floating in the water. Where everything is in the right place and time. When he says, “I was born too late” at the end — you’re thinking about the open windows earlier and wondering if he’s going to throw himself out the window. You don’t know if he’s killed himself or anything at the end. It’s a lovely, bouncy pop song with great equilibrium. You can sing it a cappella, and it bounces around as well — you’d have the whole room jumping. That’s the mark of something rare. His voice is so true to him in that time, but it’s also universal. It’s a great all-rounder for me, his greatest one. It’s absolute perfection.
As told to Stereogum
First introduced to me by a friend Will White, this has grown to become one of my favorite Dylan tracks. Its razor sharp wit begins in the title line “Idiot Wind”; something Dylan apparently picked up from a tutor while taking art classes at Carnegie Hall. The phrase first appeared in a piece by the American poet Weldon Kees in the 1940s before Dylan adopted it. As writers we like to take fragments of overheard conversation; something ignites the spark in us and moves us to write. The thread which begins this piece has been picked up in true folkloristic style — by word of mouth. The phrase then becomes imbued with its own personal and specific meaning. For me this is storytelling at its greatest.
There are multiple recordings; my favorite is the full band recording on Blood On The Tracks. It is on this version that he uses a strange vocal inflection on the word “idiot,” giving the word an almost impossible bend. Maybe he needed the extra syllable to give a lead in to the hook when it lands. I just like how he says it. It has style.
Whether or not you make comparisons with Dylan’s personal life, the song doesn’t need a context to be understood. It is a story of spoiled love. The uneasy mood is offset by humorous and “inflated” imagery in good measure. It becomes ridiculous at times, which helps deal with the difficulty of it; “Blowing through the buttons of our coats,” “We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
Like with all of Dylan’s songs, the variation in lyrics and delivery from one performances to another ensure that the song remains unfinished, unfixed. It remains alive. This is something I’ve grown to love and value the most about his work.
“Blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.”
“The Man In Me” was first showed to me by a friend of mine (Kevin). It hits you with the first joyful moan from Dylan, it reels you in and makes you wanna stay, sounding like a long sunny day. Dylan sings about his feelings of needing validation, not being able to find himself. These words, on paper, seem sad, but the way in which he presents them makes you think otherwise. He’s happy to be taken over, happy to live in a world where he finds peace within his lover. The organ exploding in the choruses, the classic Dylan-esque intonation (“taasssk, “maacchinne”) or the song being cushioned by Dylan wailing “la la la la la” — the feeling of this song is contagious and that feeling never grows old. It makes you want to skip down the road, or fall in love. It’s a truly beautiful song, and I think Bob Dylan at his best.
Prior to becoming the full-time mascot and CEO of his initiative to manufacture and promote an income-generating legacy, Bob Dylan wrote, recorded, and performed great songs in a variety of inspired and challenging circumstances. He worked powerfully and diligently on the exploration and expansion of what a lyrical song could-and-should be, with successes outnumbering failures in a remarkable ratio. As he got further out there, the rewards did not proportionately expand, and so he sought another kind of reward: Christian redemption. He gave up, at a crucial moment in his musical evolution, full accountability for his own work and life, stepping away from a fascinating and rigorous process to which he never fully returned.
Not long after the congested proselytizing phase, there was a song released called “Brownsville Girl” on a weird mishmash LP, Knocked Out Loaded. “Brownsville Girl” is credited to Dylan and writer/actor Sam Shepard, and it picks up, seemingly, some of the methods employed in Dylan’s earlier collaborations with theatrical director Jacques Levy from a decade or so before, making for Dylan’s most truly theatrical recorded performance. The vocal performance on the released version of this song is neither measured nor restrained, it’s “out there” and full-on like Burl Ives, as if Mavis Staples and Harry Dean Stanton fused into one performer. And the lyric goes somewhere. It’s two or three stories in one, with time, space, and perspective shifting as it did in “Tangled Up In Blue” but without abstraction.
