As chosen by famous fans, Dylan associates and Uncut writers

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In his amazing sixties pomp, he was held in awe by everyone, including The Beatles and The Stones. Uncut celebrates the enduring genius of Bob Dylan with an all-star vote to pick the 40 greatest songs from the most formidable repertoire in popular songwriting. While by way of an introduction, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb recalls a brief encounter with the great man… From Uncut’s June 2002 issue – so, of course, his work after this date is not included!

Howe Gelb: What can I say about Dylan? What can I say to Dylan? What would be the point of conversation? Way too one-sided. So I always felt I would rather just see how he saunters across the room instead, if I ever had the option.

Have you ever seen Don’t Look Back? I ended up being signed to a record label once where that bespectacled, argumentative, science student was the president of said label. Is that strange? Then I did a double bill tour with with Bob Neuwirth some time later. He was the other guy in shades in that movie. The best part of the tour was just listening to his stories on the train. A fine spirit. It could seem like I was collecting characters from that film. DA Pennebaker, the filmmaker, even showed up in Tucson for a minute to film us for a second.

The only time I ever got close to Dylan himself was when I was invited to see him play in Las Vegas. My old friend, the first drummer of Giant Sand, Winston Watson, was then drumming for him. When I saw Dylan in Vegas, he was wearing a velvet sports coat and holding no guitar. He was working the mic like somebody who never plays anywhere other than Vegas. Since his hands were free to play his blues harp, he commanded it like I never heard before. It was like Hendrix on the harp. Last summer, I was on day six of a ten-day fast. I was in no mood to get a last-minute call asking me to drive to Phoenix. That place sucks even when you ARE eating. But Winston’s girlfriend had had a serious accident and he asked me to take his daughter, Marcela, up to see her old buddy, Bob, who was playing there in a couple of hours.

“No,” I thought. I wanted to stay home and watch videos of The Sopranos and not eat. Stricken with the thought of the eventual death of Dylan, however, I knew I would have a hard time living with that decision if I didn’t go.

So I loaded up the car with Marcela, her best friend, who happens to be Patsy (my daughter) and my missus, Sofie. I flew up the interstate to catch the last 30 minutes of the show. They placed us on the stage, far left, but so close. Watching Dylan’s face as he played, I was lifted up by the notion of him being 60 years old and severely enjoying himself among the calamity of amp wire and sputter. There was inspiration there to be had for those in need.

After the show as he was headed our way backstage, he spotted Marcela Watson. “Hey, what are you doing here?” “Oh, hi Bob,” she says.

“Whoa . . . now what did you have for breakfast today?” he asks.

“Waffles,” she replies.

“Just waffles?”

“Well, no…”

“How about school?” asks Bob.

“It’s OK, I guess,” says Marcela and so it goes on – 15 long minutes talking with Marcela and that was that. He didn’t say anything to anyone else.

We looked at each other for an unmeasurable percentage of a second, and he was gone. A good man, I thought. It was a great relief.

Howe Gelb
Tucson, Arizona
March 2002

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40 Po’ Boy
From Love And Theft (September 2001)

HOWARD DEVOTO: Love And Theft seems to disprove a theory I have about post Seventies Dylan and producers. Namely that mostly he really does need a good one. Here that apparently isn’t the case he’s just done the album with his working band, and it’s excellent. But what makes the truly outstanding three tracks outstanding is down to Dylan. “Po’ Boy” comes in at three minutes and is a tour de force, like nothing else he’s done in recent times. Probably there’s traces of a traditional folk tune lingering in there. Bob loves his bad jokes, and these are such good bad jokes. Well, l hadn’t heard them before. But it’s also an incredibly sad song. “Poor boy, layin’ ’em straight – pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate – isn’t that fantastic? His vocal phrasing and timing are phenomenal. All those teetering, absurdly packed long lines. No-I’m-not-gonna-manage-to-fit-all-the-words-in-but-listen-to-that-I-just-did. An absolute treat.

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39 Tell Me, Momma
From The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (October 1998)

STEVIE JACKSON: Probably the most explosive intro in rock’n’roll, particularly in the context of that gig [Manchester Free Trade Hall, the “Judas” show] and the fact that he’d just played an acoustic set which is some of the most beautiful music I‘ve ever heard. But then to literally blow himself off stage – there’s something really magical about it. Even the way the record starts, you can hear the audience chatting, you can even hear the footsteps of the musicians on the wooden boards and Dylan’s Cuban heels shuffling about. It’s very, very quiet and sedate. Garth Hudson’s just getting warmed up, playing wee organ bits. Dylan starts strumming the intro and then the drummer just counts in and there’s this incredible explosion, l think it’s Robbie Robertson’s finest moment as a guitarist. l had it for years on a scrappy bootleg tape, so l was a bit worried at first that the released version would lose that clarity of sound, but in many ways it’s kind of enhanced it.

JON SPENCER: It’s raw, it’s down and dirty rock’n‘roll. Hell, it’s punk rock man. That’s definitely been the biggest Dylan influence on the Blues Explosion. That and that clip from Eat The Document where he’s in the back of the limousine with Lennon and he’s just being sick on some drugs.

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38 Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
From Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965)

ADAM SWEETING: This extract from Highway 61 Revisited had become a glimpse of the apocalypse by the time Dylan had taken it around the world with The Hawks. It’s almost impossible to single out individual songs during this period – much easier to pick all the albums in their entirety – but this particular performance seems to encapsulate the epic madness of the era. When Dylan sings about not having “the strength to get up and take another sha-a-a-a-a-a-t”, the desperation in his voice vividly evokes a man living on stimulants and weeks without sleep The band are phenomenal, and Robbie Robertson’s climactic guitar solo – jagged, caustic, like rockabilly on acid – must have been exactly how Dylan was feeling.

HOWARD SOUNES: This reminds me of Kerouac’s On The Road – conjuring up a dusty character lost somewhere in America, or South America, down on his luck, wanting to go home and signing off with the bleak but also funny line: “I’m going back to New York City/l do believe I’ve had enough.” “Just Like Tom Thumb‘s Blues” is beautifully performed and recorded on Highway 61 Revisited, another album where every song is virtually perfect.

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  • davidigor

    My, that was a lot of fun to read. I love reading songwriters talk about Dylan. It makes me want to go back to number 40 and listen to every song in order, reading the comments again after each song. I just may do that.

  • Richard Cole

    Agreed. Long and Wasted Years, Pay in Blood, Early Roman Kings are some of my favorite of Bob’s recent songs.

  • clag_somethingorrather

    i like tempest, stands up against that old stuff, …….