We begin our celebrations of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday 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.
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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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
37. Clothes Line Saga
From Basement Tapes (June 1975)
JEFF TWEEDY: I get drawn into that story every time. It’s this fractured storytelling – not ambiguous like his high romantic, surreal stuff was, and not really his angry side. It’s definitely Dylan at his most playful and content, but there’s this fractured nature to the story – it’s one of the songs where I feel there’s a lot more that l have to imagine. Like The Conet Project and Harry Smith’s folk recordings, I think [The Basement Tapes] is a field recording. The best music in the world is made when people have tricked themselves into not thinking about themselves. Masterpieces are created out of forgetting who you are and what you are, and what the implications are of the act you’re doing. And that’s something you struggle with, making records. Then you hear a record like this and you realise that you can’t fool yourself completely – unless you’re smoking a bunch of pot every day, drinking coffee and hanging out at your friends house making tapes that’ll never see the light of day. Who knows how true that myth is, but I do hear that in the record a lot. Anything that sidesteps the awareness of the thing itself is what you try for when you write.
BILLY BRAGG: “After a while, we took in the clothes . . .” begins this tale, a song which exudes a damp air of mystery due to the fact that the listener seems to have arrived just moments too late to hear the significance of the clothes hanging on the line. Like an overheard conversation on a noisy train; banal, yet intriguing.
ADAM SWEETING: Often overlooked is the fact that the Bard has always had a highly-developed sense of the ridiculous. Think of ”Bob Dylan’s 113th Dream”, or “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box hat”. Here, he artfully pulled off one of the few known shaggy-dog stories in rock’n’roll. With deadpan support from organist Garth Hudson in particular, Dylan assembled a portrait of crushing domestic tedium from a sequence of mundane observations – “the very next day everybody got up to see if the clothes were dry” – and the joke is his refusal to provide a punchline. Unless you count bringing the washing indoors.
MICHAEL GRAY: Sums up the murky, wayward genius of The Basement Tapes – for me, every wondrous item from “Royal Canal” to “Tears Of Rage” – and also the Dylan who masters the dramatic monologue and high comic mimicry: the Dylan of “Black Cross”, “Brownsville Girl” and “Highlands”.
36. Shelter From The Storm
From Blood On The Tracks (January 1975)
KATHRYN WILLIAMS: Blood On The Tracks is a break up album but songs like “Shelter From The Storm” are a lot more tender than many of Dylan’s songs. It’s very warm and human. When I’ve had a really bad time I hear that song. I’ve got like a jukebox in my head and that song’s on it.
DAVID GRAY: The Hard Rain live version – what a racket. Marvellous! Dylan and the band in full effect. I believe, Bob, I believe!
JUDAH BAUER: It’s the most biblical, apocalyptic song in terms of the Jesus fixation and the way people look at him. It’s very dark, great poetry. The Blood On The Acetates version is great, too.
35. Most Of The Time
From Oh Mercy (September 1989)
HOWARD DEVOTO: As a recording artist Dylan had lost his way so badly in the Eighties, he was prepared – for a change – to sit down and listen to wise counsel about how to go about making a good album. So with Oh Mercy he got himself a decent producer, Daniel Lanois. It shows. Tightly arranged, simple clear instrumentation throughout. Six out of the ten tracks are wonderful. Best album since Blood On The Tracks, and arguably my second favourite Dylan album. I was doing Luxuria when this came out. I remember getting the album and playing it to Noko. After “Most Of The Time” finished he practically ordered me to play it again. Immediately. And again. It was that sort of song. When “Political World” – not one of the album’s stronger tracks – became the single, everyone went: “Are you mad, Bob?” Everyone knew it should’ve been “Most Of The Time”.
ANTHONY REYNOLDS: Awesome. Sonically, it’s a charred galleon, rising out of fog and ice.
34. I Threw It All Away
From Nashville Skyline (April 1969)
JACKIE LEVEN: In my early teens, I read The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck and Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, and both use very intense images of sultry, Californian-style autumns and harvesting. I read these when I was around 14 and had a series of what I can only describe as religious dreams in which I saw these fertile valleys. There was a huge voiceover saying things I couldn’t make out, but there was a kind of God-like, loving cadence to this voice. I wrote a lot of strange stuff after these dreams and didn’t think any more of it until Nashville Skyline came out. As soon as I heard “I Threw It All Away” – and I know this sounds ridiculous – the huge reverb sound in Dylan’s voice was exactly the same as the reverb in the dreams. It’s bizarre, but the absolute truth. For me, the confessional honesty of the song reminds me of Robert Bly when he wrote “If you won’t limp your limp, someone else has to limp it”. In the song, Dylan’s properly, rightfully and manfully limping his limp. And with this God-like reverb as well, it’s just completely ingrained in me for all time. When I first heard it, I was in some friend’s house in Exeter – listening to the new Dylan album – and had to go for a walk and have some cider on my own.
JEFF TWEEDY: I think that’s maybe Dylan at his most sincere and straightforward and goofy. It’s Dylan with his guard down and happy, even though it’s a sad song.
EILEEN ROSE: I’m moved by how broken and regretful he sounds but, for once, not bitter. Sad lyrics – unusually simple, sweet bridge. I almost don’t want to hear him saying these things in this way. Makes me long for the sneering, obnoxious, righteous Dylan.
DAN BERN: A short, tight, perfect little song with a perfect little bridge. It could’ve been written by Hank Williams, or for sure Merle Haggard.
LAURA CANTRELL: I love Nashville Skyline and l love this song. If you look at the lyrics, they’re not real complicated. A lot of people think of Dylan as being this surrealist mess, but the words to this are so straightforward. l just felt he was writing a real country ballad, a la Merle Haggard or something. Real straight, not a lot of metaphor – but just really heartbroken.
ROB HUGHES: When Nashville Skyline hit the racks, it made Dylan’s uproarious electric/acoustic ‘betrayal’ seem like handbags at sunrise. While the dissenters fumed, the man (of course) just got on with it. On Skyline, he tucked his voice to the back of the throat and let it slow-boil its way through, discovering the same joy in country music as he’d previously revealed in the blues. “l Threw It All Away” has the vibe of a spiritual, almost hymnal. On the surface a simple song of regret, as ever with Dylan, it’s far more. A harsh warning shot across the bows of anyone who dares stray into temptation. Beautiful.
33. Girl From The North Country
From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
BILLY BOB THORNTON: It just takes you to a place. . . It’s not that it’s that deep a song, it’s just got a great sound and melody for me. l love the fact that it’s about travel, and it’s about this girl. lt’s just a road song, know what l mean? Telling somebody about that experience, it’s somebody sayin’, “Listen, if you ever pass through here, man, there’s this girl there . . . And she’s one of the wonders of the world, y’know?”
BILLY BRAGG: l love the claustrophobic sound of Freewheelin’, and this song sums it up for me. Dylan is still rummaging around in his folkie roots, taking old, old songs and remaking them anew.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Partly because it’s very simple for Dylan, it’s very poignant and it’s quietly understated which makes it that much sadder. The version he did with Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline is very different and has a touching, nostalgic feel about it – but I still prefer the Freewheelin’ original. Mainly because of his guitar picking – in the early days he used to make a bit more effort and it really shows through. “Girl From The North Country” is indicative of his whole career. That is, the thing about Dylan is that his stuff is incredibly sad going from top to bottom. All the way through, the root of his work is incredible sadness.
JUSTIN CURRIE: A beautiful melody, expertly picked on a little Gibson guitar by a 22-year-old who genuinely sounds 50. As a piece of character acting alone this and “Don‘t Think Twice . . .” are performances that still hold wonder in the new century while the subtlety and sure-footedness of the writing will make me sigh with pleasure forever.
NICK JOHNSTONE: A dark, dark song. His vocal is so haunted, it’s pure loneliness, never fails to give me the creeps. The emotional candour and naked hurt reminds me a lot of Paul Westerberg’s songs. Westerberg and Dylan, those two romantic misfit poets from the bleak wilds of Minnesota. Sometimes this is all you need: a voice, a guitar, words that break your heart.
COLIN MaclNTYRE: I love the line, “Remember me to one who was there/She was once was a true love of mine” – like a lot of his songs, it’s about lost romance, it’s melancholic. I find it romantic because it’s real. With his stories about relationships, I never know which way it’s going to swing. You’re not quite sure at the end if she stays with him or not. He’s not afraid of being considered tender about relationships, or being savagely cynical.
32. Lay Lady Lay
From Nashville Skyline (April 1969)
JEFF TWEEDY: It’s simply a bad-ass song. It’s not a song that Dylan exclusively could’ve written. Sinatra could’ve sung it – maybe he did. I dunno. Tonnes of people have covered Dylan’s songs, but not that many of them sound like Tin Pan Alley songs, or Brill Building songs. But this one, the melody and song structure make it a real anomaly. And more than a lot of Dylan songs, it has a lot of specific lines that stand out more because they don’t have such a close relationship to lots of other images. I also like that line. “Whatever colours you have in your mind, I’ll show them to you.”
KATHRYN WILLIAMS: When I heard “Lay Lady Lay”, I’d just started my foundation course at art school. It was the first time I’d been away from home and on my own. There was a bar by the college and I’d go there in the morning and buy a coffee and put “Lay Lady Lay” on the jukebox. It was the first time I felt like a real woman and the song seemed to accentuate that. It was strange and smoky and sexy and I felt like I’d been seduced. It made me feel I could reinvent myself.
NICK BROOMFIELD: Dead sloppy, but I’m a sucker for it. I’d just finished at Essex University and it was a time of student turmoil, but I was lucky enough to have the sexiest girlfriend in the world. This song proved very useful. We had such a horny summer. This song always takes me back.
31. One More Cup Of Coffee
From Desire (January 1976)
ROBERT FORSTER: This is a really good example of Dylan in the studio. Up until 1978 Dylan hardly did any overdubs, which is amazing, so he’s very much a live performer in the studio. On this, there’s a small mistake at the start but Dylan goes on whereas other people would have stopped or a producer would have stopped him. But people respect Dylan and are intimidated by him, so no-one’s going to stop him. It’s just a beautiful track, it’s a beautiful performance and he sings beautifully. Emmylou Harris is on it, and she sings in the chorus with a scat harmony in the background. She thought it was a run-through and searches for a harmony. And it’s just beautiful, it’s unconscious and she doesn’t know it will last and Dylan kept it. That’s his genius – he kept the take and went onto the next song. I love him for that.
ROBERT FISHER: There are certain songs that get stuck in my personal CD player as I walk around town. I play them over and over on repeat and with every listen they seem to reveal something I hadn’t heard before or, if I did, I didn’t hear quite the same way. The duet between Dylan and Harris is seemingly effortless and amazing. Sweet melancholy music that suggests salvation and hope are just within reach.
KATHRYN WILLIAMS: It’s the most beautiful song and his voice is like a violin with a really reedy edge.
30. All Along The Watchtower
From John Wesley Harding (December 1967)
JACKIE LEVEN: I heard the Hendrix version first. I was a complete Hendrix nut. It wasn’t until some time later I heard Dylan’s version and it was a real surprise. Again, it’s got that ego-free quality, where the guys just start playing and the song batters along until it ends. It’s kind of very flat in a way, and I find that very exciting. The Hendrix version now sounds like it doesn’t know what it’s doing halfway through while the Dylan version sounds like what it is – a timeless classic.
ROBERT FORSTER: I love Dylan’s rhythm guitar playing on this. There’s only five things on the track, and his rhythm guitar playing is very high up in the mix, it’s very funky, it’s only three chords and the top end is really good. There’s no other guitars or keyboard distractions, you hear Dylan as a guitarist and he’s really good. It’s a very simple song, which I like. There’s no other bits – just one very quick chord sequence. A lot of other people like Lennon would have tried to write a chorus that was different. But Dylan just takes this minimal approach, as he often does. I also love the lyric; it’s a sort of biblical number. If I was going to make a biblical film, Dylan would be the first person I’d cast. He’s got that face, and he covers that time. He’s Old Testament.
THEA GILMORE: He said once that he wrote it during an electrical storm, and I think you can kind of hear thunder claps in the structure, or maybe I’m just being an anal songwriter about it!