The song is concrete, cathartic and epic, humorous and charming. It rolls across unmapped territories and hints at a way of realizing musical ideas that has yet to be pursued since by anyone, anywhere, including by Bob Dylan. I can remember listening to the song over and over as a teenager, and happening upon the Gregory Peck movie referred to over and over in the course of the lyric. The movie is The Gunslinger, Peck’s only appearance during his heyday in which he sports a mustache. In the film, a heretofore unchallengeable gunslinger is destroyed by forces that he himself put in motion. The “Brownsville Girl” lyric unfolds in such a way that the dour heaviness of The Gunfighter‘s theme is exploded; the singer/narrator is not worried at all about chickens coming home to roost, he is far too involved in his own day-to-day adventure of living and dying.
My favorite Bob Dylan song without question. It’s just him with an acoustic and it’s very fast-paced. I also think that these are the best lyrics he’s ever written. “Darkness at the break of noon” and “If my thought dreams could be seen they’d probably put my head in a guillotine” are two of my favorites. It’s a tough song but Dylan was always tough. Tough and very cool. Easily the coolest rockstar from the ’60s and way beyond. I get nervous when I fly and I’ve used this song dozens of times during takeoff and landing to help me get through. It gives me strength of conviction. Such a powerful piece of music. I never trust people who don’t like Dylan. Clearly they’ve never taken the time to really explore what he’s about. They’ve missed out on his vast repertoire of unbelievable greatness and this song for me is right at the top.
For an artist with such a mythical body of work, “Tears Of Rage” stands out as a rare instance in which the superior version is performed by someone else (Nina Simone’s masterful covers demand a mention). The version Dylan performs on The Basement Tapes was recorded in ’67 and released in ’75. It feels primordial and probably wasn’t intended to be the conclusive recording. But one of Dylan’s key traits is that even his inscrutable and tossed-off vocal performances resonate with an uncanny, soul-shaking conviction.
The song features some of Dylan’s most heartrending lyrics set to a sorrowful melody, composed by Richard Manuel, a man no stranger to despair. Even when delivering raw-nerve, emotional lyrics, Dylan often comes off as untouchable, his sadness obscured by anger or a studied remove. Dylan’s pain is real, but it’s the vulnerability of Manuel’s delivery — their combined powers — that makes the Band’s version (the opening track from Music From Big Pink) so devastating, and definitive. A mysterious song dealing in regret, betrayal and hopelessness, it’s somehow conciliatory in the end. Almost half a century later, the song’s meaning still isn’t clear, but that doesn’t make it any less affecting. “Come to me now, you know we’re so alone. And life is brief.”
I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard my favorite songwriter of all time. It was an artist who’d already lived a million lives by the time I was born. He had been the revivalist, the folk singer, the protest singer, the anti-singer, the original vagabond, the rock and roller, motorcycle nightmare who disappeared and came back saved and reinvented himself again and again and again and again. He’s been the country gentleman, the traveling Wilbury, the man in the long black coat, the man with a pencil thin mustache, the list goes on and on. Yes, I’m talking about Bob.
The first time I truly connected to Dylan’s words is a more vivid memory to me than my first kiss or watching the twin towers fall on 9/11. It was a cool fall day and I was driving down 8th Avenue South in Nashville when “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie” came through my car speakers. Bob’s voice was young, uncertain — not yet jaded. He began timidly, earnestly, thoughtfully:
“When your head gets twisted and your mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When you’re laggin’ behind an losing yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life’s busy race
No matter what yer doin if you start givin’ up
If the wine don’t comer to the top of your cup
If the wind’s got you sideways with one hand holdin’ on
And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone…”
I sat there listening intently at the red light until a choking feeling crept up my throat and a pool of tears welled in my eyes. He went on and on and the words twisted and became more concrete and Bobby sounded more confident as he spoke.
