Bob Dylan is 80 years old today. Bob Dylan is endless. You can go as deep as you want. You can have casual knowledge of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or you can devote your life to him. I’m somewhere in midstream when it comes to Dylan fandom, which goes deeper and further than most people would ever imagine, but I can’t deny that the man’s words and music have changed the way I look at the world.
Dylan is unknowable in many ways, like trying to grab a handful of mist. That’s also kind of appealing in today’s share-everything celeb culture. There’s at least 80 different Bob Dylans I can think of, and probably 800 more.
In celebration of Bob’s 80th, here’s 80 Things I Love About Bob Dylan:
1. “I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more,” and how those words are all of us at some point in our lives.
2. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video:
3. My dentist, who’s a big Dylan fan, and his famous recurring dream: “I’m having the dream again. I’m the on-call emergency dentist. Bob Dylan’s people call, and there’s a problem. I have to do an emergency root canal, and we become friends. He writes a song about me.”
4. “You’re No Good,” the first song on the very first Dylan album, where 20-year-old Bob sounds like a 20-year-old imitating a 70-year-old. And yet, it works.
5. That there’s never been a better takedown of a murdering racist than the way he spits out the name “William Zanzinger” in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
6. The way the light looks on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan:
7. The fact Dylan slipped a Nightmare on Elm Street reference into his 17-minute epic “Murder Most Foul.”
8. Also, all of “Murder Most Foul,” proof that it’s never too late in one’s career to craft a masterpiece.
9. Every single second of the roaring surreal carnival that is “Tombstone Blues,” but particularly the way he draws out the lines “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone” and how I can never stop wondering what that means.
10. “Wiggle Wiggle” might just be the worst song Dylan ever recorded, proof that we all have bad days.
11. The final panel of the first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and one of the best uses of a Dylan quote ever:
12. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a song title that sounds like a forgotten ‘80s cop show set in Miami.
13. When I saw him play in Oxford, Mississippi decades ago, he played the anti-racism track “Oxford Town” (about the college’s brutal racist anti-integration protests in 1962) for the first and so far only time live, which was ballsy and kind of like Neil Young playing “Ohio” at Kent State.
14. The sheer elegant snark of the 1965 press conference in San Francisco.
15. This photo:
16. Dylan and Johnny Cash just kind of screwing around on tape circa 1970 and still sounding like geniuses at play.
17. How Dylanologist Greil Marcus managed to make an entire hefty book out of examining a single song, “Like A Rolling Stone.”
18. Over hundreds and hundreds of performances, the “How does it feel?” refrain in “Like A Rolling Stone” never quite sounds the same twice.
19. “What is this shit?” – The start of Greil’s infamous Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s 1970 Self Portrait album.
20. Dylan’s marvellous acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, which includes a backhanded compliment: “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?””
21. This moment in the amazing documentary Dont Look Back:
22. The way that nearly-lost gem “Blind Willie McTell” sounds as if it’s being sung at the bottom of a well, from a place beyond time.
23. How he barks out the song title of “Forgetful Heart” with a startling intensity that immediately makes you sit up and pay attention.
24. The way he breaks down on the intro into stoned giggling on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Take 1” on The Bootleg Series Vol 12, reminding you he’s human after all.
25. …“He said his name was Columbus, and I just said good luck.”
26. I’m not a big fan of Dylan’s “born again” Christian rock period, but there are gems to be found there, particularly “Gotta Serve Somebody” in its rollicking gospel rock live versions.
27. He says it was because he stopped smoking, but I still love Dylan’s baritone croon in the Nashville Skyline era, smoother and somehow sexier than he ever sounded again.
28. That he has a whiskey brand called, of course, “Heaven’s Door.”
29. This photo, and Dylan’s eyebrows in it:
30. Seeing the Academy Award Bob won resting near his piano, casually, at his gigs.
31. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, the first album of his I ever owned. It took me a while to grow into it.
32. However, it was 1989’s Oh Mercy that became the first Dylan album I really discovered and soaked in, and the road map into a lifetime.
33. The late Sally Grossman’s zen bohemian pose on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home.
34. That Dylan legendarily got the Beatles stoned for the first time. What a punk.
35. The rumbling guitar chords and drum beats that amble in the beginning of “Thunder On The Mountain,” and Modern Times, featuring one of Dylan’s tightest bands ever.
36. Also, the way he spits out, “I got the pork chops / She got the pie.”
37. Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in the rather muddled experimental film I’m Not There:
38. “People don’t live or die, people just float” – “Man In The Long Black Coat”
39. “I Threw It All Away” live on The Johnny Cash TV Show:
40. One of the loveliest songs he ever sang, the brittle and pained 1970 take on old folk song “Pretty Saro.”
41. The ultimate comeback to the “Judas” insult at one of his 1966 “electric” concerts: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”
42. Dylan’s white kabuki-style makeup look on the Rolling Thunder tour:
43. Watching a moron try to rush the stage during the 17-minute long epic “Desolation Row” at a 2007 concert, not exactly a song that inspires mosh pits.
44, “And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style” is one of the great metaphors.
