Bob Dylan's Greatest Songwriting Collaborations - Rolling Stone
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Bob Dylan’s Greatest Collaborations

From Jacques Levy on ‘Hurricane’ to Tom Petty and ‘Jammin’ Me’

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Bob Dylan and Tom Petty perform at Farm Aid, 1985.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

All but one of the tracks on Bob Dylan’s new album Together Through Life are co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. It’s the most help he’s ever had on a single album, but hardly the first time Dylan has written with a partner. Over the past 45 years he’s shared credit with Tom Petty, Rick Danko, Sam Shepard, Carole Bayer Sager and even Gene Simmons and Michael Bolton. Here are the stories behind five of those collaborations.

“Hurricane” (with Jacques Levy)

Dylan teamed up with New York play director and songwriter Jacques Levy to write most of the songs on 1975’s Desire. Dylan was inspired to write “Hurricane” after reading Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s memoir The Sixteenth Round, though he struggled with the lyrics since he hadn’t composed many topical songs since the early 1960s. Levy’s experience with playwriting proved to be an asset. “Bob wasn’t sure he could write a song,” Levy told Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin. “He was just filled with all these feelings about the Hurricane. The beginning of the song is like stage directions. ‘Pistol shots ring out in a bar-room night.’ ” The tune is a classic, but Levy and Dylan got several of the facts about the case wrong and were later sued by one of the people mentioned in the song.

“Silvio” (with Robert Hunter)

During rehearsals for Dylan and the Grateful Dead’s 1987 stadium tour, Robert Hunter supplied Dylan with the lyrics to this barn burner — which is the clear highlight of 1988’s Down In The Groove. It wasn’t a hit, but Dylan treated it like it was, playing it live 595 times between 1988 and 2004.

“Brownsville Girl” (with Sam Shepard)

On Knocked Out Loaded Dylan’s sole credits came on two of eight songs — the others were either covers or co-written with Tom Petty, Carole Bayer Sager or great American playwright Sam Shepard. The 11-minute “Brownsville Girl” is, however, Dylan at his absolute finest. Co-written with Shepard, the song is a hysterical stream of conscience epic that repeatedly refers to standing in line to see the 1950 Gregory Peck picture The Gunfighter. “Doesn’t matter who came up with such lines as ‘She said even the swap meets around here are getting corrupt’ and ‘I didn’t know whether to duck or run, so I ran,’ ” wrote rock critic Robert Christgau. “They’re classic Dylan.”

“Jammin’ Me” (with Tom Petty)

You’ll be hard pressed to find another Dylan penned tune that name checks Joe Piscopo, Vanessa Redgrave and Eddie Murphy. Dylan wrote the tune with Tom Petty and Mike Campbell during the 1987 True Confessions co-headlining tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “I wrote the lyrics with Bob Dylan at the Sunset Marquis,” Petty said. “Bob and I poured over a newspaper, appropriating the lyrics. Then I took the lyrics I’d written with Bob and put them to a track Mike had put together.”

“Steel Bars” (with Michael Bolton)

Many were shocked when they saw the liner notes to Michael Bolton’s 1991 hit album Time, Love and Tenderness and saw that the final track was co-written with Bob Dylan. “Someone who works with Dylan called me up and said, ‘Bob Dylan would like to write with you,’ ” Bolton said. “I was awed. I told him, ‘I don’t even know how I could write a lyric when working with you … I’m too intimidated.’ But then we started messing around with some chords and wrote ‘Steel Bars,’ a song about obsession. It took us two sessions to write, and when I left, I was told, ‘Bob likes you and he wants you to come back.’ “

A version of this list was originally published in May 2009.


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