Here is something true: I do not know a time in my life when I have not had Bob Dylan with me. The #1 pick in this list, in fact, is not only the first Dylan song I recall hearing–but also the first song I remember hearing. And also my first extant memory…period. And that’s why it is, without a doubt, my #1 Dylan song. But because I’ve never known a Dylan-less existence, it seemed like I needed to do something for his 70th birthday…which is today.
For the longest time, my main source of Dylan was my dad’s vinyl copies of Greatest Hits, Vols. I & II. So considering Dylan has written a ridiculous amount of material, it’s been a lifetime of running across new albums and new songs. Usually it would be finding a fantastic song and realizing it was a Dylan cover. Then seeking out the original and its album. Slowly but surely I built my knowledge of Dylan’s vast career. And it’s…huge. It seems to me that a serious songwriter has to deal with Dylan in the same way that a serious rock band has to deal with The Beatles. It’s a presence that’s so looming you have to react to it somehow–embrace it or throw rude gestures at it, either way, but you’re not able to simply ignore it.
So anyway, happy 70th, Mr. Dylan. Thanks for giving my life a sort of drawn out, extended soundtrack.
Here are my Top 10 Dylan songs, in differing versions to give us a bit of variety. And these are mine…so yours will no doubt be different, and you’ll probably be wondering where certain staples of his repertoire are. They’re all in rotation somewhere on my iPod, I assure you. Enjoy. If you wish to add to your own music collection, Amazon links for MP3 and CD (where available) are provided, and all kickbacks go to help support this site. Thanks in advance.
#10. Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35. Okay, this started out when I was a kid as a funny ha-ha song about drugs. Admittedly. But who can blame me? That coupled with the fact it’s just so much fun to listen to, works a blues brass band, and Dylan’s playing and singing are suitably anarchic. It’s a sonic party and seriously, it’s easy to get high on the song alone. You can’t touch this one with a cover…just not feasible.
#9. One More Cup of Coffee. Well, I wonder why I chose this one. The use of coffee in the chorus is incidental. A stalling tactic. For me, the song talks about the end of an interlude with someone that you could very easily fall for, but maybe you dodged the bullet. “I don’t sense affection/ No gratitude or love/ Your loyalty is not to me/ But to the stars above.” And then he’s having that one last cup of coffee…you know, just in case she changes somehow. Knowing all the while she won’t. Amazing stuff.
#8. I Shall Be Released. The beauty of this song for me is that you can, like with most Dylan, lay any meaning on it you need. He’s good about that, you know? Yes, it could be a straight-up prison cell. It could be an intolerable situation. It could just be life itself. Whatever you need to get away from and can’t at the moment, the song’s there for you.
The Dylan version I’m familiar with is from Greatest Hits Vol. II. You can snag that on CD or just get all three volumes in one fell swoop on MP3 for $19.99. The studio version of Nina Simone is available (easiest to get) on the Essential collection, available as a CD or MP3 download.
#7. If Not For You. I mentioned The Beatles up top…and they, along with Dylan, Miles and Brubeck, formed my musical foundation. And as I branched out from The Beatles to their solo work, I found this cover by George Harrison and only after a while did I remember, “Wait, this is Dylan.” It just sounds so much like a George song, you know? Just so simple and there–a song of gratitude for someone who just helps you get through the day. They’re the most important people of all, really.
The original appears on New Morning, which is available as both a CD and MP3 download. The Harrison version appears on his most excellent All Things Must Pass. You can find that as both an MP3 download and CD.
#6. Highway 61 Revisited. One of two hard covers you’ll find on this list, the version I have here by PJ Harvey reintroduced me to the original. For me, “Highway 61” is any solution you’re given to a problem that is no solution at all. Anyone who’s spent a couple of decades working at a large corporation can attest to this feeling. It’s a nonsense answer you’re being given, but because the answer comes from authority, you sort of have to arch an eyebrow and move on.
#5. Maggie’s Farm. This song was useful, in its many incarnations, when it came to working towards killing my day job. I’ve seen any sort of oppressive entity slammed into the form of Maggie and her farm, and pretty much anything you want to use them as a metaphor for, it works. And you can make it just as angry as you want, like with this, my favorite cover rendition, by Rage Against the Machine.
#4. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Just as the next song will deal with the realization of something being over–something that’s probably been over in reality for some time–this one deals with the acceptance of the inevitability of endings. I’ve never even gotten into the “You’re going to have to leave me now” portion of it…because now could be anytime from this instant to five years from now. It’s more important to me that whole “This has been lovely but there’s an expiry date” vibe it has. The Shawn Colvin cover here has that perfect balance of happiness and sadness that the song requires.
The original is from Blood on the Tracks and is available as both an MP3 or CD. The Colvin cover is from her all-covers album, Cover Girl. You can get that in CD (super cheap used) or MP3 form as well.
#3. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Nobody could write a song of the impending doom of relationship and/or the already doomed variety like Dylan. Partly because the anger is so very subdued. Like with this…to me I’m hearing resignation when he sings “I’m not saying that you treated me unkind/ You coulda done better but I don’t mind/ You just kinda wasted my precious time.” Johnny Cash‘s version is worthy but almost too tongue in cheek, stepping away from the abyss that the protagonist in Dylan’s version approaches and accepts. Anyone who’s been in a long relationship of any sort and had to come to grips with the fact that it’s over can certainly relate. Please note: the Dylan version below cuts out before the end…best version I could find, I fear.
#2. All Along the Watchtower. It’s very seldom that a cover version comes along that seems to completely own the original. This is one of them. In fact, I’ve read where Dylan changed his own opinion and take on the song after Hendrix got done demolishing it. What I find interesting is that I keep seeing how the “two riders were approaching” at the end is seen as some apocalyptic scene…so much so that, well, see where that line falls during the song’s use in the movie of Watchmen. I find it ominous, but to each their own. Regardless, this version…just blisters.
The original appeared on John Wesley Harding, available in both MP3 and CD variations. The Hendrix cover appears on Electric Ladyland which is also available on CD/DVD. Skip the MP3 version–you don’t get the bonus video content with it.
#1. Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again. I suppose it only makes sense that this is the song I remember first. Its surreal WTF-infused imagery no doubt scarred me for life and prepared me for other bits of oddness that I was drawn to later, everything from Dali to Monty Python. And it just fits almost any scenario. Because life, once you scrape off the surface, really is this odd. And what’s worse: it’s cyclical. “Waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.” Man, we’re seeking that price tag whether we know it or not. Here’s the man himself.