I don’t know how many Dylan LPs, then tapes, then CDs I have worn out.
When I had a car, I sometimes forced myself to play something else, but I always went back to that music. It never palled.
I belong to the “Blowin’ in the Wind” generation, and those lyrics define it.
But I also love the “Woman” songs—“Rainy Day,” “Just Like A”—and all of us, my boomer girl cohorts, however independent or fiercely feminist and ambitious we were, also secretly wanted to be Sara, the bard’s enigmatic muse.
There is a fairy tale—I forget which one—in which a girl is taken captive by a witch. The canny child fills her apron pocket with flour and pricks a hole in it so the flour will mark her escape route as it trickles out.
I think of Dylan’s lyrics—and he won the Nobel for his lyrics—as the flour in my apron pocket, marking the escape route from a forest of conventional expectations and authority.—Judith Thurman
As the story goes, my father arrived in America with a wristwatch, a scholarship to study physics, and an enthusiasm for classical music. He lived in an old boarding house where a neighbor blasted Dylan nonstop. Day and night, a reedy, nagging, muffled voice wafting through the walls, rising from the floorboards: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” Irritation eventually gave way to familiarity, curiosity. He added a Dylan record to his Columbia House Record Club order, and then another after that, until, a couple of decades later, all those Dylan LPs, their sleeves stamped with my dad’s Chinese name, were what made each house feel like a home. The classical-music collection languished in a closet. I, too, found his voice trying, especially when “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” or “Hurricane” would kill the vibe of my dad’s road-trip mixtapes, otherwise dominated by euphoric sixties pop or virtuoso power ballads. But Dylan’s voice was about as rough-hewn and unrefined as my father’s, wondering alongside him, “How many years can a mountain exist/ Before it is washed to the sea?” Sometimes my dad would ask me what these lyrics meant, and I presumed he had an answer in mind. Later, I would ask him about his relationship to Dylan’s lyrical genius: What did these words mean to him, then and now? He said he loved these songs not for the lyrics but for the voice.
Maybe I’ve misremembered some of this, or maybe it’s slightly embellished. Then again, Dylan was never the singer’s real name but a gesture of reinvention, arriving in a new land and telling a sideways story about where you came from.—Hua Hsu
As a teen-ager, in the nineteen-eighties, I taught myself to touch-type by listening to and transcribing Bob Dylan lyrics, which is another way of saying that Bob Dylan taught me a vocabulary for a range of emotions—ecstasy, jealousy, love, lust—at the precise age when I started to need their expression. I’m glad to say that it’s been a while since I felt a personal identification with “Idiot Wind,” but the furious castigation and the reeling pain conveyed by that song have spoken for me more times than I care to recall. Critics will argue about Dylan’s place in the canon, or about the rightness of bestowing a prize upon a writer whose celebration doesn’t particularly help the publishing industry. But, for my money, anyone who can summon, as a bitter valediction to a lover, the line “I can’t even touch the books you’ve read,” knows—and captures, and incarnates—the power of literature.—Rebecca Mead
Little red wagon, little red bike I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like.
If I knew why I liked this couplet, it wouldn’t be art.—John Bennet
When I was twelve or thirteen, I bought a cassette tape of “Highway 61 Revisited,” and quickly settled on “Desolation Row” as my favorite Dylan song. There were two unfamiliar names in one of its verses: “And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower / While calypso singers laugh at them / And fishermen hold flowers.” Who were Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot? A faint aroma of the absurd clung to their names. I consulted the World Book Encyclopedia, where it said that they had something to do with literature, which seemed antithetical to the wildness of Dylan’s music.
