As chosen by famous fans, Dylan associates and Uncut writers
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.