Hat asked me to write something about Bob Dylan as his birthday is coming right up here. So I wrote this list, called: Dylan Proves His Worth -- Yes, Even In The 80’s. I hope you enjoy it.
- Chris Sleightholm
A friend of mine once told he’d rather listen to bad Dylan than good anybody else, because bad Dylan is better than good anybody else. I didn’t necessarily agree with him at first – and I’m still not sure I totally agree – however, I appreciate the sentiment. Anyway, when discussing Dylan’s greatness a lot of people I know will almost always bring up Neil Young, and can’t decide which of the two is better. I myself have debated who is better many times; and there never seems to be a winner. However, I recently found a reason that makes Dylan the clear winner. Q: Who recorded better songs in their “lost” 1980’s eras? Answer: undoubtedly Mr. Dylan. Neil’s work in the 1980’s (which could be another post altogether) is scattershot at best, and haphazardly produced and performed. Most importantly Neil does not have a truly great work on any of his albums between 1983 and 1988. Anyway, the following list provides five songs/reasons why Dylan proved his greatness even during these lost years. (It should be noted here that Dylan did record a lot of serious garbage 80’s).
5. “In The Garden” from Saved (1980): Saved was Dylan’s first studio record of the 1980’s. I personally enjoy almost the entire album for a number of reasons, but more specifically, because of this song. Dylan displays a deep knowledge of musical theory in the bizarre chords he employs. His use of harmony is uncanny – in the way that the strange, haunting vocal melody interacts with the flow of the music underneath. I will be the first to admit that the lyrics leave much to be desired, but the zeal with which they are delivered match any of the vocal performances of Blonde on Blonde. The definitive version of this song is from 1986 when Dylan toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (who doubled as his backup band). Dylan has played this song quite consistently until 2002.
4. “Most of the Time” from Oh Mercy (1989): Maybe this one shouldn’t be on the list as Oh Mercy is considered a return to form for Dylan. It may have been a return to form, but it was not sustained (especially when viewed against Dylan’s next comeback work Time Out Of Mind, and nearly every release henceforth). I think that it is one of Dylan’s best songs because of its simplicity – the why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-that-before kind of thing. Lines like: “I don’t even notice she’s gone most of the time,” and “I can’t remember what her lips felt like on mine most of the time,” are so packed, not because of what he is saying, but because of what he is not saying. Though the narrator of this song is not thinking of her most of the time, he is still thinking of her some of the time. This idea is somehow unsettling to me as a listener, because it shows the ghosts in the narrator’s mind, without saying it outright. The ghost is there, between the lines. An excellent acoustic version of this song appears on Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (2008).
3. “I’ll Remember You” from Empire Burlesque: A beautiful epitaph to a failed relationship, which Dylan manages to pull without being overly sentimental. This song is the antithesis of his other caustic breakup songs, like “Idiot Wind," and he shows that he actually does have feelings, and is very aware of how he messed up this relationship – but still he’ll remember her. His vocal in this version is crazy intense, especially at the end of the bridge: “didn’t I, didn’t stand beside you? With the rain blowing in your hair, ahhhhhh.” This song was important enough to Dylan to be included in the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous. It is also one of the only true duets on any of his studio albums.
2. “Blind Willie McTell” from The Bootleg Series Vol.’s 1-3 (1991 – song recorded in 1983): Much has been discussed about how Dylan allowed such a near-perfect song to remain unreleased for eight years. It was originally recorded during the Infidels sessions, and not release until the first Bootleg Series (1991). This is the type of song that only Dylan could conceive and pull off. The landscape of the song is nearly tangible from the opening chords on the piano – you know Dylan is going to take you somewhere, and you want to know where it is. The cadence of the Bootleg Series version is mesmerizing. This song is a staple in Dylan’s current live set. There is not much that can be said about this song, other than if you haven’t heard it yet you ought to do yourself a huge favor and listen to it. There is also a version of this song with a full-band arrangement available on various bootlegs.
1. The entire Infidels (1983) album: This year marks the thirtieth anniversary one of Dylan’s true masterpieces. There’s too much that could be said about the greatness of this album, but I’ll just say that it is certainly in my top 5 Dylan albums. The opening lines to the album are: “Standing on the waters casting your bread/while the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing/distant ships sailing into the mist/you were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing/freedom just around the corner for you/but with the truth so far off, what good will it do?” (“Jokerman”). How much better can he get? Other great lines include: “he’ll (Satan) ride down Niagara Falls in the bowel of your skull” (“Man of Peace”); “[man] worships at the altar of a stagnant pool/and when he sees his reflection he’s fulfilled” ("License To Kill"). There is too much to be said about Infidels and I don’t really want to say it; I just want to listen to it with you. Just bring a bottle of Bushmills and let’s listen to it sometime.