Is there any living musician who provokes more controversy than Bob Dylan? He's been putting out records now for half a century and from being originally deemed "Hammond's folly" when John Hammond signed his first recording contract through to the shouts of "Judas" when he plugged in an electric guitar to then finding God in the late 70's, before moving on through some really turgid 80's junk. That was followed by a leap into 90's and early noughties with some of the most critically acclaimed work of his career and then to the recent crooner phase where he's been covering songs made famous by Ol' blue eyes, Frank Sinatra. All this heat and steam must make it hard for a casual observer to make any kind of sense of Dylan's tumultuous career. So, what I intend to do here is to take you a magic swirling trip through five of Dylan's key songs and tell you why I've been listening to Dylan for almost 45 years and answer that question for you.
It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
I'd like to start with a song from 1965, 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)', from the first part of his classic 60's trilogy 'Bringing it All Back Home Again' (the other two being 'Highway 61 Revisited' and 'Blonde on Blonde'). The thing that struck me most about this stirring song was the inherent truth of Dylan's lyric and the drive and fire of the tune. One of Dylan's greatest strengths is the commitment that he invests all his greatest songs with. As a young nineteen year old with all the angst that that carries I was stunned by the torrent of words that went right to the heart of the matter as Dylan spat "Old masters make the rules / for the wise men and the fools / but I've got nothing Ma / to live up to". These were my thoughts and echoed my feelings. I believed it all so fiercely that pretty soon after hearing this (alongside 'Like a Rolling Stone') that I quit my job and left my small Yorkshire town in search of adventure and meaning. The song contains one of Dylan's most prophetic lines that really came into it's own during the 1974 US tour with The Band with Bob declaring, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, that "Even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked". A dynamite line that probably had Bill Clinton raising an eyebrow as he had his moment with Monica Lewinsky in the White House some years later. So that's the first thing about Dylan that people should know - he speaks the truth no matter how unpalatable that truth might be and, at least back then, be shaped minds and lives.
Tangled Up In Blue
When someone asks you "What's Your Favourite Song?" It's almost impossible to answer because your mind instantly fills with scores of songs that you've heard and loved sometimes over decades. When all that musical dust settles out though this is the one that remains in my mind and not only is it my all-time favourite song I firmly believe it's the greatest song ever written. It highlights the second great thing about Dylan and that's his ability to write a song that can't really be pinned down because over the years it has shifted and changed and Bob has sung different verses that change the meaning of the song. It first emerged on Dylan's greatest album 'Blood on The Tracks' in 1975. On the face of it it's a simple story of doomed love but as you dig through the layers of the song different truths emerge. Dylan himself said that his writing at this time was influenced by surreal art and that the images in his songs were taken from different aspects and angles and that the meanings weren't intended to be clear. The rhymes in the song are audacious with Bob stretching rhymes and rhyming the middle of lines with the end, you'll need to listen to hear that though. When you hear Dylan sing "They split up on a dark sad night both agreeing it was best" you love the sad resignation in his voice but the next time you hear it you pick it up differently and wonder if he's singing "They split up on the docks that night both agreeing it was best", like I say, you can't pin it down. Then later in the midst of this epic love ballad you wonder what happens when the central character "froze up inside". The characters in the song are invested with a good dose of reality and they live out lives within the song. Dylan is the master story teller and he sucks you in and involves you into that story, the characters are invested with a fictional reality and live again and change every time you hear the song. Genius.
From what was probably Dylan's most accessible album 'Desire' this song highlights his gifts as a storyteller par excellence and again draws your into a whole world centred around a few characters. It is based on the true story of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, a boxer from the wild streets of New York who was convicted of murder following a botched robbery. Dylan took on his cause and opened his album with this stirring defence of Carter and what he saw as a gross miscarriage of justice. The evidence has always been sketchy and although he was eventually released questions remained over his guilt. The song though is a ten minute romp through a cinematic tale of murder, bent cops, liars, low life and crime. It speeds along with Scarlett Rivera's violin dancing through Dylan's filmic lyric that opens with the dirty deed done in front of your ears "Pistol shots ring out in the bar room night / enter Patty Valentine from the outer hall / she sees the bar tender in a pool of blood /cries out - "My God, they've killed 'em all". So there you are right in the centre of all this carnage and Bob paints you a gruesome picture with "three bodies lyin' there", the cops arriving, flashing blue lights, the stool pigeon, the half dead witness, riots, Rubin as a hero and the corrupt trial. Dylan plays scant regard to political correctness here and drops in the 'N-Word' at one point effectively excluding any radio play or any possibility of it being a hit single despite the songs clear commerciality. Again, Dylan hooks you in and lays it all out. He doesn't pass judgement but just seems to say "Well, what do you think about it? Is this what you call justice?"
