Our countdown continues today with #20-11 on the list. Again, the rules here are that these songs do not appear on a Dylan studio album. (By the way, I’m including The Basement Tapes as a studio album, since I did do a CK-style review of that, which you can find in the archives.)
20. “Cant Escape From You”- Singing over an elegant doo-wop melody that would have suited Dion, Dylan craggily cogitates about the one love out of them all that stubbornly clings. He’s neither sad nor sorry, yet he states as a self-evident fact that this woman is tied to him till the end. There is a nimbleness to the singing here that matches the sprightly sorrow of the tune, and an overall effortlessness that has no right being in a song with such impressive lyrical displays.
19. “Abandoned Love”- It has the sound of Desire and the sentiment of Blood On The Tracks, so, at a time when Dylan seemed more committed to thematic unity on his albums than normal, it fell through the cracks. But, man, does it hit home as a clear-eyed dissection of crumbling romance. Both his patron saint and his inner ghosts have betrayed him, so Dylan’s narrator is clearly in no shape to sustain this relationship. But what really kills you is the way he asks for one more moment at the end before it all goes to pieces.
18. “Up To Me”- This is a bit of a soundalike to “Shelter From The Storm,” so Dylan probably decided that Blood On The Tracks wasn’t big enough for both of them. And really, how can you complain about that album? But still, this song deserves a spot somewhere. The narrator bears the burden at the end of every verse, a burden that slowly squeezes the life out of his ability to carry on in this romance. The settings and characters change drastically from verse to verse, but what it comes down to is fickle, frail human nature, as evidenced by lines like “She’s everything I need and love but I can’t be swayed by that.” And in that lovely last verse, Dylan literally brings his guitar and harmonica into the song and melts our hearts.
17. “John Brown”- Dylan’s Unplugged session at MTV is a prime document of how his live skills were still Ginsu-sharp in the early 90’s, even as people were questioning if he’d ever do anything of note in the studio again. (Boy, were those folks in for a surprise.) But the standout track was this out-of-left-field choice of a song he’d only demoed back when he wrote it in the early 60’s. How relevant its thoughts on the horrors of war stayed, and Dylan’s searing performance of it for Unplugged really makes them stick.
16. “Farewell, Angelina”- All you need to do to time-stamp this song is to listen to the surrealistic flow of the lyrics, which clearly places it in the same class with wordy wonders like “Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from Bringing It All Back Home. Dylan gives a restrained reading of the song in the version that made it to the Bootleg Series, perfect for the song’s story of a drastic change that the narrator matter-of-factly abides. His exhortations to Angelina (more on her in a moment) urge her to prepare for the transformation, because it’s coming whether she wants to accept it or not.
15. “‘Cross The Green Mountain”- Dylan knows his Civil War stuff, but the war that he depicts here isn’t romanticized in the least. It’s a brutal, ugly thing, only leavened somewhat by the weary beauty of the martial music his band plays and the dignity of his lyrics. His narrator is dying, if not already dead, and he surveys both the abomination of reality and the sweeter scenery of the spirit world he hopes to enter. Maybe the narrator is a soldier, or maybe he represents the hope of humanity, snuffed out by war’s atrocities. In any case, the tragedy is, as the man says, monstrous.
14. “Angelina”- At the end of the Born Again period, Dylan was kind of all over the place, his secular musings trying to muscle their way back into the picture over the proselytizing nature of Slow Train and Saved. “Angelina” was recorded in the midst of this tumult and is all the more fascinating for it. Dylan switches back and forth from random scenes encountered by his lonely wanderer archetype and direct conversations with the titular character. Anybody who tells you for sure that they know what’s going on here is either lying or in over their heads, but getting lost in it is half the fun. And quite impressive how many rhymes he has for “Angelina,” right?
13. “Caribbean Wind”- Dylan lamented that all his rewrites of this song kind of diluted the original meaning, which he could never quite recover. Yet, somewhat like “Angelina,” the messiness of it is part of its charm, as each verse sets a new, thrilling scene and makes an insightful observation or two before its on to the next one. And the huffing rock arrangement is buoyed by Dylan’s absolute commitment in the vocals; his whine has rarely sounded more urgent. Autobiographical details sit next to shaggy-dog tales, and all of it lives within the “furnace of desire.” Who cares what he originally meant? This will do just fine, thanks.
12. “I Shall Be Released”- Let’s be clear here: Dylan’s off-the-cuff recording of the song for a greatest hits package (upon which this ranking is based) doesn’t come close to the takes he did with with The Band that eventually found their way to light. If he was trying to take some of the sonority out of the song in the version he recorded with Happy Traum, he succeeded, turning the song into more of a shrug of the shoulders. Still, it’s hard to erase the soaring ache in Richard Manuel’s voice from your head while listening; that’s your definitive take, right there. As for the song itself, well, it’s a matter of Dylan proving that he didn’t need verbal gymnastics to deliver profound truths.
11. “Rambling, Gambling Willie”- Keep in mind that this tale was concocted by Dylan at the very outset of his songwriting career, which makes the level of craft somehow more impressive. The gambler with a heart of gold is a tale as old as the hills, and still this song wrings something new out of it. Bob even gets away with giving us a moral to the story to wrap it all in a neat bow. Plus he blows some mean harmonica throughout. I’d go to see a movie made out of this song in a heartbeat.
(For more on these and many other Bob Dylan classics, check out my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available in paperback. You can get it in the link below or find it at your local bookstore.)
