by Hillel Schenker
BOB DYLAN, the poet of my generation, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I’m in the camp that definitely believes he deserves it. Gidon, the photographer/owner of nearby Cafe Betzalel, says that one of his friends was wondering what the committee in Oslo was sniffing. The friend responded: “The times they are a changin.” As The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman wrote back in 2013, Dylan, along with Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, is the outstanding poet/musician of the generation, and clearly the most influential. Although it was The Who that wrote and performed “My Generation,” it was Dylan, despite not wanting the title of voice of anything, who was clearly the voice of my generation.
Back in New York in the early 60s, we read Sing Out! and Broadside, as folk and protest music began its revival after American culture got out from under the yoke of the McCarthy era. There was the troika of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton, all of whom made a pilgrimage to visit our hospital-ridden hero Woody Guthrie, and all of whom wrote songs dedicated to Woody that were published in Broadside. Dylan went, and continues to go through many metamorphoses; Ochs, the ultimate rebel, tragically burned out; Paxton is the only one who remained true to the troubadour folk tradition, still writing broadsides and biting commentary put to music about the issues of the day.
I was one of the only 5,000 people who bought Dylan’s first LP, titled simply “Bob Dylan.” I also remember an early interview with him on a New York radio station, in which he said that it was his dream “to sing like Bobbie (“Do You Wanna Dance?”) Freeman.
Then came “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which Peter, Paul and Mary sang at the 1963 March on Washington.
It was Friday night, November 22, 1963 on Kibbutz Barkai that I sang together with Nava what I thought was the first-ever performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” in Israel. We had just arrived at the kibbutz a few weeks earlier, and were performing at a home-grown talent evening. In the middle of the song, Ezra, the night watchman who always sang The Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” at kibbutz weddings, opened the dining room door and said “I just heard that President Kennedy was shot!” No one believed him, and we continued the evening. Later I was to learn that on the same night, on Kibbutz Beit Alpha, folk singer Judy Silver also performed “Blowin’ in the Wind.” What we had in common is that we had initially heard and sung Dylan’s songs in the Hashomer Hatzair left-Zionist youth movement, she in London. A year or two later, Nava and I, together with Uri Dagan, sang “The Times They are a Changin’” at a regional May 1st International Workers Day celebration at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel.
I also knew that Dylan visited his friend Bob Yellin from The Greenbriar Boys when he was living on another Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, Ein Dor, and considered applying for membership. The Greenbriar Boys played an important role in Dylan’s career, because when he opened for them at Gerde’s Folk City in the Village, New York Times reporter Robert Shelton was there, wrote a rave review, which led to the contract at Columbia Records.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE Dylan anecdotes is about the day he was sitting around in a Greenwich Village apartment, and folksinger Ramblin Jack Elliott, with his cowboy boots and ten-gallon hat, admitted that he was actually a Jew from Brooklyn. Dylan burst out in hysterical laughter. Years later, I sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” once again at my son Adi’s bar mitsve, this time in Tel Aviv. I was convinced that Dylan/Zimmerman was inspired by his own bar mitsve back in Hibbing, Minnesota when he wrote the lines “How many roads must a man walk down/before they can call him a man?”
Of course, I went to see all three Dylan performances in Israel. The first one in 1987 in Park Hayarkon was a catastrophe. Dylan was in one of his I-don’t-care-what-the-audience-expects modes, and the concert was saved only by Byrd’s soloist Roger McGuinn doing Dylan better than Dylan, and the great, little-known at the time back-up band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. At the second concert, at Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv in 1993, Dylan apparently decided to compensate the audience for his 1987 behavior, and he gave an outstanding and communicative performance of choice songs from his ever-growing repertoire. His final appearance so far in 2011 (he’s only 75, Tony Bennett was 88, Jimmy Reed 88 and Charles Aznavour almost 90 when they last performed in Tel Aviv), was very controversial. Some raved about his raspy blues style, but I wasn’t impressed, felt he was losing his voice, and was not doing justice to his own songs. Some of Israel’s best rock critics felt otherwise.
SO NOW COMES the part where I list my favorite Dylan songs, something which I’m sure many of you are doing. I have been accused of being stuck musically in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, but here I call on the back up of Rolling Stone magazines’ staff of rock critics, all of whom agree that, “objectively,” the best music was written in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. And I will also admit that somewhere in the ’80s, Dylan went off on his own musical tangent, and I no longer felt he was the voice of the generation. Though I also admit that I don’t really know much of his later music. So here goes, my top 20 Dylan songs. Ah yes, and I left out “With God on Our Side,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Girl from the North Country,” “That’s Alright Ma,” and so many more:
20) “Like a Rolling Stone” –- Considered by many the greatest rock song ever written. “How does it feel/ ah how does it feel?/ To be on your own,/ with no direction home/Like a complete unknown,/ like a rolling stone.”
