Shuffling through my iTunes library recently, I switched to searching Artist by alphabet mode to help me find a song whose name I couldn’t remember (Song For You – I know that now.) I knew the song I was looking for was by Rhye. Running down the alphabet list to get to R, I stopped short at B. I had no idea I had so many Bob Dylan songs in my library. I checked. I have more Dylan tracks on my computer than songs by anyone else: 57, as of right now. Of course, in terms of Dylan’s huge output over so many years, 57 is nothing.
I am far from being a Dylan fanatic.
Yes, one of the very first singles that I ever bought was Dylan’s I Want You in 1966 (it’s still in my iTunes library.) I was 16. Prior to that, I remember lying in bed one night and listening to a BBC interview with Dylan and hearing Like a Rolling Stone as it was played for the first time in Britain and Ireland. The song confused my mind state. Dylan was electric, a tempest in a teapot today. But at the time, I felt like I was hearing something that was both immediately defining and predictive all at once. Yes, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Who and so many others were putting out new music at just about the same time. But Like a Rolling Stone was different. Like a Rolling Stone broke the mold; it was freewheeling lyrically and musically, completely in control of its own musical space and totally riveting, at least to this 13 year old. Something new was afoot.
But my initial impact with Dylan never turned me into a true Dylan fan. His path and mine diverged. Joni Mitchell arrived. Crosby, Stills and Nash came on the scene. I bought some Dylan albums and rarely played a track back twice other than Sara on the 1976 “Desire” described by Joseph O’Connor in the Irish Times in 2016 as “perhaps Dylan’s most emotionally naked song, as beautiful an expression of the preciousness and frailty of human love as has ever been put on a record.”
The Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, and we needed a break from the intensity of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Disco arrived, and before we knew where we were, we were somewhere else. Candi Staton, Gloria Gaynor, and Chic took over. We wanted to dance. 1978 brought us Rod Stewart’s If You Think I’m Sexy, and 1979 Cher’s Take Me Home. The tracks, like thousands of others, were vacuous, but they gave us a minute or two metaphorically speaking to catch our breath.
Dylan went on his own way. The 70’s came and went. The 80’s came and went. But Dylan, like the Eveready Bunny, just kept on going. The year 2000 came and went. Dylan kept on making his own kind of music, electric, eclectic, folk rock, rockabilly and blues. His output is remarkable. As of right now, he has released 38 studio albums, 13 live recordings, 19 compilation records, 13 box sets and 13 in the Bootleg series.
If you haven’t given Bob Dylan much attention in a while, take a listen to Sweetheart Like You from the 1983 album Infidels. Or listen to Tight Connection To My Heart from the 1985 Empire Burlesque. Things Have Changed won the Academy Award for Best Song from a Motion Picture in 2001. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ from Dylan’s 2009 “Together Through Life” is devastating. The video is hard to watch. There is a non-violent version of the video available here. There are certain Dylan songs that I now seem to listen to almost daily; Hurricane (Desire Outtake 1975), with Emmy Lou Harris singing background vocals, is one of those. You’re A Big Girl Now (Take 2), recorded in 1975 but released just last year on The Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks is another. The recording and the lyrics are heartbreaking.
Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast
Oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last
… I’m going out of my mind, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart
I respond to Dylan’s Pretty Saro, an English folk song from the early 1700s on many levels; its folk heritage and historic reach. But most of all, I relate on Pretty Saro to Dylan’s singing; his voice is purely emotive, and his sincerity is unassailable. This is the Dylan track that has the most plays on my iTunes play list. The song was recorded in 1970, but not released until 2013 on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10, Another Self Portrait.
In 2015, Dylan shifted the bottom line, once again. He released Shadows in the Night, an album of pop standards from the 50’s and 60’s. It was Dylan’s 36th studio album. This is the album that brought me back to Dylan. I found Dylan’s arrangements tight and astute, and his assumption of the Sinatra canon somehow authentic and reassuring. And his voice on these songs is richly resonant. Take a listen to Stay With Me. In an interview with Bill Flanagan on Dylan’s official website, this is Dylan’s answer to the question, “If you can sing like that, why don’t you always sing like that?”
Depends what kind of song it is. “When the World Was Young,” “These Foolish Things,” are conversational songs. You don’t want to be spitting the words out in a crude way. That would be unthinkable. The emphasis is different and there is no reason to force the vernacular. “An airline ticket to romantic places” is a contrasting type of phraseology, than, say, “bury my body by the highway side.” The intonation is different, more circumspectual, more internal.”
Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature that same year of 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Leonard Cohen said, “To me [the Nobel] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” Dylan was 75 then. In response to the award, he released a statement announcing that he wouldn’t be attending the award ceremony: “He wishes he could receive the prize personally, but other commitments make it unfortunately impossible.” Dylan was touring.
But Dylan wasn’t done with the standards yet. I Could Have Told You and Stardust are just two of the tracks on the triple CD/ triple vinyl recording Triplicate released in 2017. Triplicate has 30 tracks in all. Take a listen to P.S. I Love You and hear a vulnerability and poignancy that you will rarely hear in Dylan’s own compositions or in any other interpretation of the song, and it’s been covered by many artists including Bette Midler, Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra. Here’s what Dylan had to say to Bill Flanagan on whether these songs enabled him to go to a place where his own songs couldn’t:
Sure they do. I would never write “Where Is the One,” but it’s as if it was written for me, so I didn’t have to write it. It’s a tough place to get to, it’s vulnerable and protected. You’d have to be like the invisible man to get through, or you’d have to batter down walls, strip yourself naked, and then even if you did get in you’d have to wonder what’s the point. Someone else has been here and gone and took everything. Someone else had to write this song for me. Its nerves are too raw. You leave yourself too open. I’d rather not go there, especially to write songs.
These ultimate Dylan records force us, once again, to reevaluate Dylan, who he has been, what he has contributed and how essential he is in the definition of American musical continuity. Dylan has humanized the standards; he’s taken out the gloss, the stylized 50’s orchestration effects, and brought these songs back to their basics. Along the way, he’s also found a line to connect the music of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s to his own contribution to American musical history that began in the 60’s.
Dylan turned 78 on May 24, 2019