Saturday, June 09, 2012

Bob Dylan: The Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan's 71st birthday came and went. My friends and I celebrated by watching Scorcese's documentary on Dylan's life, No Direction Home. Lou Majaw did his thing at Shillong and then some more at Mumbai. Lou has kept the annual Bob Dylan tribute concert going in Shillong for four decades now. Barrack Obama, the US President who as a young person felt the world open up when he heard Dylan sing, conferred the Freedom Medal on him around the same time, a sight as bizarre as the artiste lineup on Amnesty International's tribute album featuring nearly 80 of Dylan's best songs sung by artists from all genres.

Why am I writing this on the day that he first recorded Mr. Tambourine Man (surely one of the finest set of lyrics ever) nearly half a century ago in 1964? I write this because I feel a great sense of loss when I see how this man allowed his personal choices to stand in the way of making a real difference to the world. Of course, no one can deny that the hurricane he created with his songs has changed the world for ever and for good. However, as a lover of Dylan's work, it would be wrong of me to discount what could have been.

He was quick to distance himself from the peace movement of the 60s and 70s, preferring to pursue commercial success instead, and who can fault him for that? He not only found what he sought, but created the most gorgeous songs in the process. It helps to keep in mind that he was at the height of his popularity at the same time as Bob Marley, Joan Baez and Neil Young. One wonders how differently the counter culture movement of the 60s would have evolved had he chosen to lend his words and voice to their struggle.

His electric outings have had their share of bad press over the years, and while as a musician I can understand his compulsions, as a fan of his lyricism and balladeering, I can't figure out what got into him.

His born again years might bring joy to many for their religiosity, but in terms of songwriting, they pale in comparison with his earlier work. For the greater part, they were repetitions of devices that he had mastered as a younger person.

The man who wrote A Hard Rains A Gonna Fall and Masters of War degenerated over the years into the person who released Slow Train and Planet Waves. I recently watched The Artist, the black and white tribute to the silent era, and I realized how desperate a creative artist can feel with changing times and the realization that the work one has done is no longer appreciated by contemporary patrons. Perhaps that explains the Freedom medal the best.

The Freedom Medal for Dylan and Dylan accepting it served more as a last nail in the coffin that he has so painstakingly created over the years than a recognition of creativity. It seems to me that he has finally become part of the establishment that he set out defying 50 years back. Of course, I know that there are people who will feel otherwise, and and this just the opinion of a person who grew up understanding relationships and politics through the lyrics of Dylan songs.

My favorite tracks from Dylan keep changing, usually depending on what is going on in my life at the time, but here are five tracks that I think are among his finest. If you do not have them in your collection, maybe you will look for them.

Blowin in the wind
One more cup of coffee
Make you feel my love
Lay lady lay
Don't think twice, its all right
Subterranean homesick blues

For those you who wish to re-live the magic of his early years, I suggest the Original Mono Recordings and Highway 61 Revisited. You may want to read my post on the Original Mono Recordings too. Do leave a comment to let me know your thoughts on this post.


  1. A lovely post. Felt bad reading about an artist who wasn't honored when needed. His songs are brilliant.

    1. i think there is greater irony in his being honored today, that too with the freedom medal. he has become what he fought against, even with his refusal to be labeled protest music. thanks for sharing your thoughts, traveling wordsmith.

  2. His 60s output was powerful and peerless but there is this 70's album called "Blood on the tracks", what a gorgeous album that is.

    1. thanks, sandeep, for taking time out to leave a comment behind. the cleverness of his work has been consistently amazing. even in his driest spell, when all he was doing was rehashing his good ideas and indulging in verbal calisthenics, he is a master. i like blood on the tracks too, but the viscerality of his early work is hard to match.

  3. Every artist goes through different phases of personal discovery, that results in different music. We can choose not to like some of that, but it does not take away from his greatness. And Slow Train ain't that bad :-)...

  4. welcome to operative note, cousin from mars. i too feel there is a good deal of innovation and surprises tucked away in slow train, especially if you look at it in the chronological perspective. but looking at his overall body of work, and what slow train was really a run up to, it has its weak moments. but then, like you said, these are all different aspects of his evolution, and his contribution to the broad genre of popular lyricism and song is so great that the warts really dont matter in the long run. hope you will keep coming back for more on music that means something to me.

  5. Shubhorup- nice post on the great man ! I have to say it is hard to bring out one song of Dylan which is the favourite, but altho' I agree with your listing I am a tad surprised I do not see "The Times they're a-changing" in your list. If I have to pick up one and only one favourite Dylan song, it will be a close call between that and "Blowing in the Wind". He is Pure Class !!!

    1. you are right, i have missed on the times they are a changin, and it does figure in my list. i think along with a hard rain, it is one of his most hard hitting social songs.


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