Bob Dylan

     Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1962)
      The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1963)
     The Times They Are a-Changin' (Columbia, 1964)
      Another Side of Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1964)
      Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia, 1965)
      Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965)
      Blonde on Blonde (Columbia, 1966)
     Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1967)
      John Wesley Harding (Columbia, 1967)
     Nashville Skyline (Columbia, 1969)
  Self Portrait (Columbia, 1970)
     New Morning (Columbia, 1970)
      Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (Columbia, 1971)
   Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Columbia, 1973)
  Dylan (Columbia, 1973)
    Planet Waves (Asylum, 1974)
     Before the Flood (Asylum, 1974)
      The Basement Tapes (Columbia, 1975)
      Blood on the Tracks (Columbia, 1975)
      Desire (Columbia, 1976)
   Hard Rain (Columbia, 1976)
   Street Legal (Columbia, 1978)
  Bob Dylan at Budokan (Columbia, 1978)
    Slow Train Coming (Columbia, 1979)
  Saved (Columbia, 1980)
   Shot of Love (Columbia, 1981)
     Infidels (Columbia, 1983)
    Real Live (Columbia, 1984)
   Empire Burlesque (Columbia, 1985)
      Biograph (Columbia, 1985)
  Knocked Out Loaded (Columbia, 1986)
   Down in the Groove (Columbia, 1988)
  Dylan & the Dead (Columbia, 1989)
   Oh Mercy (Columbia, 1989)
  Under the Red Sky (Columbia, 1990)
      The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1–3 (Rare and Unreleased)
1961–1991 (Columbia, 1991)
     Good as I Been to You (Columbia, 1992)
     World Gone Wrong (Columbia, 1993)
     Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (Columbia, 1994)
    MTV Unplugged (Columbia, 1995)
      Time Out of Mind (Columbia, 1997)
      Live 1966 (Columbia, 1998)
     The Essential Bob Dylan (Columbia, 2000)
      Love and Theft (Columbia, 2001)
     Live 1975 (Columbia, 2002)
     Live 1964 (Columbia, 2004)
     No Direction Home (Columbia, 2005)
      -Modern Times (Columbia, 2006)
      Tell Tale Signs: Rare And Unreleased 1989-2006 (Columbia, 2008)
     Together Through Life (Columbia, 2009)
    Christmas In The Heart (Columbia, 2009)

Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair. After 40 years on the job, Bob Dylan still makes all other songwriters sound like scared kittens, and in terms of sheer volume, he's built the largest body of work worth listening to in rock & roll. He's the American song-and-dance man, the sleight-of-hand man, mixing up folk roots, beat poetry, Chuck Berry, Baudelaire, Texas medicine, railroad gin, and his own psychedelic mutations of the blues, singing it all in that intense Book-of-Deuteronomy howl of his. By now, Dylan's failures are as mythic as his successes, but even though he has journeyed through the Valley of Suckdom (and has even rested there for years at a time) he also remains rock's longest-running font of vitality, a mystery tramp with his boot heels wandering all over the map of American music. His career is one rock archetype after another: the arrogant young protest singer in the Huck Finn cap; the mod Chelsea-booted hipster of the mid-Sixties, singing the third verse of "I Want You" with all the deadly hip-twitching swing of Chuck Berry's guitar; the grizzled old con man of Love and Theft, croaking biblical blues and Tin Pan Alley valentines out of the side of his mouth while keeping one eye on the exit.

After growing up in rural Minnesota, a teen rockability guitarist who idolized Elvis and James Dean, the young Robert Zimmerman discovered Woody Guthrie and ran off to New York to become Bob Dylan. His debut album showed his raw talent and brash singing, with covers like "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" and "You're No Good" reflecting his apprenticeship in the Bleecker Street folk scene. But he pulled ahead of everybody else on Freewheelin', a virtuosic burst of original songs that combined bitter political protest ("Masters of War"), poetic dread ("A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall")
, introspection ("Bob Dylan's Dream")
, romance ("Girl From the North Country"), and a viciously witty fare-thee-well ("Don't Think Twice, It's All Right").

Still armed with just his acoustic guitar, harmonica, and ragged voice, Dylan became the king of the freewheelin' folk rogues, even as his punk rage and blues rhythms suggested the rock moves to come. The Times They Are a-Changin' had straighter protest songs—some great ("The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"), some simpy (the title track) —that were overshadowed by two out-of-place but excellent breakup songs, "One Too Many Mornings" and "Boots of Spanish Leather." Another Side showcased his tormented love/hate ballads, suggesting that Dylan was starting to outgrow acoustic simplicity. It also suggested that Dylan—swooning in the erotic intoxication of "Spanish Harlem Incident" and then begging for a serious bitch-slap in "It Ain't Me Babe"—was maybe not the guy you'd want to set up with your sister.