“When your sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash can alleys
And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipes a-pourin’
And the lightning’s a flashing and the thunder’s a crashin’
And the windows are rattling and break-in and the roof tops a shakin’
And yer whole world’s a slamming and bangin'”
There was no music on this track — just words. There was something about the way he spoke — his words didn’t necessarily rhyme but they flowed and made perfect sense. Most importantly, I believed him. Even when I knew he wasn’t singing about himself, he resonated the truth, just like Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, or Skip James did. But Bob could also tap into the cosmos and pull down melodies that seemed older than time; he molded memorable phrases from the ether.
“And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
And to yourself you sometimes say
‘I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn’t they tell me on the day I was born?'”
A car behind me honked and I noticed the light was now green but I felt frozen there listening to Bob reciting this poem-like eulogy for his hero Woody. I put on my blinker and put my foot on the gas but my brain was with Bob in New York, live at Town Hall, April of 1963. Instead of turning onto the interstate I pulled my truck over at the 7-Eleven gas station in Wedgewood. I just sat there for a minute in the derelict parking lot where Harmony Korine filmed Gummo and although I had tears rolling down my face and I was feeling all choked up, I finally felt like I wasn’t alone for the first time in 19 years. I had just moved to town to try my hand at becoming a songwriter in the city of songs. I had fled my home, my family, my friends, and even my current boyfriend at the time. And when I left home, I “accidentally” took my now-ex-boyfriend’s Bob Dylan box set along for the nine-hour drive south. Three CDs in the original case — Bob’s Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare And Unreleased) 1961-1991. I turned off the engine of my car but kept the key in so the audio stayed on. Bob continued:
“And you start gettin’ chills and yer jumping from sweat
And you’re lookin’ for something you ain’t quite found yet”
I was never the same after that. I was sent searching, eternally, chasing the no-formula formula that made him a mystical being and a masterful poet. I wanted to get high on the thin-wild mercury sound and I would do anything to have such power over the English language. There was no doubt about it, I thought, “Bob Dylan sold his soul to the devil and it worked.”
The poem keeps rolling and rambling and it becomes apparent that he’s searching for an answer, the remedy, meaning of existence. But the trail abruptly slams into a fork in the road when he’s looking for God. He suggests you can either go to the Grand Canyon at Sundown or Brooklyn State Hospital where his hero Woody Guthrie was laying, dying in bed. And what do these two things represent? They represent inspiration in two different ways which Bob took with him and became. He is to me, as Woody is to him. A lighthouse, a beacon. He is the man with a million minds.
I’d like to start by saying this: I’m so happy that Bob Dylan is finally getting a little recognition for once.
My favorite Bob Dylan album will forever be Blonde On Blonde. I’m pretty sure that’s everyone’s favorite, though this list will probably have people digging into some bullshit he did in the ’90s. That’s fine, but let’s be honest with ourselves here.
Do yourself a favor and put on “Visions Of Johanna” right now. I know you’ve listened to this song 1,000 times, but just put it on again. Holy shit, right? I really don’t have anything to say about the production of the album or what phase Dylan was in when he recorded it or whatever — I just really like that song because it makes me feel good when I listen to it. And sometimes that’s all you need.
Picking out a favorite Dylan tune has left my mind in shambles. He is one of those that I will plead to in times of need, an ingredient for remedy in every heartbreak. I envy the free-flowing nature of his genius and he always remains as one of those that reminds you to aspire towards the smoldering place of music’s purest. Yet, I’ve picked “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” It’s the song that got me into Dylan as a young teenager, and one that initially brought me to my knees in its sheer seemingly effortless voluptuous nature. Either the sound of truth smacking you cold in the face, or some jester akin to.
These early Dylan songs have such a simple magic to them. This song always makes me tear up because it’s become very relatable to me. It was also the first Dylan song I ever heard that stopped me in my tracks. It tells such a straightforward story, a conversation between two free-spirited young lovers, one of whom is traveling on the other side of the world. The love between them is at first full of hope. The gift of Spanish boots represents a gesture of care. But as the song goes on the conversation becomes less hopeful, and the boots seem become more of a parting gift. It’s kind of a funny choice for a gift. Boots often symbolize leaving, or walking away. I always wonder if this was a conscious choice, or if he really just wanted some leather boots. Either way, I enjoy this little bit of comedy amidst an otherwise heartbreaking story.
