Seventy On Seventy: The 70 Best Bob Dylan Songs, A To Z (Part One Of Two)
About a year ago, I was putting a book about Bob Dylan to bed. Since I was looking at year's lead time, my plan was for Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown (Yale) to be released on Dylan's 70th birthday, for obvious reasons. I learned early on at my grandfather's funeral the biblical significance of threescore years and ten. Add two thousand years and the development of modern medicine, and you could say that yesterday's threescore years and ten could be today's fourscore years and ten, give or take--in other words, in twenty years, Bob Dylan might very well be Betty White. Still, 70 is a mighty powerful benchmark, and it officially puts the baby boomers, Dylan's original and most fervent demo, on notice that they are either officially old or, with the aid of the Facebook equivalent of 2031, could help snag Dylan a Saturday Night Live hosting stint.
My editor, a man who was always right and made it seem fun, suggested something for what people in the book industry call the "back matter." I presented myself with a challenge: Would it be possible to take Dylan's 400-plus songs and whittle them down to an age-appropriate list of 70? It seemed absurd. Listmaking was for people with OCD, or for VH1, or for Rolling Stone, whose coffee-table books about The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time always seem to assume time started in 1955. (This even though before 1955, there were songs by Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Wagner, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Kern, and Porter; that's not even taking into account the great songs before notation that are stuck in the Norton Anthology, which is of course a different kind of listmaking.) An issue devoted to 500 songs before time began would be quite a list indeed.
So I liked the number 70, and could even go through the painstaking work of separating the wheat from the chaff. But what seemed unimaginable to me was to actually rank the songs. How could one make an empirical case about whether "Like a Rolling Stone" was better than "Just Like a Woman" or "Tangled Up In Blue"? All these songs are perfect for what they are, a bliss that defies hierarchy. (Albums are different, since they are collections of songs. I say this because--full disclosure--nerve.com asked me to rank Dylan's albums, and it seemed just wrong to say no to them.) And so just a few weeks ago, on the Upper West Side I saw the Rolling Stone cover boasting that the 70 Greatest Dylan Songs (they should have added Of All Time!) were listed within. Did someone in Jann's Kremlin of Rock Taste take a look at the galleys my publisher sent their way? Or do people who love Bob just love playing with his age?
Of course, the No. 1 song on the RS list has the magazine's name in its title. The person who wrote on the top songs in the septalogue was Bono. Most of the entries came from a masked and anonymous committee (including extremely judicious and impressive people, one of whom generously blurbed my book), but the named bylines included Mick, Keith, Lucinda, and... I'm going to stop advertising it right now. I guess we're all in this together. But see my A-L just for what it is: A collection of half of his indisputable songs, some of which matched those selected by Rolling Stone, and some of which did not. (The rest of the alphabetical listing will be published tomorrow, on Dylan's actual birthday.) I only included Bob at his Best, but "Best" cannot be covered in 70 songs. This list will need a bootleg series, perhaps in future editions of the book, when the number 70 will be just an age that Dylan passed before he was really getting started.
(A guide for the perplexed: I have listed what I believe to be the definitive version, and then added alternate versions still worthy of mention in parentheses. Disagree? May a thousand flowers bloom.)