29. With God On Our Side
From The Times They Are A-Changin’ (January 1964)
KELLY JOE PHELPS: One point of the song is that a lot of things are justified by religion that shouldn’t be at all, a lot of very bizarre and weird and horrible things are justified by God – I mean, Christ Almighty, now we have Osama Bin Laden. But also I think Dylan has the idea that there’s maybe more to religion, and there’s maybe less. I get the feeling he’s saying – which I tend to do myself – that “I wish I did understand it, but I can’t figure it out. I don’t pretend to know.” It’s quite interesting in his history that he later became a born-again Christian.
CHARLIE GILLETT: I actually prefer the version by the Neville Brothers. Cheating, I know, but the rhetoric of Dylan’s version gets exhausting long before the end, whereas Aaron Neville’s vocal holds up to the last second. The only flaw is that Daniel Lanois [who produced the Neville Brothers’ version] dropped the verse about chemical warfare.
JOHNNY DOWD: This song should be drilled into the head of every president, potentate, religious leader, little baby, etc. Art in the service of anger.
DAVE MARSH: If for no other reason than that the country I come from is called the Midwest. (He did a great version of this at his first Unplugged show, which MTV didn’t use because he didn’t do enough ‘hits’).
28. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid OST (1973)
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: l was there when he wrote it, but l didn’t hear it until I saw the film, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. When he came in on that scene of Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado, it blew me away. I remembered Bob watching the rushes in Mexico. When we first screened that, it was one of the reels that came back from the lab fucked-up. The picture was getting dark. And I know that he put the line there: “Getting dark, too dark to see.” But the result – the spirit soared. I know that Sam [Peckinpah] never liked it. It wasn’t in his version. The composer Sam used before, Jerry Fielding, didn’t like it either. Thought it was too literal. Biggest bunch of shit I’ve ever heard. He had no understanding of the life of the music Bob did. Even that damn jangle when Garrett’s walking down to arrest the kid. And the song about Billy: “Billy they don’t like you to be so free.” God, Sam loved that song.
JAMES JOHNSTON: I remember seeing the film before I’d heard the song. I saw it years ago on a family holiday when I stayed up late to watch it. Oddly, I haven’t seen it since. But there’s that bit where Slim Pickens dies and that music comes in. I think it’s just the ambience of the recording, it’s like a country requiem. There’s huge reverb and that very church-like feel to it, with incredibly simple lyrics which really give it that air of tragedy. There’s a bootleg available where you can hear him running through it, getting the harmonium cranked up. Listening to it, you wonder if they can tell that they’re about to capture this absolutely perfect piece of music. Judging by what you can hear, probably not, as the session sounds like a complete shambles.
LYNDON MORGANS: Which came first, this or Neil Young’s “Helpless”? Whichever, two magnificent songs for the price of one chord sequence. I think Dylan’s song has the edge – just. It evokes the film, obviously, romantic and elegiac.
GERARD LANGLEY: Even people who don’t like Dylan like this and it’s partly to do with the sound, and the clangingness of a lot of it. If you make a tape and start it with this, everyone usually really likes it. Dylan is seen as a writer, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s a great performer. And this track illustrates this. With Roger McGuinn on guitar and Booker T on Hammond, this has a great sound, which is why it’s stood the test of time.
27. Every Grain Of Sand
From Shot of Love (August 1981)
HOWE GELB: A perfect track, as brilliant as it gets here on this planet. Most writers would like to come up with a song that could stand the test of time, grateful for its playability over a 20- or 30-year span. Meanwhile, this man comes up with one that could have been sung 2000 or 3000 years ago, and will most likely last way beyond any given horizon. When I saw him play 10 years or so back (with GE Smith), he busted a string at the beginning of this song and continued to play it all the way through even though his Stratocaster was completely out of tune. It just didn’t matter, unless it mattered even more. OK, what I really think I know is this. Some time back, around a decade or so, I met a fellow in a Texas bar named Peter Buck. We talked about a bunch of shit for most of the night. It was a good hang, but the thing that seemed to stir us the most was the bet we made on a lyric from “Every Grain Of Sand”. I won. Next time we hooked up, we went on and on about how great that song was again. Then some time way later when I heard “Everybody Hurts”, I realised that Peter must have been noodling with those two repetitive first chords of “Every Grain Of Sand” when his jamming buddies piled in and figured it for some healthy new strumming to hang some lyrics on. Fair enough. I could be wrong, but I bet that’s what happened.
LEE RANALDO: Another song from the amazing wealth of the Bootleg Series 1-3 that is an absolute knockout. Recorded ‘down home’ in Bob’s house as a demo of sorts, this recording leaves room for the dogs outside barking and the screen door slamming, and is one of the most moving of his ‘Christian period’ songs. This song, and all of the best of his spiritual music, is about something much deeper than religion. The Zen questions/answers of existence. The equally great “Blind Willie McTell”, from around the same time, is a secular take on the same theme.
26. Gates Of Eden
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)
IAN MacDONALD: So close to the preposterous does this grand guignol incantation veer that it’s almost impossible to believe in it. The stanza structure, with its focusing notion of Eden as a place of truth beyond the limitations of the unenlightened life, lends the long-breathed flow of Dylan’s verse a credibility which perhaps it doesn’t deserve – but what governs the experience of hearing this performance is its iron self-belief. It’s difficult to reject the song because what’s clear and impressive about its lyric is delivered with such scathing conviction. That one is here continually torn between abandoning Dylan as a charlatan and accepting him as an oracle is a tribute to his skill as a raconteur, never letting things get too pretentious without pulling them together with a pithy aphorism.
From Desire (January 1976)
JEFF TWEEDY: It’s just a power . . . fucking . . . powerhouse: song, delivery, performance. It happens once every 10 years that somebody can perform a song like that. Maybe all of the first Sex Pistols record has that kind of intensity. There’s the rawness to Scarlet Rivera’s [violin] playing and then there’s Dylan just spitting out his lyrics. There’s a couple of songs on Desire that are like that, like “Joey”, when he sings “thinking he was bulletproof”. It’s a really strange moment and I think that because he collaborated on the lyrics [with Jacques Levy], maybe he became even more into the role-playing of his singing. I don’t know: whatever it was, he was angry, and Dylan’s kind of at his best when he’s angry.
PETE WYLIE: It’s a different kind of Dylan protest song. At the time I never knew the early stuff, like “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, were he’s writing about specific stories. “Hurricane” to me was a different way of hearing Dylan. It’s a great narrative and it’s very thought-provoking and actually encourages the listener to take sides. I do some work for Paddy Hill’s MOKO (Miscarriages Of Justice Organisation). Paddy was one of the Birmingham Six and he actually met Hurricane Carter in America to launch an American version of MOKO, helping people who are in nick for things they didn’t do. Paddy told me about Hurricane Carter and he’s an incredible fella. So “Hurricane” feels like a song that did some good. It’s a ‘let’s do something about this’ record.
PAUL BURCH: Maybe not as great a song as “All Along The Watchtower”, which has the same chords, but it has a great sense of drama. Again, I like it because he names names. At the time, it was a risky song, because that case was still unresolved. Hurricane was still in prison and it was really controversial as to whether he did it or knew who did it. So for a star like Dylan, he was really putting his reputation on the line by saying this guy is innocent and I’m writing a song about it, cursing in it and using racial words in it. It’s a tough song. As far as something that people will remember, that’s a great song.
24. Not Dark Yet
From Time Out Of Mind (September 1997)
ADAM SWEETING: It was ironic that 1997’s Time Out Of Mind should be the album that announced Dylan’s most recent creative renaissance, because it was steeped in images of mortality and a stark sense of time running out. “Not Dark Yet” was Dylan at his most sepulchral. The song hovered into view in a ghostly shimmer of guitar and Hammond organ that seemed to have been recorded in a crypt. The military drumbeat suggested a burial party slow-marching along fog-shrouded battlements. “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” Dylan intoned, like a man in the grip of a fearful premonition. Still, subsequent interviews suggested he was actually feeling quite chipper, which was a relief.
HOWARD DEVOTO: These days I’m interested in the mature – very mature – Dylan. He’s the one teaching me about getting old. And this is one of the three great tracks on Time Out Of Mind. In terms of arrangement, it’s like with this album Lanois has lost the tight control he had with Oh Mercy, so it rambles a lot. But the production showcases the grain of Dylan’s voice better than any other album. The voice way up front, the instrumentation stripped back and way down in the mix.
LYNDON MORGANS: Awesome, this new Dylan – Ezekiel with a Stratocaster! It’s overwhelming to hear the man so back on form . . . Sounds like distant thunder rolling off the prairie. Does he regret the encroaching dark, or is it solace to him?
JUSTIN CURRIE: The end of the retreat and the beginning of the resignation. It’s the first thing Dylan’s done that sounds to me like he’s singing about himself, and seeing as it took the miserable sod nearly 40 years, I find it very moving. Only he could make getting old and giving up so utterly beguiling. Imagine Lennon trying that at 60 – he’d be so humourless and seld-pitying. Dylan still has a lightness of touch that every one of his contemporaries lost at least two decades ago. And he’s still funny as fuck. Not like Macca or Brian Wilson. He means to be. This is a man who sings on “Highlands”, “You could say I’m on anything but a roll.” Well, in that case the rest of us are in a rut and as long as Dylan shuffles along with the kind of sarcasm that can stop trucks and melt meteorites we all might just have a chance.
NICK JOHNSTONE: The definitive example of the Daniel Lanois production technique. Big, echoey chambers, swampy, haunted loping drums, the lonesome guitars and Dylan’s voice, old, gnarled, corroded. It’s music as prayer, a song as a candle of hope lit in a cathedral. It’s Rothko’s “Red Over Maroon” as a piece of music. One of the greatest works of art across any discipline by anyone.
23. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)
IAN McCULLOCH: I love this song firstly becasue it’s short, secondly of the words, and thirdly because it’s probably my favourite Bob Dylan melody. I also think of it as the forerunner to “Sweet Jane” in terms of the chord progression, which everyone cites as being Lou Reed – but “Love Minus Zero” sort of got there first. I don’t know what he’s going on about particularly, but it’s a beaut.
ISOBEL CAMPBELL: It captures a person being in love and the lyrics are completely beautiful. He also talks about everything that’s going on around, such as dime stores and bus stations, and as such it’s not too flowery. He also explains why she’s great. She sounds like she’s got a good handle on things and I’d probably be in love with her too – that’s a testament to Dylan’s way with words. The jangly guitar sound’s a marvel on this too. He’s an underrated guitar player.
22. Masters Of War
From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: There’s so many songs I want to put in my list. But, right now. because of what’s going on, I’d have “Masters Of War” in there. Because, if nothing else, the war party gas gained ground since Bob wrote that stuff. It really is the scariest time on the planet that I can remember. And I can remember Eisenhower – Eisenhower, of all people – warning in one of his farewell speeches about the military industrial complex, its growth in power. And that’s who’s running the show today. And getting everything they want because it’s “The War on Terror”. It’s very depressing to realise we killed off all the visionaries who had a vision of peace. To still have Bob Dylan around – and ticking on all cylinders, too – we should feel very grateful. To have a man his age be able to express himself, and still willingly do it. And he looks so good! I swear to God, to this day, nobody looks that interesting. If you put a camera on his face, put it on his eyes, you can’t take your eyes off it. If you saw him performing at the Gramm’s, you’ll know. I loved that. It soared my spirit. It was just who he is. Watching that, I thought, somebody’s gonna get hip and film this guy: can you imagine Bergman working with Dylan? I like the look he’s got just now. But it’s his eyes that are doing it. Anything works for Bob. Like I say, I love Bob, unconditionally For what he’s done. But for what he’s doing I love him, too. He’s telling you just what it’s like.
RICHIE HAVENS: That song goes to the crux of the problem. It’s an indictment of cruelty and disrespecting human beings. Dylan was coming out with this on the Freewheelin’ album when I first arrived in Greenwich Village in 1962, but it’s still as relevant today. I was very fortunate because I got to sing songs that changed my life. I sang “Masters Of War” because I wanted everybody to hear those lyrics.