What is my favorite Bob Dylan song? I’m hesitant to answer this question. I’m afraid it will reveal something about my soul that I don’t want you to know. It’s kind of like picking your favorite Beatle. I feel like there are two modes of Dylan; paranoid and depressed or obsessed and in love. I tend to like the latter.
I looked up the lyrics to “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and found the original version. It was fascinating to see how the lines changed and got so much Bobbier:
“If there’s a cowboy on the place
then let him have my train”
“If there’s a poor boy on the street
then let him have my seat”
It’s that big-hearted, generous feeling that accompanies falling in love with a total stranger. The perfect combination of reckless and tender. This is peak Bob; a guy in a room with a deadline and something to prove.
“Shelter From The Storm” has got to be a top-five Bob Dylan song for me. I love how simple the chords are and the lyrical imagery is next level. Just a classic tune from a great album. The live version from the Hard Rain TV special is like a whole new spin on it and somehow just as good as the original. One time we listened to “Shelter From The Storm” for 100 minutes straight in the van. It played more than 20 times in a row and by the end we were all actually starting to feel pretty loopy. We’d do it again in a heartbeat though. Happy birthday, Mr. Dylan.
I remember being 16 and memorizing the 10+ verses of this song, trying to sing it as Dylan does, digging into each syllable, each one hitting like a finger-poke to the forehead, particularly as he’s rising and pitching towards the end of each verse until the release with the refrain “De-so-la-tion Row.” Something about this song in particular obsessed me then and it’s been my favorite ever since. The carousel loop structure is so satisfying with the tension and release I’d never ever want to get off that loop, even after the long ride of 11 minutes something. It’s like a perpetual motion machine.
I can’t say I knew then or know now what it’s about exactly but I imagine the parade of characters from pop and literary culture as friends/acquaintances, Dylan having “rearrange[d] their faces and give[n] them all another name” — something only alluded to in the final verse. The imagery is mesmerizing, and with his vocal delivery — singing it like it’s the most important message in the world — these ambiguous scenes seem to possess some powerful undercurrent of meaning, speaking to some non-logical part of the mind. And when he’s finally done with words the harmonica solo truly shreds.
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” is definitely one of my favorite Dylan songs right now. It’s the perfect blend of ridicule and empathy. “You know it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine” is genius. He’s calling her out for doing something that doesn’t make any sense, but he’s not acting like he doesn’t understand. We’re all performing, predictably, all the time, and in the most obvious ways. There’s not really an air of superiority in his commentary here, in my opinion. He’s just gifting us with an opportunity to recognize our own culpability and laugh at ourselves.
The Goshen Public Library where I grew up was the original source of music for me. It had a beguiling curation of random tapes, records, and even artwork that one could check out for a few months. The main connecting theme of the collection was the lack of any artist’s significant work. There was no Beatles but they had Flaming Pie, no Kind Of Blue but they had Tutu, and no Highway 61 but for some reason they had Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong. So that is the first Dylan record I ever heard. It took me years to finally hear “Blowin’ In The Wind.” I must have checked out World Gone Wrong a hundred times. “Lone Pilgrim” was the last track on the album and I believe it was the first full song I ever learned on guitar. I still use the structure to this day. It was such a weird and organic way to open the door to musical discovery but I am so thankful for that. There are countless Dylan songs that have changed my life but they never will replace the source. So thank you Goshen Public Library and I’m pretty sure I never returned the Sand In The Vaseline box set, I’m very sorry about that.
