People who haven't paid that much attention to Bob Dylan's career often see him as a creature from the 1960s, the folk singer that plugged in and released "Like a Rolling Stone" before settling into a comfortable existence as an oldies act. His many fans know he continued churning out stunningly brilliant songs long after the Seventies began, and even today he remains an extremely vital artist. And as his MusiCares speech proved, he's still rather feisty and has a lot to say. We asked our readers to select their favorite Dylan songs released after the 1960s. Here are the results.
Artists are rarely the best judges of their own work. A piece they consider a career-defining masterpiece might land with a thud, while something they churned out quickly and relegated to the cutting room floor might be hailed as a lost treasure when it finally sees the light of day. Take Dylan's 1983 tune "Blind Willie McTell." He cut it during the Infidels sessions, ultimately chucking it from the album in favor of clearly sub-par tracks like "Union Sundown" and "Man of Peace." Thankfully, it quickly fell into the hands of bootleggers. "I didn't think I recorded it right," he told Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder in 1984. "But I don't know why that stuff gets out on me. I mean, it never seems to get out on other people."
He was certainly wrong that he was alone in dealing with bootleggers, and most feel he was wrong to think that the song wasn't recorded right. He finally released it on the first Bootleg Series in 1991, and it wasn't until the Band put together a new arrangement on their 1993 disc Jericho that Dylan finally relented and began playing the song live. It's been in rotation ever since.
By the summer of 1973 Bob Dylan was in danger of being written off as a has-been. His last album of new material was nearly three years in the past, and he'd barely been seen, popping up only at the occasional Band gig and the Concert For Bangladesh. But after he accepted a role in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, he agreed to cut a few tunes for the soundtrack. The clear highlight, which he recorded with Roger McGuinn at an L.A. studio, is about a weary gunman ready to pack it all in. The simple song worked perfectly in the film and gave Dylan a much-needed hit, setting the stage for his huge comeback tour the following year. The song has since been covered by everybody from Eric Clapton to Guns N' Roses and Avril Lavigne.
When Bob Dylan cuts a song from an album, it's extraordinarily rare for him to revisit it when he heads back into the studio for the follow-up, especially when he's already handed the tune to another artist. But there was something about "Mississippi," an outtake from the Time Out of Mind sessions that was given to Sheryl Crow, that stuck around Dylan's mind. He gave it another go when he self-produced Love and Theft in 2001, finally working out an arrangement he deemed worthy of release. It's probably the single strongest song on the album, but the three earlier versions released on Tell Tale Signs are well worth hearing.
The kick-off song to 1983's Infidels is a brilliant six-minute tune about a twisted figure "born with a snake in both fists while a hurricane was blowing." Biblical references pour out of every verse, even though this is the album where Dylan began transitioning out of his gospel period. The song has been played live a number of times, but the definitive version came from a 1984 Letterman appearance. Backed by the obscure new wave group Plugz, Dylan delivered a snarling rendition in which he sounded possessed by the demonic creature from the song. It's hard to imagine what brilliance might have come had he brought that band on the road, but Letterman was the first and last time they played together.
Blood on the Tracks came out right around the time that Bob Dylan's marriage fell apart, so many people assumed the album's numerous breakup tunes were about his wife Sara. "When I'm listening to Blood on the Tracks," Jakob Dykan said, "that's about my parents." Well, not all of it. Dylan's lyric notebook reveals that the mournful "Simple Twist of Fate" was originally titled "4th Street Affair." It confirmed long-standing suspicions that the song is a look back at Dylan's early-1960s relationship with Suze Rotolo, who lived with him in an apartment on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village. She broke his heart when she sailed off to study in Italy, which explains the reference to the "waterfront docks" in the song.
The song is one of the few pre-1997 tunes he sang on his 2014 tour, and he continued to tweak the lyrics. "You should have met me in '58," he sang most nights. "That way we could have avoided a simple twist of fate." He seems to be saying anyone that met him after he became a professional musician was bound to get sucked into the whirlwind of his fame, ultimately dooming any relationship.
Dylan was just 56 when he recorded Time Out of Mind, but he crammed a lot of living into those years and already felt like an old man facing the inevitably of death. Regret, loss and mortality come up again and again. The starkest song is "Not Dark Yet," a six-and-a-half-minute track that is surely one of the most depressing and moving songs in Dylan's catalog. "I was born here and I'll die here against my will," he sings. "I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still/Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from."
Dylan's career was in a real upswing in 2000. Time Out of Mind, his first album of original material in seven years, won a Grammy for Album of the Year, and the shows on his Never Ending Tour were absolutely amazing night after night. He took this energy back into the studio when director Curtis Hanson asked him to write a song for The Wonder Boys, a film about a college professor (played by Michael Douglas) that gets deeply involved in the chaotic life of a troubled student. The resulting song perfectly captured the vibe of the movie, and it won Dylan an Academy Award for Best Original Song. It also began every show of his 2014 tour, sending off a clear message to people that showed up expecting to hear old hits: "I used to care, but things have changed."
Blood on the Tracks is filled with songs where Dylan looks back on an ideal relationship that fell completely to pieces. In a rare move, he's even willing to share some of the blame. "Now there's a wall between us, somethin' there's been lost," he sings on "Shelter From the Storm." "I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed." But, as always with Dylan, there's no going back, and she's now merely a fond memory. An alternate take of the song was used on the soundtrack for Jerry Maguire. Should they ever got around to a Blood on the Tracks Bootleg Series, we'll hopefully get to hear a lot more like it.
If you want to learn the complex history of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's trial and imprisonment for a 1966 triple murder he swore he didn't commit, there are far better sources than Dylan's 1975 song. Co-written with playwright Jacques Levy, the tune was an unabashed work of advocacy on behalf of the boxer. Key details are flubbed, and the narrative is trimmed to make Carter seem like an absolute saint. Although he was almost certainly innocent, the truth is far more complex. But it doesn't really matter. "Hurricane" is extremely powerful, and although it took another decade, Carter was eventually freed from prison.
It's hard for people today to quite understand how stunning it was when Dylan released Blood on the Tracks in January of 1975. There hadn't been an undeniably great Dylan record in six very long years, and on the previous year's reunion tour with the Band he often seemed to be sleepwalking through his old hits. But once fans dropped the needle and kicked off the journey with "Tangled Up in Blue," it became clear that none of genius that fueled Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited had faded with time. "Tangled Up in Blue" is an odyssey through time and space about two star-crossed lovers. Never happy with the lyrics, Dylan re-wrote a large portion of them for his 1984 European tour. Check it out on the otherwise shaky Real Live.