Great Artists Pay Tribute to Their Favorite Bob Dylan Songs

Lucinda Williams, Marcus Mumford, Bob Weir and more on the tracks that have influenced them

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Bob Dylan performing in London, 1965.
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"Like a Rolling Stone" (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
By Bono

That sneer — it's something to behold. Elvis had a sneer, of course. And the Rolling Stones had a sneer that, if you note the title of the song, Bob wasn't unaware of. But Bob Dylan's sneer on "Like a Rolling Stone" turns the wine to vinegar.

It's a black eye of a pop song. The verbal pugilism on display here cracks open songwriting for a generation and leaves the listener on the canvas. "Like a Rolling Stone" is the birth of an iconoclast that will give the rock era its greatest voice and vandal. This is Bob Dylan as the Jeremiah of the heart, torching romantic verse and "the girl" with a firestorm of unforgiving words. Having railed against the hypocrisies of the body politic, he now starts to pick on enemies that are a little more familiar: the scene, high society, the "pretty people" who think they've "got it made." He hasn't made it to his own hypocrisies — that would come later. But the "us" and "them" are not so clearly defined as earlier albums. Here he bares his teeth at the hipsters, the vanity of that time, the idea that you had a better value system if you were wearing the right pair of boots.

For some, the Sixties was a revolution. But there were others who were erecting a guillotine in Greenwich Village not for their political enemies, but rather for the squares. Bob was already turning on that idea, even as he best embodied it, with the corkscrew hair Jimi Hendrix would later admit to imitating. The tumble of words, images, ire and spleen on "Rolling Stone" shape-shifts easily into music forms 10 or 20 years away, like punk, grunge or hip-hop. Looking at the character in the lyric, you ask the question "How quickly could she have plunged from high society to 'scrounging' for her 'next meal'?" Perhaps it is a glance into the future; perhaps it's just fiction, a screenplay distilled into one song.

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It must have been hard to be or be around Dylan then; that unblinking eye was turning on everybody and everything. But for all the tirading, the real mischief is in its ear-biting humor. "If you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" is the T-shirt. But the line that I like the best is "You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns/When they all did tricks for you/You never understood that it ain't no good/You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you."

The playing on this track — by the likes of guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Al Kooper — is so alive and immediate that it's like you're getting to see the paint splash the canvas. As is often the case with Bob in the studio, the musicians don't fully know the song. It's like the first touch. They're getting to know it, and you can feel their joy of discovery as they're experiencing it.

When the desire to communicate is met with an equal and opposite urge not to compromise in order to communicate — when those two things are in perfect balance — is when everything happens with rock & roll. And that's what Dylan achieved in "Rolling Stone." I don't know or particularly care who this song is about — though I've met a few people who have claimed it was about them (some who weren't even born in 1965). The real thrill for me was that "once upon a time" in the world, a song this radical was a hit on the radio. The world was changed by a cranky voice, a romantic spirit, somebody who cared enough about an unrequited love to write such a devastatingly caustic put-down.

I love to hear a song that changes everything. That's the reason I'm in a band: David Bowie's "Heroes," Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)," Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." But at the top of this dysfunctional family tree sits the king of spitting fire himself, the juggler of beauty and truth, our own Willy Shakespeare in a polka-dot shirt. It's why every songwriter after him carries his baggage and why this lowly Irish bard would proudly carry his luggage. Any day.

"Mr. Tambourine Man" (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
By David Crosby

As far as I can tell, the Byrds' recording of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was the first time anyone put really good poetry on the radio The Beatles hadn't gotten to "Eleanor Rigby" or "A Day in the Life" — they were still writing "Ooh, baby." But Bob's lyrics were exquisite. "To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free" — that was the line that got me. At the time of "Mr. Tambourine Man," I think he was finding himself as a poet. He was learning to be beautiful.

