Well, folks, it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, number 71, and Mazel Tov to him. Really one of the special ones, no question about it.
But in a 50-year career, anyone is bound to have his ups and downs, so let’s devote this week’s overrated/underrated to Zimmy. This time, instead of being coy about it, I’m just going to give you my opinions, and you give me yours.
We’ll cover songs, albums, performances, his books, movies, the whole shooting match.
By tradition (this is the third time!), we start below the fold, so let’s go.
“Jokerman.” From Infidels, this is about as good as nearly any song he ever recorded. The words have that great old cryptic playfulness, those Old Testament allusions mixing with modernist aspersions as grenadine seeps into tequila; the vocal performance is staggering; and of course, Mick and Mark and Sly and Robbie (if you need last names, you’re on the wrong blog). This is a ten in every way.
“Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” There’s a whole passel of 1963-era acoustic numbers that for whatever reason he decided to leave off the early records, but man. This song kills, as do “Percy’s Song” and “Walls of Red Wing.” All from Biograph.
“Visions of Johanna.” This is underrated only to the extent that everyone in the world doesn’t acknowledge that it’s obviously his best song. It’s about nothing, it’s about everything; it moves, it stands still, it runs like blood, it smells like smoke, copper, eggplant. Actually that last sentence is my imitation of Chronicles writing. But seriously—of the many attempts by rock-and-rock poets to write something deep, this is as deep as it gets. Indecipherable, and yet you feel you know exactly what he’s talking about.
“Black Diamond Bay.” Another lesser-known fave. A little Graham Greene novel in a few verses. And then the joke in the last verse of watching Walter Cronkite deliver the coda. Great spirit to the song.
“Clothes Line Saga” and several others basically like it: “Please Mrs. Henry,” “Tiny Montgomery,” “Million Dollar Bash,” “Lo and Behold,” “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.” Just brilliant little gems. Again, the lyrics: drunken nonsense, coal-hollow gibberish, but perfect. What does it mean, “my stones won’t take”? I don’t know, yet somehow I know. That’s what makes great lyric writing.
Planet Waves. Continuing in the Band vein, most of the songs on here are great. “Forever Young” is the famous one, but most of them are dark. Production quality is terrific, too, as if they just strung some mics into the living room and said go.
About half of Blonde on Blonde. I know, heresy. But the truth is that a fair number of B & B songs are just 12-bar blues with three chords and lyrics that I’d bet he spent 20 minutes on. “Pledging My Time” is one example. It’s good, cuz it’s Dylan in 1966 at the peak of his powers, and he could have recorded a Tommy Roe song and made it good.
The electric side of Bringing It All Back Home. I never loved “Maggie’s Farm” as much as most people. I dunno, just a thing. And the last two songs are throwaways.
Modern Times. A good record, but the acclaim always struck me as more just people cheering for him. Which he deserves, in general, so I’m not really complaining.
The tours with Tom Petty and the Dead. Let’s face it, this constant reworking of arrangements has always been pretty annoying. The Petty tour occasioned a very funny story along these lines. I went with a dear old friend and a friend of his. As we were on the subway heading home, I said, “I really liked ‘Masters of War.’” My friend’s friend looked at me with such desperate sadness and said, “He did ‘Masters of War’?”
Finally overrated is the idea in these last 10 years or so, if you risked going to a Dylan concert, you could catch him on a good night. I tried twice. Each performance was unspeakable.
All right, your turn. Does anyone actually think "Like a Rolling Stone" is overrated? Highway 61 in general? Blood on the Tracks? Are there any stout defenders out there of those lackadaisacal mid-to-late 80s records, or even--dare I say it--the Christian period? Shot of Love isn't bad and almost made my underrated list.