15. “Desolation Row”
I have seen people try to dissect this song reference by reference, as many people do with “American Pie,” another great “long” number written about five years later. In “American Pie,” virtually each reference in the song had reasonably identifiable meanings and writer Don MacLean either expected or meant it to be parsed. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this piece, we have to be careful not to overdo this with Dylan. While he is a careful songwriter (in terms of coordinating the meter and rhyme with the melody), he also likes to play sound games, sometimes placing more importance on rhyme than meaning. I think Dylan rather enjoyed the fact that people were falling over themselves trying to find symbolic significance that he may or may not have intended. In any event, songs like “Desolation Row,” with its multiple references to recognizable people (Bette Davis, Napoleon, Einstein, etc.), it invites itself to closer scrutiny than may be merited. For example, while we know many things about the late physicist Albert Einstein, playing the electric violin was not among his many accomplishments. But once we accept the fact that “Desolation Row” is as much a state of mind as it is a place, the song takes us on an unforgettable trip (pun intended). This is a great song, a picaresque journey through a land where no one really chooses to live, but many wind up.

Interestingly, Desolation Row begins with a reference to a real event, the hanging of several workers of a visiting circus in Duluth, Minnesota. (It was a lynching of several black circus workers, who turned out to be innocent.) His father, who remembered the event from his youth, related the story to Dylan. Thereafter, however, the song takes on a life of its own, albeit one separated from history.

This song seems to go on forever, but not in an unwelcome sense. I can remember hearing it at parties, and wishing it would never end (it almost never did, clocking in at 11:21, almost four times the length of the traditional “45 RPM “single”). Whether or not this—and other songs from that mid-60’s era—were written under the influence of LSD or any of the other popular “mood modifiers” of the day, I can assure you that they were listened to by many so situated.

Our “tour guide” is the singer who lives in “Desolation Row,” a place from which (like the “Hotel California”) you can check out of (i.e. “die”), but never leave. Dylan apparently lives in this purgatory with his girlfriend (“Lady”). The row is carefully guarded by a restless riot squad, anxious to earn their pay—unlike the cops in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (see # 15 above) who “don’t need you, and man, they expect the same.” It would seem that Desolation Row is a kind of “gated community,” but without the golf and tennis. In a song in which each stanza both stands on its own and forms a part of the flowing story it tells, it is difficult to single out any one for its dazzling imagery. I’ll select one, just by means of example, featuring Ophelia. Whether or not this refers to Hamlet’s would-be wife, she, like the other historical or biblical characters featured in the song is dead, having gone mad and committed suicide.
33 One character, referred to in the song, Bette Davis, was not dead at the time the song was written, nor did she reside in Desolation Row. She was merely a fashion reference for Cinderella. Dylan beautifully describes the attraction (think moths to a flame) of the dangerous and forbidden to the otherwise religious people who are tempted by the siren-like lure of the profane (“Though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow, she spends her time peeking into Desolation Row.”) . This song is a masterpiece of its time. When Dylan says, in the final stanza, “I received your letter yesterday (about the time the doorknob broke) when you asked how was I doing, was that some kind of joke?” it states the obvious—the man has hit rock bottom.

Favorite version: Dylan’s studio recording, featuring the Latin-inflected acoustic guitar stylings of noted country sideman, Charlie McCoy. While we don’t know for sure where Desolation Row is geographically, Dylan has suggested that it (like “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) takes place in Mexico.

16. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
Speaking of “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” Dylan used a similar tempo and rhythm as he did in Desolation Row, with Mike Bloomfield playing a similar style of Latin-inspired lead guitar (although Bloomfield’s was electric, as opposed to Charlie McCoy’s acoustic lead in “Desolation Row”). I think of the songs as inter-connected by the circus motif that begins “Desolation Row.” The title of this song refers to the diminutive circus headliner, “Tom Thumb,” the stage name of Charles Sherwood Stratton, a three-foot dwarf whom distant cousin P.T. Barnum made famous as the world’s smallest man. Although there is no mention of the eponymous Mr. Thumb after the title, the circus connection has been made, and stays with us. Part of the Dylan myth was that he worked in numerous circuses and found a connection and simpatico with the “freaks” and other outcasts often connected to the big top.

