I’ve just been counting my Bob Dylan CDs. I thought it would be a good idea, just to see how big a link there is between how much one can love a musician and the amount of money one is prepared to spend collecting their material. The link is quite strong, it turns out. Fancy a guess? Go on, don’t be shy. Granted some of them are cross-overs and duplicates but even then the number is quite daft. Quite great too, and very few artists deserve the attention as much as Bob Dylan does. He may well be the most crucial and vital character in post war music because I can’t really think of another.
Miles Davis maybe, but he worked in the annex of jazz. Bowie nuts will say Bowie but while he may have been the 70’s fastest moving target he never really bounced back with any truly great triumphant statement; his best work post 1981 just reminded you of how brilliant his work pre 1981 had been, and that couldn’t we just have more than that please. You could argue than Elvis will always be the big dog but he barely wrote a word himself and instead just used his natural talent until his natural talent was all used up and then he went to the toilet for the last time. Van Morrison is also in with a shout but he’s never been anywhere near as enigmatic as Bob. So Elvis was good, Bowie was great but Dylan is the best and, in case you were wondering, there will never be another. He has anew self penned album out soon so it will be interesting to hear what shape he’s in.
You might think you don’t like Bob Dylan but there’s something there for everyone and it doesn’t matter if it’s something really obvious because that’s why the obvious things got listened to in the first place. He is everywhere and he is everything. The delightful Complete Album Collection has 47 discs alone and he’s now gone beyond that. Frankly the last 10 years or so have been a bit deflating, with various albums of covers and standards chipping away at the most fearsome and contrary back catalogue of them all. Fortunately the vast majority of songs in that box were written by Dylan himself and there is no lie in the claim that he is as much a poet as a songwriter. I’m not one for poetry particularly but when I listen to certain Dylan lyrics I get what poetry is, or at least I think I do.
The Bob Dylan fan should also be grateful that he’s stuck to one record label and so his work can be treated with the dignity and respect it deserves. He has been with Columbia since the start, apart from a brief flirtation with Asylum which produced one crap album and then died a death. His output has waxed and waned in terms of quality but he’s never stopped giving it a go and the best of Dylan is amongst the best of the lot and he’s been out there all alone for so long that it’s almost scary to think he has coped so well. Some of his albums are a revelation and some are a bit embarrassing (pretty much the same can be said for the album front covers – compare Blonde On Blonde with Empire Burlesque for evidence) but you can dip in almost anywhere and find something worth treasuring and so here, just for you, is a list of 20, each from somewhere different: a dream set list that spans all the best bits of his career. The pleasure is all mine.
- Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (1963, from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album – front cover: very cool). While the critics were swooning over Dylan’s ability to cut to the core with his protest songs it should be remembered that the place that has always produced his best material is the heart. This phenomenally mature bit of writing for someone still so young marks him out as an artist almost operating without the constraints of time and culture. It was recorded in one take and is a perfect balance of everything that makes music work. It is also the perfect kiss off: wistful, funny and knowing. Look for a great hillbilly Elvis version from the early 70’s which dumbs it down utterly but does so in charming style.
- She Belongs To Me (1965, from Bringing It All Back Home – front cover: very cool). Cryptic, mystic and fantastic. She might belong to him in the loosest sense but he makes it very clear that he really doesn’t have a lot of control over it. He is bewitched and powerless and yet somehow it will do. I think that’s it anyway. This is Dylan as he started his first imperial phase and literally a side of vinyl before he kicked the doors in and let a new kind of rock and roll lurch over the threshold and change music forever. Only musicians as good as him can change music forever.
- Desolation Row (1965, from Highway 61 Revisited – front cover: very cool). And then up another notch. This song might be exhibit #1 in the case for Bob Dylan being a great poet. Epic and wise beyond mere words it rounded off an album that kicked off with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and while that song may take all the big plaudits for sheer power it is Desolation Row that lights up the brain and makes you listen a little bit harder.
- Positively 4th Street (single 1965). The pinnacle of Dylan’s early sneer. Hip beyond words and leagues cooler than any other recording artist at that moment. Opening line – ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend’. Music to match. Awesome.
