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
8. Mr. Tambourine Man
Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
By David Crosby
As far as I can tell, the Byrds’ recording of ”˜Mr. Tambourine Man’ was the first time anyone put really good poetry on the radio. The Beatles hadn’t gotten to ”˜Eleanor Rigby’ or ”˜A Day in the Life’ ”“ they were still writing “Ooh, baby.” But Bob’s lyrics were exquisite. “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” ”“ that was the line that got me. At the time of ”˜Mr. Tambourine Man,’ I think he was finding himself as a poet. He was learning to be beautiful. I had seen Bob back at Gerde’s Folk City in New York years earlier. Everyone was talking about him. I saw him play and thought, “Fuck, I can sing better than that. Why are they making all that fuss about him?” Then I started really listening. And I almost quit, right there. Truthfully, I think the Byrds were Bob’s best translators. Bob did not envision this song the way we did it. When he came to the studio where we were rehearsing and heard us do ”˜Mr. Tambourine Man,’ he was stoked. I think hearing our version was part of what made Dylan shift over to being a rocker. He thought, “Wait a minute, that’s my song,” and he heard how it could be different.
9. Visions of Johanna
Blonde on Blonde (1966)
“Visions of Johanna” is a tour de force, a breakthrough not only for the writer but for the very possibilities of songwriting. An extended, impressionistic account of a woozy New York City night, rich in pictorial detail and erotic longing, the five long verses zigzag between Dylan’s acute dissection of one woman, the tangible and available Louise, and his longing for an absent ideal. Johanna may not even be real. But she is an addiction. “It’s extraordinary,” Bono once said. “He writes this whole song seemingly about this one girl, with these remarkable descriptions of her, but this isn’t the girl who’s on his mind! It’s somebody else!”
Dylan’s masterpiece of obsession ”“ written, ironically, shortly after his marriage in 1965 ”“ was a passion in itself. He debuted the song in concert in December 1965, to an audience that included ex-paramour Joan Baez and poet Allen Ginsberg, then played it every night on the 1966 world tour ”“ notably in the solo acoustic sets. A November ’65 attempt to cut an electric ”˜Johanna’ with the Hawks (under the explicitly bitter title ”˜Seems Like a Freeze Out’) had run aground after 14 takes. The Hawks were still too much of a bar band; the song’s confessional complexity required poise as well as muscle.
In contrast, Dylan nailed ”˜Johanna’ on the first take in Nashville. The local session pros, supplemented by Robbie Robertson’s crying-treble guitar, brought the right unhurried empathy to Dylan’s vocal mood swings ”“ from a whisper to a howl at the moon in the same verse ”“ and unforgettable lyric images.
“I still sing that song every once in a while,” Dylan said in 1985. “It still stands up now as it did then. Maybe even more in some kind of weird way.”
10. Every Grain of Sand
Shot of Love (1981)
“It’s like one of the great Psalms of David,” Bono says about ”˜Every Grain of Sand,’ the spellbinding ballad from Shot of Love that concludes Dylan’s overtly Christian songwriting phase. Equal parts Blakean mysticism and biblical resonance, the song abandons the self-righteousness that plagued Dylan’s religious work to offer a desperate prayer for salvation. Shadowing Dylan on vocals is gospel great (and Dylan flame) Clydie King: “I get chills when I hear her just breathe,” Dylan said. ”˜Every Grain of Sand’ taps into a moving humility (“Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me,” he sings). As Bono puts it, “Dylan stops wailing against the world, turns on himself and is brought to his knees.”
Dylan later described ”˜Every Grain of Sand’ as “an inspired song that just came to me”¦ I felt like I was just putting words down that were coming from somewhere else.”
11. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
In the film Don’t Look Back, Dylan sits around his room in London’s posh Savoy Hotel, surrounded by hangers-on. Bored, he picks up an acoustic guitar and plays a new song he’s just written: ”˜It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.’ He has an evil grin on his face; after the first two verses, it’s the only smile in the room ”“ everyone else looks shattered. The party’s definitely over.
The song is his devastating farewell to innocence, kicking Baby Blue out into the street, whether that means the end of a friendship or his abandonment of the folk scene. After he was famously booed offstage for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and returned with an acoustic guitar, this is the song he chose to play as his hard-ass response.
It instantly became one of his most covered songs. But nobody’s ever sung “Strike another match, go start anew” with the menace of Dylan himself.
12. Desolation Row
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
By Mick Jagger
”˜Desolation Row’ is so simple musically ”“ just three chords for 11 minutes, with a minimal amount of accompaniment ”“ yet it’s so effective. There’s Dylan, a bassist and a session guitar player, Charlie McCoy, from Nashville, who adds a nice little counterpoint to the melody. Even after many listenings, his playing still sounds sweet; I like the slight Spanish tinge of it. But it doesn’t get in the way of what obviously is the main thing: the vocal and the lyrics. Dylan’s delivery is recitative, almost deadpan, but he engages you. What’s wonderful about the lyrics is all these characters that he inveighs on our imagination: Famous people surrealistically appear, some of them mythical and some of them real. The Phantom of the Opera. Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. Cinderella. Bette Davis. Cain and Abel. One of my favourite parts is the bit about “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood”: “You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago/For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.” It’s just a great image of Einstein, isn’t it? It’s his hair ”“ all his hair jutting out, and he’s got the violin, which, of course, he used to play. Someone said that ”˜Desolation Row’ is Dylan’s version of ”˜The Waste Land.’ I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s a wonderful collection of imagery ”“ a fantasy Bowery ”“ that really gets your imagination working.
13. Subterranean Homesick Blues
Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
The American Dream, according to Dylan: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.” And that’s if you get lucky, kid. ”˜Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was his first electric blast, released as a single in March 1965 and crashing the Top 40. Dylan delivers a proto-rap barrage of one-liners sending up America’s mixed-up confusion. “Look out, kid/You’re gonna get hit,” Dylan advises, on the run from cops, teachers, the army and even meteorologists. (Although the radical group the Weathermen took their name from the song anyway.)
“It’s not folk rock, it’s just instruments,” Dylan explained in 1965 to the Chicago Daily News. “I’ve been on too many other streets to just do that.” And with ”˜Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ he made America’s streets sound scarier ”“ and more exciting ”“ than ever.