Alan Sparhawk (Low): "One Too Many Mornings" (Rolling Thunder Revue Version), 1976
We’d been listening to the live Rolling Thunder Revue recordings for a few tours and they had proven to be the wedge that finally broke me open to Dylan’s music, but as I pulled out of Sioux Falls from what would be my last visit with my father before he was finally crushed and put out by cancer, I put on my favorite. It is a storm. Dylan is screaming his brains out, as he is on many of the songs on those shows. Lyrics collide with each other in iconic metaphor — you feel yourself turning with him at the doorstep, weary, winding through memory to a love that is only one and perfect though shared time — imperfect never-ending time. The window opened for a moment and I knew and surrendered to it.
I’ve listened to a lot of Bob Dylan; I named my daughter Johanna after one of his songs so it’s fair to say I am a big fan. He was always playing in the house — my stepmom always referred to him as “Bobby” — but “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is the first song of his that I remember REALLY hearing and getting to know and learning how to play. The melody is so beautiful and simple and heartbreaking and the arpeggiated chords kind of stumble in and around major and minor and it’s just such a perfect little song. Also Dolly Parton’s cover of it is absolutely next level and everyone go listen to it right now.
Patrick Stickles (Titus Andronicus): "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar," 1981
We Dylan fans would be lucky enough that he has bequeathed to the world a six-decade career which is bound together by his distinct and unmistakable genius, but we are truly blessed beyond words that he has, not fewer than thrice, by my count, felt compelled to do all in his power to squander what worthless “goodwill” has been thrust upon him by those who would assign him a mission and a meaning beyond and beneath his own will. Mr. Dylan seems to recognize that “art” which serves only to affirm the preconceptions of its audience, and in so doing flatter them, is mere propaganda, and the “artist” who lowers themself to be such a flatterer can only struggle in vain towards the creation of true art with not fewer than one extremity lopped clean off.
How could Mr. Dylan ever have walked the righteous path with so many useless flowers thrown at his feet? He would have to clear the way, lest he take a wrong turn into early obsolescence. This would require upsetting the sensibilities of self-appointed scholars with the din of unruly electricity, or an untimely tumble off a motorcycle, or a garishly overdubbed collection of curious covers, or (much later) not less than 10 vinyl sides worth of frog-throated excavations into the Great American Songbook.
Each of these digressions would leave Mr. Dylan with sufficiently little to lose that he’d be able to set off once again into undiscovered country, so that he might bring back plentiful rewards. Generally, these flights of fancy would earn him a year or three where he could be unbothered enough to get back to serious work, before his head would once again be too heavy under all those uninvited laurel wreaths. To earn himself a whole decade in the wilderness, however, and generate a body of work so bonkers that it is still yet to be properly appraised, he would have to do the truly unthinkable: learn to love Christ.
While Mr. Dylan’s “gospel records” of the late 1970s may have recently been given the “deluxe edition” treatment and the begrudging respect of many Dylanologists, professional and amateur alike, time has not been quite as kind (yet) to 1980’s Shot Of Love, which has a slightly more muddled identity, as it saw Mr. Dylan straddling the line between gospel and secular music. Along this line, he found (for my money), the most mercilessly rocking (dare I say, “unhinged”) music he’d ever capture in a studio setting, and no song better exemplifies my favorite of Mr. Dylan’s many sides (that of the foamy-mouthed and silver-tongued lunatic all the way off his leash) than “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar.”
The richest spoils of Mr. Dylan’s deepest sojourn into the wilderness truly need to be heard to be believed, and certain “facts” surrounding this recording may lead you to doubt your own senses. There’s allegedly a drummer named Ringo on this track, and if his contributions are difficult to discern (studio whiz Jim Keltner is also credited, which would explain why it rocks), the end result does sound like nothing more than his All-Starr band near the bottom of a bag of severely stepped-on crank.
Mr. Dylan himself may have been high merely on the Holy Spirit, but he churns out hall-of fame quotables like Lil Wayne at the peak of his codeine consumption, shattering the false binary between scripture and gibberish every time he opens his mouth to holler for dear life. Choosing just one favorite line to represent this brilliant and beautiful ascension into divine madness would be impossible, since there’s not a dud in the bunch, so I now throw my dart and land on, “Put your hand on my head, babe — do I have a temperature?/ I see people who are supposed to know better standing around like furniture.” Holy cow, and to think you can buy a good copy of this record for a dollar.
