Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 40: #1 Bob Dylan

In the end, there was really one choice for number one on this list. By whatever standard you choose to measure musical artists by, except perhaps hard rock anthems, Bob Dylan has roped the competition and ridden it into the ground.  As a friend of mine said in college, "People will be listening to Dylan 500 years from now." There is little he hasn't tried, and there is  nothing he hasn't tried that he did not master. People have written books about Dylan in six different decades. The man has been nominated for Grammy Awards 47 years apart. He was the only person mentioned more than once in Don McLean's American Pie. He was the final act at the Concert for Bangladesh and at Live Aid. The acts that played at his 30th Anniversary Concert looked like a Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. An album of outtakes is on the Rolling Stone Best 100 albums of all time list. I have been to two different costume parties where the only guideline was to come as a character from lyrics in a  Bob Dylan song (I was Napoleon in Rags--along with three others--at one, and a renegade priest handing out flowers at the other). Three different best-selling, hugely popular artists unethically based hits on  his songs--not just "based", but actually stole lyrics or otherwise took liberties; Dylan's responses helped make "sampling" more legitimate by forcing artists to give credit for doing so. He redefined folk music, gave rock n' roll legitimacy when he went electric, got a wrongly imprisoned man freed by singing a song about him, made some of the best Christian rock ever recorded, even made country albums. He was the subject of one of the best songs of the 1970's (Diamonds and Rust). There is nobody, with the possible exception of Shakespeare, who has ever had his ability to create narratives of lasting beauty with such picturesque and evocative imagery using the English language.
And if you think that is hyperbole or exaggerated, just listen to ten percent of what he has produced in his career. I once was asked to help a friend who worked at the radio station at Geneseo stay on the air for 72 consecutive hours; he ended up devoting almost a full 24 hours to Dylan songs--and this was 1984. I still have the playlist of songs I insisted he play:
Masters of War (not only the original from 1962, but at least three different live versions that are totally different in scope and sound and also totally kick ass)
Girl From the North Country (Paul Simon in Scarborough Fair used the same English folk ballad as inspiration. Dylan listed the arrangement as traditional and gave credit to the English singer who turned him on to the song ; Simon did not)
A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall
The Times They Are a-Changin'
When the Ship Comes In (for those old enough to remember, the song he played with Keith Richards and Ron Wood to close out Live Aid. If anyone doubts that Bob Dylan should be on top of this list, Google that performance. These two rock icons, two of the biggest stars ever to have lived, had looks on their faces that clearly said, "This is the highlight of our careers")
Chimes of Freedom (a song that Bruce Springsteen covers well and often)
To Ramona
My Back Pages (covered fabulously by the Byrds)
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Love Minus Zero/No Limit (perhaps one of the most enigmatic and beautiful love songs ever written)
Bob Dylan's 115th Dream (one of the funniest songs ever written)
Gates of Eden
It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (nearly prophetic in some its imagery, considering what happened in the United States after it was written in 1965)
Like A Rolling Stone (often referred to as the best song ever written, and another where the live versions over the years have been vastly different than the original and are still magnificently compelling--check out the versions on "Before The Flood" and "Live at Budokan", as well as several of the bootleg concert albums floating around)
Tombstone Blues (the succession of images and the fantastic lyrical structure make this perhaps his most underrated song)
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry (sampled most memorably by X, of all bands)
Ballad of a Thin Man (the source of the "Mr. Jones" of the Counting Crows song)
Highway 61 Revisited 
Desolation Row (covered, in part, by My Chemical Romance; the original is nearly twelve minutes long and another one of those anthems whose images and vignettes could spawn a movie; one of my friends went to one of the aforementioned Dylan parties as "Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, with his memories in a trunk")
Positively 4th Street (often regarded as the nastiest put-down song ever recorded)
Rainy Day Women #12 and 35 ("Everybody Must Get Stoned!", which Dylan clearly was during the recording)
Visions of Johanna (in my mind, the absolute best Dylan song, and the acoustic version on "Biograph" is even more remarkable than the wonderful original on "Blonde on Blonde")
Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat (one of the greatest put-down songs of all time, covered fabulously by Beck)
Just Like a Woman (one of the few simultaneously tender and vicious songs ever recorded)
All Along the Watchtower (covered by innumerable artists, mostly in imitations of Jimi Hendrix' cover--but the original is not a song you want to hear driving down a dark road at night; it is eerie and piercing to an extraordinary degree)
