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Dylan: One Hundred over 75

June 2, 2016

            Last week was Robert Allen Zimmerman’s 75th birthday.

            Who’s that, you say? The dude born in Duluth, Minn., three-quarters of a century ago is better known as Bob Dylan, his stage name borrowed from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

            In honor of the diamond anniversary of Dylan’s birth, Rolling Stone magazine published a Top 100 of his songs. Rolling Stone — justifiably, in my opinion — has taken a beating in recent years for shoddy journalism (the University of Virginia rape story being the best-known example), but the Bob’s Best thing redeemed the rag somewhat.

            Before commenting further on the list, full disclosure, I will say up front that the “newest” Dylan album I own is more than 40 years old — 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks.” And I don’t own nearly all his earlier albums, either, so I can’t claim to know all his music, although I have heard a lot of it on FM and satellite radio.

            But the Rolling Stoners who put together the Top 100 didn’t pay much attention to the material from the post-“Blood on the Tracks” era. Fully two-thirds of the songs listed date from 1975 or earlier; nearly half are from the 1960s.

            Almost a third of Rolling Stone’s 100 best come from the three-year period 1965-67, and the four studio albums released during those years: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde” and “John Wesley Harding.” The two middle LPs account for a disproportionate share.

            Things are even more lopsided in the Top 10 of Dylan’s best. Eight of the songs in that group are from the artist’s first decade of recording (he released his first album, eponymously titled, in 1962); half are from ’65 and ’66, and four are from two albums, “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Blonde on Blonde.”

            The magazine’s ranking confirms my belief that “Blonde on Blonde” and “Highway 61 Revisited” are Dylan’s best. Ten of the 14 songs from “Blonde,” a double album, are in the top 100; ditto for eight of the nine cuts on “Highway 61,” plus an outtake from that album. His other 1965 release, “Bringing It,” landed six in the top 100.

            So which, according to Rolling Stone, are Dylan’s Top 10? Counting them down: 10) “Every Grain of Sand”; 9) “Visions of Johanna”; 8) “Mr. Tambourine Man”; 7) “It's Alright, Ma
 (I'm Only Bleeding)”; 6) “I Shall Be Released”; 5) “All Along the Watchtower” 4) “Just Like a Woman”; 3) “Tangled Up in Blue”; 2) “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall”; and 1) “Like a Rolling Stone.”

            It’s hard to argue with the magazine’s choice for No. 1 — “Like a Rolling Stone” is an amazing lyric — but you have to wonder if there wasn’t some bias toward its title. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said he named the magazine after blues artist Muddy Waters’ song, the English rock band and the Dylan song; but his partner in the project, music critic Ralph Gleason, was quoted as saying Dylan’s masterpiece was the inspiration.

            Otherwise, I think the RS Dylan Top 10 is pretty good, except for “Every Grain of Sand,” which I’m not familiar with. I tend to be less partial to Dylan’s early folk stuff and protest songs, so I might include something other than “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in a top 10, and certainly wouldn’t rank it as high as second.

            Also, I wouldn’t put “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in Dylan’s top 25. Conversely, I would rank several songs higher that the Stoners did: “Idiot Wind” and “Isis” would be top one-quarter, not one-third; “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” is better than 44th; and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” shouldn’t be in the 60s.

            The other thing I find interesting about the Rolling Stone ranking of Dylan songs is the number of cuts from “Blood on the Tracks” that are included. Nine are in the top 100 — from an album called “Dreck in the Grooves” in a 1975 review that ran in the magazine.

            A bonus of the list, as it is presented on the magazine’s website — besides links to videos of Dylan performing some — is commentary by other musicians about a number of the songs. Some of the artists’ names didn’t ring any bells for me, but those that I knew made interesting comments: Mick Jagger, a proper Englishman, compares “Desolation Row” to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; Bono offers to carry Dylan’s luggage.

            The other thing that struck me as I went through the RS 100-best list was the impact that Dylan’s songwriting had on other artists’ careers. Many of the songs in magazine’s list are better known as covers done by other performers: several by the Band, which as the Hawks were Dylan’s backing group for a time; a handful by the Byrds, who had a definite knack for interpreting Dylan; the Turtles’ “It Ain’t Me Babe”; and “All Along the Watchtower” by Hendrix.

            Picking a top 100 perhaps was a bit of a stretch; Dylan has recorded 37 studio albums, and thus maybe 400 or so songs, so perhaps a top 50 would have been more exemplary. Still, it was a good way to recognize one of The Music’s most important artists on a milestone birthday, offering an opportunity to reflect on an amazing career.

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