Is this really the “best” Dylan song, or the one which best illustrates his particular brilliance, or even a particular strain thereof? Of course it isn’t, for again, making such a distinction with any supposed authority does nothing more than out the selector as an arrogant fool, and while that’s exactly what I myself am most days, I am humbled before the totality of Mr. Dylan’s genius. Dylan fandom is truly the gift that keeps on giving — he has churned out such quality material over so many different eras of his life that his music can serve as our constant companion wherever we may be in our own lives. Though we outgrow the speed-addled brat of the Don’t Look Back era, we may yet come to identify with the grizzled divorcee of Blood On The Tracks — may we all be blessed enough that we survive to understand the wise and weary traveler of Rough And Rowdy Ways. For now, though, “my” Dylan is stumbling into middle age with the Lord in one hand and the Devil in the other, thirsty for a shot of love.
The first Bob Dylan song I fell for was “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” I was a teenager and while I mostly was interested in punk music at the time I was starting to re-explore the music my parents loved. I had swiped a bunch of their CDs and was listening to Bob Dylan. I remember feeling so gripped by “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” I would drive around listening to it and cry. Though I had little experience with love lost, the song really packed a punch with its lonely voice, simple guitar, howling harmonica, and beautiful melody. Looking back, I think some of its complexity was lost on me at the time, but now I really appreciate it. It’s sad, spiteful, forgiving, tender, and slightly bitter all at the same time. He’s talking about moving on and letting go of this person he clearly hasn’t fully let go of yet. It perfectly holds all the emotion of a bittersweet farewell. I’ve fallen for many other Dylan songs since then, but this one is such a classic and still gets me choked up from time to time.
Swamp Dogg: "Sidewalks, Fences And Walls," 1987
Bob Dylan recorded one of my songs, “Sidewalks, Fences And Walls” in one of his rehearsal preparations to hit the road. At that time he had my best friend, William Smith, on keyboards. While working with me on one of the best Solomon Burke albums at that same time, Smitty played it for Bob, who loved the song so much he recorded it. He did a great job as only Dylan can. The ironic part is a line “Solomon loves Mary.” When Bob cut it he said, “Bob loves Mary.” Somebody got a bootleg version of the rehearsal and sold it on Amazon for 12K plus. That’s my favorite among many because Bob writes most of his songs himself. To be included in his thoughts is one of the highlights of my life. Happy birthday Bob from your Dogg.
Picking a favorite Bob Dylan song is a bit like picking your favorite saint — if you love one, you’ll likely love a lot of them. Still, I find myself returning again and again with wonder and devotion to “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” The greatest love letter ever committed to tape, “Sad Eyed Lady” is an exquisite, devastating tsunami of a song that I have been routinely showing up to drown in ever since I first scored a beat up copy of Blonde On Blonde in the late 1990s. Visually stunning, musically hypnotic, utterly desolate, every verse an incantation, this song will make you forget who you are, and what true romantic among us doesn’t crave that?
I don’t have a favorite Bob Dylan song. I find his body of work akin to a huge collection of art — depending on the season or the year, there are some works that I’m more drawn to than others, but I love it all. At the very least I love the idea of it all. I was going to write something about “Abandoned Love,” a masterful song that was left off of 1975’s Desire. But I sat down and looked out the window and everything was green and the birds were singing, and “In The Summertime” — from his performance on October 21, 1981 at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston — came to mind. I first learned about this performance from the Trouble No More box set, which is a gathering of mostly live recordings from his Christian years. “In The Summertime” feels like a move away from the strict gospel of Slow Train or Saved towards something more ambiguous and maybe more internal. Of all musical guises that Bob Dylan has worn, his Christian era is one of my favorites. I love his exploration of spirituality during this time — he comes at it from the inside, and with the zealousness of a new convert, lots of fire and brimstone. It’s hard to tell how much of it is an act. And I absolutely love his band from this time period. There’s something about how big and wide the bottom end is that reminds me of reggae music; it’s not surprising to me that not long afterwards, he hired Sly & Robbie to be his rhythm section on Infidels. I feel like it would have been really fun to be in this band.
