Trying to choose your favorite Dylan track is like trying to choose your favorite family member: you know you shouldn’t have favorites and you love them all, at least at heart, yet there is always one that you just love a little more. There is always one person who is more loving, agreeable and currently less trouble to be around without extreme anger, discomfort, sadness or disappointment rearing their ugly heads. Dylan’s songs are like well worn jeans, or best friends, some of them are so close to my heart they are almost family. My favorite track has changed and matured with time. It used to be Girl From The North Country, but that is a young person’s game. No one who has been here on this spinning rock for more than five minutes actually falls for that idealistic first- love-lost gumpf. It is pretty, but it is immature. It has a sickly heart that still beats with hope and a trend towards the future, just with not a lot of past behind it. It was born out of that sting of pain at breaking up with a lover for the first time, but there is a sense of moving on and having plenty of time left to do so in.
In time my favorite song grew up a little too, and changed to a more nebulous Visions of Johanna, with its perfect little painting of life in New York City for a Chelsea Hotel dwelling Dylan. It is a song of love for a group of people, a time and a place. It is a snapshot of a very special scene that was there for a short time, burning out like a meteor and will never come around again. If You See Her Say Hello nudged that bittersweet wild mercury song out the way in my affections for a while. It’s bitter words of longing and loss was in perfect step with the state of my soul in those dark years of my 30s. It resonated with the experience of a plaintive wail of love still there but damaged beyond repair. It locked itself onto my heart and didn’t let me go.
The trouble is Dylan’s back pages are so flush with perfection – lyrically, musically and emotionally and that they are so evocative of times and places fitting so neatly alongside a life that gets lived beside them, that it is like having a vast wardrobe of your favorite clothes, all of them fitting perfectly, all cut from similar beautiful cloth of the finest quality and left wanting to wear the all at once. Dividing up his work into grades of beauty and importance is an impossible task. Dylan has his missteps and his fluff, but this inferior output is the exception to the rule. These filler-songs, generally don’t resonate strongly since this group consists of mostly perfectly serviceable covers, and carefully crafted late-career folk and blues new-standard type offerings.
I mostly can’t listen to his Christian period output, and chose instead to forget it existed with the exception of a few tracks like Slow Train Coming and Jokerman that transcended the dull sermonizing and banal grotesqueness of his thankfully short-lived jesus obsession. His only song on an album that is truly amongst his greatest, is the unappealing story-song from Blood on the Tracks – Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. It is not as if Dylan can’t do Americana – he is the Americana master, the go-to-guy. He proved it with John Wesley Harding, and every Pretty Saro moonshining classic he poured out before and after. I have no idea what happened with the whole Lilly mess. The story doesn’t click, the music is jarringly jolly and jig-like, the characters are made out of cardboard and candlewax. Lilly, Jack and Rosemary have all the life and spark of malfunctioning Disney wild west themed Frontier Land animatronics, jerking and stuttering for eternity on some godforsaken fun ride that only looks passable with the right lighting and a sugar rush high. By the end of the song I find myself willing the entire crew to be left swinging from the gallows, so I choose to skip it and play the glorious Abandoned Love (which came from the same sessions but was deemed too intimate for inclusion) instead.
Dylan has a knack for making each of us feel as if he has the secrets to the universe, and it infamously infuriates him. I don’t blame him, our self-proclaimed ‘simple song and dance man’ had his trash raked through by potentially dangerous freaks and was attacked with accusations of being some kind of prophet. It would disconcert anyone, let alone the sensitive Dylan, who apparently owns an outer carapace so porous it seemed as if for a while that he absorbed the zeitgeist by pure osmosis, though his genius lay in his unique ability to show us back in the mirror what he had found in the nation’s soul.
My current favorite Dylan song is not one of these heavy hitters, though they sit on my playlist of favorites, waiting their turn on the glorious carousel that is Dylan’s body of work. It is not Gates of Eden, nor It’s Alright Ma, as objectively wonderous as they are. You see, choosing your favorite Dylan song is a very personal thing that ebbs and flows with life itself. Choosing your favorite Dylan song is entirely subjective. It depends on mood, life experiences and stages, and just how the light is hitting your morning as you open the curtains on a new day. It is one thing to have a secret favorite Dylan song, but totally another to admit out loud what it is. You see putting a flag in the ground and claiming that territory causes immense waves out outrage and offence as people defend their own highly personal favorites. Dylan means so much to people individually that it is hard to be reasonable in the face of differing opinion, but I will do it. I’ll admit it. My current favorite Dylan track is from Time Out Of Mind. The song is Trying To Get To Heaven before they close the door and so am I.
Right now the lines keep on echoing around my head, I sing along with Bob desperately holding onto the preciousness of the words and the long slow wail of longing. This is a secular spiritual song that knocks his Christian years output out of the water. These are the words of a ‘midlife rambler’, looking at his own mortality not from the start of it all, nor in the midst of the twin engines of youth and ambition, but rather from the beginning of the end. This is a summation from the borders of old age. Loss has happened and enough time passed that the memories are letting go, this is not fresh loss, but a healed scar nevertheless. This is a song from the abyss, and right now the abyss is where I am living. Bob’s comfort comes from the fact that he also knows ‘you find out you can always lose a little more’. Only time brings such bad knowledge. Only Bob Dylan can make it any easier to bear. I have also been to ‘sugar town’ and remember shaking that ‘sugar down’. I have also been ‘all around the world, boys’, and now have come to rest in my own ‘parlor’. Life is hollow and empty. I am a gambler who lost their final bet, now all that is left for it is to ‘try to get to heaven before they close the door’. I am not sure heaven wants gamblers and midnight ramblers like me. I am not sure I would even like it there. I am not one for fluffy winged serenity. Perhaps I don’t belong there after all, even if heaven is what my loved ones would wish for me, and even if the ones who have already gone are waiting there for me.
The perfect longing and nostalgia of remembering shaking all that ‘sugar down’ occupies the same space as my heart right now. That desperate hope for salvation, whilst shaking a fist at the heavens is about all I am capable of. I don’t even believe in a redeeming Christ. Yet here I am with Bob, trying to rush the Pearly Gates, hoping beyond hope that I am not shut off from my loved ones for eternity.
The song is no Country Pie, no dull and meaningless crooning. Nor is it one of his vast songs that seem to have been transmitted to his fingertips by Heavenly bodies and then through Bob out to the airwaves. It is a humble, honest, heartfelt song and right now it is so dear to me, that when I sit here and cry for the lost people, lost youth, lost possibilities, the song feels like a comforting hand on my shoulder. It comes to me like a prayer or a wish. It soothes my angst, and after all not many songs can do that. Songs distract, they enliven, they embolden and entertain, but rarely does a song come out and comfort, reassure and offer some company on that lonesome highway.
Ask me next week and I might be in a different mood. I might have grown up…or down, or gone sideways and be listening to the Basement Tapes outtakes, but right now, this is where I am, and wouldn’t you know it, Bob is right there with me. I just hope someone has their foot stuck in the door a little longer. I am not quite there yet, even if I am on my way. Trying to choose a favorite Bob Dylan song is folly indeed. No one will be happy with the choice, and it probably should be kept as an intensely private matter, but then again I was always the fool and never the wise-grrrl and that ain’t gonna change at this point in life, now is it?