With a couple days to kill in the studio and some ace session men on hand, Paul McCartney ripped off a bushelful of songs consisting mostly of classics from the first wave of American rock and roll. The resulting album (CHOBA B CCCP or Back In The U.S.S.R.) was released only in the Soviet Union in 1988 before finally getting a worldwide release three years later. Although the arrangements sometimes betrayed the tossed-off, hurried nature of the sessions, McCartney’s affinity for and ease with this material makes it an invigorating listen, reminding anyone who might have forgotten how great a rock and roller this guy is.
14. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”- A rock arrangement of this standard might have worked with just a tad more lightness to highlight the deft nature of Duke Ellington’s melody. But the band sort of bludgeons it, even if the instrumental break is well-done.
13. “Ain’t That A Shame”- Cheap Trick had a pretty good go at this song by not playing it too close to the vest. The respect that McCartney shows to the original smothers it a bit and makes it come off as more imitation than inspiration.
12. “Midnight Special”- Maybe too light a touch is employed here by McCartney and the band, with the arrangement by Paul not quite capturing the darkness in the song that makes that ever-loving light so important in the first place. Nice guitar work on this one by Mick Green though to recommend it.
11. “Lucille”- The groove is a touch mathematical here, especially when you compare it to Little Richard’s raucous original. McCartney has fun with the vocal though, inspired by one of his true idols, and there’s no denying that this is a bona fide classic that’s hard to botch as long as you bring the energy.
10. “That’s All Right, Mama”- You have to hand it to McCartney on one account: He certainly didn’t back away from the behemoth songs of the genre. His take on this track that Elvis immortalized hews a bit more country and western, with the exception of the robust guitar break. Doesn’t threaten the original by any stretch, but a fine turn nonetheless.
9. “Kansas City”- McCartney knows his way around this song, as it was included way back in the day on Beatles For Sale. His voice sounds remarkably spry considering the quarter-century between recordings, doesn’t it? But, then again, it sounds pretty spry today even further down the road. Pretty good heft delivered by the band on this one.
8. “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday”- McCartney is, for sure, a “real gone cat” throughout this collection. On this, one of three Fats Domino-penned songs on the album, he and his buddies bust it up pretty good and vigorously sink their teeth into a tale of romantic revenge.
7. “Twenty Flight Rock”- This one holds a special place in Macca’s heart, as it was his knowledge of the song’s lyrics and changes that allegedly impressed John Lennon back in the day when the pair first met. Mick Gallagher gets a nice showcase on piano, as the band, taking the Eddy Cochran classic at a lope instead of a sprint, keeps their footing very well.
6. “I’m In Love Again”- Anybody’s who’s ever heard “Lady Madonna” should know that McCartney can do Fats Domino better than anyone save Fats himself. He slips into this rambler with no sweat at all, as Gallagher nails the piano triplets to anchor the music.
5. “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy- Man, does Paul sing this one wonderfully, touching every bit of the playfulness and bluesiness in the lyrics with ease. The fuzz of the guitar doesn’t quite square with the swing of the arrangement, in my humble view, but that’s nitpicking. The positives far outweigh that little nick.
4. “Crackin’ Up”- This is the most obscure song on the album, and it benefits from that, sounding alive and fresh rather than encased in glass. McCartney gets a lead guitar showcase and makes the most of it, while seeming to enjoy the quirkiness of the lyrics.
3. “Just Because”- The quartet nails the rockabilly vibe of this one, an antiquated song that Elvis also made famous. Great interplay among the musicians, while Paul’s bass and vocals bring a lot of charm to the proceedings. Certainly one of the most fun recordings on an album where “fun” was the operative word.
2. “Bring It On Home To Me”- Taking on a Sam Cooke song isn’t for the faint of heart if you’re a vocalist. McCartney tears into it fearlessly, adding a bit of a grittier edge in the higher notes compared to Cooke’s break-no-sweat smoothness. The call and response at the end leaves everything on the floor. A great showcase for his vocals, which retain their youthfulness and yet still reference the heartbreaks only life experience can engender.
1. “Summertime”- Taking this George Gershwin song and giving it an arrangement that hits the ominous notes of “House Of The Rising Sun” proves to be a stroke of genius. It really transforms it into something that Gershwin himself might not have realized possible. And it’s the one place where the heavier tones of the electric guitar don’t sound like they’re overwhelming the content of the song. Paul puts everything he has into the vocal; Ella would have been proud.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter & JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in March. You can preorder it at the link below.)