NATALIE MERCHANT: I really am drawn to the earlier Dylan material, protest songs, and I think he really sums up the feeling at the time about the madness of the Vietnam war and the build-up of the military machinery in America. He learnt so much from Woody Guthrie and that really comes through in the early material, especially “Masters Of War”. He gave us a musical language to discuss our feelings about war in songs like this and “With God On Our Side”. They’re certainly still relevant today, but I don’t think they’d be as popular. People have different feelings towards the present conflict than they did towards Vietnam, and for good reason. It’s a very different conflict. I think it’s valid to just question the madness of violence, whoever is perpetrating it against whatever victim. That’s what musicians can do. They can ask us to envisage a different world, maybe a world where people don’t kill each other, even if they only do it for five minutes.
EILEEN ROSE: Very dark – the best ‘angry young man’ song ever. He was smart enough to make a point eloquently, but young and pissed off enough to be super-dramatic. He seems to have surprised himself by actually wishing someone dead, according to various quotes – it’s about as extreme as you can get lyrically, foolish and brave. Extreme times though – Cuban missile crisis, violent civil rights demonstrations and his first broken heart.
21. The Times They Are A-Changin’
From The Times They Are A-Changin’ (January 1964)
MIKE SCOTT: Dark words, bright words of ice and fire, as if an angel did desced and use the writer as a pen.
THEA GILMORE: I didn’t hear this song until I was about 12. It played out of an episode of The Wonder Years, and it was probably what made me sit and really listen to the lyrics of Dylan songs that I knew really well. I identified with it, even though it was so tied up with the world 30 years before. It had a kind of resonance with me that I couldn’t explain. At the time, I didn’t know much or anything about the civil rights movement and the world-changing events that were happening around 1964, but it seemed as directed at my generation as anyone’s at the time. Knowing the history more now, you can hear Dylan deciding to write a song which captures the spirit of the folk music movement and the civil rights movement, but you can also hear unexplained predictions in the lyrics.
IAN MacDONALD: Genuine modern broadsheet writing, this epic outburst of the early Sixties youth renaissance still thrills with its quasi-biblical prophecy of a new era just coming into flower.
JIM SCLAVUNOS: Easy to take this one for granted, but I find the song is especially poignant having grown up in the Sixties (I first heard it shortly after the JFK assassination). In the long run it probed to herald not only a changing social consciousness but, along with “Blowin’ In The Wind”, unleashed the potential of pop music, introducing timely yet timeless lyrics into the mainstream’s idiot idiom. Even early on, the born-again Bob was in full effect, bristling with youthful verve and prophetic wrath, admonishing the elders.
JAMIE CATTO: This song made me realise that the joy of words could be enough. They say that anyone who tells you what a Dylan song is about is only really telling you about themselves.
20. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
BRYAN FERRY: With Dylan you’ve got a really brilliant writer of wonderful, well-crafter songs, somebody who loves language. The lyrics possess beautiful, powerful imagery. “When your rooster crows at the break o’dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone” – that’s so bluesy. This is probably my favourite track on my new album – it’s the simplest thing, just piano and me singing and playing harmonica live, which is unusual these days. It was great for me as a singer not to have to compete with a hundred other instruments: perhaps I should try it more often. That richness of language which he uses makes him very good for a singer like me to interpret. “I’m on the dark side of the road/But I wish there was something you would do or say, to try and make me change my mind to stay.” It;s a thoughtful, quite deep song. “You just kinda wasted my precious time.” I can’t think of Dylan much for a long time, then when it’s time to think of a good song to do there seem to be so many of his that I really like, like this one – I can’t say that about many other writers.
HOWARD SOUNES: An almost perfect song – tender, deceptively simple yet very clever. Looking at Dylan’s whole catalogue, it is songs like this, perhaps, that have the best chance of enduring through the decades, even through the centuries, partly because “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is not tied to social issues and will never date.”
CHARLIE GILLET: I heard Dylan for the first time in a San Francisco record shop in the summer of 1963, when a customer asked for “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Peter, Paul and Mary. “Listen to this version by the guy who wrote the song,” said the sales clerk. The horrified customer ran off with the record he had heard on the radio, and I paid a dollar for the spartan version by the gruff-voiced man who wrote it, a radio promo single with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” on the other side. Having been first fascinated by the ‘protest lyrics’ of “Blowin’ In The Wind”, I was even more amazed by the confident humour of this ‘let’s fall out of love’ song.
EILEEN ROSEL: How did such a young guy sound like such an old man? Locking himself in a room with Woody Guthrie, I guess.
DAN BERN: It’s just one of his perfect songs, and I like the finger-picking. It sounds really intimate, how he sang it.
19. Just Like A Woman
From Blonde On Blonde (May 1966)
IAN McCULLOCH: The chorus is kind of sexist, but kind of spot on. It’s fantastic, not because it was sexist – I’m going down a real cul-de-sac here, aren’t I? – but because it was a brilliant lyrics. Obviously there was someone who was doing his head in, so he nailed all of them at once. Nice one, Bob.
PETE WYLIE: I remember being an avid reader of NME in the mid-Seventies, before punk, and started reading about Dylan and all the arguments about him. That whole discourse of whether or not songs like this were sexist and that whole sexist threat of male rock’n’roll lyrics. Which I didn’t give a fuck about because I didn’t know what sexism was. “Just Like A Woman” is beautiful, that thing of being so pretty that it’s deceptive. Underneath, there’s this really nasty person. It;s also one of those songs where you’re sitting there with red wine, feeling morose, and certain lines’ll flash up in your head all the time to remind me of my own experiences. Dylan’s almost got, in that Shakespeare kind of way, a quote that you could put at the beginning of every chapter of your life.
ANTHONY REYNOLDS: Robert Zimmerman don’t speak English. He speaks Dylan, and I couldn’t understand this language until recently . . . until, that is, I became a man. A few years ago, I was heavily into the music of Roberta Flack and she was singing this song; quite suddenly, out it jumped, this line that caught my heart in its hands: “When we meet again/And are introduced as friends/please don’t let on/That you knew me when/I was hungry/And it was your world.” I was open-mouthed, stunned and shocked. It was telling me something I knew, but that I didn’t know I knew. On checking the record sleeve there it was: “Just Like A Woman” (Dylan). A few years earlier, maybe even months, this line wouldn’t have hit me where it hurts . . . but I’d been forced to grow, had had to take some real blows by then, like every other sucker on the planet. I started listening to Bob himself . . . some compilation thing. Friends had been recommending him to me for years, but he seemed too un-perverse and too primary for me. As with Elvis, the opposite of this was true. Like I said, his whole style and delivery and writing is a language in itself. I felt immune at first, especially regarding the singin, but little by little, pieces got to me – and then I realised I’d been listening to him for years, through other singers. Since Roberta Flack sang me those lines, years ago in that bedroom in Dalston, there’s been a basement room within the gothic slum of my heart that will be forever reserved for Bob Dylan.
NICK JOHNSTONE: When I hear Dylan sing “With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls”, I am convinced, despite what anyone says, that he’s singing to Edie Sedgwick. To me, this song is her song, her theme song, her “Moon River”. He’s chasing Edie when he sings “I Want You” and leaving her when he sings “Just Like A woman”. His voice is perfect, the music is perfect, the lyrics give you the chill bumps. It’s plain and simply a sadly beautiful song about a beautiful and tragic woman.
KATHRYN WILLIAMS: Dylan’s like Picasso. He knows the rules, but he then knows how to play with them. “Tonight as I stand inside the rain.” That’s brilliant. Anybody else would have written “in the rain” or “out in the rain”.
18. Ballad Of A Thin Man
From Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965)
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: “Ballad Of A Thin Man”? In a way it’s the ballad of every man, but dominated by this overwhelming, terrific sense of paranoia. A great song, but the studio version is almost wooden compared to the Albert Hall version, which is amazing, takes you to places that the Highway 61 Revisited version only hints at. That;s the thing about Dylan live. I’ve a friend who does the stage lighting for him, so I saw him play live a few years ago, just after Time OUt Of Mind, and watching him from the lighting rig, he was amazing. He actually sounded like Bob Dylan, and looked like Bob Dylan – which was a shock because every other time I’d seen him over the past 20 years or so he’d been like a crap imitator. I was so surprised. I remember thinking: “What’s Bob Dylan doing on stage at a Bob Dylan gig?”
HOWARD DEVOTO: Songs like this got him that ‘hippest cat on the planet’ tag. Years on I can’t help feeling that a lot of the “something” that is is happening “but you don’t know what it is” is Dylan’s immense, perplexing success at the time. Someone said that back then Dylan definitely wanted to be a superstar – but when he got there it freaked him out. His move to rock was obviously part of getting there, and here we are, “Ballad Of A Thin Man”. There was this mean act that was him and Bob Neuwirth. Running into them in New York was like walking into a threshing machine, as Phil Ochs put it. You can see them at work in the film Don’t Look Back.
JON SPENCER: I think that’s just a really creepy record. It’s a great riff, but so fucking nasty.
DAN BERN: Huey Newton dug the song. It’s beautifully vicious; even the organ sounds dangerous.
MARC ‘LARD’ RILEY: The sound of Bob looking down is Roman nose at a lesser being. Mind you, there are those among us who’d have you believe that we are all lesser beings compared to his Royal Bob-ness . . . and HEY maybe they’re right. A justifiable case of the condition also known as ‘superiority complex’.
17. Blowin’ In The Wind
From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
JOAN BAEZ: If Bob had never written another song, this contribution would be enough for a lifetime. Its appeal is universal and eventually universal songs become so generic that we have to remember that their strength comes from their history, why they were written and who sang them.
DAVID PAJO: I like the early live version from Montreal in 1962 best, before he’d actually recorded or released it. Overall it’s a bad show for him. People are walking out and he fucks up on the guitar, he spends a long time tuning and changing keys, he stops and starts songs, uses the wrong harmonica, etc. But it’s late night at a tiny club in Montreal with only a few people in the audience and nobody knows this song or its future.
ROBERT FORSTER: Most people say great protest song, I say great pop song. It’s only recently did I realise what a great little pop song it is.
KIM SCALUNOS: His singing sounds so world-weary, it’s hard to believe it was recorded a year before the bright-eyed “The Times Are A-Changin’.”
16. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
From The Times They Are A-Changin’ (January 1964)
TOM WAITS: I love the way he tells the tale – it’s such a poignant story taken from newspaper headlines. That’s what Woody Guthrie always said you should be able to do, sit down with a newspaper and write a song in the morning, no sweat. I remember hearing the song for the first time and thinking it was incredible how much detail he’d got in, not knowing id it was invented or taken from history. I was mystified by it and of course later I realised that it is something you can do, take a news story and make it sing. Dylan is really a planet to be explored – for a songwriter, he’s like a hammer and saw is for a carpenter. He’s the real teacher – if you want to write songs, he’s the best person to listen to. He’s the source of a lot of things and he carries a lot of history with him. A lot of times you are exposed to him, you get this weird feeling there’s a lot of the past in him. But there’s a lot of the future there, too.
JEFF TWEEDY: It’s probably one of the more direct comments on society that Dylan’s ever made, oddly enough. Most of his other supposed protest music is cloaked in ambiguities but this is very direct storytelling, and even though the subject matter is so heavy, there’s a lightness to his wordplay and language that makes the story tolerable to hear.
PAUL BURCH: I like this just as a piece of writing. Compared to his folk contemporaries, it’s a real groundbreaking song in terms of the modern folk song. He wrote that when the news was still fresh. He named names – the man that did it, the woman that died, where and when. And people like Phil Ochs and Joan Baez never did that. They always did it in the third person. This is almost like a defence attorney standing up and delivering. At the time, Dylan was really the first American songwriting hero who was singing and performing his own songs, had an aggressive manager and was appearing on television. He was supposed to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing something they wouldn’t let him sing, so he just walked off. There was no folk singer like that. Certainly Pete Seeger didn’t have that kind of impact. He was the first folk-singing rock star. It was before The Beatles and all that stuff. As far as getting people’s attention as a songwriter, he had it. To be a great writer, you have to write something that goes beyond you from the moment you sing. You can’t just write something to impress people just because you did it. Anybody can sing this song at any time, and the people who killed that woman are going to forever live in infamy because of that song. It’s saying that this white man clubbed this woman to death and got away with it because he’s white and this is the USA. And Dylan is still the only singular songwriter of that or this generation who’s come out and said that stuff, without couching it somehow.