And so that was the end of my inquiry, until only a few years later, when, in a rite of passage familiar to so many bookish kids, I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem about a timid nerd with sexual hang-ups: that I could relate to! Suddenly Eliot, until then only a name in my favorite song, became an obsession, a way of understanding my own specialness, a mark of difference from my friends and family and immediate world. Dylan and Eliot (Pound less so) were my touchstones, exemplifying, in their different ways, what could be done to passing time by building into it unforeseen swerves of mind and language. Who knew what Pound and Eliot were doing fighting, or who the captain was supposed to be, or why the calypso singers laughed at them? And who cared? Their spirit endorsed what was beautiful in Dylan, even though in the song he seemed to be dissing them. To me, only Dylan and Eliot knew how to hold strange, evasive particulars in a web of beauty; to “understand” these songs and poems seemed so far from the original inspired acts of writing them that I stopped asking literal-minded questions and learned to appreciate for its own sake the tuneful difficulty they both embodied.
When I became a writer, I wanted my own work to reflect their soundscapes of surprise, suspense, and wonder, as well as their air of having read everything and metabolized everything in utterly idiosyncratic ways. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948; Dylan won the 2016 prize today. When I heard the news, I thought of another passage, from “Desolation Row”: “All these people that you mention / Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame / I have to rearrange their faces / And give them all another name.” Listening to Dylan has been a lifelong exercise in strenuous rearrangement, estrangement, disavowal, and change: virtues to be prized for their own sake in the artists I love the most. Literary virtues in the extreme. He got the right prize.—Dan Chiasson
A great many people, including my fellow-Swedes, appreciate Bob Dylan more than I do. When I was a kid, the way Dylan sang, and the way he sang about women, made me glare at the speakers, and I have never quite stopped. But I admire his best stuff, and I’m very fond of several songs on “Highway 61 Revisited”—especially “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (“Well, I ride on a mail train, baby / Can’t buy a thrill”) and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which always grips me by the heart, even though much of it is Dylan singing angrily about prostitutes. In college, I spent a semester in New Mexico, taking classes in adobe buildings and making day trips to ghost towns and border towns, including Juárez, Mexico. Autumn in Albuquerque was almost imperceptible—no glorious colors, just a new severity, a dead leaf or two blowing around, a hint of loneliness. I always think of that climate and mood when I hear “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”:
When you’re lost in the rain in Juárez, when it’s Eastertime, too And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue They got some hungry women there and they really make a mess outta you
Much has been written about Dylan the poet, Dylan the observer of political and social injustice; good for him with the Nobel Prize. But many of Dylan’s songs give me the sense of a crabby, selfish guy complaining, inexplicably, about situations he has got himself into, and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is no different. It does, however, sound different—the urgent, wistful piano, the earnest attempt at singing, a bit of melodic sweetness. I was gratified when, around that same time in the early nineties, its moving final section turned up, wholesale, near the end of the Beastie Boys song “Finger-Lickin’ Good”:
I’m going back to New York City I do believe I’ve had enough.
There, I thought, was a sentiment we could all agree upon. Here’s to you, Bob, you old Greenwich Village grump.—Sarah Larson
Come writers and critics Who prophesize with your pen And keep your eyes wide The chance won’t come again And don’t speak too soon For the wheel’s still in spin
—“The Times They Are A-Changin”
I love lines about time, and I love the sensibility here of time not only turning but spinning. And so the question is: How do you stand upright, while the world spins? I love that.—Jill Lepore
My first encounter with Bob Dylan and his lyrics came courtesy of the “Forrest Gump” soundtrack, which included “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” the opener to “Blonde on Blonde,” and led me to ask my dad, at the age of seven, if “getting stoned” meant getting pelted with rocks. (It was a good introduction to double entendre, too, though I didn’t know that then.) My dad had recently thrown out all his records in anticipation of the digital future—my birthright packed up in a cardboard box and left out on the curb to wait for the garbage man—but hadn’t yet replaced them with CDs. Eventually, he got a new copy of “Blonde on Blonde,” which rewired my pre-adolescent brain. Here’s the beginning of “Visions of Johanna”:
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
It’s a classic Dylan one-two punch: first you try to picture the handful of rain, and then you try to figure out what it might mean to defy it. Meanwhile, the character of Louise has slipped into the imagination fully formed. Lots of surreal images are to come—jelly-faced women sneezing, jewels and binoculars hanging from the head of a mule—but I especially love the rest of that first, concrete verse, which casually conjures an atmosphere of ennui and heartache: the room musty from the rain, the sad radio, friends in love, your own lover far away:
Lights flicker from the opposite loft In this room the heat pipes just cough The country music station plays soft But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off Just Louise and her lover so entwined And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.