- Visions Of Johanna (1966, from Blonde On Blonde – front cover: cooler than cool). And so to the top of the mountain, though at least that’s what some would have you believe. Blonde On Blonde is a fine album but dare I suggest parts of it are a touch self indulgent? Visions Of Johanna however is untouchable and packed full of stunning ideas: ‘ain’t it just like the night, to play trick while you’re trying to be so quiet?’ or ‘the ghost of electricity/howls in the bones of her face’. With sinuous organ and flickering guitar lines this is perhaps the closest that Dylan’s quest for “that thin, wild mercury sound” ever got. Essential to understanding his enduring legacy.
- Tell Me Momma (1966, from The Bootleg Series Vol 4: Live At The Albert Hall: front cover: he’s getting tired of all this). Pure power. Seemingly performed specifically for his electric fuck you tour with the band that would become The Band backing him up, this batters and rattles and pounds away and very nicely scares off all those pesky folkies who would then accuse him as a Judas for abandoning what they thought were his roots. Dylan was well, well above being told what his roots were.
- As I Went Out One Morning (1967, from John Wesley Harding – front cover: quirky, homely, cool). A sound of bubbling simplicity yet understated musical brilliance. All of a sudden Dylan is back to some kind of square one, though even his square one is several squares ahead of everyone else’s. The whole album is rather irresistible really as it bounces along with tales of drifters, outlaws and back stabbers. And as for those that think it was a backwards step; well they know nothing.
- I Threw It All Away (1969, from Nashville Skyline – front cover: daft but likeable). Plain gorgeous. Some would hook out Lay Lady Lay from this short, playful little pond of an album but really it doesn’t come close to this. If he was in some kind of a rut then how could he conjure up images like – ‘once I had mountains in the palm of my hands / and rivers than ran through every day’ – and then fit around them such a beautiful arrangement, with organ lines fluttering and swooping about with such majesty? This is a deep shot of bliss in a very troubled, loud and hairy year of music.
- Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (1973, from the soundtrack to Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid – front cover: stark). A film so good that having a soundtrack by Bob Dylan makes perfect sense. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door is quite an obvious choice but there’s simply no denying the impact it makes. Using gentle gospel and a verse/chorus structure so plain and unfussy it shoots straight to where it wants to be and then before you know it, like a cloud of smoke in a breeze, it’s gone, those wisps of gospel barely hanging in the trail it leaves behind. Watch the film and the moment this song plays wordlessly over the matching scene and it almost makes sense to consider death a blessed release and nothing at all to be afraid of.
- Dirge (1974, from Planet Waves – front cover: pretty crap). Bob was getting nasty as his marriage began to perish. This album was recorded with his old Band buddies before a massive US comeback tour and it sounds rushed, ragged and occasionally fabulous. This track is about as bitter as it comes; witness just the opening line – ‘I hate myself for loving you, and the weakness that it showed’, but this was just the start of Dylan waking up again and sharpening his knife and his pen for another shot at the title. He definitely won the next bout.
- Buckets Of Rain (1975, from Blood On The Tracks – front cover: pretty great). Almost impossible to choose from an album that is one of the finest recorded by anyone at any time. I could have followed the trail of barbed anger that is ‘Idiot Wind’, or the beautiful lilt of ‘You’re Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, but today I’ll go with this. It’s nothing too complicated and yet you can read everything about the trappings of love into every verse – ‘I like your smile, And your fingertips / I like the way that you move your hips / I like the cool way you look at me / Everything about you is bringing me misery’.
- Isis (1976, from Desire – front cover: very hobo chic). Where did this come from?! Suddenly he has drums that sound like boxing rhinos and a thick, chunky, granite hard piano. Dylan weaves a non-sensical story about pyramids embedded in ice and lost love and yet whatever it is he’s saying you buy into it completely. ‘Isis, oh Isis, with your mystical charm / what drives me to you is what drives me insane’. Well, quite.
