Wednesday, 5 November 2014

My fifteen favourite Bob Dylan tracks

I listened to an awful lot of Bob Dylan tracks before writing my post on The Basement Tapes, and, as it's my wife's turn to host her book group and I'm stuck in my top-floor eyrie this evening, I've been messing about coming up with a list of my favourites. I've gone for performances rather than songs - i.e. this isn't primarily about hipster coolness or political messages or about songs that changed the direction of popular music: these are the Bob Dylan tracks I still listen to for sheer, instant, visceral enjoyment. There's nothing after 1973 (although I have practically everything he's released since then), and there's a preponderance of tracks from his magnificent quartet of mid-to-late-'60s masterpiece LPs.

The odd thing is that I've never considered myself a true Bob Dylan devotee. That's partly because, until I read the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles, I had felt no affection whatsoever for the man: too knowingly self-contained, too snarky, too deliberately gnomic, surrounded by ultra-cool droogie wastrels in need of a damned good thrashing, rather horrible to women, and apt to attract nauseatingly slavish, uncritical devotion from large segments of the music press. I have little patience with pretentious lyrics, or with pop singers posing as artists with something desperately important to say about life. So I really shouldn't like Bob Dylan's stuff at all - which makes me suspect that the following tracks and the albums on which they appear might be even more impressive than I think they are.

I can't link to the songs on YouTube, because they seem to have been successfully expunged from the site. The list is roughly chronological (1965 was evidently a ridulously brilliant year - no less than seven of my favourite tracks were released during those twleve months):

1.Walkin' Down the Line (recorded for a folk magazine, 1962)
Very early, upbeat, acoustic number which sounds like an ancient folk standard.

2. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
He was brilliant at pinching tunes in his early days: this one was apparently based on a song called "Who's Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I'm Gone?", which seems unlikely. Funny to think how everyone was appalled by his voice back then: I suspect the intimacy and directness of his delivery unnerved us.

3. "Mr. Tambourine Man" (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
It's six in the morning, you've been up all night, you're still a bit drunk, the sun's just come up, and you should be feeling awful and hungover, but you're unaccountably happy... 1965, and politics have, mercifully, been given the heave-ho. Beautiful lyrics, lovely melody, a fine vocal performance, and Bruce Langhorne's feather-light electric guitar work creates a magical atmosphere.

4. "Positively 4th. Street" (single, 1965)
The "thin, wild mercury sound". As a teenager, I responded to the chippy snarliness of this performance. Now I mainly love the sound of it all - even the out-of-tune rhythm guitar towards the end. From the same stable as "Like a Rolling Stone", but superior.

5. "She Belongs to Me" (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
Charming, intriguing, chugging love song. "She wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks..." That line hooked me effortlessly the first time I heard it, and still does.

6. "Love MInus Zero/No Limit" (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
Another laid-back love song. Same entrancing soundscape as 4.

7. "Highway 61 Revisited"  (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What ?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Best lyrics in pop music - he really was a clever little sod.

8. "Desolation Row" (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Does any of this this actually mean anything? I dont really care. Nobody else could have got away with anything this long, musically monotonous, and lyrically pretentious.

9. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
"When you're lost in the rain in Juarez, when it's Easter-time too." I've always been resistant to pseudish analysis of Dylan's lyrics as if they were poems - but the use of the word "too" is deft. Magnificent.

10. "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
"The Ragman draws circles up and down the block..." More entrancing lyrical nonsense and glorious guitar-work. I'd always grasped how important the organ was to the overall  Dylan sound at this time, but I hadn't quite realised until now what a vital contribution his lead guitarists made to it.

11. "4th Time Around" (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
A delicate, lyrical, perfect waltz. Look, I don't generally like this kind of music - in fact, it should be rather annoying. Why do I love this? Why does it work?

12. "The Wicked Messenger" (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
"There was a wicked messenger, from Eli he did come..." Four instruments and a singer never sounded this sparse, this thin. Dylan apparently asked The Hawks to re-record the backing tracks, which were just there as a guide, but Robbie Robertson urged him not to change anything. If that's a true story, it was a good call.

13. "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
Musically uninteresting, with lyrics so clumsy they sound as if Dylan made them up as he was  performing the song. And yet, and yet...

14. "Watching the River Flow" (single,1971)
Thudding rhythm 'n' blues stomper, with piano player Leon Russell - who also produced the track - in terrific form. I only ever bought two Dylan singles - "Positively 4th Street" was one, and this was the other.

15. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (Pat Garret & Billy the Kid,1973)
So hauntingly beautiful, I even forgave Dylan for his performance in the film - the worst ever given by anybody in the whole history of the cinema.  


  1. With regards to your comment on Bob's acting chops in the film 'Pat Garret...'. You clearly haven't seen his 'work' in 'Hearts of Fire'.

    1. I'll endeavour to catch it. I felt a bit guilty about my comments regarrding Dylan's performance as "Alias" after I remembered Truman Capote in "Murder By Death".