19) “If Dogs Run Free (Why Not We?)” -– This is here primarily thanks to Israeli radio personality and sometimes singer Dori Ben-Ze’ev, who played it every night on free-wheeling radio program.
18) “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” -– An early, very simple and lyrical love song, at least for one night. From his John Wesley Harding album, his eighth album and his first following his near-fatal motorcycle accident.
17) “Just Like a Woman” -– “She takes just like a woman./She makes love just like a woman./And then she aches just like a woman./But she breaks just like a little girl.” I particularly like Richie Haven’s version, but Dylan also does a good job.
16) “Ballad of a Thin Man” — The ultimate ballad of 1960s psychedelic, anti-conformity rebelliousness and disorientation. “Something is happening here/And you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”
15) “All Along The Watchtower” — “There are many here among us/ Who feel that life is but a joke.” Jimi Hendrix did a masterful performance, but Dylan also does a good job.
14) “Maggie’s Farm” — The ultimate song of personal rebellion: “Well, I try my best/To be just like I am/But everybody wants you/To be just like them/They say sing while you slave and I just get bored/I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
13) “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” And that incredible video, with Allen Ginsberg in the background like an Old Testament prophet.
12) “Mr. Tambourine Man” — more beautiful, psychedelic dreaming.
11) “It Ain’t Me, Babe” — During a certain part of my life, one of my personal theme songs. “You say you’re lookin’ for someone/Who’s never weak but always strong/To protect you and defend you/Whether you are right or wrong/Someone to open each and every door/But it ain’t me, babe . . .”
10) “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” — A companion song to “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”
9) “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” — The second Dylan song that Peter, Paul and Mary covered. I once rewrote the lyrics slightly to save a relationship.
8) “Desolation Row” — one of Dylan’s most haunting, powerful songs ever. “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood/With his memories in a trunk/Passed this way an hour ago/With his friend, a jealous monk/ Now he looked so immaculately frightful/As he bummed a cigarette/Then he went off sniffing drainpipes/And reciting the alphabet/You would not think to look at him/But he was famous long ago/For playing the electric violin/On Desolation Row.” And to think that there are those who don’t believe that Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature! Both Dylan, and particularly Nina Simone, do a beautiful job on this song.
7) “Masters of War” — one of the most powerful anti-war songs ever. As President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address just before this was written, watch out for that “military-industrial complex!”
6) “The Times They are a-Changin’” — “Come gather ’round people/Wherever you roam/And admit that the waters/Around you have grown/And accept it that soon/You’ll be drenched to the bone.” Still so true, whether in Israel or in the U.S. A call to fight the good fight.
5) “My Back Pages” — “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” Some of the wisest words ever written. The version that was sung at Bob’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Roger McGuinn, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Tom Petty, is outstanding.
4) “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” — How could someone write such brilliant lyrics at the age of 21? “I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’/ I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest/Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty/Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison/And the executioner’s face is always well hidden . . .” In addition to Dylan, Aviv Gefen has a very powerful Hebrew-language version of the song, sometimes sung at Israeli anti-war rallies.
3) “Blowin’ in the Wind” — Dylan’s most iconic song, the song I have personally sung more than any other.
And now we come to what I consider his two masterpieces, if it’s possible to choose just two out of his tremendous repertoire:
2) “Forever Young” — “May your hands always be busy/ May your feet always be swift/May you have a strong foundation/ When the winds of changes shift/May your heart always be joyful/And may your song always be sung/May you stay forever young”. Only Dylan, with The Band.
1) “I Shall Be Released” — “Standing next to me in this lonely crowd/Is a man who swears he’s not to blame./All day long I hear him shout so loud,/Crying out that he was framed./I see my light come shining/From the west onto the east./Any day now, any day how/I shall be released.” Dylan and the the Band sing it with the ensemble at the end of Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz.” Nina Simone also covered it. Somehow, there is something extremely uplifting about this song. A gospel intensity. A case where it’s the totality of the song, not just the lyrics
If you’re in Tel Aviv, go see the 75th Birthday Dylan Exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot (the Diaspora Museum).
Hillel Schenker is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv. This article is republished with his permission from his blog at the Times of Israel.