Beginning with the title, and continuing throughout the song, Dylan teases us with references to people and places we know from other contexts. “Rue Morgue Avenue,” calls to mind Edgar Allan Poe, and lets us know that things are not going to be rosy. The Poe reference is reinforced when “Angel” who was “so fine at first, but left looking just like a ghost.” This song, like so many on this brilliant double-album, (e.g. “Desolation Row,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Memphis Blues Again”) is all about people on the downswing. In “Tom Thumb,” the protagonist finds his narrow world shrinking. Whether he is sick (“my best friend the doctor won’t even say what it is I’ve got”), has a drinking problem, drug problem, or both (“don’t even have the strength to get another shot;” “I started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff”), he’s got no one to help him. As for women, while he thanks Saint Annie, he can’t move to benefit from whatever solace she can give. If she is a reference to St. Anne, then she would be the biblical mother of Mary, and, the grandmother of Jesus. She and her husband are prayed to as “protection for the unborn.”
35 As for Melinda, what can you expect from someone the peasants call “the goddess of gloom?” In the end, she leaves him howling at the moon. As mentioned above, Angel left as well. Like Desolation Row, the Mexican town of Juarez seems a kind of lawless purgatory. Not only don’t the police want to hear from (or about you), the authorities (whoever they are) are proud to have blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms (the one who’s supposed to be minding the store) into leaving his post. All in all he’s “lost in the rain,” alone and helpless during the most sacred time in the Christian calendar (the resurrection; i.e. “Eastertime”). It is a time that provides him no solace.

Favorite Version: Judy Collins, “In My Life,” Elektra 1967. This song begins what is one of Collins’s best albums. The song is done slower than Dylan’s version, and uses both flute and Bruce Langhorne’s guitar. This gives it a more mournful and downbeat quality, more consistent with the hopelessness conveyed by the song’s lyrics. Second Place: Dylan on “Blonde on Blonde.”

17. “Memphis Blues Again”
I’ve always considered this as being of a piece with “Tom Thumb” and “Desolation Row,” although not as tight, lyrically, as the other two. It’s a clever song, with interesting imagery and funny rhymes, but, perhaps, less than meets the eye. In many ways, it picks up where “Desolation Row” leaves off—a down-and-outer finally hitting bottom, and wondering if this is it (“Oh mama, can this really be the end?”).

The song begins with the ragman, to whom Dylan asks what the matter is, realizing that this guy doesn’t talk. Is this the same person who was rapping at your door in “It’s all over now baby blue”? Or “Napoleon in rags” from “Like a Rolling Stone” (see #2, above)? These all seem to be specters of a past we thought we left behind, but who continue to haunt us.

Later in the song, he receives an invitation to watch Ruthie waltz “beneath her Panamanian moon” (What, and leave all the fun in Mobile?). What follows is Ruthie’s response to him saying, “…You know about my debutante.” Ruthie utters my favorite line from this thoroughly entertaining song: “Your debutante knows what you need but I know what you want.” Couldn’t we all benefit from the wisdom of a Ruthie?

At the end of “Desolation Row,” remember when someone had the gall to ask him how he was doing, to which he could only respond, “Is that some kind of joke?” In the final stanza of “Memphis Blues Again,” he returns to this notion of a past from which we can’t seem to escape (“An’ here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice”). As he had alerted us in the first stanza, despite whatever kindness he may receive from ladies, “…deep inside my heart, I know I can’t escape.” Has his life led to him to the earthly conclusion that awaits us all—a dismal end?

Many years later, a more mature (and God-fearing) Dylan, eager for salvation, responds to an inane platitude offered by some well-meaning person: “They tell me everything’s gonna be all right; I don’t even know what all right means. ” Perhaps, at the end, the more we experience, the less we truly know. By now, Dylan’s been around the block, and just wants to get into heaven “before they close the door.”
36 Favorite version: Dylan’s studio recording on “Blonde on Blonde.”

18. “Ballad of a Thin Man”
The variations on the circus theme begun in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and continued in “Desolation Row,” is seen again in a full-fledged freak show in which the self-deceiving protagonist, Mr. Jones, completes his descent into self-discovery. The standard take on this song is that Mr. Jones is the self-deceiving middle-class striver (remember the old expression “keeping up with the Jones’s?).

Dylan “addressed” the question as to just who Mr. Jones was in interviews with both Nora Ephron & Susan Edmiston and Robert Shelton.
37 Those of you who saw the 2007 impressionistic Dylan movie, “I’m not there” may recall a British music journalist named Keenan Jones who winds up—in a dream sequence—in a cage at a carnival where a geek actually hands him a bone. Apparently, there was a real British music critic named Jones who pursued Dylan and pestered him with questions. The Black Panthers, a militant socialist group from the 60’s, was fond of the song, and were said to have played it frequently.38 There’s even a tribute song of sorts that the Counting Crows charted with in 1994 called, not inappropriately, “Mr. Jones.” It’s possible that the song was more a reference to Himalayas’ bass player Marty Jones, who wanted to be a big star.39

I’ve got a different take on this song, which, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. To me, this song is strongly suggestive of a closeted homosexual coming to grips with the reality of his situation.
40 Remember, this song was written in 1965, four years before Stonewall, a time when being openly gay carried a far greater stigma than it does today. Things like same–sex marriage and “don’t ask don’t tell” weren’t even topics of mainstream discussion. Let’s look at some selected lyrics, and judge for yourselves.

