Bob Dylan is a truly remarkable figure with a unique poetic vision and one that he found the exactly appropriate musical means to convey. Musically he is inspired by the whole sound and texture of American music which he shapes and tailors to fit his lyrical genius. There are so many astonishing lyrics that stick in the mind such as this line from "Visions of Johanna" from the album Blonde on Blonde:US music legend Bob Dylan won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, the first songwriter to win the prestigious award in a decision that stunned prize watchers.Dylan, 75, was honoured "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," the Swedish Academy said.
The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her faceThis captures the 60s for me as adroitly as the famous lines from Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge captured the Romantic vision:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!But for many of Dylan's greatest songs the impact of the lyrics is a cumulative one and you might as well quote a whole stanza:
They're selling postcards of the hanging, they're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner, they've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation RowI've been more than a fan of Dylan's since the late 1960s and by that I just mean that I went through a real Dylan phase in between my rock bassist phase and my classical guitarist phase when I performed songs by Dylan (and myself). One song I recall performing with pleasure was "John Wesley Harding" from the eponymous album:
The Dylanesque line is "He traveled with a gun in every hand." Not both hands or each hand, but every hand. The last two lines of the stanza also have the Dylan flavour which consists in saying something that is poetically true, but in a different way and one that catches your attention. Let's listen to this song:John Wesley HardingWas a friend to the poorHe traveled with a gun in every handAll along this countrysideHe opened a many a doorBut he was never knownTo hurt an honest man
We were lucky to find that on YouTube (though cut short) as usually they keep it scrubbed pretty clear of copyright recordings of Bob Dylan. This album was the first he recorded after a serious motorcycle accident and it was both a return to a very simple texture and a lean towards a country music style. The most famous song on that album was "All Along the Watchtower" with its formidably enigmatic lyrics:
That's it, that's the whole lyric. We discovered that Bob Dylan is actually a Cylon in the season finale of season three of Battlestar Galactica. It was a remarkably successful way of evoking the birth of a submerged memory by using lyrical fragments from the song as lines of dialogue for the four actors playing mole Cylons. At least it worked really well for me because, just like the characters, I felt more and more a dimly recalled familiarity. The last episode ends with an arrangement of the song by Bear McCreary. Wikipedia has an article on it."There must be some way out of here" said the joker to the thief"There's too much confusion", I can't get no reliefBusinessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earthNone of them along the line know what any of it is worth."No reason to get excited", the thief he kindly spoke"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a jokeBut you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fateSo let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late".All along the watchtower, princes kept the viewWhile all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.Outside in the distance a wildcat did growlTwo riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
Another song I liked to perform because of the music as much as the lyrics was "Lay Lady, Lay" from Nashville Skyline, Dylan's country album. It is actually the only song from way back then that I still remember all the chords for!
Another extraordinary song from Blonde on Blonde is possibly the longest song Dylan ever wrote: "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" which I actually performed in its entirety several times:
Sadly, there is no good version by Dylan on YouTube, so I have put up a good one by Joan Baez.
I have to admit that I have not kept track of all the albums Dylan has released in recent decades, but I think I will start to explore some of them now. Let's end with a couple of his greatest songs, both from Highway 61 Revisited. This is the opening, "Like a Rolling Stone" in a live performance from 1966:
And this is the closing song, "Desolation Row", also in a live performance from 1966: