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’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.
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, lay down Lay down the song you strum And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings No voice can hope to hum
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.
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
Cinderella, she seems so easy “It takes one to know one,” she smiles And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
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.
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, blowing every time you move your teeth You’re an idiot, babe It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe
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…