A Quintessential Bob Dylan Song for Every Decade - Hindustan Times
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A Quintessential Bob Dylan Song for Every Decade

ByNirmalya Dutta
May 25, 2023 03:25 PM IST

To commemorate the 82nd year of the greatest songwriter of all time, here’s an essential Dylan song for every decade starting from the 1960s.

Around 82 years ago, a baby was born in a close-knit Jewish family in Minnesota to the children of immigrants from Odesa (then Russia, now Ukraine) and Lithuania who grew up to write so many songs that he made Rabindranath Tagore look like a dilettante and sang with a delicious nasal twang that must have inspired Himesh Reshammiya.

Bob Dylan through the ages (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Bob Dylan through the ages (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Along the way, he’d change his name, move to New York, redefine protest songs, anger a lot of people by going electric, introduce The Beatles to Mary Jane, jam for a newly-born Bangladesh, find Jesus, ignore Woodstock in his backyard, star in ads, inspire Bengali atheists to use his lyrics for alpana, drop in at a Baul’s wedding in Calcutta and become the only person ever to win an Oscar, Pulitzer, Grammy, and Nobel.

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The Nobel committee had given Dylan the award for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” but you didn’t need to be American or even be familiar with Americana to appreciate Dylan whose works – like all great pieces of art – transcended the barriers of space, time, and linguistics.

So, to commemorate the 82nd year of the greatest songwriter of all time, here’s an essential Dylan song for every decade starting from the 1960s. Fellow Dylan aficionados should note that this is just a personal list compiled by a dilettante Dylan fan and isn’t the last word on Dylan’s songs.

The 1960s – Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright

Album: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1962)

A lot of Dylan fans, including this author, believe that the 60s was when Dylan wrote some of his best work, which makes the choice of Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright the most controversial in this list.

We are talking about a decade that saw Dylan write songs like Blowing In The Wind, The Times Are A-Changin’, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Like A Rolling Stone and All Along The Watchtower. Half of the songs Dylan wrote in the 60s are worthy of theses of their own accord.

Controversial as it is, this author considers Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright the greatest Dylan song ever written, which effectively makes it the greatest English song ever written.

Why Don’t Think Twice…? Because there’s something romantically haunting and yet insouciantly churlish in the 20-something Dylan’s ballad for lost love as he whines – at times literally – about Suzie Rotolo.

The unrequited love shines like an unpolished diamond. To draw a poor parallel, think of the early works of Anurag Kashyap, which blew you away with their unencumbered freshness.

The song remains ubiquitous in its anguish for lost love, the even-keeled guitar strings telling a tale of a lovelorn lad who thinks his world has ended and despite his laments, it’s not alright. The song’s genius is evidenced by the fact that it remains hugely relevant to this day, turning up time and again, in pivotal moments in hugely popular TV shows, including Ted Lasso and Mad Men, the lament about unrequited love echoing through the ages.

The Defining Verse

I once loved a woman, a child I’m told

I give her my heart, but she wanted my soul

But don’t think twice, it’s all right

The 1970s – Tangled Up In Blue

Album: Blood on the Tracks (1975)

A lot happened to Dylan in the 70s. He recuperated from a horrific motorcycle accident in 1966 that happened at Woodstock, New York, was coaxed back on stage for Concert for Bangladesh by George Harrison, found Jesus (Gotta Serve Somebody), championed Rubin “Hurricane” Carter – a black boxer falsely accused of murder – and stopped playing big concerts to go on the Rolling Thunder: Revue tour to reconnect with his audience.

But for this author, the definitive Dylan song of the 70s wasTangled Up In Blue, an eclectic never-ending tapestry whose lyrics kept evolving with every version. It was the musical tribute to the second law of thermodynamics, a song whose lyrics simply refused to rest.

As Jeff Slate notes in a delightful piece for The New Yorker titled Bob Dylan’s First Day with Tangled Up in Blue: "Unlike, say, Paul Simon, a presenter who toils over his records, perfecting every nuance until everything is just so, Dylan is restless, visceral, mercurial, always seemingly on the way to his next creation. More Blood, More Tracks, and especially its centerpiece, the constantly evolving, shifting, changing Tangled Up in Blue, is pure Dylan, a portrait of an artist who never seems to tire of the chase."

It’s a quintessential coming-of-age American road song that makes you question the very concept of linear time, making you wonder if the past you remember is a reality or an illusion. Where did the carpenters’ wives and mathematicians go?