The opening of the song sets the stage: “You walk in the room with your pencil in your hand, you see somebody naked and you say, ‘who is that man?” Is the pencil a reference to an annoying reporter, or is it the man holding his penis?

Onward! When the circus geek (i.e. someone at a carnival who “sensationally performs morbid or disgusting acts.” See Wikipedia) walks up to Mr. Jones and says: “How does it feel to be such a freak? And you say ‘impossible’ as he hands you a bone. Because you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.” The implication is, of course, that Mr. Jones either knows all too well (the “do you?” seems kind of mocking), or is in deep denial. What follows in the song’s release, in which Mr. Jones asserts his masculinity: “You have many contacts among the lumberjacks to get you facts when someone attacks your imagination…you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks…” If this is not enough, let’s move on to the next stanza. “The sword swallower comes up to you and then he kneels, he crosses himself and he clicks his high heels, and without further notice, he asks you how it feels and he says ‘here is your throat back, thanks for the loan.’” Dylan than segues into the “Because something is happening here” refrain. If this is not about oral sex, perhaps I’m the one with the vivid imagination and owe Mr. Jones an apology. The next stanza continues along similar lines, with Mr. Jones asking “What does this mean?” and the one-eyed midget spells it out in a scream at him: “You’re a cow, give me some milk or else go home.” The song ends with the dismissive, “there ought to be a law against you hanging around.” Well, Mr. Jones may not have known what was happening to him, but, Bobby, I think I do.

Favorite version: Dylan’s studio version on Highway 61 with that eerie organ music by Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Paul Griffin on piano. Simply great!

19. “Visions of Johanna”
This number alternates between being a great song and the equivalent of a Dylan nursery rhyme. I’ve included it because it got under my skin when I first heard it, and has a haunting whole that is better than the sum of its parts. Who, we wonder, is Johnanna, and what is her relationship to Louise? There is some pretty strong evidence that Johanna was Joan Baez. In her autobiographical (and excellent) song “Winds of the Old Days,” she refers to herself as “Johanna.”

The song, unfortunately, distracts at the midway point. After a brilliantly witty line about how “Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles,” he descends into “See the primitive wallflower freeze when the jelly-faced women all sneeze. Hear the one with the mustache say ‘Jeeze, I can’t feel my knees.” This sounds like someone high on pot taking delight in his ability to riff off sounds, and maybe that’s just Dylan’s version of scat. Unfortunately, it keeps this otherwise excellent song from being even better. In listening to this song, one is transported on a surreal journey, as he looks back on a lost love and, possibly, missed opportunity. When the “freeze-sneeze-jeeze-knees” stanza intrudes, it breaks what was, for me, a delicate web the composer had woven. If Dylan was attempting to poke fun at the “moon, June and spoon” rhyming schemes from the old tin-pan alley tunes, you have to ask, why here? Why now?”

Dylan had clearly been involved romantically with Baez, and must have had mixed feelings over the affair, having benefitted from being showcased by Baez when she was the more popular of the two, only to keep her offstage once he replaced her as the headliner. As sensual as Louise may be when she is entwined with her lover, it’s the visions of Johanna that conquer his mind. When Louise tempts him with her nearness, she suffers in comparison with the depth of the missing Johanna—(“she’s all right she’s just near)—“she’s delicate and seems like veneer, but she just makes it all too concise and too clear that Johanna’s not here.” For reasons he can’t explain, when a shallow and self-important competitor (“Little boy lost”) brags about a farewell kiss he received (presumably from Johnanna),
42 he (Dylan) disdains the boaster, but nonetheless acknowledges that these visions of Johanna “kept me up past the dawn.” In the final stanza, there is another reference to Baez, this time as “the Madonna.”43 Dylan may not have wanted her back in the old days, but yearns for her now, especially as the insubstantial Louise chides “Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?” He goes on to say, “as she (Louise) herself prepares for him, and Madonna she still has not showed…where her cape of the stage (they once shared) once had flowed. Perhaps this is as close as Dylan came (in a song) to acknowledging her importance to him and his longing for her.
In real life, however, forty-four years later, Dylan (at age 69) admitted his shortcomings in the relationship and, sort of, apologizes. After praising her voice and (finger-picking) guitar playing in an interview contained in the Baez PBS documentary, “How Sweet the Sound,” he said, “I feel very bad about it. I was very sorry to see our relationship end.” As for the unceremonious way he treated her when she accompanied him to England, he blamed it “on the madness that had become my career.”