GRANT-LEE PHILLIPS: This deals with racial injustice and the immunity of the wealthy. I sat down one summer day years ago with a used vinyl copy of this album (The Times Are A-Changin’) and I really don’t think I’ve been the same since. I can remember it as if it were a moment ago. It strikes me that there are pieces of art, there are certain songs and certain things that are made by people which will flow through our lives and make their presence known to be discarded or simply rejected. But “Hattie Carroll” is like some dark American secret that refuses to subside. It’s a ghost that beckons the truth to be known. The depiction of her life in a few effortless strokes, her untimely demise and the dramatic way in which the court of mankind falls short of wisdom is all conveyed in this early masterpiece.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: It’s a shame nobody can write songs like this now, because it’s such a strong pitcure of injustice. By the time it gets round to the punchline and William Zanzinger ends up getting a six-month sentence, the anger is almost unbearable. It’s a great example of Dylan the storyteller, which he lost as his stuff became more kaleidoscopic.
MARTIN CARTHY: I saw him play at Royal Festival Hall in 1964. It was undoubtedly the most amazing experience of my life up until then.
15. Mr Tambourine Man
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)
PETE WYLIE: I heard The Byrds’ version first. They did a fantastic re-shaping of it and also brought out part of the truth of what he was on about, whatever the truth is. Was it that early psychedelic mysticism – or was he just talking about some knobhead with a tambourine? I don’t care. Dylan’s version seems so simple, he’s not trying to make it pretty but it’s really freaky because of that.
ADAM SWEETING: The Byrds’ star-spangled treatment was hugely influential in bringing the wondrousness of Bob to a broader public, but it only told half the story. Dylan’s version was from the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home, though it featured Bruce Langhorne’s wistful electric picking. The kaleidoscopic swirl of the lyric was so overwhelming that any extra instrumentation would have been criminally superfluous. If there was a single song that established Dylan’s reputation as a musical poet, this would have to be prime candidate, a blinding feat of wordsmithery that seemed to encompass dream, memory, ancestral history and science fiction. And Bob claims drugs had nothing to do with it.
LEE RANALDO: It coulda been “It’s Alright Ma . . .” or “Gates Of Eden” or “Baby Blue” off the Bringing It All Back Home album just as easily, but somehow it just has to be this one. It rolls all the marvellous lyrical imagery up into the ultimate minstrel song. I’ve a version of this from the ’66 tour, in Australia, that personifies it perfectly: Bob’s voice doesn’t so much sound ‘on drugs’ as evoke the feel of being on drugs, And the harp solo at the end goes on forever, holding long on one ultimate note, like a minimalist done piece. Fantastic!!
COLIN MacINTYRE: I love the way he hangs onto the melody, but never indulgently. Even when the chords change, he hangs on to the notes, something I think Thom Yorke does brilliantly as well. They’re two totally different songwriters, you would imagine, but there are common links. Also the way his voice dips, it’s music to my ears. I’ve never understood criticisms of his voice.
KELLY JOE PHELPS: He’s great at creating word images – like a great poet or novelist, he has a special way of smashing words together to create a feeling more than intellectual sensibility. He brings you to a particular space. “Mr Tambourine Man” is one of those songs where I’m walking through the store, and all of a sudden it’s in my head. It’s comforting. It’s like remembering something from when you were a child. It makes me very happy. It’s a great melody, and maybe what I like most about it is that it was destined to be a classic folk song, which is damn near impossible to write now. At the same time, he kept coming up with wonderful, simple melodies which made them feel like classic folk, but he played with the phrasing, both in meter and vocally, so he got a tension and release that folk songs don’t. It’s a fantastic piece of music. I was in Milan a couple of weeks ago with a friend, at two or three in the morning. And so we step in his car, and he puts on Bringing It All Back Home, and we pull up at the hotel just as “Mr Tambourine Man” starts, and he turns of the engine and pulls down the window, and we just sit there, and neither of us says a word all the way through. And I said, “That is a FUCKING SONG,” and he said it back.
ROBERT FORSTER: It’s all about freedom without mentioning freedom. All those images are gorgeous – hand waving, the windy beach, it’s very mid-Sixties and it sums up that period like no other song.
CARL HIAASEN: I first heard it when The Byrds recorded it, then I went back obviously and heard the Dylan version of it. It was one of the first songs I can remember being hooked on, listening to it on the radio in the old days. It was so distinct. Everybody was singing it and everybody was playing it. I have that recollection of being part of that time, in the Sixties, it just fit so perfectly.
PAUL BURCH: Some beautiful lines in it and it gave birth to The Byrds, which is worth it in itself. Really lyrically inspired with some great guitar on it. It’s one of those songs that you think you know, but when you listen to it again purely as a piece of music, it’s just beautiful.
DAN BERN: It sounds like he’ll never get old.
14. She Belongs To Me
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)
JACKIE LEVEN: “She Belongs To Me” and “Like A Rolling Stone” were on the jukebox when I was in my mid-teens in Kirkcaldy, Fife. This was the jukebox in the harbour cafe where you’d always go and wait for your bus. They just sounded so great and driving – those two and [Them’s] “Gloria” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” – were the big ones to play, while all the young mothers, smoking with their babies, were ruined because they just wanted to hear The Walker Brothers. It was our way of standing out. If you put it on in a pub, it immediately put you in a coterie of like-minded geezers, which was really important back then because you found yourself talking to guys who in no other way would you talk to, mainly because they were either Catholic or Protestant. Which was a sign of how stupid it could be those days.
PAUL BURCH: He’s singing great. It’s also a new kind of love song. In pop music at that time, I think Tony Bennett had “I Wanna Be Around” out, which was real old-school Johnny Mercer song. Dylan’s love songs – kiss off love songs like “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “She Belongs To Me” – were just kind of sly. They never say “I love you”.There’s a lot of ambiguity and private references, riddles disguised as revelations. There was nobody around writing love songs like that. The Beatles certainly wouldn’t have written “Norwegian Wood” without hearing that song first.
KATHRYN WILLIAMS: Every man I went out with at art college made me a tape with this song on. I thought it was my song. You can really put yourself inside it. It made me feel like the painter I was trying to be. “She wears and Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks” – that’s just such a satisfying line. I don’t know why. It’s not that it’s particularly clever. It’s more like a smell or a scent.
ROBERT FORSTER: Classic folk rock and I love the lyric and simple tune.
CHARLIE GILLETT: Among his many gifts, Dylan is a great melody writer – recall the tune and the words just slide into place, even if you don’t know exactly what they mean. If I have one grumble about Dylan, it’s that too many of his songs outstay their welcome to the point where his voice begins to grate. But at only a few seconds over two minutes, this one is too short.
LYNDON MORGANS: One of the first Dylan songs I ever encountered, as the B-side to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. A love song – sort of. Said to be about Joan Baez, isn’t it? Every line of the lyric is exquisite. I remember being impressed that the title wasn’t mentioned in the song. I still like songs where that happens.
NICK JOHNSTONE: The sweetest of all Dylan love songs and another gem from Bringing It All Back Home, an album that will still sound vital in a thousand years. His vocal phrasing on this track is immaculate. The gift of the late delivery. It’s like he’s peeling the lyrics off his tongue and they’re really sticky and it’s a real effort to get each line out and the music’s slightly stoned and off-kilter. A great love song, utterly romantic, it’s Rome on vinyl.
13. Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
From Blonde On Blonde (May 1966)
JACKIE LEVEN: A thing happened in Scotland in the late Sixties and early Seventies which was that when Blonde On Blonde came out, seemingly every single young Scottish guy went out and bought it. It was THE absolute, total record to listen to. When you went round anyone’s council house and opened the door, there was always the smell of tinned lager, congealing bacon fat, home-grown grass and Dylan bawling our, “She said that all the railroad men/Just drink up your blood like wine”. I couldn’t get on with the album, but this particular song just feels very relaxed, I have this thing I do on my own albums when I have a song and every day of recording, before we do anything else, I just put one more idea on it. I refuse to develop it, just put one idea on per day until it’s finished. It’s a different way of looking and recording and freshens up the album. And “Mobile” just has that same kind of feeling for me. It seems like he said, “Oh, I’m not sure about this one,” and they kind of threw it away. There’s all sorts of what-shall-we-do? bits in the arrangement and a lovely bass descent which conjures up images of the musicians shrugging and looking at each other. The rest of the record sounds too much like they’re trying very hard to make a record that sounds different. I find the hardness unappealing, but there’s a smooth, throwaway quality to this. And lovely images.
JEFF TWEEDY: A lot of these songs I picked have a real similarity. It’s an incredible concentration of performance, and then the limitation of it at the same time. There’s a structure that basically keeps rolling over itself over and over again. And it gets more and more charged every time. It’s like a self-charging battery or something.
PETE WYLIE: There’s a great bit in this where they’ve edited the tape and you get two words spliced together. After the bit where his grandpa dies, there’s a line that should begin “I” but they cue it to “he built a fire on Main Street” so it goes “I sp-ee built a fire on Main Street”. They’ve chopped two words in the middle, But that;s another thing you get with Dylan where there’s all these little secret moments that you think you’re the only one who’s spotted them, even if somebody else told you, so you get into that whole trainspotter stupidity mode. And that lyrics about :he just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette” – fucking brilliant! It’s a long song but it doesn’t seem long. It’s like a bunch of movies – the Coen brothers would have to do a trilogy there. A stunning piece of work.
ROBERT FISHER: I’ve always liked the idea of telling stories without telling the whole story. There is great intuitive energy in the playing on this song. It sounds like there was magic in the air when the tape was rolling.
12. Positively 4th Street
BILLY BOB THORNTON: I love Bob Dylan, I’m a great Dylan fan. I’d have to say this song is the ultimate. We’ve all had someone who we’ve wanted to tell “Y’know what? You hate my guts, just come out and say it! Why’d you ver pretend to be who you’re pretending to be? Cos we all know you’re not . . .” It’s the ultimate ‘fuck-you’ song, y’know? It’s never been put better. It’s the one. The greatest line in a song, maybe ever, to say – you don’t have me fooled, I got your number, is: “I wish that for just one moment/I could be you . . . You’d know what a drag it is to see you”. Great!
PETE WYLIE: When I started with Wah! Heat, we covered this, mainly because of the Zoo lot. It’s that thing where your tiny universe is all-consuming, and I’d fallen out with Julian and Mac [Cope and Ian McCulloch] so when I sang it, in my secret little world it was like I was singing it at them and they were going to be destroyed by it, just by me singing it. Strangely they weren’t! It’s got that thing again of great put-downs and jokes, but then I think, “Well, where did the master thief bit come from?” That’s another Dylan trait. I bet even songs that don’t get into this Top 40 have still got great lines. Like in “Tombstone Blues” – “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken!” Or there’s that song where that doctor says, “Don’t go back to this woman”, and when he does the fuckin’ doctor’s there instead. That’s like the premise for a play, that one verse.
EDWYN COLLINS: Some say this was a vitriolic address to the folk fundamentalists, post-Newport, others that it was an embittered farewell to the Factory crowd – both of which Dylan denies. Whatever its target(s), it suggests the Sixties music biz and its satellites were as mendacious then as they are now.
GERRY LOVE: I don’t know whether Lou Reed was a fan of this song, but I can hear the roots of the Velvets in this song. This is a basic, raw pop song and its keening melody drew me in the first time I heard it. Dylan’s pop abilities are often overlooked, and never more so than here.
LYNDON MORGANS: “Like A Rolling Stone” – Part Two. One of the all-time great opening lines. An erect middle-finger to the old Greenwich Village folkie scene he’d left behind. If I think of Dylan’s voice, I think of this song first – the tone and delivery melds perfectly with the emotions expressed in the lyric.
STEPHEN PASTEL: He had an amazing run of singles, songs like “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and this particularly. One of those really bitter, jaded lyrics. There was definitely a change in Dylan, though, if you compare him in Don’t Look Back to Eat The Document. In the latter he’s just really cold, this amphetamine lunatic going around with his pal, the two of them like a brainy Beavis and Butthead. I’ll never forget that horrible scene where he tries to buy this girl from her boyfriend, it makes you cringe.