I always love hearing him just guitar, voice, harmonica. When he wants to emphasize something, the tempo pushes; when he wants to lean on a word, it pulls back. It just goes with poetry well. When a story needs to be told, there’s nothing keeping the storyteller from emphasizing things exactly as they hear it. Even the title of that tune — it’s compelling right out of the gate. I want to love the tune before I hear it.
I remember the first time hearing it. Susan [Tedeschi]’s dad played it. Susan’s dad and my dad, Bob Dylan was their hero. He was always a presence. I remember seeing Charles Dickens characters in my head hearing the story. I didn’t know it was based in truth. It’s just one of those stories the more you dig into it — you know, the theme of that tune is incredibly timely. I guess it was never not timely. Unfortunately, it’s an American story. I think he wrote it while the story was still unfolding. Usually when I hear things that are too current, they feel trite. The way he told that story, you feel like you need to know it.
There’s something really powerful about it. I listened to it a couple times this morning and got chills every time. Sometimes it was the words, sometimes it was the delivery. Sometimes it’s what it makes you imagine and feel. That was right at the time, he was kind of changing the whole game. Songwriting was something that was done to create hits, up to a certain point. Dylan came along and it became a real art form. He told people: This is important. There’s a different weight to it. That song feels like that to me, a real shift in the way music was treated.
As told to Stereogum
“The Times They Are A-Changin'” sums up the mood of my late teens. Every time I hear it I’m transported back there. This song signaled the youth movement’s revolutionary sense of purpose, spoke for how we felt about the need for change, for freedom, our hatred of authority and control. My best friend Les was heavily into Dylan like a lot of my friends were. Just about every time we’d all meet up at some point there’d be Dylan songs played or renditions of them by people playing acoustic guitar, mouth organ, and bongos. It’s weird and sad to think all these years later the song has such resonance.
A great song. The mystery of course — why is it to his Ma? Such an interesting framework for such a cynical song about society at large and all of its failings. The narrator: someone young enough to be calling home and checking in. Or being checked in on. And yet so world weary. As though these visions of the rat race choir, the sex starved old ladies who judge and stare, the people’s games you’ve got to dodge — all of these perversions of life — something discovered only recently? A surprise? A song of recent experience, written by a young person in their twenties, not someone with the wisdom of maturity, but with the outrage of youth. Then there are the constant ironic reassurances ending with “It’s alright, Ma. It’s life and life only.” A very bitterly satisfying song to sing, a careening journey through Bob Dylan’s mind as he catalogs the hypocrisies we take for granted when we get older. I love it.
When I was put on Ritalin at nine years old, I found it fascinating that my brain could talk a million miles an hour about Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves. I grew up in Illinois, and liking a team besides the White Sox or Cubs was literal violence. I could be binge eating Go-Gurt and just babble on about how much better of a hitter Chipper Jones was than Sammy Sosa. The argument didn’t make sense on paper. Sosa was cleaning house with home runs all season. If Sosa had Chipper Jones’ stats, he would walk into oncoming traffic.
Today, I’m no longer prescribed speed, but carry this whopper of a party killing argument when talking Bob Dylan.
“Time Out Of Mind is the peak of Bob’s creativity” I’ll say, as I screw on the top of my San Pellegrino.
“‘STANDING IN THE DOORWAY’ IS THE BEST SONG BOB DYLAN EVER WROTE” I shout, as the neighbors are shooting fireworks out of their ass on a hot summer evening.
And you know, I mean it.
“Last night I danced with a stranger
But she just reminded me you were the one.”
I can only imagine he was exhaling cigarette smoke through his nose for a year straight. Sometimes that’s the only way to exhale when you’re bummed.