Favorite Version: Dylan on “Blonde on Blonde.” Listen (once again) to that great harmonica.

20. “Just Like a Woman”
This is one of my very favorite Dylan songs. I don’t know who the subject of the song is. Guesses range from Warhol groupie Edie Sedgwick to Joan Baez.
45 I certainly don’t think of it as being anti-women. It is about a woman, and Dylan may or may not have had a specific person in mind. Whether he did or not, it is one of Dylan’s many love songs, few of which follow traditional themes. There is something Sinatra-like in the opening lines, “Nobody feels any pain, tonight as I stand out in the rain.” Can’t you see Frankie in his trench coat and fedora looking up at her window as the rain slowly falls? The reference to baby having “new clothes” is likely a reference to her having found not only a new love, but a more sophisticated and adult relationship. “Lately I see her ribbons and her bows have fallen from her curls.” But, as he will reiterate throughout the song, for all her womanly adult attributes, taking, aching, making love, even faking, she still “breaks just like a little girl.” This is an excellent lyrical reference back to the ribbons and bows she wore as the little girl she once was, and, emotionally, remains. The reference to “Queen Mary” may be his acknowledging her high status within the crowd in which she moves, but she’s still “Baby” to him (also a distinctive Sinatra appellation, with references too numerous to cite). The second stanza contains a line so evocative of the glitzy, druggy haze through which the in-crowd floated during the 60’s (“…with her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls”). I can envision her, can’t you? In the release, it is clear that he couldn’t stay away from her. Indeed, her long-time curse hurts so much that being near her is harder to bear than being away from her. Such is her pull, and Dylan makes it palpable. It is a pain many of us—men and women alike—have felt. He realizes that they can’t possibly go on, and speaks the words that are felt by many a former lover: “When we meet again, introduced as friends, please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world.” (Once again, think Baez.)

Favorite Version: Richie Havens on his masterpiece, “Mixed Bag,” Verve, 1967.
46 Close Second: Dylan’s excellent rendition on “Blonde on Blonde” has a beautiful nylon-string guitar accompaniment as well as Al Kooper’s organ, which is such an important part of the sound on both this album and “Highway 61.”

21. “Dear Landlord”
It was clear that, in “John Wesley Harding,” Dylan’s first album after his motorcycle accident, the artist had taken a step back from the dizzying burst of creativity that had characterized his three previous albums (“Bringing it all Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”). The songs on “John Wesley Harding” were quieter, more modest, and less heavily “produced” than on those albums. While they were still replete with symbolism and metaphor, they were also more accessible, and appeared more carefully constructed and manifested less “stream of consciousness” than featured on those earlier albums. (It is important to note that even when I refer to Dylan’s work as reflecting a stream of consciousness, I don’t mean to suggest that he was just dashing them off, merely that the way in which he structured his lyrics had changed. In a 1968 interview, shortly after the release “John Wesley Harding, ” he referred to a change in his approach to songwriting. )

“Dear Landlord” is a good example of this. There’s not a word in the song that is wasted or unclear, but it is still written on different levels. While it is not about the faceless man (or corporation) to whom you pay your rent, it is clearly someone or something to which you must give obeisance. I always thought of it as referring to either our employer or the government. The first and third stanzas are pretty clear, as they set up the terms of employment, at least from the standpoint of the employee. It is the second, or middle, stanza that is puzzling, in that it seems to be written—if not from the landlord’s point of view—at least as taking into account the difficulties of being the landlord. “I know you’ve suffered much, but in this you are not so unique.” (Yes, it’s tough running things, but it’s tough for the rest of us, too.) The singer makes common cause with the landlord, acknowledging that “all of us…we might work too hard…to have it (all)…and anyone can fill his life up with things he can see but just cannot touch.” We each have visions of where we’d like to be, and these are often things that always seem to elude our grasp. Striving is a notion shared by workers and bosses, citizens and their governments. More to the point, this sentiment echoes the attitude of the artist, who is always striving for things just outside his reach. And isn’t that what separates human beings from lower forms of life? I don’t know whether Dylan (the artist) knew Browning’s take on the challenges facing an artist, but they seem to be reaching a similar conclusion.

In the final stanza, Dylan reconciles with “the landlord” by first pleading (“please don’t dismiss my case”) and then conceding, “I’m not about to argue, I’m not about to move to no other place.” Could Dylan be saying to the government, “don’t confuse dissent with disloyalty—I’m here for the long haul.” At that time in America (1969), many people were telling others who had issues with their country’s policies (Vietnam, race relations, poverty, etc.) “Love it, or leave it!” Perhaps Dylan was simply asking the government and its citizens to be more tolerant of dissent. Couldn’t one (and this is as true today as it was in 1969) love our country even as we raise our voices in dissent? In the last line of the song, Dylan’s words speak as loudly to me as anything he ever wrote. “And if you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you.” Isn’t that all we are asking when dealing with authority?