Paul McCartney largely took the middle part of the 1980’s off, with the exception of 1986’s Press To Play. Some might snicker that he might as well have sat that one out too, and there is some merit to that argument. As brilliant a producer as Hugh Padgham and as adventurous a songwriter as Eric Stewart might have been, their styles seemed to clash with McCartney’s instead of complimenting it. He deserves credit for trying something out of his comfort zone, but, for the most part, McCartney seems at sea here, which, combined with a dearth of memorable songs, hamstrings this album. Here is a song-by-song-review:
10. “Pretty Little Head”- Sounds like it was crafted for a Miami Vice scene where Crockett and Tubbs have to find the drug dealers in a dense jungle. As much as I love Miami Vice, this is not a compliment, especially since the style didn’t suit McCartney whatsoever.
9. “Talk More Talk”- While the experimentation and wacky wordplay is admirable, the sterile production keeps this from being more than an oddity that won’t interest you more than once or twice.
8. “Angry”- If there was a target to this diatribe in song, it’s now lost to the mists of time, as McCartney himself might put it. What’s certain is that the participation of Pete Townsend and Phil Collins is largely wasted on this feisty but underwritten and overdone track.
7. “Press”- Imagine a television with a brightness knob. In the 1980’s, pop music production brightened from the sleepy twilight of the late 70’s until it hit just the right level and the day-glo colors popped perfectly around 1984. Only they kept turning the knob up until we could no longer distinguish the substance behind the blinding light. That’s the best way to describe this, one of McCartney’s least effective singles ever.
6. “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”- A nice little reggaefied workout, that, despite the title, contains some creeping melancholy. McCartney’s bass work is as nimble as could be expected. The second half of the song is a bit more musically mundane, but not an embarrassment by any means.
5. “Stranglehold”- The opener mixes some rockabilly acoustic guitar, soulful horns, and a stop-and-start rhythm into something promising. The lyrics nicely conjure the sweet agony of anticipated passion quite well. Here the production doesn’t get too busy and the song is better for it.
4. “Move Over Busker”- Paul is on much firmer footing with this funny rocker. The lyrics seem to suggest that the musician doesn’t hold as much weight in the world as the bigger stars he encounters; the title alone implies a kind of disrespect for what McCartney does. He has the last laugh, however, since the song swaggers with more raucous confidence than most movies can ever hope to achieve.
3. “However Absurd”- The title is apropos here. The music suggests something of great circumstance, as it seems to be intentionally overbaked what with the stomping drums and the stressed-out strings and all. Meanwhile the lyrics contain some striking individual lines, even if they don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things. At times it almost seems like a Rutles track parodying an earnest Beatles ballad. Not sure what Paul was after, but it’s fascinating anyway.
2. “Footprints”- McCartney has always had a soft spot in his songwriting for the outsider who many of us might not even consider, the still-waters-run-deep kind of fellow with a whole world going on behind his staid expression, a world about which we can only guess. “Footprints” is played with great touch and sensitivity by the instrumentalists and features a melody that takes you to places you never expect when the ride begins. An understated but affecting character sketch.
1. “Only Love Remains”- I know you’re not supposed to make a ballad the lead single, but I wonder if Press To Play might be regarded a bit differently if Paul had led with this atmospheric, romantic, grand slam of a ballad. Tony Visconti’s orchestration is subtle until it needs to be sweeping, and Paul’s melody soars when it’s not allowing a little bit of doubt to creep in to keep things honest. There’s not a false moment, and the message may be time-worn, but it’s still crucial. We all can get caught up with things that ultimately don’t matter too much, but songs like this, especially when rendered by a master like Macca, set us straight on what’s truly important and resonant.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. And preorder my new book Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, in the link below. It’s available in March.)
Recorded for the most part at the same time as predecessor Tug Of War and released by Paul McCartney just a year later, 1983’s Pipes Of Peace suffers by comparison to the earlier album. It’s hard to hear some of the songs and not think that they were leftovers. That said, it’s the more experimental album, as McCartney and producer George Martin attempted to keep listeners on their toes, not easy to do for an artist as ingrained in the culture. They occasionally succeed and occasionally overdo it, but the efforts are admirable. Here is a song-by-song review (ratings based on a five-star maximum):
11. “Tug Of Peace”- Attempting to provide a kind of link to the previous album, McCartney included this percussive, electronic quasi-instrumental that calls back to “Tug Of War.” Busy, but not that engaging in the end.