After getting his mind blown by the Beatles over the radio, Dylan finally bid a restless farewell to folk orthodoxy, plugging in his guitar for a controversial electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival that scandalized old fans. "The only place where it's happening is on the radio and records," he told an interviewer. "That's where the people hang out." Dylan mixed up the medicine to invent a whole new breed of rock & roll on Bringing It All Back Home. On the electric first side, Dylan sneered his absurdist, word-drunk rambles over lean, jittery garage rock, brimming over with wild humor, while side two had four brain-frazzling acoustic ballads that made The Times They Are a-Changin' sound like kid stuff. "Mr. Tambourine Man" is surely the friendliest of all drug songs, maybe because it's not so much a drug song as a music song; "She Belongs to Me" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" are devotional love songs; "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" takes a riotously funny cruise through American history and ends the way Dylan once claimed all his songs secretly ended: "Good luck."

Highway 61 Revisited perfected the sound that Dylan dubbed "thin wild mercury music," with a jagged guitar groove, swirling organ, fluid piano, and Dylan's madcap snarl up top, all doomy menace and hallucinatory wit, packing a career's worth of rock & roll innovation into each of the nine songs. He got on the radio with the loud, mean anthem "Like a Rolling Stone," a #2 hit in 1965. But every song here is a classic: the adrenaline-crazed "Tombstone Blues," the raucous "From a Buick 6," the spiteful "Ballad of a Thin Man," the epic "Desolation Row." For all the poetic complexity, the best line is one of the simplest: "I've been up all night, leaning on the windowsill."

Rolling faster than anyone could follow, Dylan moved on to the double-vinyl Blonde on Blonde. Dylan freaks still love to argue over whether Bringing It, Highway 61, or Blonde is the absolute pinnacle of Zimmerdom; unlike Highway 61, Blonde has weak spots, especially the god-awful opening hit "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," but it's his greatest album anyway, a surreal fever dream of a record, racing through his sharpest, slickest, scariest, and most seductive songs at breakneck speed. Recorded in Nashville with session cats who sound juiced by the chance to cut loose, Blonde has "I Want You," "Visions of Johanna," "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," and ends with the bleary 11-minute love ballad "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," cut in one long take a few minutes after Dylan finished writing it. Blonde on Blonde, released just 15 months after Bringing It All Back Home, climaxed the amphetamine rush of Dylan's mid-Sixties glory. Wired, fried, the ghost of electricity howling in the bones of his face, Dylan was caught up in the most intense burst of creativity any rock & roller has ever had.

You can see the pace taking its toll in the Dylan documentaries Don't Look Back, where he's a fidgety coquette sucking in his cheeks for the camera, and Something Is Happening, where he's the vanishing American hidden behind steely shades in the limo with John Lennon. But you can hear Dylan at peak fury on Live 1966, the famous Manchester, England concert of May 17, 1966, bootlegged for decades but not officially released until 1998. Dylan foams at the mouth in "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" and "Tell Me, Momma," as the Band flails ferociously behind him; at the finale, an outraged folkie yells "Judas!," goading Dylan into a positively evil "Like a Rolling Stone." At this point, Dylan was recording gems faster than he could keep track of them, and it took years before essential cuts like "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?," "I'll Keep It With Mine," or "She's Your Lover Now" got properly released.

But the frenetic pace came to a halt in July 1966: The official (and possibly fictional)
excuse was a motorcycle crash. Dylan retreated to Woodstock, NY, to detox, recover, and plan his next move. While there, he gathered with his friends in the Band to cut the legendary "Basement Tapes," home recordings of a new style of stoner folk music. Songs like "You Ain't Going Nowhere" and "Million Dollar Bash" were loose, offhand, and deeply strange, funny on the surface but mysterious below; after years of bootlegging, the official Basement Tapes finally appeared in 1975. Much of the finest Basement Tapes work—"I'm Not There (I'm Gone)
," "I Am a Teenage Prayer," "Get Your Rocks Off," "Sign of the Cross"—still has yet to be released; see Greil Marcus' book The Old, Weird America for the full story. For his next public move, however, Dylan shocked everyone with the stark simplicity of John Wesley Harding; in the era of flower power, he suddenly went all Jewish-cowboy prophet on everybody's ass. It's one of his best albums, 12 ancient-sounding country-rock tunes, mostly just drums, bass, and acoustic guitar spinning fabulist yarns that could be hilarious ("Drifter's Escape"), terrifying ("I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine"), or both ("The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest"), and finally brightening up for "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."