Favorite Version: Joan Baez, “Any Day Now (Vanguard, 1974) Second Place: Dylan, “John Wesley Harding,” (Columbia, 1969.)

22. “Simple Twist of Fate”
“Blood on the Tracks” is, arguably, Dylan’s best post-motorcycle accident album. The introspection so present in “John Wesley Harding” continues here in an even stronger and more elegaic voice. This is, essentially, an album of story songs, not unlike something a more mystical and inner-directed Harry Chapin might have written (e.g. “Tangled up in Blue,” “Idiot Wind,” “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, and Simple Twist of Fate”), had he Dylan’s talent and imagination. “Simple Twist of Fate” is a very well crafted song, and there is nothing simple about it. On its surface, it tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, who live in a sordid galaxy and seem to be functioning in different time zones. They seem to have met and gone to a hotel, but fate somehow intervened and she disappeared. Fate, in fact, brought them together only to separate them. What is most impressive to me about this song is its structure. Rather than rely on either the A, B, A, B or AA, BB rhyme schemes, Dylan has three different rhyming patterns which repeat within each of its six stanzas. (The song has no bridge.) Although each stanza has five lines, they each contain three different series of rhymes in an AAA, BB, and CC pattern. Obviously, this could not be done without some internal rhymes, but Dylan accomplishes this lyrical sleight of hand so deftly, the listener does not realize the complexity of the song’s structure. Let’s look at the fourth stanza, by means of example.
“He woke up the room was bare (A)”
He didn’t see her anywhere (A)
He told himself he didn’t care (A)
pushed the window open wide (B)
He felt an emptiness inside (B)
to which he just could not relate (C)
Brought on by a simple twist of fate ( C)”

While no single simple twist within the song determines the failure of the couple to connect, taken together, fate has frustrated any hope the narrator had of making a go of it, and the fickleness of fate is all he can blame. At the end, he believes they were destined to be together (“she was born in spring, but I was born too late”). Good stuff!
Favorite Version: A dead-heat tie between Dylan’s studio version and Joan Baez (“Diamonds and Rust,” A&M Records). One wonders if they were singing it about (or to) each other.

23. “Lay Lady, Lay”
“Nashville Skyline” was a dramatic, stylistic departure from anything Dylan had done before. It was by far, his most commercial and mainstream (country mainstream, that is) recording. Even his voice was smoother and more crooner-like. Dylan attributes this to having stopped smoking. But even so, there is none of the distinctive timbre to his voice that made people either love or hate him. In the old folk music days, there was a dichotomy between the commercial performers like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary, and the “ethnic” (today, they would be called “roots”) performers like Baez and Dylan. Up to this time, Dylan had been famous for long songs (some too long to fit on a 45 rpm single) with obscure or mysterious lyrics. On “Nashville Skyline,” the longest song is “Girl From the North Country,” at 3:41. (See song #6, above), and two of its songs clock in at under two minutes! In addition, each song on this album is crystal clear in its meaning, many of which make no pretense at depth. And the artist on the cover is a smiling (yes, smiling), Bob Dylan tipping his cowboy hat to you.

That said, “Lay Lady Lay,” is a beautiful song. While it sounds, at first blush, like the standard C, Am, Dm, G7 four-chord progression, it develops into a more complex and nuanced melody. Although it is a straightforward love song, it contains a very evocative couplet in the second stanza: “his clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean, and you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen.” And, of course, the opening line of both the first and last stanza, “lay across my big brass bed,” paints a picture the listener can easily envision. It’s interesting how Dylan bounces around from first person in the first and last stanzas to the third person in the second and third.

In “I’ll be your Baby Tonight,” another song from this album Dylan literally toys with the “June, moon, spoon” school of songwriters when he uses the clichés, June and spoon in the same line (albeit as a metaphor): “That big fat moon’s gonna shine like a spoon…” Even when Dylan is at his most commercial, he’s still playing with us. There’s no such playing, however, in “Lady, Lady, lay.” It’s an easy song to
understand, sung by a working man to a woman he yearns for, and wants to assure her that he can be as much the man of her dreams as she is of his—if only she’ll give him the chance. And, unlike some of other material on this album (“Peggy Day,” “Country Pie,” “One More Night, “Tell me that it isn’t True,”), there is nothing trite or simplistic about this song. Commercial or not, this album was a big success (it charted as high as #3). In any event, with this album (and songs like this) Dylan proved he could do it all. Favorite Version: Dylan’s studio recording on “Nashville Skyline.”

