Yesterday is gone but the past lives on. The essence of what exactly makes a Dylan song so different from the others is one that cannot be neatly explained. The off-key instrumental note, reckless recording, and scratchy voice that wails out from the speakers is often imitated, but never duplicated. How Bob manages to create music sounding both meticulously planned yet carefree, urgent yet relaxed, and wise yet relatable is a talent that only he seems to master. The aching lyrics are often cleverly disguised with upbeat instruments and an irresistible hook. Songs dealing with some if not all of the seven deadly sins are favorites at birthday parties. The false accusation of murder dealt with in the song “Hurricane” often serves as merely background music to the cake being cut. This day in age, most of us have a relationship with Dylan songs. They’re almost comforting in a way, making it easy to not pay attention to what he is really singing about. In every Dylan song, there is a glimpse inside of ourselves, an unexplainable phenomenon of human nature and a good beat colliding. You see Dylan, he’s quite good at singing songs about heartache, defeat, and the wonders of love, blending them together in order to provoke emotions from the listener that they may not even understand, but whole heartedly feel. In every Dylan song, there is a certain part of what makes us human, but more importantly, what makes us individual.
Bob Dylan’s name is almost always paired with matters of the human heart. Whether a song about a far away lover or a forgotten relationship; love is present on each Dylan record. As romantic as other tunes may be, a certain Dylan song remains one of the most haunting. Appearing on the 1966 album, Blonde on Blonde, ‘Just like a Woman’, positioned half way through the album, serves as a wake-up call to listeners who may have been listening to the album as they made dinner or enjoyed a glass of wine. Up until this point, Blonde was an eclectic mix of an ‘I want you’ song followed by an ‘I don’t need you’ song, but the moment “Just like a Woman” begins the listener senses that something is different. Nobody feels any pain Dylan begins to sing, his voice low and worn
She takes just like a woman, yes she does/She makes love just like a woman,
Yes she does/And she aches just like a woman/ But she breaks just like a little girl
As the last ‘l’ of “girl” rolls off of Dylan’s tongue, it becomes clear that this song is one we’ve never heard before. This girl who he sings about begins to take on the identity of a lover that the listener knows so well, yet has most likely buried somewhere deep inside of them. They are nameless, and blurry, but we can all place them in our minds as the song reinforces our fear; we cannot hide their memory forever. At one point, the man in the song felt very deeply for this woman and despite their seemingly mutual affection he coos
I just can’t fit/ Yes I do believe it’s time for us to quit/When we meet again/
Introduced as friends/ Please don’t let on that you know me when I was hungry/
And it was your world/ Ah you fake just like a woman/ Yes you do
With the painful switching of the first word of the chorus, It is clear that the woman in the song hasn’t fooled the singer. As much as it hurts to let her go, go he must. Through simple lines and innocent observations, Dylan presents a deeply moving portrait of a love that has run its course and was perhaps never something worth believing in. The fond memories of what could have been are stripped away, leaving only the shell of a woman and the man she left to clean up the mess. As a listener, the lyrics enable us to become either of the characters in the story, but the emotion it stirs up inside of your conscience make it clear which character you are. No matter which one, today looking back you’re not ‘there’ anymore, but in the three minutes of the song, you were.
In the classic Dylan song, “A hard Rain’s ‘gon Fall”, Dylan sings of a whole lot of nothing only to somehow end up with a song about everything. The song is unlike any other in that people from any background, any belief system, and color of skin can listen to it and feel as if they are a part of the song. Through the random pairings of words, Dylan creates a web of unification disguised through our differences.
I saw gun shaped swords in the hands of young children/
1000 people and nobody’s listening/
I met a white man who walked a black dog/
I met one man who was wounded in love/
Where the home in the valley meets the deep dirty prison/
where the people are plenty, and their hands Are all empty/
And the executioners face is always well hidden/
Where Black is the color and white is the number/
I know my song well before I start singing.