MARC ‘LARD’ RILEY: I’m not sure why but I seem to be drawn to Dylan’s most caustic efforts when cherry-picking his oeuvre. In an ideal world, if you were to look up the word ‘contempt’ in any dictionary a copy of this 1965 single would drop out. So cutting – so witty – AND SO YOUNG! Of all the people I admire I’d have to say that Bob is the one I’d least like to meet.
11. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)
BRYAN FERRY: I am very partial to Dylan’s songs – it’s the lyrics, really, the imagery. They’re always compelling and interesting to me, and very poetic. “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun/Crying like a fire in the sun/Look out, the saints are comin’ through/And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” Beautiful images. The “seasick sailors”, the “reindeer armies”, the “vagabond who’s rapping at your door”. What have I brought to it on my own version? Very little, probably, other than enthusiasm and inspired amateurishness! This song sets the tone for my new album in the same way you might say “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” did for These Foolish Things, years ago. And it’s nice to start an album with a goodbye song!
GRANT-LEE PHILLIPS: The basic thrust of the song, to my ear, is that Dylan is taking a kind of inventory of all that might seem to matter. The currency of our values is being put up to the light, to see if it’s counterfeit. This would fall into the category of ‘finger-pointing songs’, which is a definite Dylan trait, like “Positively 4th Street”. Songs that tend to put a phantom second person in their place. But Dylan seems to extract something interesting and vital out of that form. It’s something that re-emerges in his work time and time again. It’s the people who get stepped over who tend to secure the starring roles in his songs. There’s only much time in this life to take it all in. Some folks plunder the Bible, and I’ve done a little bit of that, but I always got a lot more out of Dylan.
COLIN MacINTYRE: The first band I had in Glasgow, I used to stand on my own and play it, and murder it. I’m sure that song’s served as a poultice for so many failed relationships, while people wait to get over them.
ADAM SWEETING: The title makes it sound like just another guy-leaves-girl song, and there was indeed a “lover who has just walked out your door”, but the sombre beauty of the melody and the tumbling panorama of the words created an altogether grander picture. Dylan’s songwriting was in such torrential spate that he seized the opportunity to spin a saga of loss and loneliness on a cosmic scale. The song was partly a playful surrealist pageant – the tooled-up orphan “crying like a fire in the sun”, the “seasick sailors” and “reindeer armies” – and part instruction manual. “Take what you have gathered from coincidence,” Dylan ordered. “Strike another match, go start anew.” Easy for him to say.
10. Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands
From Blonde On Blonde (May 1966)
NICK BROOMFIELD: This song always takes me off on a trip, so atmospheric, so powerful, weaving so many different images. I’d just been expelled From my school, aged 17, and my best friend, who ended up being a really successful roadie, had the Blonde On Blond album and played it incessantly. He even looked and spoke like Dylan. We both went to that concert at the Royal Albert Hall where he turned his back on the audience: he was a whole way of talking to us, a real hero, and this is a song where you can really lose yourself in his persona and his genius.
HOWE GELB: The sound of that session, Blonde On Blonde, burns the retina of the ear forever. That song has the power to render a soothing beyond the normal healing parameters of vinyl and, yep, this one has to be heard on vinyl.
DAN BERN: It’s such a great song that he talks about writing it in another great song. “Sara” [on the 1976 album Desire]. If you had the Blonde On Blonde double LP, this song takes up an entire album side. With the tone-arm up, the song would repeat all night. There’s so many Ds and Ls in that line, “sad-eyed lady of the lowlands”, and he takes all the time in the world to sing it.
LYNDON MORGANS: Magnificent. Like “Visions Of Johanna”, it”s mysterious and beautiful and very long! I think it must have been scary to be this good, to be working at this pitch of intensity. That’s why he disappeared for a while and came back disguised as a backwoodsman: his own gift freaked him out.
9. Idiot Wind
From Blood On The Tracks (January 1975)
HOWARD DEVOTO: The track crashes in with line one straight off. And it’s off and raw as hell. His vocal phrasing pushes the track from beginning to end. I have to include this one from Blood . . ., because not only is it from the best album of all time, but it also contains – wait for it – the greatest line of all time. I’ll probably choke up just saying it out loud, “I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.” Take that in, in all its glorious ambiguity, and it just about kills every other love song dead.
MICK FARREN: If nothing else, Dylan is the undisputed master of vitriolic diatribes over the corpses of murdered relationships, and, of them all, this has to be the masterwork, and the most loaded with crashing breakers of out-of-control vitriol. “You’re an idiot babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”
EDWYN COLLINS: Blood On The Tracks was Dylan’s last consistently great LP and “Idiot Wind” was arguably the standout track from that collection – a sneering, paranoid song that completely convinces.
JAMES JOHNSTON: It’s like someone talking to you in a bar, getting gradually worse and worse and you’re dreading what he’s going to come out with next. The fact that it jumps out at you immediately with no introduction, it’s as if someone really is talking to you, trying to get something off their chest. Then veering off into vindictiveness and nostalgia – it’s really uncomfortable. It’s the sound of a man sharing his darkest thoughts with you and telling you things you really shouldn’t be hearing. It’s too personal, like someone really ranting then ending up resigned and appalled at the complete mess once his rant is over. When you first hear it, you’re not sure where the chorus is coming and it really keeps your attention. Although it sounds like a rambling rant, in a way it’s his most direct and focused song of all really.
RUSSELL SIMINS: I prefer the version on the Blood On The Acetates bootleg because it’s just really stripped down. If you listen to the songs over and over again on Blood On The Tracks, that album’s already in your head, so then to suddenly hear Blood On The Acetates, it’s amazing. There’s different lyrics, different ways of singing it. On the released version, he’s singing loud over the music – but on the bootleg he’s much more subdued. It’s much less aggressive vocalising. Growing up, I hung on to every Dylan lyric. I learnt to play guitar to Dylan. I knew those songs in my heart. To hear the works in progress is great. So Blood On The Acetates is an invaluable thing to have.
MICHAEL GRAY: Another song that Dylan has done inspiredly live, in the Seventies and Nineties, and is also, in its early unreleased form, a high point of the studio sessions for Blood On The Tracks – so of course it also stands for “Simple Twist Of Fate” and “Tangled Up In Blue”.
MARC ‘LARD’ RILEY: I remember the first time I heard this, probably 10 years after it came out I’d never encountered such unbridled venom in song. “You’re an idiot babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe . . .” You can hear the bile slipping through gritted teeth.
8. I Want You
From Blonde on Blonde (May 1966)
JEFF TWEEDY: It’s a perfect love song, cos it doesn’t say, ‘I need you’. I love the nature of the recording – there’s such joy in the frayed ends of all the playing. They’re playing this melody which should become instantly sickening; it’s like the first thing that people play when they pick up a guitar they start moving their little finger up and down and pick out a melody in the D chord. But somehow it doesn’t sound like that’s what’s happening. In the instrumentation and recording of that record, Blonde On Blonde, nothing sounds like it’s in tune with anything else. It creates this whole different pitch centre.
NATALIE MERCHANT: It shows his versatility. He’s a great storyteller, a wry and raw protest singer, and then he’d write these songs that made you want to be in love and made you feel free and playful. There’s nothing desperate about this song. It’s really inspiring, I like any work of art that inspires you to want to live a creative life. There’s a string of blisteringly intelligent and funny lyrics in this song as well as the “I want you” lines.
ANTHONY REYNOLDS: This sounds like how I imagine it would feel to ride a stolen car over everyone that had wronged you – on the way to meet the one you love, while all around the whole shit-house goes up in flames…
NICK JOHNSTONE: When I was young and simultaneously fixated with Andy Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick and Bob Dylan, it was generally understood if you read up on Edie Sedgwick that both “I Want You” and “Just Like A Woman” were love songs that Dylan wrote for her. Even though many people have since told me it’s not necessarily so, I don’t care. l will always imagine Dylan singing these desperate, urgent, romantic lyrics to Edie Sedgwick in all of her drugged-out, wasted glory.
EDWYN COLLINS: Back in the [Postcard] day, we’d listen quite a lot to Blonde On Blonde. Grant McLennan [of The Go-Betweens] would argue that the potency of this song relied quite heavily on its lyrical juxtaposition – the purple prose of the verses contrasted with the simplicity of its title/chorus. That’s true, but I like it for a different reason. For me the devil is in the detail; was it a homage to Edie Sedgwick? Was the “dancing child in his Chinese suit” actually Brian Jones, “‘cause time was on his side”, y’know?
7. Desolation Row
From Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965)
PAUL BURCH: A pretty amazing song. It‘s like 10 or 11 short stories. It introduces a lot of characters and the line “the circus is town” is pretty much a constant in his work – the idea that the rest of the world becomes a wasteland of meaninglessness but the circus has these odd but talented characters. The idea that when you’re in the circus, that’s all you know. You entertain, then you come home, and the bearded lady or the three-armed man still has to lead a regular life, even though they’re freaks on the outside. And there’s that kind of going back and forth in that song. There’s some beautiful lines in it: “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood.” I don’t think they make pot as good as they made it back then! I once read an interview with Elvis Costello where he was talking about “Tombstone Blues” and how the line “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken” didn’t make sense. It’s weird, but the thing with Dylan is it does somehow make sense. You get the joy of writing from him so much. The great harmonica player, Charlie McCoy, actually plays guitar on “Desolation Row”, and it’s kind of a transitional song. In a way, there are more songs on Blonde On Blonde, but on Highway 61 Revisited he sounds a lot healthier. I love Blonde On Blonde, there’s some beautiful songs on there, but as Vic Chesnutt said when he was on tour with us [Lambchop] and listening to the live Albert Hallrecord: “Yep, he’s singin’ like a duck. That’ll be the coke.” And he is kinda singing like a duck on Blonde On Blonde, and the harmonica’s all out of tune. But on Highway 61, he’s singing really good and the band is amazing. A great record.
IAN MaCDONALD: “You would not think to look at him/But he was famous long ago/For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.” It’s by means of such indelible lines that the all-embracing ambition of this epic scathelessly scales the heights of imposture. Such quotable quotes sum up the track’s combination of fierce narrative grip and surreal hipness. With its decorative Spanish guitar by Charlie McCoy, the performance has a dramatic definitiveness ascribable to its resilient sense of onward-sweeping impulse. Whether the lyric is oracular free-association or portentous rubbish depends very much on the listener.
JUSTIN CURRIE: “Desolation Row” gets at least ten listens a year. I still have no fucking clue what he’s on about but it sounds like he’s on about everything and that does it for me. You can hear a genuine disgust with the world really starting to grind on Highway 61 Revisited after the earlier protest posturing, and “Desolation Row” sounds like the start of someone retreating in defeat. The way his first seven records make me feel is actually beyond description. Let’s just say that if he farted in my soup, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if he put bats’ eyelids in my soup. Anybody who wants to know what rock’n’roll is should watch Don’t Look Back twice a year, because that just says it all.
GAVIN MARTIN: The sparseness of the arrangement and the head-spinning imagery combines coffee bar folk with Beat poetry surrealism; cabalistic visions with rock cool. It’s uncanny – poised to embark on his electric fury, Dylan delivers a mind-bending view of the universe/history/the world from the ice-cool perspective of an acoustic set-up. A past and present futurist apocalypse comes to life. The result is education for the masses.
NIGEL WILLIAMSON: By the time I was nine in 1963, I loved The Beatles and the Stones – but I hadn’t really heard Dylan. Then I went to grammar school and decided I was far too clever to be listening to pop music. I didn’t get back into it until I was 13, and “Desolation Row” was the song that made me realise popular culture had far more to offer than the Latin poetry I was studying at this ludicrous, laughable, anachronistic school. After I heard it – in May 1967, I think – l went overnight from being second or third in my class to being 28th or 29th. l didn’t give a fuck about Horace and Catullus any more. I’d found my own poet. But I did read TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, simply because Dylan had mentioned them in “Desolation Row”. If it wasn’t the song that changed my life, it was the song that changed the way I looked at life. I still haven’t recovered and I hope I never do. The greatest song ever written.