To my kid’s mind, that loft seemed as mysterious as anything else Dylan sang about, but later I got what he meant.—Alexandra Schwartz
Dylan is often evoked as a political songwriter, a trickster—and he is both of those things—but I really like when he writes about relationships. “You’re an idiot, babe,” from the barrelling chorus of “Idiot Wind,” is perhaps the pithiest synopsis of post-breakup indignation in the whole American songbook—though by song’s end the lyric has shifted to “We’re idiots, babe,” perhaps the pithiest synopsis of love in the whole American songbook. Snide Dylan, of course, is Peak Dylan. His discography contains some of the finest kiss-offs I know—little couplets to keep tucked away in your pocket, deployed only when you’ve been freshly wronged: “When you asked how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?” he seethes in “Desolation Row.”
I’m especially enamored with the first verse of “Things Have Changed”—a song from the film “Wonder Boys,” based on the novel by Michael Chabon—which was first released in 2000, after “Time Out of Mind” but before “Love and Theft.” It was an era in which Dylan seemed especially aggrieved: taken by love, suddenly and against his will. On both of these records, he sings often of feeling helpless. Unsurprisingly, he finds it distasteful: “I’m sick of love but I’m in the thick of it,” he sings in “Love Sick.” “I’m sick of love, I wish I’d never met you.”
The opening lines of “Things Have Changed,” though, positions love (and heartache) as a blurry, liminal space in which pain enables a certain kind of possibility:
A worried man with a worried mind No one in front of me and nothing behind There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne Got white skin, got assassin’s eyes I’m looking up into the sapphire-tinted skies I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train
Everyone knows that when you are feeling terrible in a contained and specific way—when someone has hurt you—the world takes on a more dramatic hue. It is a pain we cling to, sometimes, for its endless narrative possibility. It works for Dylan. Never has waiting on the last train felt so deeply, beautifully auspicious. —Amanda Petrusich
My favorite for lyrics is “Forever Young.” Every verse is a beatitude:
May your hands always be busy May your feet always be swift May you have a strong foundation When the winds of changes shift May your heart always be joyful May your song always be sung And may you stay forever young
That was the spirit of the generation—my own—that grew up with Dylan.—Louis Menand
In my adolescence, Dylan was on the AM radio, which, with the exception of Motown, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Byrds, who were covering Dylan songs, mostly played music that was insipid. Hearing a Dylan song was like having a small moment of good luck, since you usually heard the radio in the car, and you weren’t guaranteed to hear a good song before your ride ended. Other bands played music; Dylan was a voice. He said things that you felt or thought about. I was a sullen, high-strung, and prideful boy, awkward, even inept, and I took private refuge in songs. I liked everything I heard Dylan sing, even though I was too young to understand the bulk of it, but the lines that stirred me most came at the climax of “Positively Fourth Street,” Dylan’s rebuke of a hypocrite, which I first heard when I was about thirteen.
