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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, January 21, 2010


For the May 2002 issue of Uncut magazine I, along with a number of other people, was asked to submit a list of my all-time favourite Dylan tracks. In the event, they published one item from each person's list, so the rest has never been published. I just stumbled upon the text I supplied, and I thought it might be of interest - especially since nothing Dylan has done since early 2002 makes me want to dislodge any of my 10 to make room for it.

Here's what I wrote:

Ten is an impossibly low number to select, so mine are chosen so that each track really represents a whole phase of his work, or a whole group of songs that stand alongside each other:

This is from his perfect earliest phase, when he sings with heartstopping intimacy in various regional accents, and mixes sweet youthfulness with immortal gravitas. As such it stands for ‘Song To Woody’ and ‘North Country Blues’ too. It also stands for Dylan’s greatest stuff he didn’t write: eg. ‘Spanish Is The Loving Tongue’, solo and live, ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and ‘Love Henry’.

The original album version showed a vaulting of his songwriting above all others and so for me epitomises all those long pre-electric masterpieces like ‘Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ through ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. The song has also been a brilliant vehicle for wholly different live performance styles in many Dylan periods.

A favourite from a favourite album, Another Side Of. So alive, inventive and un-Tin Pan Alley, it also catches that moment when he starts to be risk-takingly sloppy/informal and to write about sex and love; so it represents all those wily, sexy, exuberant songs like ‘All I Really Want To Do’, ‘I Don’t Believe You’, ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ and ‘To Ramona’, and it’s a vote for the joys of Dylan’s minor works instead of keeping to the confines of his masterpieces. So it’s a vote for Nashville Skyline too.

Captures full-on the spirit, colour, sound and spiky warmth of the incomparable Blonde On Blonde, and a cousin to the unreleased wonders from the same era, like ‘She’s Your Lover Now’.

Sums up the murky, wayward genius of the basement tapes - for me, every wondrous item from ‘Royal Canal’ to ‘Tears Of Rage’ - and also the Dylan who masters the Dramatic Monologue and high comic mimickry: the Dylan of ‘Black Cross’, ‘Brownsville Girl’ and ‘Highlands’.

A flawless track on one of his best albums, John Wesley Harding: transcendant, visionary, dignified, unique.

This shimmers with grace, light and authoritative ardour from opening note to all-too-soon last whisper. It stands for (a) the sumptuous Planet Waves (b) the Dylan who can muster rich, immaculate production - the Dylan also of ‘Let’s Keep It Between Us’, ‘Caribbean Wind’ and ‘Not Dark Yet’; and (c) the Dylan who writes so beautifully about the Minnesota terrain of his childhood.

Another song that Dylan has done inspiredly live, in the 1970s and 1990s, and is also, in its early unreleased form, a high point of the studio sessions for Blood On The Tracks - so of course it also stands for ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ and ‘Tangled Up In Blue’.

Every version of this great song is tremendous, but especially two: the unissued studio original, for his singing - the same sweet 1983 voice that gave us ‘Blind Willie McTell’, ‘Lord Protect My Child’ and ‘Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart’ - and the March ’84 TV version with The Plugz for its punk chutzpah.

Favourite from “Love And Theft”, a warm and vividly surprising, creatively great, delightful album right up there among the best twelve or so he’s ever made, and certainly the best since Desire 25 years earlier.



Blogger Unknown said...

Great! And very glad to see that Love & Theft made the cut. I am ashamed to recall my initial reaction when you played it to me for the first time. (But I came round very quickly.) I am also ashamed to admit that I still don't know more than one of the top ten. Will remedy in 2010.

9:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have just watched an interesting & enjoyable debate involving Christopher Ricks about Dylan's work:


3:28 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

It's difficult to quibble with a list of favourites - by nature that's a subjective list. I like all those songs mentioned, even though it's top heavy in 60's songs, and maybe this reflects the fact that Bob was so unique and red-hot back then, and also the age of the guy who's choosing?

I'm glad to see Never say Goodbye in there. I remember Bob Shelton's biog of Bob mentioned this in the H61 segment, which was shoddy. I'm not a huge Planet Waves fan - it sounds like he's only finding his songwriters voice again, but not fully - but it's a great song.

And I love the acoustic bootleg version of Idiot Wind. I seem to recall there's a different version to the one released on the Bootleg series.

Jokerman too. That's a song that's hard to fathom, but it's one of those great 80's songs and alongside Sweetheart Like You - which some folks don't like - it makes for a great start to Infidels.

Nothing from Time Out of Mind? So what, eh? It's a personal list, and a very interesting one, too. Floater I admire, but I prefer other songs on that disc.

Post-2002? I like many songs, and I believe that Cross the Green Mountain and Nettie Moore are as strong as anything he's written, since his resurgence in Civil War garb in 1997...

3:53 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

An interesting list, and of course one could argue for ever about what should make the top ten. I like the way you have chosen a cluster of more or less related songs to go with each choice.

I would say, at the outset, that I can't conceive of a top ten that didn't have Visions of Johanna in it.

what I really writing about is to ask whether you, Michael, or any one else, knows of anywhere that all Dylan's lyrics have been brought together with all the variant versions. Songs like Jokerman and Dignity, for example, have interestingly different lyrics in some of the outtakes.

8:09 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thanks to Jack for the link to the Christopher Ricks-Sean Wilentz panel discussion. Ricks is riveting, but I should warn people that the whole thing lasts almost two hours (and you can skip at least the first 12 minutes, which is of the host institution's Any Other Business).

10:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a link to a broadcast concerning the intensity of anti-semitism in Minneapolis during the 30s & 40s: 'The Capital of anti-semitism'. I feel this may verify my intuition of Dylan's Jewish background deeply influencing central themes & concerns within his work.


10:12 am  

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