- Shelter From The Storm (1976, from Hard Rain – front cover: looks like he means business). Recorded on stage on a wet, drunken afternoon during the thoroughly miserable second leg of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, this is as tight as sloppy can get. It somehow sounds like a lopsided turn at reggae and there is an extra bite compared to the studio version (on Blood On The Tracks) that gives it a little more edge and a hue of bitterness thoroughly in keeping with the circumstances.
- Changing Of The Guards (1978, from Street-Legal – front cover: looks like he’s looking for business). For an album that is often labelled as clumsy and badly produced it still kicks of with this belter, as Dylan throws in the kitchen sink and writes up all kinds of awe and wonder. I always get caught up in the undertow and in the lyrics, which hint at his religious overhaul the coming year and are drenched magnificently with backing vocals and an insistent, churchy organ. An overlooked masterpiece to me.
- Precious Angel (1979, from Slow Train Coming – front cover: very message-y). So he went and got all Christian and wanted to tell everyone they were going to hell if they didn’t change their ways, but when songs are as beautiful and sound as lush as this he can be easily forgiven. No Bob Dylan album sounds quite so polished and funky, so perhaps he really had seen the light. Mark Knopfler is unmistakable and once again the gospel shines through, embalming his last album of that decade with a righteous glow that is rather appropriate. Don’t be ashamed to love it, it doesn’t make you a convert.
- Every Grain Of Sand (1981, from Shot Of Love – front cover: laughable or brilliant, your choice). The Christian thing got very smelly, very quickly but there were a few gems to be found in the religious compost heap. This is the sort of song that you wouldn’t immediately pick but when you do you immediately know why. The words are as only he can write – ‘In the fury of the moment, I can see the master’s hand /
In every leaf that trembles, In every grain of sand’. Worth looking up Emmylou Harris’ version, because if you wrote a song this good she is exactly the kind of person you would want covering it.
- Most Of The Time (1989, from Oh Mercy – front cover: very big artist struggling to cope with taste in the 80’s). After a decade with very few moments to shout about Dylan came back from the dead with this album. Produced by Daniel Lanois it absolutely shimmers with atmosphere and while it may not be totally satisfying as a whole it does contain this stand out track which can bring a tear to the eye if played at the right moment.
- Series Of Dreams (from The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3 – front cover: Bob and harmonica, says it all). This never made it on to ‘Oh Mercy’, but I have no idea why. It hurtles along and is yet more evidence that when Dylan gets himself in the right gear there is simply no one to touch him. The Bootleg Series is littered with moments like this and for even a half hearted fan they are absolutely worth investing in. If only every decent artist could say they have such strength in depth and then be able to jolly well prove it.
- Not Dark Yet (1997, from Time Out Of Mind – front cover: just a bit haunting). And so to the start of another proper comeback. This song is something that anyone would be proud of and while it may be morbid it seems to twinkle with a musical light that offers some kind of comfort in the inevitable. Quite glorious.
- Things Have Changed (2000, no album/from the soundtrack to Wonder Boys – no front cover but I can strongly recommend the film). And just to show he can lift the pace out comes this miniature rollercoaster in which he makes peace with it all by accepting that he doesn’t really give a toss what other people think anymore, because while we’ve been here judging it he’s been over there getting on with it.
The Bob Dylan catalogue is a deep well of mostly crystal clear fresh water and should be dunked into frequently. Don’t tell me you don’t like his voice because it is the only voice that works for the music, and don’t tell me he didn’t deserve a Nobel Prize; if anything the Nobel Prize deserves him. Possibly the finest thing Bono off of U2 ever wrote was a piece about how much he loved Bob Dylan. It is something I could read time and again and at moments when Bono comes across as a complete twat I remember it to remind me what he’s capable of. Even he would admit though that his finest moments don’t even come close to Bob Dylan’s mediocre ones. There is beauty real there. And a soul that is wiser and more enlightened than many; it’s just a blessing he decided to make a living from being a musician. Thanks, Bob.
G B Hewitt. 06.06.2020
Oh yes! 172. I have 172 Bob Dylan CDs.