I had seen Bob back at Gerde's Folk City in New York years earlier. Everyone was talking about him. I saw him play and thought, "Fuck, I can sing better than that. Why are they making all that fuss about him?" Then I started really listening. And I almost quit, right there. Truthfully, I think the Byrds were Bob's best translators. Bob did not envision this song the way we did it. When he came to the studio where we were rehearsing and heard us do "Mr. Tambourine Man," he was stoked. I think hearing our version was part of what made Dylan shift over to being a rocker. He thought, "Wait a minute, that's my song," and he heard how it could be different.

Next: Lucinda Williams and Marcus Mumford

"Masters of War" (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
By Lucinda Williams

"Masters of War" is the best anti-war song ever written. It's so honest. That song, for me, set the standard as far as protest songs go. It's a really angry one, and I'm a really angry, outspoken anti-war person. "You that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks/I just want you to know I can see through your masks" – it's a very effective song.

I still love to perform "Masters of War." I sang it right after 9/11, and I pissed some people off. Everyone was running around waving the flag, and they didn't understand what the song was about. They felt it was an insult. A friend of mine was in the audience at one of the shows, and someone stood up and said, "She shouldn't be doing this song." Then I got a letter from a fan who thought it was anti-American. It really surprised me. We need songs like this. It's the only song I can think of that deals with the guys behind the desk, the military-industrial complex – which we all know is happening. Nothing's changed. It's still the same story, with different names.

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"Not Dark Yet" (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
By Marcus Mumford

"I Was Young When I Left Home" is my favorite Dylan song of all time. But of his later stuff, "Not Dark Yet" is the one I really love. It's quite a reflective song about when the shit hits the fan: "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." He's just the most extraordinary songwriter. You can always recognize the emotions in the lyrics that he writes, but they're never obvious – the feelings are identifiable, but not cliché. And he's got so much stamina as a songwriter. He just keeps going, keeps churning out these amazing songs. That's how you do it, man. If you want someone to be your hero as a musician, I don't think there's anyone better than him.

Next: Sinéad O'Connor and Dave Stewart

"Idiot Wind" (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
By Sinéad O'Connor

"Idiot Wind" was the song that made me want to be a singer. I loved that he was saying these terrible things that you couldn't possibly say to anyone in real life: "Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth/You're an idiot, babe, it's a wonder that you still know how to breathe." I mean, Jesus. I'd love to fucking say that to someone. I learned from that that music is a place where you can say anything, all the stuff that's forbidden, whether it's "I love you" or "I hate you."

I like the way the song starts, too: "Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press." He's talking to a woman, whether it's a relative or a friend, who has bought into the idea of him as a famous person and forgotten that he's just an ordinary person. "Even you, you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at/I couldn't believe after all these years, you didn't know me better than that, sweet lady." Whoever it is has obviously let him down quite badly.

The way he delivers the words is fantastic. This voice just snarling, not bothering to hide anything. The rest of us are all busy trying to be nice people, when actually we're fucking bastards underneath it all – whereas he was quite comfortable letting the bastard hang out. He was way ahead of his time on that. The only people getting close to him now are rappers.

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"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
By Dave Stewart

I remember some friends and I got Blonde on Blonde and went back to my little place in London with some Thai grass. We opened the vinyl and looked at the cover and all the pictures – it was like entering an amazing world. Then we put it on and we were lying on our backs listening. And when we first heard "Sad-Eyed Lady," we didn't realize how long it was. At one point I said, "Is it me, or has this song been playing for 15 minutes?" But you were just drawn into it with all those surrealistic lyrics: "The kings of Tyrus with their convict list/Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss." It was like listening to a Dalí painting come to life. That song was a turning point for me, like, "Hang on, I knew he showed us you could write about anything, but now we've gone right down the worm hole!" It was stream-of-consciousness poetry set to music, and it all fit.

Next: Bob Weir and Boz Scaggs

"The Times They Are A-Changin'" (The Times They Are A-Changin', 1964)
By Bob Weir

Back in high school, there were two things that I marked my days by. Every few months I’d get a new Beatles record, and every few months I’d get a new Dylan record. "The Times They are A-Changin'" has always been one of my favorites. I wasn’t a politico back then, but he managed to articulate in undeniable poetic terms everything I was thinking and feeling at the time.

