Tomorrow, May 24, 2011, marks the 70th birthday of Bob Dylan. RollingStone magazine has dedicated its latest issue to him, and asked “the world’s foremost Dylan experts,” e.g., Bono, Mick Jagger, Lucinda Williams, Lenny Kravitz, et al, to pick his 70 best songs. Additionally, New York Times chief pop-music critic, Jon Pareles, contributed an excellent article, What Makes A great Dylan Song? His conclusion? “Dylan’s greatest songs don’t reduce the world to three minutes. They open it up to endless remappings, and force each of us to find our own way.” Not to brag, but that’s slightly reminiscent of what I commented in my review of my first-ever Dylan concert: “…in the concert Bob turned on the lights (literally and figuratively) with every song. That is how he points us to the full, brilliant pictures of life – his and ours.” [woman never sleeps, October 24, 2009]
In his book, 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, Tom Moon lists “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde,” “Blood on the Tracks,” and “Love and Theft.” What is even more notable perhaps, is that a quick perusal of the General Index reveals that Dylan is mentioned an additional 21 times in the book. Only Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, and the Rolling Stones come close to that kind of additional ink, and they still fall at least five mentions short. More evidence of Dylan’s imprint on music history.
But what about us non-expert peons? It’s hard to argue with Bono’s assessment of “Like a Rolling Stone” being “the birth of an iconoclast that will give the rock era its greatest voice and vandal…the Jeremiah of the heart, torching romantic verse and ‘the girl’ with a firestorm of unforgiving words.” (RS, pg. 56) This peon would also argue that Dylan is not only the Jeremiah, but also the Saint Paul. Whatever one’s opinion of Dylan’s “Christian phase,” it’s hard to imagine anyone without a true understanding of the gospel message penning words like these: “Temptation’s not an easy thing/Adam given the devil reign/Because he sinned I got no choice/It run in my vein.” (“Pressing On”) Indeed, these words seem more Biblical and believable than some of the songs offered up by contemporary Christian music over the years.
Dylan’s 2009 album, Together Through Life, gets no mention in either the magazine article or Moon’s book. While this is not surprising given Dylan’s vast body of work, this was the album that made me revisit much of his older work. The tongue-in-cheek blues lament, “My Wife’s Home Town,” has me wondering every time I hear it, how many times my husband of 26 years has thought the same thing. And I will forever be indebted to the circumspect “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” for motivating me to finally read James Joyce.
How about you? How have Dylan’s songs forced you to find your own way?