I Believe in You
Now, this bit is tough. The elephant in the room is that whilst many observers and listeners agree that Dylan is, perhaps, the greatest ever song writer he has a major, major flaw and that is, for many, HE JUST CAN'T SING. Recently I was discussing this very aspect of the Bobster with my nearest and dearest and I advanced my theory that between 1975 and 1981 Dylan was easily the best singer in the world. I was staggered when my compadres (I wouldn't want to embarrass them by naming them) spontaneously burst out with incredulous side splitting laughter. I was totally stunned by their reaction because for me this song, 'I Believe in You', from Dylan's first religious album 'Slow Train Coming' in 1979, is all you need to prove this beyond all reasonable doubt. It's even better if you get hold of the live version from The Bootleg Series Volume 13, 'Trouble in Mind' released in 2017. So, now you have got over the shock at my bold statement, let's have a little talk about why this is true. What's so special about this little ditty and what does it add to Dylan's legend? Well, when Dylan goes for something, he really goes for it and between the period 1979-81 he released three religious albums, 'Slow Train Coming', 'Saved', and 'Shot of Love' (although the third one had more secular songs on it too) and toured in the USA and Europe during those three years when he played ONLY his religious songs much to the disappointment of some punters! The thing is though that because REALLY believed in these songs he sang with such commitment and reverence that if you aren't moved then you must be emotionally dead. Of course, the fact that it's about God turned many people away. But in many ways that doesn't matter to me. What stands out for me here in this particular song, especially on the live take, is the utter conviction in his voice when he sings "They show me to the door / they say don't come back no more /cause I don't be like they'd like me to /and I, I walk out on my my own /A thousand miles from home / but I don't feel alone / 'cause I believe in you". It's simply breathtaking and you can hear his voice almost break with emotion and here that sense of desolate isolation in his voice. For me, that's what great singing is all about, conveying the emotion of the song and telling the listener "This is me, this is what I believe, listen". Later he sings "I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter" and that takes real courage, something often lacking today in contemporary music that can sound empty and soulless. So that's another two great things about Bob - his ability to really emote a song and the fact that he has the courage to stick with his convictions.
Things Have Changed
All of the above songs are pretty old now but they tell you something about who Dylan is and why he's so great. I've been a life long fan but even I'd agree that since around 2000 it's been a career of diminishing returns but the odd gem slips out and anyone wanting to check out more recent great work could look out for the likes of 'Blind Willie McTell', 'The Girl From the Red a River Shore', 'Ain't Talkin'' or 'Cross The Green Mountain' all of which have the stamp of Dylan's wayward genius (even if some of them had been around for a while before they eventually emerged). For my final choice highlighting aspects of his greatness I've picked a song that some might know if they've seen Bob in recent years as he seems to open every shows with it these days. It's a song that won him an Oscar for best song from the film 'Wonder Boys' and it's called 'Things Have Changed' and slipped out on the film soundtrack in 1999, so even this is almost 20 years old. I feel that what song offers is an insight into Dylan's unique ability to fashion a song with a seemingly straight forward lyric that means different things to different people but it's true meaning isn't really revealed. It sometimes feels like it's a song about the end of the world when Dylan sings "People are crazy and times are strange / I'm locked in tight / I'm out of range / I used to care / but things have changed" and earlier when he sings "Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose / any minute now I'm expecting all hell to break loose". Then there's the simplicity of "If the bible is right / the world will explode". Through all this terror though Dylan is detached and doesn't care and even talks about "takin' dancing lessons". It's just a great little song with a simple backing and a cool vocal. My favourite line here is "you can't win, with a loosing hand" which is a great example of Dylan's ability to deliver a profound truth in just a few words - he's a master.
So, there we have it. A full and complete answer, in just five songs, to the perennial question, "What's so good about this Bob Dylan guy anyway?". He's a truth teller, he's a story teller, a vocalist supreme, a man who stands by his convictions, a literary master - go out now and dive in, now that you too know the truth.