24. “When I Paint My Masterpiece”
This 1971 song was never released as part of a studio album, but rather along with songs like “You ain’t goin’ Nowhere,” and “I Shall be Released,” appeared first on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II.” Good as these songs are, none had been a Dylan “hit,” greatest or otherwise—at least not in a recording of his. “Masterpiece” (which he has done live numerous times) was “covered” by the Band on their 1971 album, “Cahoots.” In fact, that was not only my introduction to this song, but the reason why it is on this list.

“Masterpiece” is a terrific song. I have saved it for my penultimate selection because it portrays the quest of lyrical and musical excellence that has marked Dylan’s career for (gasp!) fifty years. Although Dylan is a performing artist, the phases of has career can be easily compared to those that fine artists display over the course of their lives. If I were to think of one phrase borrowed from the fine arts of painting and sculpture to describe Dylan’s approach to his craft, it would be “impressionistic.” And so, when I and others take Dylan to task for reasons of obscurity, or lack of compositional coherence, that is no different from the criticism that fine artists have endured from the first moment they abandoned “photographic realism” as their goal. Think where the art world would be without the likes of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, de Kooning, Pollack, etc. The result has been less realism, but infinitely better art.

One of the distinguishing features separating Dylan from his peers is his courage to vary his styles and to write songs that people can react to more by “feeling” their mood or meaning than making sure his audience understands every word and thought. It is interesting that the original lyrics (and Dylan’s singing of them) maintained the artistic conceit by referencing a date with “Botticelli’s niece.” Could this have been a veiled reference to Joan Baez, who referred to herself as “the girl on the half-shell” in “Diamonds and Rust.”?
50 On the Band’s recording, they modified his date to be with a more mundane, “pretty little girl from Greece.”

It was not inappropriate for Dylan to have written such a song, expressing his hopes for that one day, when he will have written his masterpiece. It is ironic that, while he still had many productive years ahead of him, his greatest works had been written by the time he wrote this song (at the relatively tender age of 30). Not that my selection is definitive, but look at how the vast bulk of the songs on this list were written before, say, 1971. Many could argue that Dylan had already written his masterpiece, and in this writer’s estimate it was “Chimes of Freedom.” (See #11)

The song places Dylan in Rome (presumably on one of his tours) where Dylan imagines himself back in time (dodging lions in the coliseum) or dating Botticelli’s niece. The line nicely constructs the image of travelling back in time, “train wheels running through the back my memory, when I ran through the hilltops following a pack of wild geese.” It’s one of those lines in which Dylan paints a picture that we can close our eyes and envision. I have a similar reaction to the line in “Mr. Tambourine Man” (see song #2, above) in the words “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” These are both evocative images of the freedom that he seeks as a creative artist, words that spoke volumes to the many young people who tried to make their way through the button-downed world that the 60’s rebelled against.

He even speaks of the ubiquitous “candy-eating newspapermen” who follow him around and have to be “held down by big police. “ Oh, how he yearns for the day when he can reach his goal and be free of all distractions (don’t we all!). One of my favorite lines in the song is a simple couplet, but so clever in its rhyme, that it once again reminds us that we are in the presence of genius. The short release says, “Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola. Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola.” Oddly enough, Dylan omitted that line on his studio recording of the song. Fortunately, The Band rescued it. In my view, it helps make the song what it is.

Favorite Version: “The Band” on “Cahoots.” Terrific instrumentation (the concertina works perfectly with the Italianate setting) and great vocals. Second place: Dylan’s bluesy rendition produced by Leon Russell, accompanied by a slack-tuned steel guitar.

25. “It’s all right, Ma.”(I’m only bleeding)
No less a topical/political songwriter than the late Phil Ochs described this as “the best protest song ever written.” I remember when I heard Ochs say that (in an interview I can’t locate), I realized that I had never categorized it as a protest song, but, of course, it was. It was a brilliant move for Dylan to address it to his mother, anticipating what her reaction might have been (or was—who knows?) to all the things that he was doing. The song is basically picking up on the notion expressed in “The Times they are a-Changin’” that says, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” (See song #12, above). This song was Dylan’s way of helping the older generation (i.e. “Ma”) understand the hypocrisy and double standards that caused so many young people to question authority as never before. Just think of some of the lines in the song that have entered the lexicon, and may perhaps be seen in some future cyber edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” Just to name two of my favorites, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” and “even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” I remember hearing him (to great applause) do the song live when then-President Nixon’s political life was unraveling during Watergate. It took on a wholly different meaning when President Clinton had his own “gate”—“Monica-gate.”