Dylan dipped deeper into country for Nashville Skyline; he even temporarily quit smoking to sweeten his voice. It has a seductively light touch, especially in "I Threw It All Away" and "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You." It also has a great cover photo: Dylan tipping his hat before he sets a spell to sing you some right purty songs. But Self Portrait was a disaster that nobody has really ever explained: a double album of deliberately bad throwaways, most of them grumpy covers. Dylan took a while to fully recover—his voice grew phlegmy and his songwriting absentminded; his clothes were dirty, but his hands were too clean. New Morning was a lighter, stronger Nashville Skyline; his Pat Garrett soundtrack had the hit "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"; Planet Waves was a modest reunion with the Band. Dylan was a set of Self Portrait outtakes, released against his will and notable for a hilariously bad "Can't Help Falling in Love." Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 is an ideal introduction—much more fun than the lightweight 1967 Greatest Hits—with superbly chosen album tracks and rarities, especially the soulful new acoustic versions of "I Shall Be Released," "You Ain't Going Nowhere," and "Down in the Flood."

It took marriage troubles to shake Dylan up, and he found his rugged new adult voice in the acoustic heartbreak of Blood on the Tracks. It was such a stunning comeback that for years afterward, anything half decent he ever did would get praised as "his best work since Blood on the Tracks." Dylan found himself "Tangled Up in Blue," brooding over lost love with bitterness ("Idiot Wind"), generosity ("If You See Her, Say Hello"), and cheer ("You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go")
—a jack of hearts getting kicked around by the simple twists of fate. "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," the longest but least-loved song on the album, is nonetheless a great one, a sly shaggy—dog story about how love screws you over even when you don't get your hopes up—so you may as well get your hopes up.

Back in the ring, Dylan knocked off Desire in one night, with first-take arrangements full of floppy drums, lazy violin, plenty of tequila, and Emmylou Harris' harmonies. He mourned his broken marriage in "Isis," "One More Cup of Coffee," and "Sara," where he recalled "staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel writing 'Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you." But he also had 20 pounds of headlines stapled to his chest, rambling about current events in "Hurricane" and "Joey." According to Dylan legend, Desire was the first album he ever wrote with the aid of a rhyming dictionary, and boy can you tell, especially in the ridiculous gangster epic "Joey," which boasts quite possibly the dodgiest lines of Dylan's whole career: "One day they blew him down/At a clam bar in New York/He could see them coming through the door/As he lifted up his fork."

Having thus reconstituted the shattered fragments of American poetry, Dylan moved on to religion. He started out on Genesis, but soon hit the harder stuff, with a fundamentalist conversion that remains one of the oddest episodes of his career. Street Legal was the turning point, a turgid set of pulp-mystic dirges with occult lyrics; it's a musical failure, but it has its own fanatical following, a cult within the Dylan cult. By Slow Train Coming, Dylan was a Bible-thumping, born-again Christian who was hearing from the Almighty on a regular basis. You'd think God would have been in a pretty cheerful mood—after all, not only was He omnipotent, He got to hang with Dylan. But no: Apparently, all He did was complain, and so for the next few years, Dylan dutifully passed on the Lord's harangues against heathens, pornographers, and harlots. Not sweethearts, though—sweethearts were okay. Slow Train benefited from Mark Knopfler's guitar and "I Believe in You"; Saved had the underrated "Solid Rock"; Shot of Love had the overrated "Every Grain of Sand."

Dylan briefly returned to form with 1983's Infidels, an altogether more worldly batch of songs ("Jokerman," "Sweetheart Like You")
lifted high by the Sly & Robbie rhythm section and guitarist/producer Knopfler. It's Dylan's best work of the lost years between Desire and Time Out of Mind, exploring the human side of his spiritual concerns, even if the jingoistic "Neighborhood Bully" suggested that the album could have been called Intifada. The finale "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" added a strange autobiographical detail when Dylan confessed, "I wish I'd been a doctor." A scary thought to be sure, but hopefully his mother was pleased.

Like everything else, Dylan sucked in the Eighties. He locked into a game of chicken with Neil Young, battling to see who could release more bad albums before the decade was out. (Dylan won, eight to seven.)
For years Dylan fumbled around like a complete unknown, lost in Miami Vice threads and synth drums, trying to conform to a pop scene that had nothing to do with him. On Empire Burlesque, he sounded lucky just to be employed, though "Tight Connection to My Heart" went into the all-time canon of great Dylan songs on lousy Dylan albums. Knocked Out Loaded, the absolute bottom of the Dylan barrel, has the Carol Burnett Show–style production number "Brownsville Girl," with one classic Dylan line: "I didn't know whether to duck or run, so I ran." Down in the Groove has a sing-along goof, "Ugliest Girl in the World," though it's not as funny as the genius self-parody of "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," buried that same year on the Traveling Wilburys' Volume One. Oh Mercy and Under the Red Sky were studio-slick mush, while Dylan and the Dead made one Deadhead friend lament, "I never thought I'd see the day when Jerry Garcia would have to bail someone out vocally."