10. “Through Our Love”- The idea, I suppose, was that this would be the unifying, stirring ballad to wrap it all up. But it’s lyrically underwritten (lots of “true/you/do” rhymes) and lush enough to cause a toothache.
9. “The Man”- The arrangement is a little overbaked, helping to undercut some interesting ideas (the lyrics are a kind of cousin to “The Fool On The Hill”) and the combined charisma of McCartney and Micheal Jackson on the lesser of their two collaborations on the album.
8. “Average Person”- Some of the effects get a bit cloying on this track, one which would have been better served by just playing it close to the vest with the solid piano-driven rhythm. Maybe one too many musical ideas on this one, but McCartney’s energy and commitment keep it afloat.
7. “Sweetest Little Show”- On this track, some good-natured rockabilly gives way to a contemplative acoustic guitar part. This is one of the times on the album where the experimental bent helps lift what could have been a pedestrian track.
6. “Hey Hey”- A fiery instrumental co-written by jazz fusion legend Stanley Clarke. It kicks up more dust than anything else on the record.
5. “Pipes Of Peace”- The title track is quirky and melodic, even if it seems grafted together from the bones of other songs, including ELO’s “Fire On High,” The Beach Boys’ “Heroes And Villains,” and Macca’s own “C Moon” and “Let ‘Em In.” It always struck me as the set-up for a concept album that never materializes, but it’s heartfelt enough to register.
4. “The Other Me”- It’s not me; it’s me. That seems to be the argument leveled here by the guilty suitor portrayed by McCartney in this nice, if relatively inconsequential, little midtempo number. And, hey, haven’t we all acted like a “dustbin lid” from time to time?
3. “Keep Under Cover”- It has an effective, stomping groove that nicely counteracts the strings and really pops when it emerges from the dreamy opening. The lyrics mainly stay out of the way, but McCartney sings them fervently enough to make you think there’s more there than meets the ear.
2. “Say Say Say”- McCartney certainly got the better end of the bargain when it comes to his collaborations with Michael Jackson. Whereas Michael kept the limp “The Girl Is Mine” for Thriller (and, who remembers this, actually released it as the leadoff single,) Paul was able to include this pop-funk ripper (and “The Man”) for Pipes Of Peace. He wouldn’t always be so fortunate in his business dealings with the Gloved One, of course, but these were happier times between the two. Their ease together pours out of the speakers here.
1. “So Bad”- I’ve professed my affinity for Paul’s occasional falsetto soul testifying elsewhere in this series, and he really nails it in this one. I’ll also defend the lyrics, which may seem to some to be mindlessly simple. I would argue that complicating them would have distracted from that melody, as soft and mesmerizing as a leaf gently twisting in the wind as it falls to ground from on high. Should have been a bigger hit, if you ask me.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul McCartney’s first band, check out the link below to preorder by new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, which arrives in March.)
The show must go on, as they say, and Paul McCartney rose to the occasion on his first album following the death of John Lennon with one of his finest efforts in years. 1982’s Tug Of War reunites him with George Martin, who brings his gilded touch to the album, especially the ballads, which are uniformly fine and occasionally brilliant. The mid-tempo numbers glide about elegantly, while the harder stuff is feisty and fun. The first side outdoes the second side by a pretty good margin, but overall Paul was back on firm, crowd-pleasing footing with this one.
12. “Dress Me As A Robber”- Way too busy, this Latin/disco number doesn’t ever settle on an identity.
11. “Be What You See (Link)”- Dreamy interstitial that’s gone almost as soon as it arrives.
10. “Get It”- McCartney’s chance to work with idol with Carl Perkins is far from objectionable. But there’s not much to it that will make it stick in your memory banks, other than Carl’s laughter at the end of the track.
9. “The Pound Is Sinking”- It gets a little more twee than some of Macca’s biggest critics would like, but the bounciness of this rundown on the world’s currency keeps it in the black. Good enough to be somebody’s favorite on the album, for sure.
8. “Ebony And Ivory”- Hey, we’re not arguing that the views on race relations are anything too profound. But the melody is as comfy as old slippers, and the funky coda where McCartney and Stevie Wonder go to town with some vocal improvisations is worth the price of admission.
7. “Somebody Who Cares”- The way the bluesy, minor-key verses open up into the surging chorus is the evidence of an old pro at work. This one doesn’t do too much but what it does it does well. Pleasant on the ears, for sure, if not particularly challenging.