I love Bob at his most controversial. ’80s Christian, Frank Sinatra tributes, and middle aged paranoia that kids think is too boring. No weed songs? No acid songs?
No, none. Just grey at the temples and wishing for second chances. This song isn’t just a mood — it’s cyclical lucid dream of loneliness. I’ve yet to find another six-minute tune about doorways that makes me hope to God I never have to stand in one. And there’s a lot of cool songs about doors.
I appreciate the salty arc of empowerment that runs through this tale of maritime heartbreak. When the narrator realizes their lover ain’t coming back, their inner goddess ho shows up like, “Cool, pay me.” Moral of the story: Whether your “boots” are literally material gifts or alternative forms of currency, i.e. rock-solid emotional support, make sure all your relationships are reciprocal and mutually honoring. In that last line I feel like Bob is perched on my shoulder whispering, “No matter how hot they are, how great their poetry is, or how much you like doing it with them… get those boots girl.”
Beyond the great music he makes, Bob Dylan’s always signified the kind of artist that has the courage to be who they are no matter what the world thinks. I always loved the fact that when he did “Hurricane,” that was him returning to the protest songs he had pushed away from. But he saw something that was wrong, and he wanted to do something about it. He wasn’t afraid to always speak on what he believed in. It was a combination of eras; it felt like a folky song but with a full band. Then the story itself — I think it was one of the earliest times of pop culture coming along and undoing a wrong that society had made.
Just the combination of the music and poetry — it’s something as a jazz musician, especially an instrumentalist, that I sometimes get taken away from. But Dylan’s where a lot of my appreciation for that combination came from. My musical style is definitely in a different direction, but I was able to carry that appreciation over into what I do. An appreciation for, one, to not be afraid to write songs that aren’t so obvious. An appreciation for mystery. Sometimes the mystery in art is what makes it infinite. If you make things too direct, then it becomes finite. I think Bob Dylan’s music is so infinite because it does have this mystery to it.
As told to Stereogum
I think what struck me as my favorite Dylan song — that I hoped nobody else had picked — is “Precious Angel” off of Slow Train Coming. My brother got me a compilation when I was about 10, and that was one of the tracks on it. It’s one of his best, poppiest, catchiest, coolest songs from that whole gospel period. He’s maybe the third or fourth musician I ever remember hearing after the Carpenters and Johnny Cash and stuff like that. My mom and dad were both fans. He was always around, and there were CDs I’d steal and use to make playlists. It’s been constant since then. I’ve always listened to Bob Dylan every week.
Another cool thing about “Precious Angel” is it’s got Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits playing on it. The guitar playing is amazing. I also really like Bob Dylan’s vibe of always getting the best guitarists of the time playing on his albums. He has Blake Mills on his new one who, I think contemporarily, is definitely the best guitar player in the world. Then Mark Knopfler, he’s fucking amazing.
Dylan’s influence is inescapable if you’ve heard his music enough times. About half of us in the band are big Dylan fans. If you’ve heard him and Leonard Cohen and the Beatles and Nina Simone, it’s not like you’re always thinking about their music but it’s branded, imprinted in your musical identity.
As told to Stereogum
I remember hearing “Lay Lady Lay” for the first time at a school friend’s house. The low croon of Dylan’s voice came as a surprise to me. I’d heard him sing “Like A Rolling Stone” in that high atonal and nasal tone; I thought about that while listening to the slow trotting rhythm of the song. It dawned on me that if he delivered “Like A Rolling Stone” like “Lay Lady Lay,” I would’ve missed the vitriol in his delivery, and if it were vice versa I would’ve missed the tenderness. Delivery was part of the writing for Dylan and that taught me a little about what it was to be an artist as well as a songwriter. “I long to see you in the morning light, I long to reach for you in the night.” I felt and heard a yearning for closeness for emotional reasons more than merely physical and that spoke to a sentimental fool like me. I think I’ll always live this song for how it gave us a look at Dylan at his most vulnerable.