It’s a thought echoed by Dylan. As he toldThe Rolling Stones in 1985: “I was never really happy with it. I guess I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts, but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do . . . with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn’t matter.”

The Defining Verse

Some are mathematicians

Some are carpenter's wives

Don't know how it all got started

I don't what they do with their lives

But me, I'm still on the road

Heading for another joint

We always did feel the same

We just saw it from a different point of view

Tangled up in blue

The 1980s – Every Grain of Sand

Album: Shot of Love (1981)

Many moons ago, at a literary festival, Life of Pi author Yann Martel provided a very interesting hypothesis: If Indian civilisation’s cultural ethos was based on its two epochal epics, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, Western civilisation’s analogy was the Gospel and The Iliad-Odyssey. And if Christ’s sacrifice and the tales that follow shape Western civilisation’s ethos, then Dylan’s hymn is surely its chosen leitmotif.

The song came at the fag end of Dylan’s Christian phase, which has to be the second-most successful Jewish “conversion” since Jesus.

Honestly, there’s no secular way to enjoy the song. Referring to various Biblical moments from Cain’s “chain of events” to Abraham’s “seed as sand on the seashore”, the lyrics will make the most dyed-in-the-wool Darwinian atheist question whether such divine genius could’ve been created through natural selection.

Interestingly, Every Grain of Sand is also the only Bob Dylan song to be featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is the keynote during the opening sequence of the eclectic series Moon Knight.

No wonder Bono called the song “one of the great Psalms of David”. The U2 frontman famously said: “Dylan stops wailing against the world, turns on himself and is brought to his knees.”

Speaking about the song, Dylan said: “That was an inspired song that came to me. I felt like I was just putting down words that were coming from somewhere else, and I just stuck it out.” No wonder it played at Steve Jobs’ and Johnny Cash’s obsequies.

The Defining Verse

Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake

Like Cain, I behold this chain of events that I must break

In the fury of the moment, I can see the master's hand

In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

The 1990s – Blind Willie McTell

Album: The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991

It wasn’t until the release of the first Bootleg Series compilation in 1991,recalls Jim Bevigilia, that most casual Dylan fans realised the quality of the tracks that Dylan had left off his studio albums. In his biography Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, author Howard Sounes writes that when asked why he had left out “the greatest song he ever wrote” from The Infidels (1983), he told a confidant: “It’s okay.”

As Jim Bevigilia states: “Blind Willie McTellacts then as a testament to both Dylan’s brilliance and his idiosyncrasy. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s musicians would have recognized it as a masterpiece and released it on the spot to praise and acclaim. Dylan left it on the cutting-room floor, and in so doing, lent an air of mystery and allure to its unmistakable excellence.”

Why Dylan didn’t release the song recorded in 1983 remains a mystery. When asked, Dylan claimed he didn’t care for the recording, which anyone who has heard the original Bootleg version would seriously disagree with.

The song was a tribute to the last unknown Blues superstar Willie McTell who prolifically recorded songs and would play on the streets of Atlanta before succumbing to diabetes and alcoholism.

Of course, given that it was a Dylan song, it also touched upon a host of other topics, including racism, the horrors of slavery, and urban decay. However, the song ended every stanza with the same refrain: “And I can tell you one thing. Nobody can sing the blues. Like Blind Willie McTell.”

The Defining Verse

See them big plantations a-burning, can't you hear the cracking of the whips

Smell that sweet magnolia blossom blooming, see the ghosts of the slavery ships

Well, I can hear them tribes a-moanin', I can hear the undertaker's bell

And I know one thing, nobody can sing them blues like Blind Willie McTell

The 2000s – Things Have Changed

Album: Wonder Boys (2000)

Over the years, Bob Dylan’s actions – or his failure to act the way his fans thought how he ought to have acted – irked a lot of folks. They hated him for going electric, they couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t turn up for protests, and they could never understand why he would “sell out”. The selling out here is writing for money-grabbing capitalists instead of turning up for protest marches. Dylan’s original score came in a movie starring Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr, and Tobey Maguire titled Wonder Boys.

A box-office dud, the movie did earn Dylan an Oscar for Best Original Song, and a cigar-totting Dylan was even edited into promos of the movie. The entire soundtrack had a plethora of artists including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young. In some ways,Things Have Changed feels like the ideological sequel of The Times Are A-Changin’ , age having robbed Dylan of the hope that the times could actually change for the better.