On paper those are seven lines from a much longer song, but in those seven lines one can see the world in a different light. Without knowing exactly what each line means, the words ignite a sort of desire to seek out the truth and ponder the question of what is important in this life. Are the world’s injustices really able to be boiled down into seven stanzas? Is the dishope in humanity proved in the lines of the song? In a cautionary tone Dylan’s voice seeps out strong, yet concerned. When enjoying the pleasantly simple guitar strumming in the background, mimicking chords you may hear while sitting around a campfire, the listener finds it hard to ignore the bullets raining through the speakers, begging them to listen. Although Dylan remains calm and never quite gets to the “Masters of War” level of pleading for justice, the approach taken in “Hard Rain’s ‘gon Fall” is just as, if not more impactful. The harsh reality of our society can sneak up on you; the end of the world is never going to be blatantly advertised in million dollar billboards on the side of the highway. The truth can reach one in the form of a song. Hidden in-between songs of lost love and drunken mistakes, is a song that just might be the change you wish to see in the world, and yourself.
A point in the career of Bob Dylan that caused a blatant uproar for of all things, the fact that he wrote songs about being happy, arrived when he released the album “New Morning” in 1970. The sounds, the lyrics, the voice, everything seemed to be so far from the man that the die-hard Dylan fans had come to worship, and in a lot of ways the genius of the album became lost in the fact that they had been yearning for an album that mimicked Bob’s earlier success. The change their main man brought forth in the last few albums released before New Morning had already dampened their faith and caused them to ignore a certain song entitled “If Not For You”. George Harrison would later cover it and receive a much better reception from his fans because of the light hearted melody that one expects from a Beatle (as wrong as that assumption may be). However, Dylan was the one who wrote and originally recorded the song that remains one of the sweetest love songs he ever recorded.
If not for you baby I would lay awake all night/
Wait for the morning light/
To shine on through/
But It would not be new, if not for you
The song acts as a pure act of devotion towards a woman that he has grown to love more than anything or anyone else in his life. The seasons, the sounds, his home, his entire world would cease to exist if it were not for this woman. The pure simplicity of love expressed in the song is a far cry from the love songs found on previous Dylan albums. Love before was almost always mixed with mentions of impermanence, refrain, and ever looming doom. Love had an expiration date; a time when what he sang about would surely come to an end. “If not for You” exists entirely on its own, and seems to have Dylan’s belief that the relationship within the song can withstand the tests of time.
Upon hearing “If not for You” the listener is left feeling hopeful if they haven’t met someone described in the song, or lucky that they have. There is hardly a way to hear the song and feel a negative emotion because of the pure optimism and joy the song bestows upon the listener. It is infectiously positive, and a wonderful testament to the incredible influence Dylan has on the listener’s mindset; even the simplest song seems unlike any other.
There is something about Bob Dylan, something that has always been, and that always will be. Through decades of shows, some for 400,000, some only for the lady he was spending the night with, Bob has become a man synonymous with legend. One can write off his voice as unpleasant, discount his antics as pretentious and his guitar playing at “sub-par”, but when you strip the rest of what perhaps makes other musicians ‘legends’, you are left with one hell of a man with an unmatchable talent. Despite the relentless attempt of so many to try and expose the real Bob Dylan, he remains just as, if not more mysterious than when he was a young man hanging around Greenwich Village. His legacy is displayed for us in the words of his songs, the verses we’ve heard for so long, yet somehow don’t seem to offer us a complete answer to the question they present. The beauty of Dylan’s genius lies within that mystery, and will remain there.
Bob Dylan. “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” Freewheelin
Bob Dylan. “Just Like a Woman” Blonde on Blonde
Bob Dylan. “If Not For You” New Moon
Cott, Jonathan. Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews.
New York: Wenner, 2006. Print.
Gray, Micheal. The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Updated and Rev. Ed edition.
New York: Continuum, 2008. Print.
Sounes, Howard. Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan
New York: Grove Press, 2001. Print.
Corliss, Richard. “Bob Dylan at 65”
Time Magazine. May 24, 2006. Web May 4, 2010.