Thursday, June 9, 2011

STL #97: No Dylanologist I

I feel the need to note another huge gap in posting. Since I've again determined to begin a daily writing habit on my birthday last, I should resume a regular schedule on my lead up to STL #100.

Looking at a few of the many "10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs" lists that appeared in recognition of the old man's 70th birthday, it is easy to discern the rules that govern them. You need one from early on, during his pure folk-singer incarnation; one from his Born Again or later, wizened minstrel, days; one or two from the decade prior to that (his first inward turn from John Wesley Harding through Blood on the Tracks (technically Street Legal)); and the lion's share from his major creative period from Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, including one that wasn't on an album (but may have shown up later on The Basement Tapes). In the broadest terms, then, you can think of his career in three stages, each stage lasting longer than the last: the folk period, the major period, and the late period. While the arc of his career is fascinating, especially his penchant for recreating himself contrary to his audience's expectations or desires, I don't particularly respond to either his folk days or his long bizarre descent. If his major period was wiped away, I don't think I'd pay much attention at all to the young singer or the older one.

My list, then, is as follows (in chronological order):

1. "Like a Rolling Stone":  I'm not including this because it's his most important song, defining and shaping a generation, but because of its complex structure and richness of meaning. I'm not crazy about his word collage explosions that really came to fore on Bringing It All Back Home. Like so many of those songs, it's hard to say exactly what this means, but that doesn't mean it means nothing. But beyond the words, this song's sound lets us know that it's creating a zeitgeist.
2. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"- My favorite first line, perhaps of any song ever: "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter-time too." It makes me eager to listen to the song everytime. Who's in Juarez, why are they there? Why is the fact of it being Easter time a complicating factor? The sense of the words evoke both a detailed personal story but also the sweep of a mythic one. The  sound of it alone states that this is a song that will have beautiful language, but the narcotic liquids (ells and arrs)  and long vowels of the first half of line are snapped awake by the sudden tees and short vowels of the second half tell us it won't be an insipid beauty.
3."One of Us Must Know"--I went into Blonde on Blonde for "Stuck Inside of Mobile..." and "Visions" but came out with this song. Dylan has so many songs that it's easy to forget or overlook one that didn't particularly shake things up, like this. I include it on this list as a marker of the provisionality of any list like this. While #1 and #6 will always be on my list, the whole 10 could take many different forms.
4. "Visions of Johanna"-- Maybe the most obscure song lyrically on this list.
5. "Lay Lady Lay"--Maybe the most straightforward song lyrically on this list
6. "Tangled Up In Blue"-- My favorite Dylan song and one of my all time favorites. No Dylanologist I, but there must be a ton of exegesis on this one. Every time I listen to it I hear something a little bit different-I just realized this time how the directions invoked in the go from heading back east to the memory of coming west and then going north and drifting south to New Orleans. Quite honestly, I could compose a top ten only of songs from Blood on the Tracks and Desire. "Idiot Wind," "Shelter From the Storm," "Sara," almost every song on either album. The other one on Blood on the Tracks that really gets me though is
7. "If You See Her Say Hello"-- Pretty much each song is the embodiment of the same open sound, the same lost-love theme, and the same swirling through time.  "Sun down, yellow moon/ I replay the past" might be a simplified statement of the album's theme, and this song has a beautiful and simple arrangement and one of his finest, most emotive vocal performances.
8. "Hurricane"--So the last song, chronologically, is actually the most like his early work. It's nothing if not a protest song. It's the long story of an injustice that ends with a call to action ("This is the story of the Hurricane/It won't be over until they clear his name"--which they did.) Again, I could pick other songs from Desire, but this first song captures the sound of the album and a number of images ("Ruben sits like Buddha in his ten foot cell") remain burned in my brain. Like its predecessor, Desire has a unified sound, but where Blood on the Tracks is like a novel or a set of finely wrought interlocking stories, Desire is an anthology of pulp fiction genre stories: crime, the boxer, the gangster, adventure in a foreign land, romance.

The final two that I am throwing in are songs of BD sung by others:
9. "I Shall Be Released" as performed by The Band.  I can't say definitively that this is his first real gospel song. But listening to it now, it's no surprise that he'd later identify himself as born again.
10. "Si Tu Dois Partir" (aka "If You've Got To Go, Go Now") as performed by Fairport Convention. This is a good one to go out on, methinks, if for now other reason than the simple lyric has been translated to French and the folk rock idiom transposed into a cajun reel. It reminds us that Dylan was a musician, not a poet. One thing he did was write a lot of great rock songs, not all of which changed the world.