Poet laureate of rock and roll is a term dropped on Bob Dylan like raindrops falling on the ocean, in which pond rock’s most colorful chameleon seemingly can stand upon. Since entering the scene when John F. Kennedy was reigning over Camelot with the promise of equality and peace in view, Dylan has managed to remain atop the field of music with no contenders for his title visible in his rear-view mirror. Dylan has just added to his credentials with an unheard-of Nobel Prize in Literature. Discussion and controversy have followed his coronation, and banter about such has ‘gone electric.’
Some feel any rock musician receiving such an award is misguided at best, and at worst a mockery of the prize itself. You don’t need a weatherman to tell you that anything that Dylan becomes involved in will polarize opinions, and time likely will be an arbiter that rules in favor of the purity of his artistic vision. In the meantime, hold on until the wheels fall off and burn, with the audience left transfixed as prophetic spheres coming down from on high torch up the night before their eyes.
Bob Dylan started as an opening act in 1963, as have many hungry minstrels. The difference herein is that Dylan was the opening act for Rev. Martin Luther King prior to delivering his ‘I Have A Dream‘ speech (with Joan Baez crooning at his side). This performance would forever link the rock world with causes, none greater than that which was found in Washington on that day. From Live Aid to having his comments inspire Farm Aid, Dylan was loved and sometimes even hated.
Whether preaching from the pulpit making relevant holy texts, or providing dignity to the great unwashed, this man was never drinking any Kool-Aid or letting his listeners eat cake. Dylan has been written off and come back to re-take his belt so many times, you could call him the boxer. Dylan has always been about the thunderous voice heard in silence, wherein today his critics should stand taking account of the error of their ways.
Dylan’s catalog of songs spans an incredible 36 albums, and an entire world of covers that find his label sewn into their collar. Among the entries, few can be categorized as disposable, or called ‘throwaways.’ A certain number of his songs stand out, however, and can truly be looked upon as masterpieces. While we might not find all of them atop a transient chart, it seems that these songs were written with a hammer and chisel. In some way, the inspiration behind the inspiration in these songs transcends their needing any ribbon or award. Somehow, in the heart of his deepest fans, it still is comforting to see that this work has been so visibly acknowledged. Even if no festivities celebrated them, their power was never truly in any real doubt.
Let’s take a listen and breakdown of few of the songs that were indicative of the time they were written in:
Like A Rolling Stone (from: Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Once upon a time, popular songs lasted less than three minutes, and none blew your mind as does this one. Dylan goes from the heights of stardom to the gutter, set next to Al Kooper‘s unlikely, unforgettable organ riff. After hearing it, you can’t talk quite so loud, or throw a dime in a bum’s cup without thinking of the song. All in all, a case can be made that this electric ditty may be the most important song in rock history. Dylan didn’t just blow the door off of the hinges, he ripped them out of the wall. Rock songwriting was never the same again.
[courtesy of gurkan guney]
Blowin’ In The Wind (from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
“How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” The argument in favor of the sacredness of a human being is summed up in that one question. Peter, Paul & Mary may have made it prettier, and pleased our ears with harmony, but Dylan’s rough, gravel vocals seemed truer to the fire hose baptisms and brutality of the Jim Crow South. “How many times must the cannon balls fly, before they’re forever banned?” Dylan asks the ultimate rhetorical question, while using his acoustic guitar to fan the flames of conscience. Just a song and dance man? Don’t you believe a word of it.
[courtesy of BobDylanTV]
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding); (from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
The human spirit can be cast into darkness by either Communism or by American Capitalism. The times have changed, in that Dylan finds a world haunted by the emptiness of consumerism, that fills a person’s hands, but not his heart. Things are “bent out of shape by society’s pliers”, and “it’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.” It still leaves a spark of hope that not much is better than nothing, and later a more mature Dylan would expound on a discovery of the sacred. We learn that “sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked”; and that “money doesn’t talk, it swears.” No other entertainer of his time period has left so many in their audience wishing that they had been the originator of so many quotations. Many of these things were being introduced to us before man had first set foot on the moon.
[courtesy of Nanchatte Desu]
Gotta Serve Somebody (from Slow Train Coming, 1979)
Dylan enters the realm of the sacred, and he yells from the rooftops so all souls can hear it. “Whatever is truthful haunts you and don’t let you sleep at night,” Dylan would remark. Dylan brought this song to the 22nd Annual Grammy Awards, winning Best Rock Male Vocal. Many are quick to point out that this is not Dylan at his poetic best, and they seem to have started voicing criticisms before he had even started singing. Accolades aside, Dylan’s more overt Gospel songs drew tremendous vitriol in certain circles. As Bob Marley pointed out, “Him still say it, anyway.” Having Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits playing a melodic, punctuating lead guitar at Dylan’s side certainly did not hamper the work Dylan recorded in the sessions that produced this song, and accompanying tracks.
[courtesy of eksosrock]
A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall (from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
The Cuban Missile Crisis had the world watching from its knees, wondering if nuclear war would devastate life on the planet. Dylan heard “the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.” Kennedy and Khrushchev would maneuver a solution that would alleviate the situation, and leave a hundred million people alive that likely would have been lost. The lesson presented itself, and in today’s bellicose climate seems to have been forgotten. The “pellets of poison are flooding” our waters, as endless comments doubt that any veracity can be found in the major media. Fortunately, some truths can be found in the lyrics of this masterpiece.
[courtesy of godriczimmerman]
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize-winning body of work encompasses events in American history, from the Cuban Missile Crisis, through to the degradation of America’s economy and moral compass today. The songs delve into bedrock truths that do not require a man of letters to comprehend, or interpret. Yet, the same songs are often filled with poetic genius, and can be accurately described as brilliant. Bob Dylan changed the language of rock music, which sometimes in his songs seems to be the language of angels. Let he who has ears hear, and let the bells ring for the lost sheep.
Other Songs of Note Close To The Cut: The Times They Are a-Changin’ (Album of same title, 1963); Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965); Every Grain of Sand (Shot of Love, 1981); Hurricane (Desire, 1976 -written with Jacques Levy); Mr. Tambourine Man (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965); Jokerman (Infidels, 1983); All Along The Watchtower (John Wesley Harding, 1967). Visions of Johanna (Blonde On Blonde, 1965).
*As we encourage all of our readers to do, create your own list. We asked our favorite Dylan biographer Andy Muir for his Top Ten list:
1. A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall
2. Blowin’ In The Wind
3. Desolation Row
4. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
6. Like A Rolling Stone
7. Mr. Tambourine Man
8. When The Ship Comes In
9. Visions of Johanna
10. Every Grain of Sand
– words by Bob Wilson
[check out the author’s Bob Dylan: Fingers To The Glass Facebook page here]