The song begins with a reference to totalitarian control (“Darkness at the break of noon—think of Arthur Koestler’s brilliant book on the prisons and gulags in Soviet Russia.)
51 I couldn’t help but be touched (and thought of my own, dear, late mother) by the lines “So don’t fear, if you hear a foreign sound to your ear. It’s all right Ma, I’m only sighing.” And even though a lot of our parents were concerned by the different paths we were pursuing, we were—for the most part—all right. Just sighing, because growing up was (and is) hard. Dylan presaged his growing spirituality by pointing to glowing “flesh-colored Christs” as an example that not much was sacred. The song is replete with so many insightful thought and lines, that perhaps my best advice is for you to sit down and set aside the ten minutes or so (not quite) it takes to hear it.

In his recent book on Dylan, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz
52 deconstructs Dylan by examining the musical, political and social cross-currents surrounding the growing Dylan including (as I read it) the fact that folk music was as much waiting for Dylan as he was waiting for it. As a result, the song bears numerous references (both direct and indirect) to the America in which Dylan grew up and his frustration at the gap between the lofty words we hear in school about our cherished institutions, and the more cynical ways in which these institutions operate. Listen to the song carefully, and you’ll be stunned by how great it was, and remains. In my years of doing battle within a huge corporation (in which pettiness seemed to be an article of faith), I took great solace in the line, “if my thought- dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” And, yes (I hear them say), “he seemed like such a nice boy.”

By the way, the parenthetical extension to the title (“I’m only bleeding”) never appears in the song. But, no matter; Dylan let it all hang out and nothing more need be said.

Favorite Version: Dead heat tie between Dylan in the studio from “Bringing it all back Home,” and Dylan live from Philharmonic Hall in 1964. Either way, Bob wins; bloody, but unbowed. Great stuff!

One of the most difficult things in arriving at the end of this list and choosing its final song is that it causes both the reader (and believe me, me too) to say “what about?” and name any number of songs that should have been on the list. I must confess that I was on the brink of using another song as my final selection when I said, “dummy, you forgot ‘It’s all right, Ma,’ one of Dylan’s greatest songs.” So yes, mea culpa, this is not a perfect list. I realize that I could have put together enough songs not on this list to comprise a very good three-CD box set. The one thing I’m glad I resisted was the attempt to rank these songs. Believe me, it was hard enough compressing his remarkable oeuvre into a mere twenty-five songs. As a contemporary of Dylan’s, I regret that the list doesn’t include any of his newer songs, for I don’t mean to suggest that he has done nothing of high quality since the ‘70’s. He has. A number of his songs from his “religious period” (“A Single Grain of Sand,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and “Slow Train Coming” to name but three, are important in understanding Dylan’s journey. Some of them, like “Series of Dreams” and “Blind Willie McTell,” didn’t even make the final cut on any album. Others, like the classic, “Forever Young” appeared in two different versions of the same album (“Planet Waves”). Whole albums, such as “Desire,” and “Infidels” remain underappreciated.

Perhaps my choices reflect the impact these songs had on my own “coming of age” years. If so, so be it. Once again, this is a very subjective selection. All I ask of you is to reflect upon my choices, listen (again) to as many of Dylan’s as you can, and make your own list. I promise you an exciting and satisfying journey. And, oh yes; Happy Birthday, Bob, and many happy and productive returns.