6. “Ballroom Dancing”- It’s kind of out of place on the album, but I guess it would be out of place on any rock album (except maybe the White Album, where stuff like this was all part of the crazy tapestry.) McCartney’s ability to pull off this antiquated material always amazes me; even when you don’t think it’s what you want to hear, he convinces you otherwise.
5. “What’s That You’re Doing”- Wonder revives some of his mid-70’s magic with this relentless funk workout, letting Paul tag along for the ride. It doesn’t go very far from its initial groove, which carries it a long way, although maybe not quite six-plus minutes down the road. Still, the two superstars fit together seamlessly on a song that easily could have been a hit had they edited it down and released it as a single. But “Ebony And Ivory” sold about a quadrillion copies, so who am I to quibble?
4. “Take It Away”- If there’s a fault to be found with this song, it’s that it very much sounds like it could have been on a late-70’s Wings album, not quite in synch the early 80’s times. Still, McCartney is relaxed and smooth throughout, with the lyrics tripping off his tongue effortlessly and the charging chorus, with “Savoy Truffle” horns and Ringo Starr and Steve Gadd pushing the beat recklessly onward, is grabby. Paul’s bass work counters the light-footed melody nicely. Everything in its right place.
3. “Tug Of War”- McCartney keeps the lyrics vague enough that they might refer to his relationship with Lennon or to actual armed combat. Or maybe both. It nicely captures the senselessness of combat, much like Floyd’s “Us And Them” in that regard. The inherent sadness in the song comes from the unspoken fear that the “time to come” and “another world” promised might not actually arrive. In addition, it smoothly modulates between the acoustic, dreamy opening section and the urgent, electric second half. An excellent starter, for sure.
2. “Wanderlust”- I know that Paul has certain crowd-pleasers that have to go into every concert, but I couldn’t believe when I read that he has never played this live. Ringo adds his inimitable sense of touch on the ballads here, the horns are suitably buoyant, and McCartney sings the stuffing out it. When all of those countermelodies start to crash into one another in the final moments, prepare for the chills you’re bound to receive. As moving a defense of restlessness as you’re ever going to hear; the Captain, representing the staid world that refuses to take chances, gets his head handed to him in this musical argument.
1. “Here Today”- Imagine the pressure McCartney must have felt to make some sort of epic statement on his relationship with Lennon. That he had the foresight to pull back and simplify things down to their essence is beyond admirable; it was a stroke of genius. The song sidesteps the sappiness that easily could have enveloped it while still delivering raw emotion, and Martin does one of his stirring without being showy arrangements in the fashion of “Yesterday.” Isn’t that what friendship is, the idea that someone gets inside the song that we sing in a way that mere acquaintances can’t possibly achieve? Hurting as we all were, McCartney’s song was as much what we needed to hear as it was what he needed to say.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Paul’s “other” band, check out my new book, Counting Down The Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, in the link below. It’s due out in March.)
Many apologies for the hiatus between posts, especially since I left some of you hanging with these last ten. But here they are without further ado. Again, remember that the rule here is that these songs weren’t originally included on one of Bob’s solo studio albums and they can’t be alternate takes of songs that were included.
10. “I’m Not There”- The amazing thing about this famed outtake from the Basement Tapes sessions is how none of the players seems quite sure where it’s going at any time and yet they all get there together. And where exactly is there? It’s that place inside a broken heart where hopes and dreams go to die, where the expectations that the one you love is really going to change finally give up the ghost. I tend not to believe in magic, but there was something clearly afoot at Big Pink beyond just talent and inspiration, and it’s all over this mysterious, marvelous track.
9. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”- I’ll never stop wondering how much of this was meant to be homage and how much was meant to be parody. The funny thing is that Springsteen had largely stopped writing these streetlife tales by the time Dylan and Top Petty concocted this wild love quadrangle. Instead this plays like some lost connector between Bruce’s second and third albums. And, unlike most songs of this nature, it’s extremely engaging even if you don’t get the jokes, in large part due to the ominous refrain and Dylan’s ability to pull all the various strains together in a fatal but funny ending.
8. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”- The first Bootleg Series volume was the first huge payload of unreleased Dylan material to hit the shelves, but Biograph leaked some great forgotten songs a few years before that, including this single far too unwieldy to be a hit (except in England, where it snuck into the Top 20.) The Band’s herky-jerky rhythmic inventiveness is in early evidence here, while Dylan curls his words around them like sarcastic vines. This tale of a girl mesmerized by a svengali-like character whom the narrator knows isn’t all that features some of Bob’s most elastic wordplay, with lines that you could never believe even now would work in a pop song (so imagine what it must have sounded like 50 years ago!)
