The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs
To celebrate Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday on May 24, we asked the world’s foremost
Dylan experts to pick his best songs. Plus: Appreciations by Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jim James, Lucinda Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Chris Martin and many more
63. If You See Her, Say Hello
Blood on the Tracks 1975
”˜If You See Her, Say Hello’ might be the single most painful moment on Blood on the Tracks. Elsewhere on the LP he sounds spiteful or philosophical, but here he’s grappling with fresh grief: “To think of how she left that night,” he sings, “it still brings me a chill.” Like much of the album, this song went through extensive revisions ”“ an early draft’s “If you’re making love to her, kiss her for the kid” was softened to “If you get close to her, kiss her once for me.” But the final version still cuts close to the bone. Hearing Dylan admit, “Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m gettin’ soft” packs just as much punch as his most venomous songs.
64. Abandoned Love
A mid-Seventies castoff, with Scarlet Rivera’s fiddle carving up the melody across a loose, bouncy country two-step. The lyrics, however, are no tea dance: a chain of couplets that keep cinching tighter as they chart a destroyed relationship in cutting detail. “Everybody’s wearing a disguise/To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes,” Dylan wails. “But me, I can’t cover what I am/Wherever the children go I’ll follow them.” Recorded in 1975, it was dropped from the Desire LP in favour of ”˜Joey.’ But ”˜Abandoned Love’ eventually surfaced on Biograph, where it was revealed as one of his most tortured, heartbroken recordings.
65. Tough Mama
Planet Waves (1974)
One of Dylan’s horniest jams was recorded in November 1973. The Band crank up a killer boogie-rock groove. The character list reads like something off the Workingman’s Dead lyric sheet: There’s Jack the Cowboy, the Lone Wolf and the title
hottie, alternately known as Tough Mama, Dark Beauty, Sweet Goddess and Silver Angel. Yet the poetic derangement is all Dylan in lines like “Today on the countryside it was a-hotter than a crotch/I stood alone upon the ridge and all I did was watch.” Maybe that’s why, compared to the man’s other great rockers, it’s rarely covered ”“ after all, few can out-derange Dylan.
66. Shelter From the Storm
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
The twin moods of ”˜Shelter From the Storm’ are best captured in two wildly different performances. On Blood on the Tracks, the song is an acoustic reflection on a relationship mysteriously gone bad, a fond remembrance of a woman who, for all her faults, provided the singer a respite, however brief, from the world’s trials. On the live album Hard Rain, meanwhile, the song is a roaring rock & roll juggernaut, a sneering denunciation of a hypocritical lover whose offer of a warm, safe haven is dismissed as a cynical joke.
Encompassing such emotional extremes within a single song is one of Dylan’s most distinctive gifts ”“ in this case, a song that took shape as his marriage to Sara was disintegrating. “Beauty walks a razor’s edge,” he sings, and as the song makes clear, when you pursue it, you sometimes bleed.
67. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Blonde on Blonde 1966
Not many songs about sexual jealousy are as hilarious as this loping, snarling 12-bar Chicago-style blues number. The Blonde on Blonde recording has the loose, stumbling tone of a one-take throwaway, but in fact Dylan uncharacteristically took 22 different stabs at it over the course of four sessions in six weeks; an earlier, slower ramble through it appears on the No Direction Home soundtrack.
It’s a little masterpiece of inside-out innuendo and twisted double-entendre: the drunken hookup implicit in “just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine,” an invitation to see the sun rise, followed by “we’ll both just sit there and stare.” And who’s the victim of Dylan’s invective here? Rumours suggest that it’s fashionable-hat-wearer Edie Sedgwick, with whom he’d been spending time not long before.
68. One Too Many Mornings
The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)
”˜One Too Many Mornings’ is an achingly pretty breakup song ”“ and the rare tune where Dylan offered a fare-thee-well without assigning any blame. It’s as subdued a song as any in Dylan’s catalogue ”“ just gentle acoustic picking, harmonica and a spare, resigned vocal. Likely another tune inspired by his relationship with Suze Rotolo, it’s like a gentler version of ”˜Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’ Dylan is leaving his bedroom, the street is ahead of him, when he looks back with a conciliatory goodbye: “You’re right from your side/I’m right from mine.” ”˜One Too Many Mornings’ proved ripe for revisiting, both by Dylan (whose electric version on his 1966 tour turned the gentle tune into something like punk rock) and Johnny Cash, who recorded the song four times ”“ twice with Dylan (in separate versions from the Nashville Skyline sessions), once with Waylon Jennings and once on his own.
69. One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)
On May 24, 1975 (his 34th birthday), Dylan was visiting painter David Oppenheim in the South of France, and the two of them went to a gypsy festival. There, as Dylan later recounted, he “got mixed up with someone” and met a man who “had maybe 16 to 20 wives and over a hundred children.” Dylan stayed for a week; as he left, he asked for a cup of coffee for the road. “I wasn’t sure if I could say anything else, but it was dangerous territory.”
That’s a good story, anyway, and it might have been the germ of ”˜One More Cup of Coffee.’ The song is an eerie-sounding tribute to a woman with eyes “like two jewels in the sky” and a rich and powerful father. It’s full of mysticism and made all the more powerful by the distinct vocals: Dylan’s keening voice blends with spooked-angel backing from Emmylou Harris. The real gypsy gesture here, though, is Scarlet Rivera’s haunting violin line.
70. To Ramona
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
By Jackson Browne
There’s not a word about the civil rights movement in this song. But to me, it’s about that as clearly as a James Baldwin novel. I’ve always seen Ramona as a young black woman at some New York party she doesn’t feel comfortable at, and there is Bob Dylan giving her emotional contact. He’s specific about the erotic, her attractions. I see that woman’s beautiful black face, her “cracked country lips.” He’s describing her in terms that take us past this scene. It is a song imbued with the struggle for personal freedom and the perpetual trap of co-dependence. This was a moment when people wanted a leader and spokesman to point the way. But in this song, Dylan dismantles that: “I’d forever talk to you/But soon my words/They would turn into a meaningless ring.” He’s always an advocate for self-empowerment, finding your own way. The problem with any kind of polemic is that it’s too rigid for what life really is. That is the most significant thing at the heart of Bob Dylan’s elusiveness. He tells Ramona, “You’ve been fooled into thinking/That the finishin’ end is at hand.” But it’s not. These battles will go on.