Bob Dylan's Five Greatest Story Songs
Right, Bob Dylan is a songwriter, not a page poet, not a novelist (apart from Tarantula, written mid-'60s, published 1971, valorized by only die-hards) or really a page writer at all (apart from the memoir Chronicles Vol. 1, published 2004, valorized by, oh, everyone). So why’d he win the damn Nobel Prize for Literature? (Besides, you know, coining more memorable phrases than anyone this side of Shakespeare or Churchill.) Maybe it’s because he’s such a damn artful storyteller -- when he’s not just stringing together glittering phrases or pouring out his broken heart, Dylan’s got quite a narrative gift, even (or especially) when he filters it through his equally fecund gift for cockeyed surrealism.
Here are five prime examples of Dylan the storyteller, in chronological order.
“Bob Dylan's 115th Dream” (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
"I was standing on the Mayflower when I thought I spotted some land,” goes the beginning of Dylan’s shaggiest-dog story ever, in which the narrator’s ship pulls up to then-modern-day America and promptly gets arrested "for carrying harpoons," then tries to eat (“I ordered some suzette, I said / ‘Could you please make that crepe?’”), bums around New York City (“The man says, ‘Get out of here / I’ll tear you limb from limb’ / I said, ‘You know they refused Jesus, too’ / He said, ‘You’re not Him’”), and makes his way back to the ship. So yes, it’s narrative, even if it comes across just as much like a stand-up routine.
“She's Your Lover Now” (The Bootleg Series Vol. 1, rec. 1966/rel. 1991)
Unreleased for 25 years because the studio take he cut with the Hawks (later the Band) broke down before it finished (Dylan also recorded a full demo that was never intended for release), “She’s Your Lover Now” remains one of Dylan’s most realized, and most devastating, story songs. It’s three in a room: Dylan, the fresh-minted ex that he can’t get over, and her hapless new man. The lyric swivels between his beseeching her (“But I ain’t a judge, you don’t have to be nice to me”) and snapping at him (“Yes, you, you just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach?”); the listener becomes an eavesdropper who can’t stop cocking an ear.
“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
It was difficult to choose just one song from John Wesley Harding for this: “All Along the Watchtower” and “Drifter's Escape” are equally indelible tiny narratives, and both were given definitive readings by Jimi Hendrix and Patti Smith, respectively. But this loopy parable-cum-farce is every bit as unsettling as those more-familiar compositions, piling on seemingly mundane details (“‘Yes, that’s the one,’ said the stranger / As quiet as a mouse”) till he breaks the tension with the utterly gnomic coup de grace, “Nothing is revealed.” Dylan’s even got a moral for us: “So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’ / Help him with his load / And don’t go mistaking Paradise / For that home across the road.” Thanks, Aesop.
“Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
The greatest of Dylan’s many love songs may be this cross-contintental, years-spanning epic ballad -- following a couple’s shifting fortunes as they meet, mate, and part multiple times through the '60s and '70s -- which opens Blood on the Tracks, maybe his greatest album. Proof that some stories never end (or at least never stop being rewritten), the version of "Tangled" on Dylan’s 1984 concert album Real Live features several completely updated verses. “I didn’t just change it 'cause I was singing it one night and thought, ‘Oh, I’m bored with the old words,’” he told Bill Flanagan in 1985. “The old ones were never quite filled in... When I sang it the next night I knew it was right. It was right enough so that I wanted to put it down and wipe the old one out.”
“Hurricane” (Desire, 1976)
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” goes the famous line from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; mission accomplished here -- anybody expecting documentary from Dylan got only so far (and continues to, cf. much of Chronicles Vol. One). The lyrics of “Hurricane,” Dylan and cowriter Jacques Levy’s tall but vigorous retelling of the trial and tribulations of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter -- accused of a triple murder, despite the boxer’s maintaining his innocence -- exaggerated the details for dramatic effect. (Among other things, Carter was never the “number-one contender” for the world middleweight title.). In fact, Dylan was even taken to court for libel by an eyewitness to the killings, but the charges would be dropped, as would those against Carter, in 1988, after he’d served nineteen years in prison.