In 2014, the same song would feature in a Chrysler 200 commercial for the 2014 Super Bowl and where Dylan turned up saying: “When it's made here, it's made with the one thing you can't import from anywhere else—American pride ... So let Germany brew your beer, let Switzerland make your watch, let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.”

The all-American songwriter was now happily promoting the greatest American product – capitalism. Jokes apart, it’s considered one of the best Dylan songs post-1990 and showed the importance of Dylan in the times of Eminem, Jay Z, and Britney Spears.

The Defining Verse

Mr. Jinx and Miss Lucy, they jumped in the lake

I'm not that eager to make a mistake

People are crazy and times are strange

I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range

I used to care, but things have changed

The 2010s - Roll on, John

Album: The Tempest (2012)

The Tempest, Bob Dylan’s 2012 album’s title track, let us know that Dylan had seen James Cameroon’sTitanic, but the most intriguing song from it was a tribute to a former fanboy the world knows as John Lennon. Roll on, John was a bit strange because The Beatles had always been far more enamoured with Bob Dylan than the latter had been with them.

The legend goes that when The Beatles heard Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ in 1964, it left the Fab Four feeling slightly inadequate. As Lennon recalls, they didn’t hear anything else for three weeks. Dylan also introduced The Beatles to Mary Jane, which led to The Beatles – who used to be more hopped up on booze and amphetamines – revisiting their work and taking things more slowly.

Lennon and Dylan never really collaborated unless one counts a limo ride where both were hopped up on “junk” (believed to be heroin), and Dylan was worried he was going to “vomit on camera”.

A piece inThe Rolling Stones notes: “…the camera captured the incoherent ramblings of two impossibly stoned rock stars riding around London in the back of a chauffeured limousine. Though they don’t solve all of society’s ills, the scene is a fascinating, unvarnished look at the tense alliance between the superstars.” Later, the relationship would turn a tad more antagonistic, with the Imagine author Lennon parodying Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody with Serve Yourself.

The two contenders for the “Voice of the Generation” barely met after Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966, with the exception of a meeting in 1969, which makes Dylan’s tribute to John Lennon even more arcane.

Roll on, John is a throwback to older Dylan ballads, where the latter deconstructs Lennon’s mythic rise, from his humble Liverpool roots, admitting in his own way that his old fanboy had become as much as a legend on par with other Dylan subjects like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter or Blind Willie McTell.

As this piece in The Atlantic notes: “Roll on, John isn't a sad song about a friend that died. And it's not a sonic fist-bump from one icon to another. It's Dylan acknowledging that Lennon has become legend—another mythic character to populate his songs.”

Dylan apparently used to say how much the Beatles learned from him. Neil Aspinall, the band’s road manager once told author Philip Normal that John would reply under his breath: “He learned a bit from us too.” Lennon was provided right, alas, 32 years after his death.

The Defining Verse

Roll on, John, roll through the rain and snow

Take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam

They'll trap you in an ambush before you know

Too late now to sail back home

The 2020s – Murder Most Foul

Album: Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

And finally, Dylan’s only album released in the 2020s is Murder Most Foul, the 10th and final track of his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. At almost 17 minutes, it is Dylan’s longest recorded song, and at times the delivery is reminiscent of a sixth-grade student who has been forced to participate in an elocution when he’d rather be playing outside with his friends.

Whatever one thinks of the delivery, the subject is delightfully American, using JFK’s assassination to launch a Shakespearean literary attack on the 1960s and American society.

The Rolling Stones Magazine called it a mash-up of two great rock and roll ballads: Billy Joel’sWe Didn’t Start The Fire and The Rolling Stones’Sympathy for the Devil, and it references a lot of historical events of the 60s, and you can almost see the 22-year-old Dylan’s (the age he would’ve been when Kennedy died) inputs in the song as he makes sense of the grand changes all around him.

The Defining Verse

Goodbye, Charlie, goodbye, Uncle Sam

Frankly, Miss Scarlet, I don't give a damn

What is the truth, and where did it go?

Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know

"Shut your mouth, " said the wise old owl

Business is business, and it's a murder most foul

The 2020s might not have been the octogenarian’s most prolific decade, but it was still far superior to most great songwriters, the musical equivalent of a Federer/Nadal/Djokovic bleak year where they managed to win only one Grand Slam. Hopefully, this isn’t the last decade that we see the freewheelin' man active, and there will be an addition to this list in the 2030s.

And if you don’t agree with the list, I leave you with Bob Dylan's epochal lines that he penned six decades ago: “Don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

PS: In case you’re interested, here’s the full YouTube Music Playlist.

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