Oct 6, 2007


"There's a song that will linger forever in our ears" sung an aging Bob Dylan on Hard Times. And his wrinkly, universe-weary features must know about that than most people. This week sees yet another utterly unnecessary Greatest Hits collection released (the inspiringly titled Dylan: His Greatest Songs) with each title on the track list crashing down like a great sighing bong of soul-destroying inevitability:

Blowing in the Wind... bong.
Times they are a changing... bong.
Like a Rolling Stone... bong, bong, bong...

I defy anyone to find one person amongst the soulless music-hating automatons who put this piece of marketing fluff together who genuinely, with all his or her heart believes that what the world really needs more than anything right now is another compilation of every Dylan song that anyone's ever heard of. Think I'm exaggerating? From Pitchfork - a few facts about Dylan: TGS.

Songs from Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967) that appear on DYLAN: 9 out of 10
Songs from Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971) that appear on DYLAN: 11 out of 21
Songs from Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1994) that appear on DYLAN: 13 out of 14
Songs from The Essential Bob Dylan (2000) that appear on DYLAN: 27 out of 30
Songs from The Best of Bob Dylan (2005) that appear on DYLAN: 15 out of 16
Previously unreleased recordings that appear on DYLAN, unless you get it from iTunes: 0

Bong, bong, bong, bong...

So as some small act of defiance against the constant industry reinforcement of what the Dylan Legacy should be, I offer you an alternative Dylan compilation - a road less traveled by. Just 10 songs, but hopefully enough to whet your appetite for something other than the 19 overplayed classics that history has seen to devour eternally. (all of these tracks are available on itunes, should you so wish)

1. Hard Times in New York Town - Bootleg Series Volume 1

Come you ladies and you gentlemen, a-listen to my song.
Sing it to you right, but you might think it's wrong.
Just a little glimpse of a story I'll tell
"Bout an East Coast city that you all know well.

A delicate, very early song to start. A breezy mix of cockiness and naivety, it perfectly sums up the Dylan who struck out for the Big A at the beginning of 60s, doped up on Woody Guthrie and ready to drink dry the various talented characters gathered in Greenwich Village.

2. I don't Believe you (she acts like we never met) - Live 1964 - Bootleg Series Volume 6

Three years later and Dylan is already performing solo to a sold-out Philharmonic Hall. The atmosphere on this recording is warm (and probably faintly high) as Dylan giggles his way childishly from song to song. Already in this song (and indeed on the album it came from) Dylan has left behind the folk movement's po-faced activism and is writing quiet, melodic little songs about lost love and absent women - this is probably (with Boots of Spanish Leather) the best.

3. Ballad of a Thin Man - Highway 61 Revisited

You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well read
It's well known

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Dylan in his absolute rock and roll pomp - a dense, scornful wild-eyed tirade from the peak of his fame. When he rasps out the stinging question of the chorus, you can almost see him in all his big haired, drug addled splendour leering out of the stereo at you.

4. Visions of Johanna - Blonde on Blonde

Possibly one of the most beautiful songs ever written from an album that demands to be listened to in a quiet room thick with smoke at about three in the morning.

5. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere - The Essential Bob Dylan (n.b. not the edition that features on the Basement Tapes)

As most of you probably know in 1967, at the peak of his fame Dylan had a perfectly timed motorcycle accident and disappeared for a period, reappearing with a series of albums that he has almost admitted were meant to deflate the hype surrounding him. This is a song written in that quiet and restful intervening period, a merry, contented track perfect for a bit of a sing song.

6. Tonight I'll be Staying Here With You - Nashville Skyline

The problem with some of Dylan's more romantic songs (and the reason why he's eternally popular with music magazines run by aging once-upon-a-time trendsetters now being dragged into middle age) is that once he starts talking about the women wot have ruined him, it can all become a little, well, self involved. This is particularly the case when you learn of some of the brutally heartbreaking things he did to people he loved upon the way. Far from celebrating the kind of heartache that self-important male music journalists get all melancholy over, this song (from the much underrated Nashville Skyline) is about as sweetly happy and, well, lovely, as you can imagine.

7. Up to Me - Biograph

And if we never meet again, baby, remember me,
How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody.
And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free,
No one else could play that tune,
You know it was up to me.

That having been said Dylan does do heartbreak marvelously well. This is an outtake from the achingly sad Blood on the Tracks and a soundalike to the more well known Shelter from the Storm. In many ways its a more personal, sadder (as opposed to angry), fragile song, perhaps that's why it didn't make it as far as the album.

8. A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall - Rolling Thunder Review (Bootleg Series Volume 5)

One of the most important things about Dylan (as opposed to those compiling his Greatest Hits compilations seeking to keep churning out the same few recordings time after time after...) is his constant reinvention of his own back catalogue. Few are as fun as this rollicking, (seemingly Status-Quo inspired) reimagining of this early anti-war classic. Tells you about all you need to know about the difference between the early 60s and the late 70s.

9. Every Grain of Sand - Biograph

I've talked about this recording before
. Lovely. Just lovely.

10. Ain't Talkin

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
No one on earth would ever know

Off the latest Dylan album, which is lots fun, this is the final track puts Dylan's voice ('like sand and glue' according to Bowie) to its best use in years.

So there you go. That's your lot. A flying tour, but a worthwhile one. And rest assured, by the time the next unremittingly dire Dylan Greatest Hits collection comes out, I'll have prepared the next installment.

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