7. “Foot Of Pride”- One of the great songs that Bob left off Infidels and made that disc the ultimate what-might-have-been of his career, “Foot Of Pride” benefits from Mark Knopfler’s tough guitar licks and Bob’s colorful harmonica asides. The music is really just an excuse for Dylan to spin lyrics that take aim at various targets and characters, all of whom are going to survive his diatribes just fine, which is part of the reason he’s so aggrieved. Why he didn’t want the world to hear this kind of wild genius around this time is known only to him. What’s certain is that Dylan spewing venom allows us all to vicariously get out own frustrations off our chests as well.
6. “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”- Yeah, I know, not a song. But it has to be acknowledged. The nervousness with which Bob plows through this spoken-word poem about Guthrie’s impending passing and the impact he made on the youngster carrying the torch, which was recorded and captured for posterity on the Bootleg Series, betrays just how much the folk forefather actually meant to him. That makes it an important document of the inner, empathetic Dylan that too many observers overlook in favor of his lyrical brilliance and idiosyncratic behavior. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being mesmerized and genuinely touched by that performance, while it’s easy to figure that anyone hearing it might just look up Guthrie’s stuff too, which is a heartening thought.
5. “She’s Your Lover Now”- Howlingly funny and heartbreakingly disappointed all at once, here is a masterpiece that remained unfinished for many years, thanks to the breakdown at the end of the take included on The Bootleg Series. The complete 65-66 recordings finally gave us the full magilla with Bob on piano, but the band version is the one for the books. Nobody plays the jilted lover like Dylan, as he alternately insults and confides in his romantic rival while directly addressing the former lover with wisecracks that are leavened by the hurt in his voice. Perhaps the best manipulation of pronouns ever heard, as well.
4. “Things Have Changed”- I had the chance to interview Marty Stuart and asked him about the resemblances between this and Stuart’s “Observations Of A Crow,” and he admitted that Bob asked him for the A-OK first. Stuart responded that he had probably borrowed the melody in the first place anyway from somebody else, so Dylan could go crazy with it. People concentrate on the chorus and the seeming weariness of the punch line, but a close listen to the verses reveals that there’s a lost of feistiness in this main character. I think that payoff line should read more like “I used to give a damn, but ….” Because when you’re confronted with the insanity and hypocrisy that Bob details in the lyrics, indifference seems to be the only reasonable option.
3. “Positively 4th Street”- The capo de tutti capi of all kiss-off songs; it’s quite amazing that this kind of unrepentant attack made it so high on the singles charts. But, then again, with each new release Dylan was expressing emotions that hadn’t previously been broached in pop songs, so the newness of it probably struck people, that and the fact that he did it with Al Kooper’s chirpy organ as his main accompaniment on the track. I’m in the camp that it was probably written about his former folk song buddies who turned on him, but what does that matter really? What matters is that without it, it would be hard to imagine songs as diverse as “You’re So Vain,” “You Oughta Know,” every diss rap ever recorded, and, heck, even “Diamonds And Rust,” for that matter, ever existing.
2. “Red River Shore”- When we’re permanently separated from the person we love the most, is it possible to truly be happy? What kind of life awaits us if that’s the case? Is it a life at all? Those are the questions underlying a song that might be the most tragic in Dylan’s entire catalog. Much of his music since Blood On The Tracks is haunted by that one girl who reigns above all others in his mind and heart to whom he is endlessly returning but never quite getting there, and “Red River Shore” takes that idea all the way to the harrowing end of the line and dares us to behold the boundless misery that awaits there.
1. “Blind Willie McTell”- Dylan’s intuitive sense of timing on the piano combined with Knopfler’s minimalist acoustic guitar fills make for a haunting combination, first thing. As for the lyrics? Timeless is a word that gets thrown around a lot when discussing music, but this song takes that word to another level. It bounces from Biblical times to slavery ships to a lonely modern hotel room, and a connection that suggests that human nature has never quite been able to get out of its own way becomes obvious. God watches it all, allowing greed and corruption to run rampant and lives to be subordinated to these pursuits while refusing to interject. Only the blues singer can put his finger on the vastness of the pain, providing an outlet if not an answer. And if that pretty well sums up what Dylan has been doing all the years.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to the paperback edition of Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
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.)