A look at Bob Dylan's most iconic lyrics

Ranked as the greatest songwriter of all time by Rolling Stone, and awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, Bob Dylan can make a solid claim for the crown as music's top poet and storyteller.

Newly minted Nobel laureate recently ranked as greatest songwriter of all time by Rolling Stone

Nobel announcement for 2016 literature prize

5 years ago
Initial Swedish announcement and reaction followed by the English version 0:39

Ranked as the greatest songwriter of all time by Rolling Stone, and awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, Bob Dylan can make a solid claim for the crown as music's top poet and storyteller.

Here's a brief and altogether incomplete look at some of his best lyrics.

Subterranean Homesick Blues 

Dylan himself said much of his Subterranean Homesick Blues comes from Chuck Berry and the scat songs of the 1940s, but there's good reason to suggest beat writer Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans was the inspiration for Dylan's breathless musing backed by clingy clangy guitar riffs.

The song captured the cultural mood of the 1960s, speaking to listeners about civil rights ("Better stay away from those, that carry 'round a fire hose"), drugs ("Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine, I'm on the pavement thinkin' about the government") and the decade's emerging counterculture ("You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").

The "weatherman" lyric inspired the name for the radical leftist group the Weatherman, later called the Weather Underground, while Radiohead paid homage to the song with the track Subterranean Homesick Alien on the1997 album OK Computer.

Like a Rolling Stone 

Thick with biting cynicism and resentment, Dylan's story about a debutante known as Miss Lonely and her fall from grace from the upper class ("You used to laugh about, everybody that was hanging out. Now you don't talk so loud, now you don't seem so proud") apparently saved his career.

Dylan had expressed similar feelings of being alone and a loss of meaning in his music career ("How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone") and even considered ending it before the song was released.

Like a Rolling Stone became one of his most popular songs, and an early manuscript, with lyrics scribbled on four sheets of hotel letterhead stationery, that sold for more than $2 million US in 2014.

Positively 4th Street

Written as a sort of polemic to no one in particular — at least to no one explicitly — Dylan's Positively 4th Street was a diss track before diss tracks were even a thing.

"I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, and just for that one moment I could be you. Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, you'd know what a drag it is to see you."

Many have been rumoured to be the target of Dylan's ire, including those closest to him ("You've got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend, when I was down you just stood there grinnin'. You've got a lotta nerve to say you got a helping hand to lend, you just want to be on the side that's winnin'"), but with so many possible candidates, many have interpreted the song as Dylan penning a casual four-letter word to his critics in general.

The Times They are a-Changin'

If, as he claimed, Dylan intended to create an anthem with The Times They are a-Changin', no one can rightly argue that he failed. 

Like with Subterranean Homesick Blues, the song reflected the political and social upheaval of the 1960s, and in particular called on those who resisted change to embrace it. 

"Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don't criticize what you can't understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin'. Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin'!"

The Times They are a-Changin' has been covered by many artists, including Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, and is perhaps Dylan's most well-known song.

Desolation Row

At over 11 minutes long, Desolation Row is an odyssey of biblical, literary and historical imagery, weaving Nero, Noah and Romeo into his surreal vision and version of Gomorrah.

"Across the street they've nailed the curtains, they're getting ready for the feast, the Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest. They are spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured, then they'll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words. And the Phantom's shouting to skinny girls, 'Get outta here if you don't know,' Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row."

Dylan's baroque world building in the song has been compared to the works of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, and Dylan himself described it as a minstrel strong.

Visions of Johanna

Among his fans, Dylan's Visions of Johanna is considered his best lyrical work. The song finds Dylan in a room with a woman named Louise and her lover, with her presence and their intimacy reminding Dylan of a woman named Johanna, possibly his former lover.

"Louise, she's all right, she's just near. She's delicate and seems like the mirror. But she just makes it all too concise and too clear, that Johanna's not here. The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face, where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place."

Many have speculated the Johanna in the song is Joan Baez, who was perviously romantically involved with Dylan, including Baez herself.

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

Dylan's indictment of consumerism, capitalism and contemporary American culture contains some of his most memorable lyrics.

"Our preachers preach of evil fates, teachers teach that knowledge waits. Can lead to hundred-dollar plates, goodness hides behind its gates. But even the president of the United States, sometimes must have to stand naked."

One famous lyric, "That he not busy being born is busy dying," was quoted by Jimmy Carter during his speech at the National Democratic Convention in 1976.

4th Time Around

Dylan's 4th Time Around is simultaneously a blasé and explosive account of a row between two lovers.

The woman's heated words are contrasted by the man's apparent apathy to the whole situation ("She screamed 'til her face got so red, then she fell on the floor. And I covered her up and then thought I'd go look through her drawer"), an attitude that takes on another dimension when it's revealed in the end that the man is involved with someone else ("And when I was through, I filled up my shoe and brought it to you. And you, you took me in, you loved me then").

The song's composition and structure has been compared with Norwegian Wood by The Beatles, a track many considered to be influenced by Dylan and seen as the Fab Four's first serous foray into songwriting, leading some to speculate Dylan wrote 4th Time Around as a dig at the band. 

In particular, the line, "I never asked for your crutch, now don't ask for mine," has been interpreted as Dylan warning the band to stop using him as, well, a lyrical crutch.

When you have to remind the Beatles to stop copying your songwriting, perhaps your claim for the crown as music's top poet and storyteller shouldn't be too much in doubt.


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