About this time last year, we ran a post about lyricists who we thought were somewhat overrated. Predictably enough, including Bob Dylan in said feature set off something of a comments section firestorm, even though we were pretty clear about the fact that we didn’t think the lyricists in question were bad — just perhaps not as great as people liked to make out. Anyway, we’re not Dylan haters here, and in celebration of the arrival of his new album Tempest, which is out tomorrow, we thought we’d share our all-time favorite Dylan lyrics. Of course, this is entirely subjective, so do let us know your favorites, too.
“Hurricane,” from Desire, 1976
Key lyric: “How can the life of such a man/ Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?/ To see him obviously framed/ Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed/ To live in a land/ Where justice is a game”
Our all-time favorite Dylan song, and we’re not sure if that many people would disagree with us. It’s strident and angry without ever being overly didactic — Dylan catalogs the injustices meted out to former boxer and falsely accused murder suspect Rubin Carter in a manner that manages to be matter-of-fact while burning with outrage. Sadly, the publicity it generated wasn’t enough to help Carter — it wasn’t until 1988 that all charges against him were dropped.
“Idiot Wind,” from Blood on the Tracks, 1975
Key lyric: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth/ You’re an idiot, babe/ It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”
To this day, Dylan insists that the awfully personal-sounding lyrics from Blood on the Tracks weren’t personal at all, but instead inspired by Chekhov’s short stories. Although we’re not entirely sure we buy this, whatever the provenance of the lyrics, they’re some of his best — and none more so than this, which was breathtakingly bitter but also ultimately forlorn at the demise of the relationship it depicted (“I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read/ Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead.”)
“Not Dark Yet,” from Time Out of Mind, 1997
Key lyric: “I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies/ I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes”
Time Out of Mind is generally celebrated as Dylan’s latter-day masterpiece, and this song found the singer reflecting on life, its title serving as both a statement of defiant intent and an acknowledgement of mortality. Its denouement is shot through with the sort of black humor that Dylan’s old contemporary Warren Zevon would be proud of: “It’s not dark yet/ But it’s getting there.”
“Maggie’s Farm,” from Bringing It All Back Home, 1965
Key lyric: “I try my best/ To be just like I am/ But everybody wants you/ To be just like them/ They sing while you slave/ And I just get bored”
Quite who Maggie is and where her farm was remain the subject of some debate — the general consensus seems to be that the lady and her farm functioned as a metaphor for Dylan’s declaration of independence from the protest folk music with which he had hitherto been identified — but in any case, this is right up there with The Clash’s “Clash City Rockers” as one of music’s great “screw you and this shitty job” emancipation anthems.
“Man in the Long Black Coat,” from Oh Mercy, 1989
Key lyric: “Preacher was a-talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave/ He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved/ You cannot depend on it to be your guide/ When it’s you who must keep it satisfied”
A welcome return for Dylan’s skepticism and cynicism after his frankly weird born-again Christian period. His depiction of the eponymous man in the long black coat is ambivalent, at best, considering that the man in question may well be a priest of some description — the production is beautifully atmospheric, too.
“Desolation Row,” from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
Key lyric: “The kerosene is brought down from the castles/ By insurance men who go/ Check to see that nobody is escaping/ To Desolation Row”
Similarly, the physical locale that inspired the surreal cityscape of Desolation Row also remains open to question — Dylan himself said it was “some place in Mexico, it’s across the border,” although he may well have been being disingenuous. There are a bazillion theories, encompassing everything from Kerouacian bohemia to the Holocaust — you can amuse yourself reading through a slew of them at SongMeanings, if you like — but whatever your interpretation, it’s a great song. “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” is one of music’s greatest opening lines, too.
“Ain’t Talkin’,” from Modern Times, 2006
Key lyric: “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Up the road, around the bend/ Heart burnin’, still yearnin’/ In the last outback at the world’s end:”
This has always reminded us of the old traditional folk song “Wayfaring Stranger,” the tale of a world-weary wanderer trudging through a surreal apocalyptic landscape. It’s home to some of Dylan’s best imagery for years (“As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden/ The wounded flowers were dangling from the vines/ I was passing by yon cool and crystal fountain/ Someone hit me from behind”) and closes Modern Times with the image of an artist who’s old and weathered but nevertheless unbowed.
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” from Blonde on Blonde, 1966
Key lyric: “You might think he loves you for your money/ But I know what he really loves you for/ It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat”
Blonde on Blonde is home to some of Dylan’s most poetically beautiful lyrics — “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” spring to mind immediately — but if we’re just gonna choose one track from that album, it’d be this one, his equivalent of The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” a caustic portrait of a fashionista obsessed with the titular hat. (And since we can’t find the original anywhere, that’s Beck’s cover above.)
“Positively 4th Street,” non-album single, 1965
Key lyric: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you”
Indeed, no one writes a takedown quite like Dylan, and he rounds on his critics with this track, his scratchy, sneering vocals lending weight to what was already a remarkably catty lyric. And speaking of takedowns…
“Like a Rolling Stone,” from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
Key lyric: “You used to laugh about/ Everybody that was hanging out/ Now you don’t talk so loud/ Now you don’t seem so proud/ About having to be scrounging for your next meal”
And no, we weren’t gonna forget this — nearly half a century on, this brutal deconstruction of a silver-spoon society type who’s fallen from grace remains as cutting and relevant as ever. God only knows what its unnamed subject made of it — apparently the original version was 10 pages long, which probably would have incurred a full-fledged nervous breakdown.