31. One of the great things on the studio version is the muted electric bass guitar played by Bill Lee, who played acoustic bass as back-up for many folk singers (Odetta, to name but one), and the father of filmmaker Spike Lee. Dylan also plays a heart-wrenching harmonica solo, all of which combine to make this a bravura performance.
32. Wikipedia entry, “Desolation Row.” Dylan’s father, Abraham Zimmerman, was eight years old when the lynching took place two blocks from his house.
33. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. See description on Wikipedia. While Shakespeare’s Ophelia may or may not have been the same age as the Ophelia in Desolation Row (i.e. twenty-two), whatever other similarities the two have seem coincidental. The Ophelia from the song is an old maid at twenty-two, and is (like Shakespeare’s tragic heroine romantic about death) Dylan’s Ophelia “wears an iron vest; her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness. And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow, she finds herself peeking into Desolation Row.” What dazzling imagery!
34. See “Dylan: The Essential Interviews; Wenner Press (2009) Radio interview with Cynthia Gooding, WBAI, (1962) Dylan: “I learned that in the carnival. I used to travel with the carnival…I was with the carnival off and on for six years…I was clean-up boy. I was mainliner on the Ferris wheel. Did the shoreline thing. Used to do all kinds of stuff like that.” Accurate or not, Dylan certainly had an interest in the carny life.
35. Wikipedia and “St. Anne. Interestingly, St. Anne, who conceived Mary naturally, but Mary was born without ‘original’ sin, the ‘immaculate conception’ erroneously attributed to the birth of Jesus, who was conceived through a virgin birth, which (I am told) differentiates the births of Mary and Jesus. Better I stick to music criticism.
36. “Trying to get to Heaven,” from “Time out of Mind” (Columbia, 1994). Only space and stiff competition kept this late-Dylan song from making my top-25. Give this one a listen, and compare the changes in perspective that thirty years can cause. Now he’s just glad to have survived, and hopes he can make it to the pearly gates before that most selective of gated communities closes its membership list.
37. See the Essential Interviews ibid. “Positively Tie Dream” 9/1965, and “No Direction Home,” 3/1966. Both answers were essentially teases. (“I could tell you who Mr. Jones is in my life, but, like, everybody has got their Mr. Jones, so I can’t really say that he is the same for everyone.” Thanks, Bob, that clears it up. Probably the closest he came was at a concert in Japan when he said, “this is a song I wrote in response to people who ask questions all the time. You just get tired of that every once in a while.”
38. folk music. This same article discusses how the song was popular with the Black Panthers, who thought the song represented the white bourgeoisie’s confused reaction to their movement.
39. See Wikipedia and “Mr. Jones” by the Counting Crows.
40. This thought is shared by some—“Google” Ballad of a Thin Man and homosexuality.
41. “Ghosts of Johanna will visit you there, and winds of the old days will blow through your hair.”
42. Could the “little boy lost” reference be to Baez’s husband, David Harris, who was going to prison as a draft resister? If so, it was certainly mean-spirited on Dylan’s part. On the other hand, I may be guilty of reading too much into the lyrics.
43. Listen to the words of “Diamond and Rust,” another autobiographical song by Baez where she lays herself bare—“the Madonna was yours for free.”
44. 9/21/09, by Peter Harel.
45. Both Sedgwick and Baez are referenced on the Wikipedia page on “Just like a Woman.” I believe the Baez reference is to how she was once his sponsor in the highest reaches of the folk music world: “Please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry and it was your world.”
46. Havens is one of the finest interpretive singers to come out of folk music. Although a fine singer/songwriter in his own right, his versions of Dylan and Lennon/McCartney are highly regarded. See “Richie Havens sings Dylan and the Beatles.” As with Maggie’s farm, Havens changes the lyrics just a bit. He sings “and the problem from her curls,” as opposed to the original lyric, “have fallen from her curls.” I think the original lyrics create a stronger image of her transformation from little girl to woman.
47. “Essential Interviews” John Cohen and Happy Traum (1969). Dylan says that his work was now more “line by line” than “thought to thought.”
48. “Ah but man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” Andrea Del Sarto, by Robert Browning.
49. On “Diamonds and Rust,” both the title song and “Winds of the Old Days,” are expressly about Dylan. Interestingly, Baez changes the lyrics throughout the song. If you go on line, don’t trust their version of her version. They have her singing “the blind man that became and both got a bout a simple twist of fate,” when, in fact, she is faithful to Dylan’s lyrics and sings, “the blind man at the gate and forgot about a simple twist of fate.” This mis-translation will be clear when you listen to her sing the song, which she does wonderfully, complete with Dylan imitation. In the final stanza, she actually changes the words as follows: “People tell me it’s a crime to feel too much at any one time. All it cost me was a dime, but the bells refuse to ring. He was born in spring, but I was born too late to blame it on a simple twist of fate.” Perhaps the dime (added in her lyrics) was the one she dropped into the blind man’s cup that caused her to forget about the simple twist of fate that brought them together. Dylan’s version actually blames the fact that he was born too late on that simple twist of fate, but Baez says she was born too late to blame it on a simple twist of fate. It would appear that Dylan sees their crossed signals at fate, whereas to her, the difference in their time of birth is too great to blame it on fate. Maybe this makes Joanie the realist and Dylan the dreamer. You know what, she shouldn’t have changed the lyrics. He knew what he wanted to say.
50. This was the subject of the Botticelli painting “Venus Emerging from the Sea.” Perhaps Baez haunted Dylan as much as he did her. Although she accused him of “keeping things vague,” he left some pretty good breadcrumbs.
51. Published in 1938, “Darkness at Noon” was ranked 8th on the Modern Library’s 100 best English language books of the 20th Century.
52. “Bob Dylan in America,” by Sean Wilentz. Doubleday ©2010. This is a very good book. Given that it was written by a college professor, it is a bit on the academic side, with a good bit of deconstructing Dylan’s work against the cultural and political changes both preceding and accompanying Dylan’s life. It’s worth your attention. The good news is that you don’t have to prepare for a quiz after reading it.