Dirge (one of the most pain-filled post-breakup songs ever recorded)
Wedding Song (a very ambivalent love song)
Forever Young (shamelessly ripped off by Rod Stewart)
Tangled Up in Blue 
Idiot Wind (shamelessly ripped off by Hootie and the Blowfish in Only Wanna Be With You)
If You See Her, Say Hello (so sad it almost brings on tears)
I Shall Be Released (covered memorably by The Band)
Hurricane (song about the framing of Rubin Carter that led to Carter's being released from prison. This is off the album "Desire", which was wall-to-wall epic quality, except for the awful, ten minute-plus Joey. This is the album referred to in the Patti Smith post a few days ago)
Black Diamond Bay 
Changing of the Guards (strong contender for all-time best Dylan song)
New Pony (fabulous cover by The Dead Weather, Jack White's current band)
Senor (the best questioning-God song ever written, also notable for rhyming "Where are we headin'" with "Armageddon")
We Better Talk This Over (best break-up song ever, bar none, and the only song I ever heard that successfully found a rhyme for "happen")
Where Are You Tonight? (best song no one has ever heard)
Gotta Serve Somebody (first Christian hit)
Slow Train (unbelievable Christian-imaged, damn-this-society song, with a fantastic bootleg live version out there I cannot find anywhere now)
When You Gonna Wake Up (played on Saturday Night Live)
Solid Rock (spectacular gospel song)
Shot of Love (not only a Christian song, but one of the hardest rockers Dylan ever wrote)
Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar (only Dylan could rhyme "January" and "Buenos Aries" and have it make perfect sense)
Every Grain of Sand (perhaps the most beautiful song Dylan ever wrote)
Jokerman (fantastic as released, and ever better on the bootleg "original" version)
Neighborhood Bully (which has been seriously proposed by some Israelis to become the national anthem of Israel)
I and I (one of my all-time favorites; working title of the unfinished novel whose pages are on this blog)
Man of Peace
That was all the Dylan canon that was out at the time. There are a lot of songs that many critics and fans would include that I don't particularly like or like as well as others of a similar time period. And to give some idea of the breadth of Dylan's career, his career wasn't even half over in 1984. Here is a very small sampling of songs I would add to the list now:
When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky (fabulous partial cover by Jeff Healey was the theme to the Patrick Swayze movie "Point Break")
Something's Burning, Baby
Foot of Pride (this is a contender for his best song ever, and it was never put on anything other than a bootleg collection. Lou Reed covered this at the 30th Anniversary Concert, and to my knowledge it is the only video or live version available anywhere, by anyone. What a shame; it's absolutely magnificent)
Silvio (the only worthwhile song to come out of his late 1980's collaboration with the Grateful Dead; this is universally regarded as Dylan's worst period)
Pretty Boy Floyd
Up to Me
Caribbean Wind
Political World (one of his most underrated and unknown great songs)
Everything is Broken
The Man in the Long Black Coat
Series of Dreams
Love Sick
Cold Irons Bound
Ain't Talkin'
Pay in Blood
The last two, it should be noted, are a few months old, off his latest CD "Tempest"--which is the best thing he has done since at least "Oh Mercy" and maybe "Shot of Love." He is, I repeat, seventy years old. And still is head and shoulders above, even at seventy, just about anyone else out there. There are songs on this list that were written fifty years apart. He has at least seven or eight serious contenders for the title of "Best Song Ever Written;" I am so sick of Blowin' In the Wind and Mr. Tambourine Man that I didn't put them on this list, but those are probably two of the best-known and popular songs he's ever done, and the ones that even tribesman in grass skirts in New Guinea have heard of.
He is Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky rolled into one. He is the standard that everyone else is going to be measured by for hundreds of years to come. He is the best American musical artist that has ever lived, and is probably the best verse poet, as well. Dylan is the modern world's Homer.
Dan was right. People will listening to Dylan 500 years from now, if not longer. There is no one else alive that is assured of that honor.
Note: There is no video with this post for two reasons. One is that it would be impossible to pick just one. The second is that Dylan pays people whose only job is to scour You Tube looking for videos using copyrighted material. I have seen a few Dylan songs up for a day or two over the last several years, but that's it; they always are down almost as soon as they go up. He is fiercely protective of his material; as mentioned, he sued Hootie and the Blowfish for plaigarism and won; took Rod Stewart to court and got Stewart to give him credit for Stewart's "Forever Young" ripoff publicly before trial, and paid Simon back for using his lyrics by covering The Boxer, and not crediting Simon as the songwriter, on one of his albums in the early 1970's.

Postscript: To the guy who left a comment: I deleted the comment by mistake. I edited the post to incorporate your information.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't have said it better. I think the 500yrs could be calculated to twice that easily. His body of work and integrity elevate him to a prophet-like status.