Best of Non-Studio Album Bob Dylan, Part 1Posted: December 13, 2016
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.)