45. I’m a fan, but many fans know way more than me. Dylanology is kind of bottomless, and “The Dylanologists” by David Kinney is a great look at some of the most obsessed.
46. That the “Soy Bomb” guy was briefly a thing.
47. That Dylan once had the cops called on him for wandering around a neighbourhood, and the police officer didn’t know who he was.
48. That little carnival-barker moustache he started affecting several years back.
49. Not really a fan of the series of popular songs cover albums he put out a few years back, but his gravelly take on “That Lucky Old Sun” is a charmer.
50. Back in 1996 or so I lived in Mississippi, and one of our favourite local restaurants The Harvest Cafe was closing down. On its final night an all-star cast of local musicians (including a member of Wilco) jammed for hours on songs, and the one that always sticks on my head years and years later is a joyful, valedictory “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and every time I hear it I think of old friends and gone times. Whoo-ee, ride me high.
51. Hunting old record stores pre-internet for a decent copy of the legendary “Basement Tapes,” and being mesmerised by their ramshackle and mysterious glory.
52. “I’m goin’ down to Tennessee; get me a truck or somethin’.” – “Lo And Behold.”
52. Scarlet Rivera’s stunning violin refrains in Dylan’s epic “Hurricane,” the beating pulse that gives the song its blood.
53. For that matter, the way Dylan draws out that last word in, “He could’ve been / the champion of the worrrrrrrrrrrrlddddddd”
54. Standing in a queue for tickets on campus for my first Dylan concert in 1990, and hearing someone say, “Dylan? Who’s she?”
55. Memories of listening to Bob Dylan’s mid-70s pearler Street Legal while crossing the Rocky Mountains, and the bombastic “Changing of the Guards” seemed just right.
56. “It’s not dark yet / But itttttttttt’s getting there.” – “Not Dark Yet”
57. This photo:
58. The honky-tonk piano tinkling that opens up 2012’ “Duquesne Whistle”, one of Dylan’s best attempts to approximate that old 78 records sound.
59. The all-star “I Shall Be Released” jam at the end of The Last Waltz, one of the greatest concentrations of musical talent in history.
60. “If you’re travellin’ to the North Country Fair…” few songs instantly summon up such heartbreak.
61. Dylan’s Academy-Award winning “Things Have Changed,” with that brutal little lyrical twist of the knife – “I used to care / But things have changed.”
62. The 1976 live album Hard Rain is Dylan frazzled, exhausted and angry and yet somehow I love it for its raw and even sloppy energy, spitting through “Maggie’s Farm” like it’s a punk anthem.
63. “Idiot Wind” is one of the harshest breakup songs ever, and every time the venom of a line like “You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” stuns me with its cold splendour.
64: The chugging, menacing throb of 2020’s “False Prophet,” Dylan the forever outlaw: “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.”
65: The swirling beauty of Daniel Lanois-produced “Series of Dreams,” which combines the best bits of Peter Gabriel and U2 with Dylan.
66: With a title like “Talking World War III Blues” you wouldn’t think it’d be one of the funniest songs he’d written, with the capper being the wry way he mutters at the end, “I said that.” Cue laugh track.
67: This album cover will always make me smile right back:
68. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.” – “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.”
69. That it took me some time to realise that the cover of Blonde On Blonde was a bit blurry on purpose. I thought I just had a bad printing.
70. That famously infamous Newport Musical Festival “electric” take on “Maggie’s Farm” where the band sounds like a train launching into space, and the old story (likely apocryphal) that Pete Seeger was so outraged he tried to cut the cables with an axe.
71. …And the fact there’s actually a wikipedia page called “Electric Dylan Controversy.”
72. Forget “Wiggle Wiggle,” Dylan’s croaky rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” on the rather horrific album Christmas In The Heart might just be his nadir, except I think the song actually crosses through bad, into kitsch, and then kind of right somewhere in the misty realm of great again. It’s the cheesy backup singers what do it.
73. Dylan’s made a lot of iconic album covers. He’s also responsible for this:
74. That he covered “Froggie Went A Courtin’.”
75. Love And Theft’s “Mississippi” always struck a chord for me, especially as I moved away in 1997 heartsick and uncertain about my future, and a few years later I heard Dylan sing about me: “Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” Was the man bugging my house?
76. That you can hear a dog barking in the background on a demo version of 1980’s sublime “Every Grain Of Sand.” Who is that dog?
77. My fourth and possibly final Dylan concert in 2018 might’ve been the best I’ve seen of him. The band was tight, the voice was good, and nothing felt perfunctory. Phones were banned (a good thing) but I did sneak one quick photo where I’m certain I actually saw him smile at the end of the encore. If that’s the last time I ever see Dylan in person, I’m OK with it:
78. Dylan in concert isn’t exactly chatty or action-packed, but at that same 2018 show he did come out centre stage for a vivid take on “Love Sick,” where he struck several faux-Elvis poses that were a delight to witness.
79. If I had to pick a single Dylan lyric that speaks the most to me, that keeps pricking me with self-knowledge, we’ve got to circle back to “Maggie’s Farm” and this one: I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them / They sing while you slave / And I just get bored.
Added: And here’s a playlist of most of the tunes mentioned in the above list! Dig into the Dylan!