The song has an open-ended kind of spirituality to it, equally about faith and reason. He was telling the government to lose their self interests. He was telling journalists to use a lighter hand. And when he sang, "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand," he was locked into an eternal truth there. His main message seemed to be, “Use your head, and follow your heart, and above all, be open.”

His records helped Jerry and I bond when we first started playing together. We were kids when we met; I was 16, Jerry was 21. We went and saw Dylan in 1965 at the Berkeley Community Center when he was pounding out with the guys in the Band. He did his first set solo and then the second set with the Band, to the considerable annoyance of some “purists” who booed. That seemed to me totally contrary to what he was saying in his early songs, about being open.

Jerry and Dylan later became great buddies. They understood what it was like to be idolized beyond any reasonable standard. They became tight right after John Lennon was shot, so they were pretty much the only two guys who knew what it was like to be held to that standard. We toured with Dylan in 1987, and being in an improvisational situation, we developed a musical bond that a lot of folks don’t get to have. Sometimes we missed the wave, but when we caught it, it was a beautiful thing that made life worth living. If we could do it all over again, I wish we had played "The Times They are A-Changin'."

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"It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
By Boz Scaggs

When Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, it was like a clarion call that a new generation had arrived that was ready to kick out the jams. It was a new morality, the old order was out, it was a blazing new world and it was gonna be weird and fast and very funny. "It Takes A Lot To Laugh..." has that wonderful imagery of the open, high and lonesome railroad, which came out of the beat generation. One of my favorite lines in all of Dylan is "can't buy a thrill" – it's a lament, in a way. And from a musical standpoint, it has a great dynamic." You can play it in a loping country style, and you can play it like a B.B. King style bluesy shuffle. Mike Bloomfield, who plays guitar on it, helped bring Dylan into the new electric rock & roll world. He had that frenetic, nervous sound and energy, and he knew just what to do with Bob Dylan.

Next: Roger McGuinn and Merle Haggard

"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" (Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. II, 1971)
By Roger McGuinn

In 1968, the Byrds went to Nashville to record an album of country music. Dylan had independently gone in a similar direction, though we hadn't been in touch with him – he dropped out of sight for a couple of years after he had his motorcycle accident [in 1966]. Gary Usher, our producer, managed to get us a demo of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" from the Basement Tapes or something – Dylan hadn't released it. My interpretation? The song was about his recuperation time in Woodstock. "Gate won't close / railings froze / Get your mind off wintertime / You ain't goin' nowhere." It was cold, snowy, icy and lonely, but his sweetheart was coming to see him. They were gonna have a lot of fun in the easy chair. But when he starts singing about Genghis Khan, it's hard to know what he was thinking. I remember when we tried to play it on a Nashville country station, the DJ said "What's it about?" All I could say was, "I don't know, it's a Dylan song."

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"Blowin' in the Wind" (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
By Merle Haggard
 
I don’t know if songwriting can get any better than “Blowin’ in the Wind” ­– an anthem for the civil rights movement that was both clever and had an impeccable melody. It was very timely when he wrote it in 1962. The answers to the problems of the current conditions were all up in the air, and they still are today. It still hits me. I just think it’s great, absolutely wonderful writing.
 
He said that he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 10 minutes. I’ve had songs like that: once you understand what your thoughts are, you’ve just got to get a pen and get it down quick. And when somebody wants to know what time it is, you say, “I don’t give a fuck, I need to write something down.”
 
I first became aware of Bob when Johnny Cash started recording his songs in 1964. People in the country department recognized him from his association with Cash. I’ve always preferred the acoustic Dylan, though I can understand where he was going later when he went electric.

He’s always improving, trying to create. He thinks all the time. I’ve never seen him when he looked like he wasn’t doing something, including the whole time we toured together in 2005. I was on a television show in Los Angeles with him seven years ago with Jerry Lee Lewis and Willie Nelson. He stayed in the wings and never did talk to nobody. Somebody said, “What’s he doing over there?” and I said, “Fuck, he’s writing a goddamn standard.”

See all of our Bob Dylan at 70 coverage here.

From The Archives Issue 1131: May 26, 2011