Way back in first year of college, when I was a meek angry confused Fresher navigating the depths of university syllabi, one fine day Bob Dylan turned up in my classes.
For my entire life before that, I was too single-mindedly focused on books to pay attention to anything else. I never watched films. I barely, if ever, listened to music, and if I did I didn’t rate it too highly. All the beautiful lyrics I located in Indian music, in Tagore and Gulzar and Salil Chowdhury. I never imagined that Western music, with its boring themes and hackneyed emotions, could ever have the same depth.
Then I met Dylan.
We have this course at Jadavpur called ‘Literature and the Other Arts’, which is something of a national treasure. It tells us how unexpectedly literature can turn up anywhere. It shows us how our art interacts with other forms of artistic expression. And it was in those classes that I first heard Mr. Tambourine Man. We listened to a lot of other artists, including the Beatles and Simon Garfunkel. And my world was changed forever. Suddenly, there was melody in it, in the language I related to the most strongly. Dylan was the musician who made Melodies happen.
So here are six of the songs written and sung by Dylan I love the most.
I don’t know if he ‘deserved’ the Nobel or not. I just want to thank him for the music.
6. Mr. Tambourine Man
Easily my favouritest Dylan composition. (Look, if he can win a Nobel Prize after rhyming ‘knowed’ with ‘road’, I can write favouritest, okay?) I still remember the exact moment I first heard the song. It was lightning. It was like reading Prufrock for the first time. It was magic.
“Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
This is my favourite, albeit incomplete, performance of this song. Enjoy.
5. Subterranean Homesick Blues
I’m going to thank VH1 for introducing me to this one. It is incredible. It’s like a word-salad, short clipped non-sequitur sentences that chop out a story of poverty, unemployment and desolation in the 60s. It’s like the musical version of Howl. Speaking of, check out Allen Ginsberg hanging out in the background.
“Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift.”
The true millennial anthem that came before it was cool to label every song expressing hopelessness as a millennial anthem.
4. With God on Our Side
This song teaches empathy in the way no book of God can. It talks about that all-important issue that righteous God-book-thumpers forget about: perspective.
“Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.”
If everyone could listen to this song at least once in their lives, peace would come, the clouds would clear, there would no more threat of nuclear war (or an India-Pakistan war for that matter), Syria wouldn’t be burning, refugees wouldn’t be dying in the thousands and the US wouldn’t be facing the actual possibility of a Trump presidency. The world, in general, would be a much better place.
3. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
This was written for the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which I’ve never watched. I first heard it on, believe it or not, the mammoth TV show Supernatural. Say what you will about it, it had a great soundtrack. The episode, incidentally, was called Dark Side of the Moon.
“Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
There’s a strange hypnotic quality to the song. The arrangement is simple, just an acoustic guitar and nothing else. Maybe it’s the simplicity that gets to me, the absolute lack of any fanfare. Maybe it’s knowing that the man is letting go of everything he had as he faces death, because none of it matters anymore.
Unfortunately, the version in the video is NOT the original Dylan version, as far as I can tell. I have the original on mp3 which I’m not allowed to upload here because WordPress doesn’t think I’m cool enough. I hope you enjoy it anyway.
2. . Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright
A rare exception to my usual rule of loathing break-up songs with every fibre of my being. Break-up songs by guys tend to be misogynistic. Break-up songs by girls tend to cry about the guy which gets on my nerves. I just don’t like the disproportionate amount of attention given to ‘romance’ in general. But this one, though. This one is soft, and mellow, and beautifully toned down. It’s not angry, just resigned. I think I cried the first time I heard it.
“When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window, and I’ll be gone
You’re the reason I’m a-traveling on
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
You know those kinds of art that help you accept things? They soothe you and help you heal and move on? This is one of those songs. It helped me through a very difficult time of my life. I hope it helps you, too, one day.
It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
A fast-paced spell-binding montage of words that tears society to shreds. Eliot’s The Wasteland, set to music. Not literally. But sure feels like it.
“Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fools gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proved to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.”
Who knew disillusionment could be this beautiful?
Look at that. Six favourites by Dylan and I didn’t mention Blowin’ in the Wind even once.
Isn’t that a surprise?
So many people are reacting as if Dylan’s nomination was a surprise. It’s not. The Nobel nominations are supposed to be secret but the earliest proposals for nominating Dylan, according to sources, came in 2011, if not earlier. This was the 7th straight year he’s been considered for the award.
Academic arguments about whether or not songwriting should be counted as literature can be countered far better by Amit Varma’s thinkpiece in today’s TOI than by me. (To wit: stop fitting literature into narrow, constrictive categories.) Hipster arguments about “Oooh now everybody’s going to say they’re a fan of Dylan and write thinkpieces about him but I’m better than that I wanted Murakami to win!!!!” are utterly irrelevant (and, might I add, freaking annoying). Socio-political arguments such as “the Nobel Prize only goes to straight white men” are too sweeping (and probably true) to be brought up. The New York Times also had a pretty interesting take on all the reasons Dylan shouldn’t have won.
I just hope that, through this post, I gave you a few of the reasons for which he did.
It’s the least I could do.
Bonus: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
This one’s for all you political-music lovers out there. Enjoy.
“Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
And what did you see, my darling young one?”
“I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
If you liked this post, don’t forget to share the music with your friends. See you next time.