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
45. It Ain’t Me, Babe
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
Likely written in a London hotel, ”˜It Ain’t Me, Babe’ is among Dylan’s most elegant women-don’t-get-me songs, cataloguing an erstwhile girlfriend’s ill-founded expectations of old-fashioned chivalry and fidelity. The opening line (“Go ’way from my window”) is a poetic formula that goes back to the 16th century, but the song also takes from more contemporary sources: The “no, no, no” appeared to parody the “yeah, yeah, yeah” in the Beatles’ ”˜She Loves You.’ “Eight in the Top 10,” Dylan said of the Fab Four’s pop dominance. “It seemed to me like a definite line was being drawn.”
By Chris Martin
I got into Bob Dylan when I was 16. I’d heard the myth, “Oh, Bob Dylan, he can’t sing.” But at this point, half of the CDs I own are Dylan albums. About once a year, I’ll spend a month listening to Bob Dylan and nothing else. I remember a friend of George Harrison saying, “Oh, George just likes to get home and listen to his Bob Dylan albums.” Sometimes you don’t need anything else. I discovered Infidels after I saw the video for ”˜Jokerman.’ It had Italian paintings and religious imagery and Ronald Reagan showed up in the end. I’d thought I was a massive Dylan fan, but ”˜Jokerman’ was a shock: “How can this guy have a song that comes from this other world, and it’s still so brilliant?” Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor ”“ the unsung hero of the Rolling Stones ”“ on guitars. And Sly and Robbie brought that reggae vibe. The song feels 87 minutes long, like dinner finally came around and they stopped rolling tape. I spend eight weeks writing two lines. I don’t think about who this Jokerman is ”“ whether it’s God, Satan or Dylan himself. The beauty of Bob Dylan is in the mystery. I love the lines “The book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy/The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.” And the chorus, with that “oh-oh-oh” chant out of tune ”“ the only other person who can get away with singing like that is Jay-Z, on ”˜D.O.A.’ It sounds effortless in the best possible way.
47. Spanish Harlem Incident
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
Dylan performed this brief, tender slip of a song about a crush on a fortune-teller exactly once (at the Halloween show documented on Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall). The “incident” of its title seems to be as tiny as incidents come: the “gypsy gal” holding his hand in hers, and sparking a flurry of associations. “Spanish Harlem Incident” is one of Dylan’s most open, unambiguous sex songs, complete with references to her “rattling drums” and his “restless palms.”
The most overtly autobiographical song Dylan ever wrote directly addresses his then-estranged wife. It also showed that Dylan could turn on the charm. ”˜Sara’ is a love song largely devoted to memories ”“ images of their children at play, the couple sharing glances over “white rum in a Portugal bar” ”“ with Dylan referring to Sara as the “sweet love of my life” in a spare, dirge-like waltz. Late in the song, Dylan pointedly asked for forgiveness but also sounded like a man grown distant and mystified, referring to Sara as a “Scorpio Sphinx in a calico dress.” The Dylans reconciled for a time, but as the marriage disintegrated for good the next year, Dylan replaced ”˜Sara’ with the splenetic ”˜Idiot Wind’ in the Rolling Thunder Revue’s sets. The pair were officially divorced in 1977.
49. Up to Me
”˜Up to Me’ is one of the top-shelf songs that Dylan left off albums (in this case, Blood on the Tracks) for reasons known only to him. It is reminiscent of ”˜Shelter From the Storm’ both musically and in terms of its spare arrangement. Thematically, the song perfectly suits the album, which was inspired by the dissolution of Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lowndes. ”˜Up to Me’ may simply have been too personal for Dylan to release it. “And if we never meet again, baby, remember me,” he sings in the song’s last verse. “How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody.” Of course, he denied that interpretation. “I don’t think of myself as Bob Dylan,” he told Cameron Crowe. “It’s like Rimbaud said, ”˜I is another.’”
50. Not Dark Yet
Time out of Mind (1997)
A few months before Dylan released 1997’s Time Out of Mind, he was hospitalised with a severe heart infection that made him think he’d “be seeing Elvis soon.” ”˜Not Dark Yet’ was finished long before his illness, but the hauntingly beautiful song seemed to almost foretell it. Against Daniel Lanois’ trademark swampy production, Dylan sings in the voice of a man facing the twilight of his life. “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” he sings. “I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still.” Dylan recorded death-obsessed songs on his very first album in 1962. Here, he was a road-weary 55, and you can hear every one of those years in that voice.