In celebration of Bob Dylan’s May 24 birthday, Vague Visages writers list their favorite tracks.
D.M Palmer (@mrdmpalmer), “Not Dark Yet”
I started getting into Dylan when Time Out of Mind was being hailed as the “return to form” he is periodically afforded by the critical consensus. The album has entered the canon of Dylan masterpieces, and the standout track as far as I’m concerned is “Not Dark Yet.” It remains the Dylan track above all others with the power to move me every time I hear it. “Not Dark Yet” finds Dylan working to sublime effect within the limitations imposed by age; stripping away the layers of fabulist bravura and trenchant irony to offer up a plangent, heartfelt meditation on his own mortality and the onerous weight of his legacy.
Michael J. Casey (@michaeljcinema), “Like a Rolling Stone”
Sure, it’s low hanging fruit to single out “Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan’s prolific career, but few songs have had a more lasting impression. For Bruce Springsteen, 16 years old when the song debuted, the opening alone was a watershed moment: “That snare shot sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind.”
And though Springsteen found himself on the winning side of history, in 1965, Dylan was far from the popular opinion. Just a few months prior, he had gone electric at the Newport Jazz Festival, and his loyal followers were not impressed. Hecklers jeered and booed while journalists spilled gallons of ink over the voice of a generation turning his back and “plugging in.”
Then on May 17, 1966, at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, it all came to a head in one spectacular concert. The first half was all Dylan: a man, a guitar and a harmonica. The audience applauded politely; they were with it. Then Dylan brought his backing band — later formed as The Band — out for the second half of the evening, and things got dicey. While winding down the evening’s penultimate song, “Ballad of a Thin Man,” a man yelled out: “Judas!” Chuckles rippled through the hall as Dylan, at the end of his rope, responded: “I don’t believe you… you’re a liar.” Fed up, Dylan turned his band and charged: “Play fucking loud.”
Of all the recordings of “Like a Rolling Stone,” and there are many, this one is the best. It might even be Dylan’s best live performance. Hell, it might be one of the best live performances ever recorded. Dylan snarls and sneers, screaming key phrases into the mic while the band jams with all the sync and shagginess of a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll band. It’s not quintessential Dylan, nothing really is, but it’s the kind of performance that perfectly encapsulates a time, a place and a state of mind. And, it’s fucking loud.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
In 2000, I first saw Bob Dylan perform live at the Fargo Civic Auditorium, just blocks from where he lived 41 years prior. Six years later, I listened to Dylan’s early albums over and over during my first months of a six-year stay in Hollywood, and one particular song resonated the most: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
At the time, “Baby Blue” represented many things — the North Country, Midwestern innocence, the collegiate chapter of my life — but the lyrics didn’t make me feel nostalgic or lonely. Instead, they got me excited about my new home, and about the fact that I was right where I wanted to be: in a big city, with a big opportunity. Don’t look back.
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, baby blue