My Favorite Bob Dylan Lyrics

Five weeks having passed since I last posted an entry in it, perhaps it’s time to admit that my Albums A to Z series — while a triumph of both music criticism and alphabetizing — ran out of steam at “L” and is on hiatus. We’ll pick it up next summer with my favorite Monty Python record.

Bob Dylan and Barack & Michelle Obama
Dylan and the President and First Lady at a 2010 White House concert – White House

Bob Dylan’s already made his appearance in that series, so I won’t be choosing his new release when the turn of “T” comes around next July. But it deserves the widespread plaudits it’s been receiving; it’s yet another reminder that Hibbing’s favorite son remains a stunning songwriter and unmistakable singer long past the age when most of his peers became fixtures on PBS pledge drives.

As a small appreciation, let me rip off an idea from Flavorpill writer Tom Hawking and share some of my favorite Dylan lyrics. Consistent with my own collection, it’s heaviest on 1960s Bob — though I let myself use no more than one song per album. So please feel free to share your own favorite lyrics in the Comments section, particularly if they come from 1970s-1980s albums.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right(The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)

I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
But goodbye’s too good a word, gal
So I’ll just say fare thee well

Lay Down Your Weary Tune(recorded for The Times They Are A-Changin’, though not released until 1985’s Biograph)

Lay down your weary tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

Chimes of Freedom(Another Side of Bob Dylan)

Even though a cloud’s white curtain in a far-off corner flashed
An’ the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting

I’ll be honest: I’m no great fan of Dylan’s political songs from his first few albums, and The Times They Are A-Changin’ holds up especially poorly. But it’s good to look back and realize the breadth of his writing even on the 1963-1964 albums, particularly as it lent itself to interpretation by my favorite American rock’n’roll band from that decade, The Byrds, who covered “Chimes of Freedom” and “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” on their first two albums.

Mr. Tambourine Man(Bringing It All Back Home)

Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming

Desolation Row(Highway 61 Revisited)

Cinderella, she seems so easy
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style

Visions of Johanna(Blonde on Blonde)

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin' to be so quiet?...
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Now it gets hard… Much as I’d love to go with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“The vandals took the handles”!), I’ll go with another Byrds-covered classic simply because its lyric survived the ordeal of having been made the object of analysis by Michelle Pfeiffer’s poetry teacher in one scene of Dangerous Minds. Picking just a couple lines off of Highway 61 is even more foolhardy. You couldn’t go wrong throwing a dart anywhere on the lyric sheet for “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the next track’s famous joke that “The sky’s not yellow / It’s chicken” tickles me to no end. But I’ll go with one of the most concisely drawn character sketches in the sprawling, surreal epic that closes the album.

Then there’s “Visions of Johanna,” which is my favorite Bob Dylan song of all time. So I’ll treat that as license to include both the song’s great opening question and the closing lines of verse two.

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere(The Basement Tapes)

Genghis Khan
He could not keep
All his kings
Supplied with sleep
We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep
When we get up to it

For no good reason. I just like that any country singer looking to cover Dylan ends up singin’ about the Mongol Empire.

Idiot Wind(Blood on the Tracks)

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

Not Dark Yet(Time Out of Mind)

She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

I’m repeating two of Hawking’s choices with these last two, but I can’t argue myself out of either. “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” is perhaps the best insult ever sung. When Time Out of Mind came out in 1997, I think the only Dylan album I owned was the first volume of his greatest hits; after hearing “Not Dark Yet,” I picked up Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde and didn’t look back. What’s most remarkable is that I was convinced that it was his valediction for his career (and maybe his life); now here he is, fifteen years later, making an even darker album about death and dying…

Other nominations??


6 thoughts on “My Favorite Bob Dylan Lyrics

  1. This is a subject about which I could write a great deal. I agree with all of your selections so I will narrow my list down to just four of my favorites…

    1) To Ramona – Another Side of Bob Dylan
    “The flowers of the city
    Though breathlike, get deathlike at times
    And there’s no use in tryin’
    To deal with the dyin’
    Though I cannot explain that in lines”

    2) When the Ship Comes In – Times They Are A-Changin
    “Then they’ll raise their hands
    Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
    But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
    And like Pharaoh’s tribe
    They’ll be drownded in the tide
    And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.”

    3) Desolation Row – Highway 61 Revisited
    “Now to her, death is quite romantic,
    She wears an iron vest
    Her profession is her religion
    Her sin is her lifelessness”

    4) Shelter From the Storm – Blood on the Tracks
    ’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
    When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
    I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
    “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

    Also, I must say that I enjoyed his concert last month in Rochester. His voice has certainly weathered, but he still seems to enjoy performing.

      1. Speaking of covers, have you checked out “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan” that Amnesty International put out earlier this year? Overall I wasn’t persuaded to buy the album, but there were some pretty decent covers.

        I thought Jack’s Mannequin did a decent version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” although they didn’t change it too much. However, I would say I was particularly surprised to see myself enjoying covers of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” by (of all people in the entire world) Miley Cyrus, and “Property of Jesus” by Sinead O’Connor.

        P.S. Feel free to judge me for praising Miley Cyrus in a post about Bob Dylan…

  2. Life is sad
    Life is a bust
    all you can do
    is do what you must
    you do what you must do
    and you do it well
    I do it for you
    honey baby can’t ya tell?

    Sheer awesomeness
    Blood on the Tracks, best album ever.

  3. Chris – I would happily judge you, except that I came across that same cover by Miley Cyrus while researching this post and listened to a good twenty seconds of it without feeling too guilty.

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