In honor of the paperback release of my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Songs, I thought I’d dig back into the Dylan catalog. You can see my Dylan album Retro Reviews by looking through the archives, but there are so many ridiculously great songs that he wrote and performed that didn’t make it onto his studio LP’s. So for the next few posts (after which we return to the Paul McCartney catalog), I’ll be counting down the Top 30 of those non-album songs, in typical Retro Review style. Remember that if the song appeared on a studio album, it’s ineligible for this list, so no alternate versions of “Idiot Wind” from the Bootleg Series or stuff like that. Today we start with #30-21.
30. “All Over You”- The Witmark Demos is one of the few Bootleg Series releases that didn’t really set me on fire. The versions of the well-known songs tended to pale next to the album takes, and the ones that were left unreleased were generally inferior and understandably left behind. But this one contains a heaping helping of cleverness and humor, as well as what seems to be pretty rampant use of double entendre, which is relatively rare in the Dylan catalog outside of The Basement Tapes, where minds seemed to be hilariously in the gutter much of the time.
29. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”- Whether rendered acoustically in front of a live audience or in a herky-jerky studio take, this is one of Dylan’s flat-out funniest songs. He sets up each one-liner with the timing of a Borscht Belter, and it would be a sly commentary on sexual politics if he was even the least bit serious. We always wonder who inspired some of his heartbroken songs from the early 60’s, but the poor one-night stand who fired up this lark is probably glad to remain unidentified.
28. “Tell Ol’ Bill”- For your next Netflix theme night, fire up some of the random movies which included new, original songs of Bob’s in the last two decades. Not a lot of classics, mind you, and yet the songs that Dylan dreamed up for them were uniformly excellent. This moody, sauntering shuffle sounds like a song played by a combo on a smoky stage with just a handful of people milling about in the audience, none of them paying much attention. Dylan’s narrator, left to rot in a cold wasteland resembling his Minnesota childhood stomping grounds, by a woman, or God, or whomever, goes for broke because he has nowhere else to go. The phrase “the night is young” has never sounded so ominous.
27. “I’ll Keep It With Mine”- You can hear Dylan walking through this song on the Bootleg Series, prodded along by his producer, and the tender ache in his voice more than makes up for any stumbles and fumbles made by the musicians as they feel their way around it. The takes with Dylan kind of stomping through it on piano are fine as well. “If I say I’m not loving you for what you are/But for what you’re not” is a couplet that stays with you. And what do you suppose the “it” in the title is? I’d say it was the girl’s heart, but can you imagine Bob being that kind of honeydripper? I actually kinda can.
26. “Dirty World”- Found on the first Traveling Wilburys collection, this stomper is propped up by a muscular Jim Keltner thump. What always amazes me about these Wilburys performances is how at ease Dylan seems in a time frame when he sounded so labored in much of his solo work. You can focus on the humor there, and there’s plenty of it when his buddies all chip in with their random interjections at song’s end. Yet Dylan locates a note of woefulness in the narrator that makes it seem like he’s laughing through tears. The finished product is almost more affecting than maybe it was even intended to be.
25. “Huck’s Tune”- Dylan latches onto the gambling concept here in honor of the film Lucky You. This guy knows when to fold ’em, hence the refrain of “I’m gonna have to put you down for a while.” The vocal nails all the themes of the lyrics, from the weary heartbreak to the tentative hope. Extra points are awarded because he manages to surprise us with the hoary “wife”/”life” rhyme in the opening lines somehow. Never has losing one’s entire stake sounded as noble as it does here.
24. “Mama, You Been On My Mind”- Maybe the narrator doth protest too much, because I feel like she’s in his heart as well as on his mind. (Kind of like 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” or John Waite’s “Missing You,” in that regard.) Those opening lines are effortlessly poetic, and then Dylan pulls back from all that with prosaic pronouncements about how their paths are diverging and how it’s not really hanging him up that much. Dylan even sings it somewhat dispassionately to second that emotion (or lack thereof.) Then comes the closing couplet, where suddenly he turns the spotlight on her and how she may be kidding herself too. Such a subtle beauty.
23. “If You Belonged To Me”- Many people sleep on the second Wilburys album, but there’s a lot of fun stuff there (“Wilbury Twist,” anyone?) as well as this absolute killer. Jeff Lynne polishes those acoustic guitars to a fare-thee-well and Dylan pulls out the harmonica to seal the musical deal. The story is a pretty standard affair, you should be with me instead of him and so on, but it’s rendered with enough idiosyncrasy and bite to keep you coming back to it. George Harrison liked it so much he essentially recycled it with new lyrics for “Any Road,” the leadoff song on his final album.
22. “Dignity”- Some people might like the rawer takes you can find on Tell Tale Signs, but I actually prefer the studio version that he released as a single back in ’94. (Holy Hannah, has it been that long?) It’s musically nothing fancy, but it has enough of a backbeat to propel it along, and the other instrumental elements know to lay low and let Bob’s words do the heavy lifting. It’s a fascinating idea for a song; you can take it as a debate about what the word means or you can hear it as a lament that the concept of dignity is nonexistent in the modern world. In any case, it’s a deep thinker with some pep.
21. “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”- Straightforward enough to be recorded by Elvis (and Rod Stewart, whose version actually outdoes the King’s, in my opinion), and yet still strange enough to be worthy of its creator. The melody is a beauty, all cold desolation in the verses and sweet reunion in the refrains. The second verse sounds like a prototype for the lonely wanderer character Dylan would inhabit again and again in the post Time Out Of Mind era to staggering effect.
(For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to order Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available in paperback. Or find it in a bookstore near you.)