6. Subterranean Homesick Blues
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)
CP LEE: It’s the shock of the new. There we all were, folkies to the core, when, suddenly, the TWANG! of an electric guitar and an explosion of words. Dylan talks about “Like A Rolling Stone” as saying he “vomited it up” and it was six pages long, etc, but “Subterranean Homesick Blues” became THE soundtrack to the Sixties – “Don’t follow leaders . . . don’t need a weatherman . . . pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.” Even now, it’s associated with DA Pennebaker and Don’t Look Back. The song that launched a thousand clips, because so many people have ripped it off in visual terms. It was the birth of cool. Jazz had had that element for a long time, but here was a hipster from ‘pop’ music – because ‘rock’ didn’t exist – 23 years old, stood in an alleyway, snarling. It was beautiful. I first heard it on pirate radio, when we were used to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and Another Side Of Bob Dylan. And though the latter led us a bit into “It Ain’t Me Babe”, suddenly ‘Ka-Pow!‘ – you had a backing band and a tune that rocked and kids in Manchester were dancing to it. The kids that weren’t trying to cut your throat, that is. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was here and now. It made you say ‘l’m going this way’, and a lot of people didn’t, for a long time. You had to make a decision at that point and that’s why it’s a very strong song today. You can’t get away from the steamhammer lyrics.
IAN MacDONALD: Speaking about “I Am The Walrus”. Lennon said: “Dylan got away with murder. I thought, I can write this crap, too.” The long chains of surrealistic, unrelated images and phrases in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” challenge the listener to make a kind of sense of them which is deliberately not there. The song’s unity comes from its jeering mood and socially critical point of view. This is the sort of thing Lennon refused to accept as consequential, parodying it in an unheard skit called “Stuck Inside Of Lexicon With The Roget’s Thesaurus Blues Again”. That Dylan didn’t care whether his lyrics added up in any normal way is clear from this tumultuous barrage, inseparable from the cool swagger of its famous video.
LYNDON MORGANS: A proto-rap song, an amphetamine-fuelled litany of riddles from the hipster sphinx. Didn’t he look so cool then! I’m assuming God’s a Bobcat, sat pondering for all eternity the contents of the Zim’s trash can. So if I’m ever ushered into his presence, that’s what I’m expecting to behold, a tousle-haired God in shades, clutching a big light bulb, jigging to this.
EILEEN ROSE: This is a great one to point out if you want to talk about Dylan’s legendary phrasing – you can hear how he’s influenced everybody. Some of his best hip sloganeering in the lyrics (“Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, “Don’t follow leaders”, etc) – you can understand why he was seen as such a leader himself, even though he resented it. But how could the folkies possibly have bitched about this? How square were they? Imagine if they could have seen what was coming musically in the next few decades?
GERARD LANGLEY: “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is just this huge out-pouring of rhyme. He’s wired and in New York at that time and not looking like anybody else, being hipper than The Beatles. This is the track that gets people into Dylan.
NICK JOHNSTONE: The first time I heard it. The combination of that all-over-the-place rockabilly beat and Dylan’s stream of amphetamine-coffee-nicotine-haven’t-slept-for-days consciousness blew my mind. Poetry and a rock band: that’s what that song is to me . . . It’s one of those pure rock’n’roll songs that sits alongside The Stones doing “Satisfaction”, Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel”, The Clash flailing the hell out of “l Fought The Law”, and so on. And it comes from the coolest of all Dylan eras, when he was skinny and mysterious, wired and weird.
THEA GILMORE: I had a battered vinyl copy of Bringing It All Back Home, without a cover and with plenty of scratches, at the time when kids my age thought vinyl was prehistoric and A-Ha were high art. This was one of the few tracks on it that didn’t skip, so I didn’t have to get up and jump next to the record player to hear the next line. I learnt every word of this by the time I was 13, which rarely impressed my peers but made me feel very satisfied. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have sounded like in the Sixties (it sounds revelatory now) to an audience who were used to Dylan the folk singer when he suddenly became Dylan the rock’n’roll rapper. Not so much a song as a meaty chant that overtook generations. I only wish I’d been there at the time.
ROB HUGHES: An obvious choice, maybe, but Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back wielded such an iconic image of righteous, sneering rebellion. The promo may have spawned a thousand imitators and pastiches, but its brain-buckling power remains unsurpassed (amazing for what amounts to a bleary shot of a man stood in a back alley). The song, of course, is incredible, not least as one of the first examples of Dylan’s exquisite, slingshot phrasing and switchblade, spit-chunk poetry.
5. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)
IAN MacDONALD: On January 15, 1965, Bob Dylan recorded, back to back, “Maggie’s Farm”, “On The Road Again”, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, “Gates Of Eden”, ‘Mr Tambourine Man”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and two takes of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”. This must be one of the most extraordinary single sessions in recorded music. It’s up to listeners to decide whether they’re hearing pretension or greatness. There’s a line of progress between “The Times They Are A-‘Changin’” and “It’s Alright, Ma”, but it’s a long one in terms of comprehension. Cast as a surrealistic critique of modern lifelessness as well as an existential defence of Dylan’s own Zen absurdism, “It’s Alright, Ma” embeds aphorisms and fine-sounding lines in a unifying mood of grim asperity. As dark a song, in its cutting way, as “Gates Of Eden”, without the latter’s high-vaunting challenge.
MIKE SCOTT: Masterful, potent. revolutionary, dizzying, brilliant…
MICK FARREN: From a guitar figure rooted in The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” and all-but-overt junkie images, the song launches into the most damning rant against a soulless consumerism which can’t concede that “even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked”. Little wonder that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper selected the song as the postscript to Easy Rider. Also the only Dylan tune I ever recorded with The Deviants.
HOWARD SOUNES: Few songs are packed with so many unique and memorable images, some of which are so persuasive they have become figures of speech, ‘“money doesn’t talk it swears” being perhaps the most famous.
IAN McCULLOCH: I love this. Whenever I go on tour I always take Bringing It All Back Home with me – either that or Blood On The Tracks. It doesn’t always get an airing but, especially in America, when you’re on those long drives, listening to Dylan can really conjure up that feeling of being in that era. The moment you stick it on you’re there with him on Highway 61 or wherever.
EILEEN ROSE: It’s incredible how concise he was with such complex, broad subjects (the paranoia of anti-communist witch-hunters, the evils of commercialism, the general hypocrisy of America). And he delivered such a great vocal/lyrical hook in the refrain. Having the attitude and confidence to write and perform a song like this in the face of such sharp criticism (including Joan Baez frowning frowning and tutting at him) is still inspiring.
THEA GILMORE: Same vinyl copy of Bringing It All Back Home, and one of the other songs that didn’t skip. As a child I used to listen to this just for the rhythm of the words, and because it felt like this guy with a voice like a bear was telling you a story you really should listen to. I didn’t understand what he was saying until much later, but I remember the revelation of really hearing lines like “money doesn’t talk it swears” and “those not busy being born are busy dying” and suddenly realising that this guy that I’d grown up with in my ears wasn’t just any old songwriter . . . this guy was a teacher.
4. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
MIKE SCOTT: A song from the top of the mountain. It doesn’t get better than this.
IAN MaCDONALD: Dylan’s first departure into free-association surrealism, “A Hard Rain” unrolls in long chains of nightmare image, too serious and urgent to brook disagreement on the listener’s part. Embodying the breakdown of all sense and connection in the face of nuclear destruction, “Hard Rain” terrifies in a Bergmanesque vein of apocalyptic visionary awe – at once the greatest and most extreme protest song ever written.
JOAN BAEZ: A song like this still has relevance today. As an anti-nuclear holocaust song, it has less meaning in the post-cold war period. But looking at the ozone layer and air pollution and acid rain, sure, it still has meaning. With Dylan’s songs, it doesn’t matter what the exact words are and what the exact content is because the song throws you into a context of meaning again.
RICHIE HAVENS: It’s all inclusive. All the different characters we’ve met in our lives are in there. The great thing about Dylan’s songs is that they’re both universal and individual at the same time, and this is one of those. I’ve sung “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” many times. In fact, I’ve sung every song on my list and some of them, like “Just Like A Woman” and ‘Maggie’s Farm”, are still in my set to this day.
PETE WYLIE: Like with Bowie doing “Song For Bob Dylan”, it was through Bryan Ferry that I first heard this song. I love Ferry‘s version, and it was also the first song that I learnt to play on the guitar using chords instead of one finger. After learning these three chords for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, I became a guitarist as opposed to just somebody who owns a guitar. But Dylan’s is just a landmark recording. The apocalyptic lyrics, setting off so many ideas in your head. And the way he sings, you just know it’s serious business. It’s that thing of attitude and the performance being every bit as important. Because he wrote such great words, people tend to underrate his tunes or fail to realise that if it wasn’t for those tunes, and that attitude, the lyrics would never have gotten across. It had to be a combination of all these things.
JACKIE LEVEN: To me, this song says that no matter how hard your personal rain may be, there’s always someone out there with a worse rain. I was thinking about times in my life – like when l was struggling through London in the cold hard rain and a heroin comedown and also being turned away from the dole office in Newcastle in no uncertain terms. I had no money at all in the pissing rain in Newcastle – thinking about how tough that was when I thought, actually, what pissed me off was I wanted to go to the pub and had no money. So this is an admonishing song, saying that you’ve got to get these things into perspective. Otherwise, what will kill you is a paralysing sense of complaint and, in as much as I believe that about this song, it’s a sobering song. It veers towards making you sad for the people and events in the song but always straightens you up before you can get to that. It’s a teaching song.
PAUL BURCH: It seems to encompass everything he puts into his writing – a little bit of Blake, a little Rimbaud, a little Torah and a little bit of Old Testament. And it’s one of those songs that, as a writer, it seems very inspired, because some of the verses just fall so easily – it’s relentless. At the same time, it’s like a series of Cassius Clay punches. Very biblical. And it’s something he seems to come back to again and again. It’s not so much a narrative but very old school and new school at the same time.
JACK BLACK: His best song, by far. “What did you do my blue-eyed son . . .?” “ like the melody and the words . . . I always fuck ’em up, but I know I like all those thousands of miles he describes. I heard that when he started writing that song, he thought the world was just about to explode. It was during the Cuban missile crisis. So he had all these ideas for songs and he wanted to get them all out in writing before the whole game-show exploded. He crammed all these different songs into one. At least that’s what I read on some liner notes. Not that I‘m the kind of guy who studies liner notes. I like music, yeah, but I prefer silence.
ROBERT FORSTER: Dylan wrote this when he was 21 – which is extraordinary. “Blowin’ In The Wind”, which he wrote before this, was impressive enough, but when this came out it really stunned everyone. It’s long and it’s so much more advanced. For a 21-year-old to write all those images that build up in layers. Every line is amazing. It’s incredible that he just drifted out of the mid-west and came to New York and wrote this song. It’s the biggest surprise in Dylan’s career because you just don’t see it coming. Stunning.
MICHAEL GRAY: The original album version for me epitomises all those long pre-electric masterpieces like “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” and “Chimes Of Freedom” through “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” to “Mr Tambourine Man”. The song has also been a brilliant vehicle for wholly different live performance styles in many periods of Dylan’s career.
3. Visions Of Johanna
From Blonde On Blonde (May 1966)
HOWARD DEVOTO: I don’t play the old Dylan stuff that often, and to me Blonde On Blonde has not aged that well. I was going to pick “Just Like A Woman” because it’s near perfect, but in truth “Visions Of Johanna” was – and still is – THE track from that album. Like “A Day In The Life” would be on Sgt Peppers a year later. When I got Blonde On Blonde home and it got to the third track, like every other Dylan-idiot in the world I knew: this one is REALLY something. “The best damn thing since the dawn of musical time,” as someone once put it. But it’s seriously flawed. The first three verses are what make it. On the last two verses I find that increasingly intrusive answering electric guitar that – I assume – is played by Robbie Robertson jarring in a way that detracts from the mood. By then the words have just turned into a sort of beautiful nonsense, too. As you know, when he did the famous 1966 tour, just before Blonde On Blonde was released, he performed “Visions Of Johanna” acoustically – unplugged. Well, in the States rapt audiences actually laughed at some of the lines. It’s probably just that they felt they needed to be seen to be appreciative of the wit of “the hippest cat on the planet”. And, Lord knows, maybe Dylan even prompted them. But laughing along to “Visions Of Johanna“, doesn’t that seem weird? The mono mix is better.
