What more is there to be said about Bob Dylan? A lot, for sure. But I said my bit when Dylan turned 70, and I’m here now just to choose ten of his songs. This is categorically not a top ten. I don’t want to reel out a list which might look like the result of a poll. No, it’s ten Dylan songs that I love and that remind me of various times in my life. Here goes.
First up has to be ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’. This is the song that brought it home to me that I was listening to somebody quite special. Beautiful melody; regret, resignation and a touch of sharpness at the break-up; she just kinda wasted his precious time, but… and then the killer sign-off.
My second choice is a song I discovered quite late, ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’. I ran a series on my blog, United States of Song, and it came in handy for that. I love the lines, ‘Go out in your country where the land meets the sun / See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run / Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho / Let every state in this union seep down deep in your souls…’ A great song of a great country.
Oxford 1965: ‘It’s Alright, Ma’. Not merely someone special – an actual genius. I can’t do justice to the powerful dynamic of this one: its driving rhythm, its accumulating images, its shafts of wisdom. The whole just overwhelms you. It may be ‘life, and life only’, but how much of it there is in there.
The man also knows how to write a good love song and I’m having one of those. ‘Wedding Song’ is love as infinity; it’s love moving between the concrete image (‘you breathed on me’, ‘just bein’ next to you’ etc.) and the large abstraction (‘I love you… more than time’, ‘I’d sacrifice the world’). Why, I could see a person being persuaded by it!
Next is the song that opens Dylan’s greatest album, Blood on the Tracks. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ rolls out a story you can’t stop yourself listening to, wanting to know where it’s going, where it will end. It also contains one of the grandest pair of lines from the Dylan oeuvre: ‘The only thing I knew how to do / Was to keep on keeping on like a bird that flew’.
‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. There’s a version on Before the Flood and I want a track from this album. That’s all. No, not quite. There’s also the line ‘Got a long black feeling and it’s hard to trace’.
This next one is a late discovery, in a manner of speaking. I mean, I’ve known it since the album on which it appeared – Infidels – was first released, in 1983. But it was only last year that I was out walking and ‘Man Of Peace’ started playing in my ear, and I registered: hey, this really zips along, it swings. In the context of the song’s theme, ‘He knows just where to touch you, honey, and how you like to be kissed’ is a brilliant pair of lines.
From the same album, a longtime favourite of mine is ‘I and I’. Don’t ask me what it all means, but I can hear it again and again without ever tiring of it. What I want to know is why, if he’s made shoes for everyone, he still goes barefoot.
And last but definitely not least, ‘Idiot Wind’. More than half a lifetime ago, 1975. Tracks – everybody has them. And blood also.
You can listen to the playlist on Spotify here.
Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus in Politics, University of Manchester. He blogs here.