“For the Record” is a new series dedicated to music and the personal experiences that surround it. Today we kick off with a small series within a series highlighting five songs by five bands or artists as part of an exploration beyond those identified as our usual favorites. In this instance, Bob Dylan is an artist my older siblings related to much more than I did, so for much of my childhood all I really knew about him was that he existed within the rank of legend.
I liked music as much as the next kid, but heard it mostly on the radio; I didn’t own any—that was my oldest brother’s territory. He sometimes let me sit in his room as he listened to music, headphones in, eyes shut, hands linked together under his head as he lay on the floor. Oblivious to the danger to his hearing, he allowed me that sneak “peak” into his magical world by way of the sounds overflowing from his corner. Being much too small—in size, age, and family hierarchy—to really have any say in much of anything, I stayed in mine.
Somewhere around the time I was approaching the teenage years, I snuck a book off his shelves, The British Invasion by Nicholas Schaffner. Being an American, Dylan was not listed in the collection, but its pages opened a new chapter in my life, and I began to ask questions, want more. Dylan was one of the first of more that I received. My brother allowed me to access one from his collection, and I walked away with Desire in my hands. I liked the clothes Bob Dylan wore on the cover and the way his scarf seemed to be blown gently in the breeze. I wanted a hat to sit on my head in as casual a nature as his did, and I wanted to tell stories that stuck with people, like his stories did.
Looking back, I’m a little surprised I didn’t pick up and run with Bob Dylan, because to me his songs are poetic—and that is what I loved in life. I suppose he stayed with me in a more subtle fashion, because one year my sister gifted me his box set collection, telling me it would be my Desire. She might have meant it would be my desire, and perhaps hers as well, having had to listen to her younger sister play the same album on repeat for over a year. Either way, she got it right. I held it close to myself, much like my brother did his music. Unfortunately, the set was destroyed in a flood that also seemed to carry away with it much of my former self as I moved into new phases in life.
Recently I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan more often as my son discovers his own desire; fortunately for me he is not nearly as possessive of his passions as I was, and we talk quite a bit about those who populate Dylan’s landscape. Below are some that have stuck with me the most ~
5.“Like a Rolling Stone,” Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – Addressing “Miss Lonely,” who has experienced a definitive fall from high places, the song’s speaker directly and harshly asks her, “How does it feel?” Additional lyrics compound his questioning, but that particular line and Dylan’s fierce delivery tell you just about all you need to know of the speaker’s perspective on a self-absorbed existence. As the song progresses, Dylan’s trademark harmonica comes into play, underlining the bitterness the speaker seems to feel at Miss Lonely’s un-self awareness, reprimanding her that the tyrannies of life, in some form, come for everyone eventually, even though she had disregarded or disbelieved the warnings. I’ve read of commentary regarding who Miss Lonely portrays, with some declaring she is a composite character. Perhaps even representative of society itself, a portion of it, or on an individual level, the song shifts toward the philosophy of encountering loss as a form of freedom because “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” It’s a thought-provoking song, perhaps made even more so by the knowledge that each one of us could be either character—the speaker or Miss Lonely.
4.“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Bringing it All Back Home (1965) – This is a whirlwind of a song that challenges you to keep up with it, but its very words and tune are so captivating you rise to it; your pores ooze energy. It’s also a bit of a history lesson, concerned as it is with 1960s counterculture, the civil rights movement, drugs, war and even the predictability of life, all shuffled together in a chaotic, rappy sequence directed at an everykid figure. Possibly known best for its line “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” it starts off in a basement and begins to round out the end with the advice “Better jump down a manhole,” possibly an indicator of the state of the nation at the time. Dylan’s delivery draws listeners into his themes, the catchy rhyming sequences keeping you there, probing for a long time to come—indeed, we are still doing that today.
3.”One More Cup of Coffee,” Desire (1976) – This is one of Bob Dylan’s most enchanting songs. Hypnotic, longing, melancholy, it is sung from the perspective of a man in love with a girl who does not reciprocate his feelings. From a drifter family, the girl takes after her mother, a soothsayer and father an outlaw who taught his daughter how to jealously guard their way of life, but has allowed her to remain illiterate. Still, she sees the future and the singer recognizes her complicated emotional makeup. As a duet, the song’s beauty matches the description the man gives of the girl, and the sorrow of his loss is evident in the stilted moments Dylan lends to his vocals. The theme of abandonment is apparent but, like its delivery, it too could be dual, given the man’s impending departure. The song also has an amazingly lovely feel to it, sort of a gypsy-ish quality, which makes sense, given the subject matter. But it is mournful as well, which leads me further to the idea that gypsy culture, which mainstream society often sees as insincere, develops this sort of soulful tune because they feel outsiders have left them behind. The singer, after all, is the one leaving.
2.”Hurricane,” Desire (1976) – Caveat: I don’t know enough about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the subject of this protest song, to be able to say whether I agree or not with Dylan’s assertion of his innocence. It is certainly true that he was convicted of the crimes described in the song, though later all charges were dismissed. So I can only speak to the song itself as a song and the qualities I admire, such as its intense singability and authentic story form. Once again here Dylan displays his magical ability to piece together uneven and even words and phrases that suitably rhyme (even though rhyming is not a prerequisite, of course), maintain a pleasing rhythm and bring you into another world as any good story should, with suitably emotive music. It does indeed feel raw and powerful, with noticeable instrumental significance in every passage, pause and inflection. For these reasons the song’s length, just under nine minutes, is a distinct advantage, given its powerful pull for you to sing the entire story.
1.“Isis,” Desire (1976) – Narrated by a man who marries the “mystical child” Isis, the song tells of how being deceived reveals to the man the value of loyalty, especially within marriage. He takes his departure from Isis and, after meeting up with a shady partner and discovering his duplicity, comes to understand that his own inner landscape is as empty as the tomb they aimed to raid. He subsequently returns to Isis, who is willing to welcome him back. As I wrote here, the song contains some lyrics that wouldn’t likely fly in other media, such as novels, but Dylan gets away with it because his voice, recipient of some majorly odd criticism, communicates in a way words simply cannot, adding significant layers of meaning to the song’s poetry.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of great songs briefly explored and
that you’ll come back for the next, which we’ll link back here once it publishes.
Who might it be? Come back and see!