ADAM SWEETING: Difficult to pin down exactly what Bob meant by this, but it pairs some of his most evocative music with his gift for knitting chains of imagery into a seemingly infinite tapestry. The accident-prone Blonde On Blonde recording epitomised his ragged but dynamic studio methods. The acoustic Live 1966 version, by contrast, is performed with walking-on-eggshells delicacy. Dylan deliberately holding back the tempo and enunciating every syllable with stunning clarity. From Louise with her handful of rain and Mona Lisa with the highway blues, it contains some of his most arresting metaphors, most unforgettably, “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”.
HOWARD SOUNES: Every track on Blonde On Blonde is superb. But “Visions Of Johanna” seems to retain an edge because its mysterious and truly poetic language hasn’t become explicable. Who knows what this is about? Yet the lyrics ring absolutely true. Researching Down The Highway, I spent some time in a suite at the antiquated and cockroach-ridden Hotel Chelsea, where Dylan lived when writing Blonde On Blonde, and each morning before dawn, as the hot water came up from the boiler in the basement, the vibrating and expanding heat pipes in the old walls did indeed seem to “cough“, as Dylan puts it in “Visions Of Johanna”. Only a poet would describe it thus.
LYNDON MORGANS: A mesmerising masterpiece, Dylan at the absolute peak of his powers. How does it feel, as a songwriter, to have written something so perfect and unforgettable? Apparently the original title was “Seems Like A Freeze Out” – so even the stuff he rejected for the song is fucking great! When I’m groping for a song in the dead hours of the night, this is what l’m wishing I could summon up! And if I could swap my soul for the talent to write lines like. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”, I’d do it. What’s a soul compared to that level of poetic expression?
ROBERT FISHER: From the opening sound of the solo acoustic guitar, and as the harmonica, drums and organ leak into the stream of the music, the pacing moves insistently forward to support the incredible variety of images as they flirt with everything from the mundane to the hallucinatory. I am never tired of this song.
LEE RANALDO: The live version of “Visions Of Johanna” on Biograph [recorded June 1966] completely tipped the scales for me. Some time in 1988 or 1989 while Sonic Youth were on tour in Europe, someone lent me cassettes of Biograph. Although I’d heard the Blonde On Blonde version many times, this solo acoustic rendition of what has to be one of the great poetic songs of all time just blew my mind. From that point on Dylan stood head and shoulders above all others – not just a poet, not just a musician, but a mercurial, magical, incredibly masterful combination of the two. This song, all by itself, is enough to secure his place in the pantheon of 20th-century composers.
EILEEN ROSE: This is just beautiful – a lovely mood, all the sounds are round and warm. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet/We sit here stranded though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it” – what an opening lyric. Poetic and smooth – really draws you into the rest of the song. The band are brilliant on this one – you can hear how they’re just following him, not really knowing what’s going to happen but grooving along with the narrative.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: ls it about Joan Baez? Is it about Edie Sedgwick? Is it about Nico? Who knows? All I do know is that when I listened to this as a teenager, the melody and the words “Jeeze! I can‘t find my knees!” – just everything about it summed up where I wanted to be at. l was totally bowled over. I heard “Visions Of Johanna” and was never the same again. That was it for me.
PETE WYLIE: Those songs where he’s piling up layer after layer of imagery, they’re better than movies, better than virtual reality, because they’re so succinct. It’s like bang, bang, bang – this big fireworks display of words. I went to see him at the Big Top in Liverpool last summer. At exactly 9.30 he was playing “Visions Of Johanna”. l was standing with me girlfriend, Angie, and he sang that line, “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”. And I just went “Fuckin’ hell, that is the BEST line ever written”. And then I turned to her and said, “But I haven’t got a fucking clue what he’s on about”. I was talking to Martin Carr and he says that’s his favourite line as well. It’s one of those things where you don’t know what he’s on about, it conjures up so many images, just in that one line, it has a domino effect in your brain. Even if it was all blag and he was writing nonsense then it’s still the most convincing nonsense you’ve ever heard. Mind you, his novel, Tarantula – help! I actually thought about reading that again the other week, but then I thought “fuck that”. Life’s too short for two goes at Tarantula.
CP LEE: A pure ballad of the utmost grace, skill and beauty, and one which perplexes me to this very day. What the hell was it all about? This is a standout because the first time I heard it was in May 1966 at the [Manchester] Free Trade Hall before it had been released, and I never thought I’d get to hear it again. I couldn’t believe it when it came out on Blonde On Blonde. It was the harmonica solo that got me. It was like being inside a cathedral. Frightening. And the lyrical imagery . . . For me, Dylan is a very cinematic writer.
DAN BERN: This song, and songs from this period, sound like some weird archangels are speaking through him. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face . . .” – no one else wrote like that.
NICK JOHNSTONE: Hypnotic and screwy and beautiful all at the same time. The way he sings the words “gall”, “all”, “wall“, “hall” are the stuff of legend. Again, he has a poet’s phrasing, he plays with the words, bends them, rolls them, makes them suit his agenda.
The lyrics are so imagistic, so liberated, so free-flowing that listening to the song is to take a journey. If you listen to it drunk or after too much coffee or when you’re stoned or when you’re tired or when you’re irritable or when you’re jet-lagged, no matter what, it shifts in every possible way every time you hear it. That’s great music for you: of its time and timeless.
2. Tangled Up In Blue
From Blood On The Tracks (January 1975)
NATALIE MERCHANT: It’s a masterpiece of storytelling, I think. It’s some of the best lyricism. You get a strong sense of the characters of the song, even though some only get half a line. You know who they are. “Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives . . .” Every verse – it’s just seamless. (Sings) “She was workin’ in a topless place, and I stopped in for a beer . . .” I could sing it all, but I won’t bore you. I toured with Dylan and got to see him play night after night, and it just really made me yearn to see him in 1969 or 1976. He’s been through so much. It’s hard for him to interact with people in a normal way – both the people he meets and his audiences. There’s no interaction with the audience. It’s not his fault. The only people he can feel at ease with are his family and his closest friends. I don’t know why he tours all the time. I’ve read that it’s because he’s created this body of work that’s part of the culture and he just wants to keep it alive, but I wonder when he’s going to stop, or slow down. With all the illness, five children and I don’t know how many grandchildren. . . It’s a burden I wouldn’t want to wish on anyone, to be Bob Dylan. I only met him once. What do you say to Bob Dylan? I was trying not to say anything to make him feel uncomfortable. I’d given him a book and he asked me to come into his dressing room so he could thank me. The conversation was about the book, and thanking him for having me on the tour. And I toured with him after he’d had his heart illness, when he was really sequestering himself. It’s just hard to be Bob. To be able to just function without people having expectations and preconceived notions all the time. There’s people watching. He’s a man, he’s a husband, he’s a father, he’s a grandfather, he’s a poet and he’s a guitar player and he’s a singer. But he’s got a lot of other identities. You know, he’s just a man with a lot of self-doubt. I’m sure he has crises of confidence. I have had just a small taste of what he has to live with and I don’t want a larger helping. That’s all I can say. I think he’s made a big sacrifice.
JACKIE LEVEN: This really matters to me a lot. It reminds me of a time when l was hanging around with a bunch of people who kept telling me I was clinically depressed. I knew I was very down and it really worried me that people said this, because it kind of meant I was ill with depression. But I bought that record [Blood On The Tracks] and when I heard “Tangled Up In Blue”. I just listened to it for days. And this might sound mawkish, but it gave me a feeling of being healed. Its imagery and the whole idea of being tangled up in blue were very, very helpful. It disappointed my friends at the time because I’d really cheered up and to have done it via a Dylan song was more than they could cope with. The way the song unravels is fantastic. What I like generally about Dylan is that there’s very rarely a production attempt to make the song interesting in case you’re getting bored. The song assumes it has its own internal merit and strength and that alone will sustain the listener. Whereas almost every other record you listen to has production to help stave off boredom.
CARL HIAASEN: It’s one of those songs I can just listen to and pick up different things every time I listen to it. You never get tired of it, it never sounds the same twice.
ADAM SWEETING: The received wisdom is that the Blood On The Tracks songs were wrung from an anguished Dylan during the collapse of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, which is probably an over-simplification. In any event, “Tangled Up In Blue” – the album’s opening track – found Dylan essaying a mythic reinterpretation of his whole life, a metaphorical death and transfiguration. As the narrative sweeps from his Minnesota upbringing, through the coffee house days in New York, down to New Orleans and then out west, the singer’s quest is haunted by fateful visions of a female soulmate, and littered with biblical allusions (he temporarily works as a fisherman, and friends become “carpenters’ wives”). It was a dazzling curtain raiser for an album riddled with symbols, signs and coincidences.
HOWARD DEVOTO: Don’t we all know this is the best album in the world of all time by anyone? Nine out of its 10 tracks could’ve made my top 10. It’s from the same year, 1975, when I got Fun House, and one year before me and Pete Shelley saw The Sex Pistols for the first time. Blood On The Tracks made me feel I could see through walls. Hint: take a look at Henry Miller’s book on Rimbaud, The Time Of The Assassins.
HOWARD SOUNES: Although Dylan seems to perform this every time one sees him, this sublime song of lost love has lost none of its power to involve the listener in what is essentially a short story.
LYNDON MORGANS: Sara [Lowndes] was some muse! “Sad-Eyed Lady . . .” at the start of their relationship and then this at the end. If only Yoko Ono had been as good for John Lennon, artistically speaking – John and Yoko split and we get Mind Games or Walls And Bridges. With Dylan it’s Blood On The Tracks. I think Lennon, for all his “I don’t believe in Zimmerman” stuff, had a big hang-up over Dylan – look at his “Gotta Serve Somebody” parody. A bit rich from someone mired in his Barry Manilow phase.
EILEEN ROSE: This whole album has such a fantastic vibe about it – how DID they get instruments to sound so warm and subtle? They always go on about analogue desks and valve amps, but I think it had more to do with the innocence of the playing.
NICK JOHNSTONE: Asking someone to say why they like “Tangled Up In Blue” is like asking someone why they like breathing. It’s just there and it makes life continue and the world is a better place for it. You don’t listen to a song like “Tangled Up In Blue”, you feel it. Either it hits you or it doesn’t. And if it does, you’re blessed.
CP LEE: I do think he’s done it to death in concert, but whenever I see him play “Tangled Up In Blue” live, you suddenly forget the fact that you’re fed up with it, because it’s a brilliant narrative. Dylan is like a very good novel writer. It doesn’t have to be him who’s the fisherman in Delacroix, but he can make you believe it. Who’s the poet? Where are the cafes? Why did they break up? Did she really end up in a strip joint? What was in the pipe? It just completely sucks you into the story. And that’s the magic of Dylan. A superb lyrical achievement.
HOWE GELB: Some men wait all their life to write just one song like this, just to sell the movie rights. How is it possible that so much ground gets covered with so much grace and off-handed delivery? When this album, Blood On The Tracks, was released, we were suffering from a deluge of horrible records at the time. Corporate rock was in full swing and disco was holding a knife to the radio’s head. There were precious few records that kept some of us afloat there and then. This Dylan was the top such flotational device.
ROB HUGHES: Like all the great Dylan songs, it’s almost embarrassingly simple, but driven along by an astonishing narrative that tells you everything and nothing about his Bobness. A cinematic tour de force – there was even talk of developing the story for the big screen – it veers between the past and the present with only the occasional nod to the future. As an attempt to create a multi-textured aural painting, as was Dylan’s supposed intention, it succeeds on more levels than he could have hoped. As a curtain-raiser to his greatest album – Blood On The Tracks – it was a sneering, middle-fingered salute to the critics who had declared him artistically bankrupt after Planet Waves.
MARK CULLEN: A joyous celebration of fucking life and living. I always had a soft spot for the travelling guitar man, hitting the highway in an American car. There is something completely romantic to that. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but I always imagined him as hitting America like Kerouac in On The Road. The whole of Blood On The Tracks is great driving music, and it is like a journey, through the heartland of America. It makes me feel a little bit jealous, living in Ireland, that he could drive through such cities, such different cultures. I have always had a fascination with the American place names he uses – you just wonder what they’re like. And musician-wise, the whole sound of the guitar, the bass, the drums, the harmonica, there’s something magical about them, they sound like they’re in the room with you, like he’s tapping his foot next to you. It’s a fantastic record.
