Bob Dylan is the primary reason we can still listen to and be inspired by rock 'n' roll.
More than any other single figure, Dylan--the enigmatic singer and songwriter who will be 50 on Friday--turned the teen-oriented energy and celebration of Elvis and Little Richard into an art form in the '60s. He showed that rock could express complexities about society and relationships with the intimacy and insight of films or books.
Without that added dimension, rock may have largely disappeared as a social force as quickly as parents in the '50s had predicted it would.
Like the rock pioneers, the Duluth, Minn., native loved the raw, honest emotion of country music and the blues. He even started out in rock, but he found the style too limited.
"The thing about rock 'n' roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough," he once said. " 'Tutti Frutti' and 'Blue Suede Shoes' were great catch phrases . . . and you could get high on that energy but they weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing.
"The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings. . . . I needed that. Life is full of complexities and rock 'n' roll didn't reflect that. It was just put on a happy face and ride sally ride. . . . If I did anything, I brought one to the other."
Signed by Columbia Records after a few club appearances in New York, Dylan was 20 when his first album, "Bob Dylan," was released in March of 1962. Though it brought him some critical attention, his commercial breakthrough didn't come until the summer of '63. It was then that folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary recorded a Dylan song that he would include on his second album. "Blowin' in the Wind" hit No. 2 on the pop charts.
The trio's high profile and the song's commercial success directed attention to Dylan, pushing his second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," into the Top 25 on the charts that fall. Flash ahead two years and three albums. The Byrds' recorded an electric version of a new Dylan song off his fifth album, "Bringing It All Back Home." The Byrds' single, "Mr. Tambourine Man," went into the Top 10.
Later in 1965, Dylan's fusion of folk commentary and rock energy fueled "Highway 61 Revisited," arguably the most absorbing album of the modern pop era and the centerpiece of his legend. By this time he didn't need others to put his music on the radio. His version of "Like a Rolling Stone" hit the national Top 5, making the darling of the underground a national rock hero.
Dylan heard boos from the old folk crowd when he walked on stage with a rock band rather than just his acoustic guitar--former loyalists who thought he had sold out. But it didn't deter him--and that's where his courage and strength came in.
It takes immense ambition and vision to become a great artist, but one of the lessons of Dylan's career is that it takes an almost unnatural will to remain a great artist because you have to be ready to sacrifice all that you have gained in popularity and acclaim to keep moving into new creative areas.
He's heard the boos many other times since the mid-'60s as he moved in unexpected directions, yet he has proved amazingly resilient. Every time he has been written off after a disappointing album or seemingly indifferent show, Dylan has rebounded with a work or performance of imagination and heart.
As he celebrates his birthday, the image of Dylan that is freshest in the public mind isn't flattering: a snarling, full-throttle performance of the old "Masters of War" during February's Grammy Awards telecast that many viewers found impossible to decipher.
But there was more to Dylan that night.
After accepting a career achievement award, Dylan, a private man who isn't accustomed to even talking to his own concert audiences, stared hesitantly at the audience as if searching for something meaningful to say--rather than the usual show-biz acceptance speech.
"Well my daddy didn't leave me too much . . . he was a very simple man," Dylan said, shifting anxiously. "But he did say, 'Son . . . it's possible to be so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if this happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your ways.' "
If he was more awkward at the podium than the others on a night when mostly soulless pop figures who were honored, the words offered an endearing and heartfelt piece of advice: a warning about the loneliness and self-doubt that surround anyone brave enough to be true to an ideal rather than succumb to the popular currents.
Anyone who didn't recognize the tenderness and relevance of the remark in light of Dylan's own history probably also didn't understand Dylan's music over the last 30 years because the words summarized much of the struggle chronicled in his songs. Even on a night when he was honored by the record industry, the quintessential outsider remained a step apart.
After nearly three doze albums and some 300 songs, Dylan stands as second only to Elvis Presley as the most influential figure in the history of rock.
The rock scene may be polluted these days by hundreds of acts that recycle or exploit the music's original, liberating tenets, yet there is still the thrill of hearing occasional voices who speak with the individuality and insight that remind you of the music's early purpose and power.
Invariably, these voices--from introspective rocker Paul Westerberg of the Replacements to young urban folk singer Tracy Chapman--owe a debt to Dylan.
From his body of work, here are the 50 Dylan songs that I feel best define the range and depth of his artistry.
1. "Like a Rolling Stone" (from the "Highway 61 Revisited" album, 1965). "Blowin' in the Wind" may always be Dylan's best-known and most-performed song, his "Yesterday" if you will, because it captures a single emotion or theme so universally. Still, "Like a Rolling Stone" is a work of greater originality and individuality. The six-minute recording sent an electric charge through the rock world, demonstrating that words could have as much power as the guitar or drums or piano.
Filled with the brashness and insecurities of youth, the song was built around a theme that was a recurring one with Dylan: the dangers and foibles of trying to navigate without a moral compass by letting others set your code.
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain't it hard when you discover that
He really wasn't where it's at
After he took from you everything he could steal. . . .
How does it feel?
To be on your own?
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
2. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (from "Bringing It All Back Home," 1965). It's placement this high on the list reinforces the point that Dylan's most influential role as a writer was his extending of the old boundaries of rock. While he could certainly write in a simpler style, his special gift was in songs that challenged the listener. Here, especially, he threw out a series of images in such rapid-fire juxtaposition that it seemed from a distance like random stream of consciousness. But every word had its place and no one has come up with a more concise or biting summary of the working-class hero blues.
Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don't steal, don't lift
Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift.
3. "Blowin' in the Wind" (from "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," 1963). Part of Dylan's early genius was to combine in his music the simple honesty of Hank Williams, the social urgency of Woody Guthrie, the poetic torment of Arthur Rimbaud and the moral examination of the Bible. He drew upon all those elements in many of his best songs; here, though, he stuck to the Guthrie model and it even surpassed "This Land Is Your Land" in impact.