I wish that for just one time You could stand inside my shoes And just for that one moment I could be you Yes, I wish that for just one time You could stand inside my shoes You’d know what a drag it is To see you
For an oversensitive adolescent who dreamed of having the upper hand, it was exciting to hear someone speak with impunity, never mind the beautiful melody it was set to. Borrowing his sentiments, I could feel righteous, even if still lonesome.—Alec Wilkinson
The best way to listen to any great musician is in concert. I saw Dylan live in 1974, at the Nassau Coliseum, and his performance has burned what is perhaps his most familiar lyric into my brain with a heat from which smoke is still rising. I hope that I’m not the victim of a phantom memory, but, if I am, it’s a beautiful one that I’m happy to have invented. The concert was part of Dylan’s reunion tour with The Band (commemorated in the double album “Before the Flood”), but the most ecstatic shock was what Dylan did in his solo spots, accompanied only by his own guitar: his plan, evidently, was to make as much noise and raise as many spirits on his own as he did with the group, and when he played “Like a Rolling Stone” it was with a shout, a roar, a fury that blasted the well-produced album version out of mind. When he howled, “How does it feel?,” it was with a self-scourging cruelty that seemed to sum up the very idea of his life’s work in four words, the holy terror and mighty calling of trying to write, to play, and to sing how it actually feels, whatever it might be.—Richard Brody
I’m not one of those guys who picks apart the lyrics to a song. I seldom even know what a song is about—if it’s one of those songs that aren’t fairly obvious. I go in for the attitude and language of certain lines, where the only mediation is the voice that delivers them, the musical setting, and whatever semiconscious, probably misguided, self-absorbed orientation my listener-brain brings to them. “Visions of Johanna”: it is one of my favorite compositions, in all creation. I never tire of it, and yet I’ve never even tried to decipher it. Many others have, but I’m not really interested. (Or at least I’ll do my best to deny it.) Instead, I savor the way certain lines and verses twist and strike, and the way Dylan (and, to be honest, one of his most avid interpreters, Jerry Garcia) utters them, in the song’s gloomy, schizo melody (or do I mean vocal dynamics?). One such fragment: “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” Yes, yes, but what? Beats me. (O.K., in the verse there are two women, a presumably male narrator, a mirror metaphor, and a shifty pronoun or two, so maybe it summons up the tricks and riddles of Shakespeare’s sonnets.) But every time I hear it, it evokes untold layers of perception and pain, a world within the world, and also wonder and delight over the simple pleasure of well-wrought syllables put to music, which is what it all comes down to, in the end. Nobody chooses better syllables, or spits and hisses them out better, than Bob.—Nick Paumgarten
A particular favorite is “Early Roman Kings.” It’s from “Tempest,” his thirty-fifth album, which was released in 2012. I mention the date because a mark of the great artist is surely his capacity to stay the course. I’m certain that’s one of the components the Nobel committee is rewarding with today’s announcement:
All the early Roman kings In their sharkskin suits Bow ties and buttons High top boots Drivin’ the spikes in Blazin’ the rails Nailed in their coffins In top hats and tails
Here Dylan rather brilliantly combines a version of the Roman empire with the railroad and steel moguls who provided the infrastructure of the American empire, as well as a version of a Puerto Rican gang from the Bronx, as well as a self-portrait of the artist in his natty stage gear! This is the artist who continues to fiddle while America burns, not out of negligence but out of sheer need:
Bring down my fiddle Tune up my strings I’m gonna break it wide open Like the early Roman kings
Now they asked me to read a poem At the sorority sisters’ home I got knocked down and my head was swimmin’ I wound up with the Dean of Women Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it Hope I don’t blow it.
—“I Shall Be Free No. 10”
My favorite Dylan lyric? That’s the sort of absurd question he used to giggle at or mock ruthlessly when he was just a kid in his twenties, and had already rearranged our world with his voice more times than you can wrap your mind around. I mean: which Bob Dylan? The high hilarious Dylan, the weird surrealist Dylan, the score-keeping lover Dylan, the angry fighting Dylan, the mystic shaman Dylan, the sweet seducer Dylan, the wise, the foolish, the Chaplinesque Dylan, the rabbinical Dylan, the goofy prankster, the lounge singer, Las Vegas Dylan, beatnik Dylan wearing the Dylan mask, white-faced Dylan, holy roller Dylan, Nashville Dylan, the Dylan who looked the last time I saw him, a few years ago, just like my old grandmother if she’d done vaudeville dressed as a riverboat gambler? Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, took a rib from his own side and created Bob Dylan to contain more multitudes than Walt Whitman could imagine, and as he wrote of Lenny Bruce, “He was an outlaw, that’s for sure / More of an outlaw than you ever were.” Dylan is to word and voice like Picasso was to picture and form, not just some wondrous genius but a wondrously prodigious genius of inexhaustible abundance and variety, furiously resistant to any attempt to analyze or categorize him.