His best performance of the Eighties was hidden on side two of the mostly terrible, completely ignored 1984 concert album Real Live: a new version of "Tangled Up in Blue," with just Dylan and his guitar, playing around with the chord changes and improvising new words, using the crowd as an instrument to rewrite one of his classics as a whole new song. Hardly anyone paid attention, not even Dylan himself, but he would eventually revisit this playful spirit in the Nineties to make some of his finest music. He hit the road for his Never Ending Tour, and recorded a couple of overlooked oddities, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, which comprise solo acoustic renditions of old blues and folk songs. It was now official: Dylan had finally blown out his voice. But that turned out to be good news, because after those last creaky floorboards gave way, the man had to come up with a whole new songwriting style for the voice he was left with, the sinister rusted-muffler growl he introduced on Time Out of Mind. Dylan's biggest success in years, Time Out of Mind shocked the world because it didn't even echo past glories—it was a ghostly, beautiful new sound, yet another side of Bob Dylan. If he'd trained for Nashville Skyline by quitting cigarettes, Time Out of Mind sounded as though he'd been sucking exhaust pipes, which perfectly suited the bleak, world-weary wit of "Not Dark Yet," "Standing in the Doorway," and the 17-minute finale, "Highlands."

He hit even harder with Love and Theft, a full-blown tour of the American songbook in all its burlesque splendor, veering into country blues, ragtime, vaudeville, cocktail-lounge corn, the minstrel show, and the kind of rockabilly he used to bash out with his high school band. Love and Theft is a musical autobiography that also sounds like a casual, almost accidental history of the country. The old man faces the apocalypse in "High Water (For Charley Patton)," finds twisted romance in "Moonlight" and "Bye and Bye," even cracks a knock-knock joke in the borscht-belt blues "Po' Boy." ("Freddy or not, here I come"—oy, gevalt!) Relaxed, magisterial, utterly confident in every musical idiom he touches, Dylan sings in a voice that sounds even older than he is.

Modern Times was his third straight masterpiece, as well as his first Number One hit since Desire. It kicks off with a salty old Chuck Berry riff, stretched out into a six-minute lust letter to Alicia Keys called "Thunder On The Mountain," and things only get weirder from there. Dylan hadn't sounded so frisky since John Wesley Harding, and like that masterpiece, Modern Times was a groove album disguised as a poetry album, leaning hard on the rhythm section. Dylan breathes fire as his band beats up on readymade roadhouse-blues stomps like "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Ain't Talkin'," and the mean Slim Harpo strut "Someday Baby." "I can't go back to paradise no more," Dylan sang. "I killed a man back there." Together Through Life is a laid-back melange of Chess Records blues and Tex-Mex border-cafe accordion, mostly co-written with the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter, peaking with the riotous Howlin' Wolf rip "It's All Good." By now Dylan was 68, as old as Maggie's ma, but he showed no signs of slowing down—his just-plain-ridiculous Christmas album had a version of "Must Be Santa" that rocked as hard as "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down."

Dylan's reissues are a tangled mess already, and we ain't seen nothing yet. Biograph was the 1985 box set, spiking the hits with choice rarities from 1963's "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" to 1981's "Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar." The prize is the Blood on the Tracks outtake "Up to Me," with the line, "She's everything I need and love, but I can't be swayed by that." Biograph is a sprawl, and you can argue all day about the selections (that's part of the fun), but it's still an excellent way to turn on a new fan, or to become one. The three-disc Bootleg Series collects unreleased treasures like "She's Your Lover Now," "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," "Call Letter Blues," and "Blind Willie McTell," as well as the unheralded baseball classic "Catfish." It has hardly any Basement Tapes material, though, undoubtedly because that's getting saved for the inevitable Basement Box. The 1995 Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 reaches all the way back to the early '70s, which is just crazy. The two-CD, 30-song Essential is a handy sampler, despite some dubious picks ("Rainy Day Women," that means you)
. Tell Tale Signs is a lavish collection of late outtakes. The No Direction Home soundtrack has a great "Visions of Johanna" with the Band. Live 1966 is the best live album by far. The 1974 Before the Flood is crude, rough fun with the Band; Live 1975 has windbag Rolling Thunder performances; Hard Rain and Unplugged are naps; and the Vegas-style revue Bob Dylan at Budokan is immaculately frightful. Live at the Gaslight 1962 shows off the rock & roll wit and guile of his early New York folkie days. Live 1964 is the famous October '64 solo acoustic show at Carnegie Hall, long bootlegged as Halloween Masque, and prized as his definitive pre-electric live set. "Don't let that scare ya. It's just Halloween," Dylan tells the crowd as he fiddles with the intro to "If You Gotta Go, Go Now." "I have my Bob Dylan mask on." But wherever you start exploring, Dylan's body of work is one to luxuriate in; this is what salvation must be like after a while.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004)

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