1. Like A Rolling Stone
From Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965)
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: I was living in Nashville when I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone”. By then, well, nothing he did surprised me. I just loved it: it was like an anthem. I didn’t want to hear the rumours of who was who and what was what. It just worked. I was there when he did Blonde On Blonde, and I was the only songwriter in Nashville allowed in the building – because I was the janitor! None of my friends could get past the police. Those were the wildest sessions I’d ever seen in Nashville, you were expected to get three or four songs during a three-hour session. They ran it in-and-out, because time is money. And, God, Bob went into the big A-studio at Columbia and sat at the piano for hours while the musicians were out playing ping pong and cards – and he’s writing a song. It was the most bizarre behaviour anybody in Nashville had ever seen, because he didn’t record the damn thing until the sun came up. I wasn’t there for all of the Nashville Skyline sessions. I know that I didn’t see him do “Lay Lady Lay”, because I remember Bob Johnston playing it for me later in the studio, and just being knocked out. But I was there when he cut a thing with John. “Girl Of The North Country”. And, Jesus. you need to understand these were very heady times for me: I was still barely four years out of the military, and I felt like history was happening before my eyes. Johnny Cash was very elusive at the time – he was like catching lightning in a bottle. And to get them both together, it was like watching two pieces of lightning.
IAN MacDONALD: More closely controlled than many of Dylan’s most ambitious lyrics of the 1965-66 period, “Like A Rolling Stone” is a brilliantly caustic cameo of the fall into self-discovery rendered in four lengthy stanzas. Here, music and lyric are equally outstanding, going so well together that it’s hard to imagine them apart. Thunderous on the 1965-66 world tour, the performance cements the effect, riding the concept as if in a carnival-painted cadillac. One of the top 10 singles of all time.
HOWARD DEVOTO: Me and this song is like the cliché of romantic comedy, where initial loathing masks true love. I was 13 in 1965 and it had been hate at first sight between me and Mr Dylan’s first two singles [“The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues”]. Then three or four months later, for some reason, I buy “Like A Rolling Stone”. Next thing I know I’m hovering over the record player, moving the needle back and forth, trying to write down the lyrics line by line. The organ was a hugely important factor in the impact the single had. Me and my only friend of the time, who was a Dylan fan, were fixated by a little rising organ phrase in the third verse which I’m hard-pressed to hear at all these days. You can’t help but believe it was Dylan hearing Alan Price’s playing on The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun” that made him prick up his ears when Al Kooper – apparently unbidden – started noodling around on the organ during the recording session. And sorry to get nerdy but you really have to hear it in the original mono.
GRANT-LEE PHILLIPS: This probably would have been the first song that l was ever exposed to of Dylan’s. It works on so many different levels. Firstly there’s the energy of this wild, twister-like thing that whips up, taking everything with it, and the singer only has this brief moment to convey his essential plea, which is to look life squarely in the eye and recount the judgements that we might have harboured about those things we have no experience with. Although it’s really heavy, you tend to get swept up in the spirit of the song. Perhaps it could be said that Dylan appeared to be this character, the rolling stone who is the spirit of Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac and others who found similar potential in the quest for self out on the big dusty road. All of that made for a very romantic sketch of who exactly Bob Dylan was. It’s still the song l’d play for the alien who just landed, asking to be taken to our songwriting leader.
CP LEE: l was 15 when this came out and to hear it over the radio, for the very first time ever, is one of those moments that, for the rest of my life, makes me grateful to have shared the planet with the man who wrote this. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest single ever. lts effect in 1965 was cataclysmic. That rimshot from the drum kicking it off is just staggering. It signalled the revolution in lots and lots of ways. It’s a privilege to be on the same planet as the man who wrote that.
STEVIE JACKSON: Probably a lot of people’s favourite, and I know most of the others in Belle & Sebastian love Dylan and this in particular. I remember Stuart [Murdoch] DJing one time and he played this in his set. Isobel [Campbell] is a really big fan too. Sometimes she wears her Dylan dress, which is really cool – just a dress with a picture of Dylan on it circa ’66, with the dark shades. At Belle & Sebastian gigs we always do impromptu covers, and I seem to remember we did try “Like A Rolling Stone” one time. Well, I say “we”, but actually it was mainly me!
ADAM SWEETING: Al Kooper, who bluffed his way into playing Hammond organ on Highway 61 Revisited, reported that Dylan sessions at the time were like strategy meetings to plan the course of the counterculture. This landmark recording succeeds almost despite itself, with some of the players almost tripping over each other as the track threatens to fall apart, but Dylan strides on regardless. lmperious, contemptuous and apparently all-knowing, Dylan was gazing down from a height nobody else had ever reached as he delivered this unsparing put-down of some overreaching female acquaintance. “How does it feel?” he demanded. Somebody should have asked Bob the same question.
GERRY LOVE: Hearing this was like hearing The Beatles for the first time, just so instantly transforming. What struck me was the choice of instruments, and plus I didn’t know how they did it. It features just a classic sound of Hammond, piano, bass and drums but played in a very inspired way. There’s something magical about the way they’re all put together. It’s not carefully arranged but spontaneous and raw. If you have 15 takes of one song, all you’ve got is 15 different versions going on at the same time. There’s so much character to what he does, and the waltz beats and melody is really unusual on this as well. Not many people write in 3/4 time.
MARC ‘LARD’ RILEY: I reckon this song is beyond justification. If I were to try I’d probably say that from the opening snare drum crack you know this is going to be one of the greatest songs of all time. Can a song be classed as an icon? If so, this is one.
DAVE MARSH: The Live 1966 version is as powerful as any piece of music made in American history.
THEA GILMORE: I was always really intrigued by this song after finding out it was originally written in 3/4 because it is the pulling of the words against the rhythm when it was put into 4/4 which makes it such a jagged and exciting sound.
DAN BERN: It got to Number Two on the charts (his highest ever) and it was about twice as long as anything else on the radio. You think you know the song inside out, and then you hear it again and it’s brand new. The form of the song is huge, and the chorus keeps going up and up and up.
LYNDON MORGANS: Seems almost a cliché to pick this, but it is one of the finest things ever recorded by anybody. Ever. It set a whole new standard of achievement, and came out over a year before “Good Vibrations” and 18 months before “Strawberry Fields Forever”, its peers in the god-like genius stakes. It’s haunting and claustrophobic and unprecedented . . . Bob’s the Solomon of the slag-off. (Costello’s no slouch at it either, but with Dylan it’s so apparently effortless. With Costello you can feel how he’s winding himself up…)
EILEEN ROSE: This is one of the three songs Dylan debuted live at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he freaked out all the folkies. Everybody else is writing love songs, and he comes out spitting and fuming about social aspiration and the fall-out from self-betrayal. What does it feel like to have recorded a song that gets labelled ‘the most important and revolutionary’ record ever made? He knew it too. Even Dylan himself was quoted as saying: “I’m not going to be able to make a record better than this one.” I wonder if he heard the sound in his head first, or stumbled on it. Doesn’t matter. It still rocks and I really wish I’d written it.
JAMIE CATTO: The first song that got me into Dylan, and one of the first songs that I remember literally throwing me around the room with emotion and exhilaration. When I first heard it – the Live At Budokan version, sorry purists – I just played it over and over again. It was the first time a track had done that to me.
NICK JOHNSTONE: Timeless and astonishing even on the thousandth listen, it’s a song that probably every person over a certain age knows. It’s more an icon than a song at this point. It should be classified as the Eighth Wonder Of The World. The music, the cool factor, the lyrics the delivery, that huge sweeping authentic chorus: it’s everything you could ever wish for in a pop song, a rock song, any type of song.
PETE YORN: I have a soft spot for this song because we opened for Bob in Atlanta last year. Our tour bus was parked right behind the stage because it was an outdoor venue and he started playing it just as my new girlfriend and l were getting it on for the first time. Through the open window of the bus you could hear Bob scream “How does it feel!”, and I thought to myself, “This feels fucking great”.
MICK FARREN: The hit, the classic, came with a song structure and rhyme pattern that boldly went where no other rock tune had gone before, and imagery that touched the imagination of every teenage malcontent in the western hemisphere. Although the song was Dylan’s first major outing with the full Fender guitar, Hammond organ rock’n’roll band, the power of the actual song is easily cross-referenced by the versions from Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones.
TIM BURGESS: A rude, long and unforgiving statement, just tellin’ it like it is…
SIMON NICOL: The best song anyone has ever written. Gershwin, Porter and Strauss included.
IAN McCULLOCH: It’s one of the first Dylan songs I heard. Not that l was old enough to remember it when it came out, but later, probably something me older brother had on tape. Hearing it as a kid, even though you’d been told about this Bob Dylan fella being some great poet and sage, that song was a breath of fresh air, even as a 12-year-old into me Bowie and Lou Reed. It’s probably the song that most people into Dylan would’ve first heard and gone, “Hang on. I like this bloke”. Whereas if you’d heard “Gates Of Eden” first it’d probably have put you off. Sometimes I think his lyrics are terrible, all that waffling-on stuff, but this is great. All that spite and venom really comes across. The sound is just so exciting, particularly with the Hammond, and I think more than most other Dylan tracks it’s got a real band feel to it. It’s of its time, but it’s still not dated. I don’t know what else was going on when it was released but it certainly wasn’t anything like what The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were doing, because back in the Sixties Dylan was the leader. He influenced The Beatles. And then he went crap.
STEPHEN PASTEL: Completely fantastic. He was so ‘on’ at that moment. There’s something really Method Man about Bob Dylan. He kind of knew how to position himself and a lot of it was pretty strategic. But he always managed to make these fantastic leaps into the dark, like there was almost something kinetic about the music. There’s so much energy in that song, a real enthusiasm and joy of playing. Triumphant!
JIM SCLAVUNOS: Once again, Dylan upped the ante for rock music.
DAVID PAJO: A fantastic record – but have you heard the Isle Of Wight version? It’s unrecognisable, the phrasing is awesome.
GAVIN MARTIN: An indomitable example of Dylan as a catalytic force. The original recording is so alive that 30, 40 years later you can still feel the energy flying round the studio. Though he had been pilloried for deserting the protest movement at its hour of need, “Like A Rolling Stone” is a furious blast at all the shallow duplicity and venal ugliness that the world can offer. It’s timeless – his greatest rebel song. This is raw, unvanquished love; real love – bloody and hard-earned – borne out of careering heartlessness and truth-telling. You get an epiphany – “You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal” – a real state of grace after the treachery, the acid bath, the public hanging and the other untold torments. It’s a universal anthem, but when he plays it live Dylan seldom allows it to become a great big ‘altogether now’ singalong. That is not its fate – like all great works of art, it holds an endless fascination, a mystery which he feels belongs to him. So when he plays it there’s always the feeling that he steals it back and reshapes it. The startling imagery is brought newly alive, the drama of action and consequences revitalised. Maybe tonight he’ll get close to unlocking its secret, maybe tomorrow he’ll get even closer.
PETE WYLIE: I always try and do that thing of listening to records and pretending you’ve never heard them before – it’s a game – y’know – but “Like A Rolling Stone” is stunning every time. It’s everything that’s great about Dylan. The words are fantastic because it’s a rallying cry AND a massive put-down. It’s direct, you know exactly what he’s talking about even though it’s wrapped up in all manner of mystery and intrigue. Is he talking about you? Is he talking about himself? Is he talking about a girl? The great thing is that it’s all of those things, he’s got all the truths in one basket. The first time I was aware of this was in the early Seventies when I started buying records. It was through Bowie at first, after “Song For Bob Dylan” on Hunky Dory, that I started paying more attention. That was the thing about Bowie which me and Ian McCulloch both had, that anything to do with Bowie you wanted to get to know. Dylan and “Like A Rolling Stone” connected with me right away. I’ve seen him live God knows how many times, and he’s not always great, but it’s really hard to ruin that song, although he has managed a couple of times. But the last thing I’ll say about “Like A Rolling Stone” is that it still manages to buzz me. It’s got that thing which, when you hear Dylan, you think, how the fuck did he do that? How did he write that? Those words? It’s like when Hendrix plays guitar or you hear Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin sing. You just can’t scientifically map it out, know what I mean?