You lose yourself, you reappear You suddenly find you got nothing to fear Alone you stand with nobody near When a trembling distant voice, unclear Startles your sleeping ears to hear That somebody thinks they really found you
—It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Sure, like those more limited American masters, Eliot and Hemingway and Faulkner and Steinbeck, whom he grew up on and now joins as a Nobel laureate, he wrote a lot that fell short, he made mistakes, and wrote pulp, and sang schlock, and staggered along the edge of self-parody at times—but you don’t get the Dylans you like and want and need without the Dylans you don’t. For instance, I’ve heard too many Dylan-spinners say they could do without the album “Street-Legal.” That means doing without this:
I fought with my twin, that enemy within Till both of us fell by the way Horseplay and disease is killing me by degrees While the law looks the other way.
—“Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”
No, no, no—you can’t do without that any more than you can do without a more perfect, if more obvious, lyric like this from “Another Side of Bob Dylan”:
Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me “How good, how good does it feel to be free? And I answer them most mysteriously “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”
—“Ballad in Plain D”
Or this from “New Morning”:
I went down to the lobby To make a small call out A pretty dancing girl was there And she began to shout “Go on back to see the gypsy He can move you from the rear Drive you from your fear Bring you through the mirror He did it in Las Vegas And he can do it here.”
—“Went to See the Gypsy”
Or check out this from “Infidels”:
Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face
No, it’s a mug’s game—impossible—picking my favorite of his words as if that meant I could do without the rest. Don’t listen to me, man. Listen to him.—Philip Gourevitch
At the risk of sounding clever, my favorite Dylan lyric is from “Brownsville Girl,” an eleven-minute song he wrote with the playwright Sam Shepard, which appeared on “Knocked Out Loaded,” an album from the mid-eighties—clogged with drum reverb, gospel choirs, and mariachi horns—that most everyone dislikes: “Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul.” It’s a good line—there’s a whole story there of love, lust, and regret. But, like most of Dylan’s words, these are mostly inert on the page, inseparable from his performance of them. His lyrics are best when they are on the move, at speed, with Dylan’s voice just keeping pace, and somehow finding just enough space to fit them all in. There are examples in the expected and unexpected places, the beloved songs and the unmentioned ones, of his dexterity, precise diction, and clever and unexpected vocal turns: “The pangs of your sadness shall pass as your senses will rise,” from “To Ramona”; “And your longtime curse hurts / But what’s worse / Is this pain in here,” from “Just Like a Woman”; “There’s a babe in the arms of a woman in a rage / And a longtime golden-haired stripper onstage,” from “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat).” People who say he can’t sing have never really been listening.—Ian Crouch
May your heart always be joyful And may your song always be sung May you stay forever young Forever young, forever young May you stay forever young.
I saw Dylan once, a surprise guest at a concert at Cleveland Stadium for the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He sang “Forever Young,” and it is my favorite wish for everyone.—Mary Norris
Take me disappearing 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
The first time I heard “Mr. Tambourine Man,” or remember hearing it, I was maybe eight, riding in the back seat of my dad’s Oldsmobile. He told me it was by a great songwriter and that I should listen closely. I did. And still, all these years later, in moments when nothing else comforts, when I look around and everything is sad, strange, or scary, I put on that song. The lines are a better prayer than any I learned in Sunday school. “Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,” amen.—Carolyn Kormann