4. "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" ("Bringing It All Back Home, 1965). All the talk about Dylan as the spokesman for a generation has often made his sociopolitical material seem more prized than his more intimate and introspective ballads, but the love songs were equally liberating. Unlike traditional pop songs that seemed to reproduce familiar emotions and images, Dylan delighted in weaving his seductive rhymes into riddles. It may be true that no one writes pop songs like they used to, but who wrote lines like this before Dylan:
In dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there's no success like failure
And that failure's no success at all.
5. "To Ramona" ("Another Side of Bob Dylan," 1964). Just as "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was placed after "Like a Rolling Stone" to emphasize the importance of Dylan's role in elevating the level of songwriting in rock, "To Ramona" is included here to underscore how love songs have always represented a major part of his contribution.
The best of the songs reflected on the nuances of relationships with candor, articulating feelings that many listeners couldn't even define in the privacy of their own thoughts. This song, again dealing with consequences of letting others set guidelines for you, is among his most tender and disarming works:
Your cracked country lips
I still wish to kiss
As to be under the strength of your skin
Your magnetic movements
Still capture the minutes I'm in.
But it grieves my heart, love,
To see you tryin' to be a part of
A world that just don't exist
It's all just a dream, babe
A vacuum, a scheme, babe
That sucks you into feelin' like this.
6. "The Times They Are A-Changin"' (from an album of the same name, 1964). In one of the songs that landed him the spokesman for a generation title that he has always hated, Dylan captures the impatient and idealistic spirit of '60s activism as well as any newsreel footage of the time.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.
7. "Tangled Up in Blue" ("Blood on the Tracks," 1975). A jigsaw puzzle of a song whose teasing obscurity somehow manages to capture the dizzy complexities of relationships. The song not only signaled a creative renaissance in Dylan, but also stood as a gently reassuring slap at the lingering disillusionment of the '60s.
8. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" ("The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan"). Like "Times," this was a bridge between the folk tradition and Dylan's eventual rock breakthrough. Where there was an almost anonymous tone to Dylan's writing in 'Blowin' in the Wind,' there was no way to escape the fury and outrage of his own emerging voice in this early example of his frequently apocalyptic vision.
9. "Every Grain of Sand" ("Shot of Love," 1981). The second of the post-'60s Dylan songs on the list, "Every Grain" was part of the "born-again" trilogy of albums that began in 1979 with "Slow Train Coming." Unlike some of the songs from that period, however, it is not doctrinaire. Instead, it's another example of Dylan self-inventory, though this one reflecting a maturity and humility that separates it from much of his early work.
10. "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35" ("Blonde on Blonde," 1966). Enough serious Dylan. He also writes music that is rowdy, witty, lustful and fun. This was one of the most playful.
11. "Ballad of a Thin Man" ("Highway 61 Revisited"). Dylan's suspicion of authorities and institutions was perfect for the irreverence and rebellion of rock 'n' roll. He repeatedly struck out against smugness and false credentials, but never with more acidity than in this song.
12. "It Ain't Me, Babe" ("Another Side of Bob Dylan"). More fun--of a sort. This is another of Dylan's multi-purpose messages, a declaration of independence from relationships, movements and anybody else who wanted to use him for their own purposes. Spunky charm.
13. "Mr. Tambourine Man" ("Bringing It All Back Home"). Radiant with the optimism of the '60s, this was a celebration of what seemed, however naive, to be the beginning of a true changing of the guard.
14. "I Believe in You" ("Slow Train Coming," 1979). Because it was on the first of Dylan's gospel albums, it has almost always been seen as a statement of spiritual devotion, but it can also be interpreted as romantic commitment. Again, there's a maturity and humility that became an increasing feature of Dylan's work in the '70s and '80s.
15. "Forever Young" ("Planet Waves," 1974). A salute to the innocence and idealism of the young at heart is one of Dylan's sweetest songs.
16. "Positively Fourth Street" ("Greatest Hits," 1967). Another love song, this one laced with such bitterness and accusation that it seems like you are overhearing an argument rather than listening to a song.
17. "Just Like a Woman" ("Blonde on Blonde"). One more song of farewell, with all the lingering tenderness and wounds from the experience.
18. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" ("Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" soundtrack, 1973). One of Dylan's sparest but also most openly emotional songs. If "Blowin' in the Wind" was Dylan matching (or mastering) Guthrie, this was going one-on-one with Hank Williams. Play it sometimes after listening to "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
19. "Chimes of Freedom" ("Another Side of Bob Dylan"). When Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel came out in London three years ago for the encore on the opening night of the historic Amnesty International world tour, they turned to this 1964 Dylan song to express their social ideals and frustrations.
20. "Masters of War" ("The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan")--For anyone who couldn't catch the words on the telecast, here are some lines that may explain why Dylan would think the old song was relevant on a night during the Persian Gulf crisis:
Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I can see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.
21. to 30.: "I Want You," "She Belongs to Me," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," "Desolation Row," "Gotta Serve Somebody," "Simple Twist of Fate," "All Along the Watchtower," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."
31. to 40.: "Love Is Just a Four Letter Word," "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," "Shelter From the Storm," "Caribbean Wind," "My Back Pages," "I Shall Be Released," "One Too Many Mornings," "Visions of Johanna," "Jokerman," "Restless Farewell."
41. to 50.: "Highway 61 Revisited," "Death Is Not the End," "Girl of the North Country," "Man of Peace," "What Can I Do for You," "Sara," "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "If You See Her, Say Hello" and "Trust Yourself."
* HIS IMPACT THEN AND NOW
Pop artists select favorite Dylan songs. Page 66