Bob dylan celebrated his 80th birthday this week, a remarkable milestone for one of the greatest songwriters of his – or any – generation.
A timeless man who has constantly sought to escape those who follow him through multiple periods of aesthetic evolution, Dylan is an artist who has worn multiple masks throughout his time in the public eye.
From his first press biography – filled with half-truths and mischievous inventions – to his role as a protest singer; to become electric to escape the public eye via a “motorcycle accident”; from his return in “Blood On The Tracks” to his embrace of Christianity, to his current chapter – arguably kicked off by the mighty “Time Out Of Mind” of 1997 – it’s unclear which Dylan is the “correct”. Or maybe none of them are.
What is clear, however, is that Bob Dylan’s work will outlast all of us – a unique catalog, which speaks eloquently of the era in which it was created while constantly seeking the universal. And there is nothing more universal than love. From his debut album to his latest album, Bob Dylan has continually returned to the business of the heart – from infatuation to loss, few have channeled the specter of passion so powerfully.
Here, the authors of Clash offer personal selections from the Bob Dylan love song archive.
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‘Like a woman’
I have never been a great Dylan myself. But since almost everyone around me revere the man, I revisit periodically to see what it is. Rarely works, tbh, except in the case of this song, which absolutely haunts my bloody soul. What is it about? Dylanologists are arguing over whether he pokes fun at Andy Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick or pines for folk singer Joan Baez.
No matter. It’s about femininity in general, innit – young femininity, seen through the prism of a bruised male ego. That killer line in the middle – fog, amphetamines, pearls – is a lyrical resemblance as vivid as anything in Byron or Shakespeare, an acid stripe thrown over its fragile inamorata.
The last few days, Dylan Stans thinks he pulled that line out of his ass, lyrically speaking, on the day of the recording session. But I don’t buy it. He’s hurt and mean. Just like a little girl. (Andy Hill)
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Although he is notoriously shy about the subject matter of his songs, there is something beautiful about the blatant character of Sara, dedicated to his first wife Sara Lownds.
Merging domestic bliss and mystical imagery, this love song turns memories into myths, telling their love story like a sort of hypnotic legend. Celebrating the magic of everyday life as he remembers days spent on the beach with his children and all the places he wrote his love songs, Sara screams her love from the rooftops but focused on one life comfortable marriage rather than a fleeting passion. (Lucy Harbron)
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“Girl from the north of the country”
In the same vein as ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, ‘Girl From The North Country’ is a classic tale of the one who escaped. Firmly in its country and folk roads, the track feels like a moment of grief for having left his past behind, both the girl he loved and his old home. It’s sparse and simple, almost childish in its vulnerability as Dylan barely veils his grief behind his vows.
Ode to how the ghosts of lost loves will follow you no matter where you run, ‘Girl From North Country’ is full of tenderness and the subtle poetry of Dylan’s early works. (Lucy Harbron)
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‘Romance in Durango’
At its heart, ‘Romance in Durango’ is a love story about two lovers fleeing a gang. The song’s lyrics are: “I sold my guitar to the baker’s son / For a few crumbs and a place to hide / But I can have another one / And I’ll play for Magdalena while we roll …” . tender image of lovers doing what they can to survive. It sounds like an extension of his time filming and composing Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which was shot in Durango, Mexico.
But that’s not the only story of the song. The hero of the tale also laments the murder of a friend named Ramon. Was Ramon a lover? Is this an unrequited love story, or did the hero pull the trigger? Classically, Dylan never confirms this, instead shifting attention to the fleeing lovers. Musically, it’s filled with soaring violins, mariachi horns, and intricate guitar work that fits the story perfectly. (Nick Roseblade)
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‘Isis’ opens with the lines: “I married Isis on the fifth day of May / But I couldn’t keep her very long / So I cut my hair and rolled straight away / For the unknown wild country where I could not hurt ”.
As ‘Isis’ progresses, it is the story of a man who marries a woman called Isis. Shortly after, he went in search of adventures and treasures. As the song progresses the narrator realizes his mistake and that what he was looking for was at home the whole time “Then I came back to find Isis just to tell her I love her” .
Dylan’s genius is in the way he uses his real-life situations for his songs, but does so in a way that makes you wonder if he did or not. This is evident on ‘Isis’. The song was written during a separation from his wife Sara. Themes of parting were not lost on this rabid fanbase who tried to piece together what was going on at home in the music.
“Isis” ends with the words: “Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child / What pushes me towards you is what drives me crazy / I still remember the way you smiled / The fifth May Day in the ‘rain’ drizzle that takes us back to the beginning and is one of the most romantic things Dylan has ever written. (Nick Roseblade)
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“Temporary like Achilles”
A rare moment of nostalgia, ‘Temporary Like Achilles’ makes rejection sexy. Singing along to a slow, moody beat, you can hear Dylan throw a strap at every word. Begging, “You know I want your love / honey, why are you so hard?”, ‘Temporary Like Achilles’ creates a blues track about Dylan’s trampled feet, for once unable to get what he wants. wants.
Full of rich images of Greek gods and abstract visions in an attempt to hide his hurt ego, this is a different take on Dylan’s love songs. (Lucy Harbron)
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‘Spanish leather boots’
Undeniably one of Dylan’s greatest love songs, “Boots Of Spanish Leather” combines his best tracks; a moving and muted acoustic guitar accompaniment, supporting a heavy speech telling a story.
Dripping with sorrow and regret, it has a real notebook quality, as if it were constructed from a single liner, scribbled in the depths of sorrow. Resulting in lyrics that read more like sonnets, this track could be taken directly from the Keats or Byron anthology.
Staying on the same path from start to finish, all the emphasis remains on the tender lyrics which are subtly heartbreaking and glowing in his genius. (Lucy Harbon)
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“Entangled in the blue”
Much to Dylan’s personal protest, the 1975 album “Blood On The Tracks” is still considered a breakup album. It’s easy to see why: it’s a cycle of fractured love story songs, with characters allowing themselves to step into the lives of others, only to leave before the impact can be truly realized.
“Tangled Up In Blue” is the story of a poor boy falling in love with a rich girl, a song that sets aside class differences – “Daddy’s bank book wasn’t big enough” – and the wayward paths. A song that runs through America from the Great North Woods to Delacroix, it sort of never travels anywhere, the kind of impermanence that only leads to coming back to the same place.
The lyrics are about being cursed by minor differences, while reveling in the grace that common humanity can afford. Behind the scenes of a strip bar, Dylan ends up listening to the verses of Dante recited, before beginning his journey again. Typical of her parent album, the narrative spins and turns, turning in on itself – it’s all held together by love, however, and the feeling that a connection, once made, isn’t easily overlooked. As he says: “We always felt the same / We just saw it from a different point of view …” (Robin Murray)
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‘Absolutely sweet Marie’
A song written for ‘Blonde On Blonde’, ‘Absolute Sweet Marie’ lacks the emotional weight of ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’, and the Kerouac-inspired stream of consciousness that propels ‘Visions Of Johanna’.
What he exploits, however, is the delirium of love, the way your senses can be struck; it’s an undeniably sweet and very sultry song, filled with Dylan’s unique use of imagery – from “the Persian drunkard” to “the ruins of your balcony”, its dreamlike narrative disturbance is gently overwhelming.
A song that seems to portray Dylan as an outlaw in love – “to live outside the law you have to be honest” – it subverts these notions in a devious and satirical way that the movies arguably wouldn’t catch up with. before the dawn of the 1970s.
Amphetamine-driven Billy The Kid who “can’t give bad company his address,” Dylan just wants to love and be loved in return. (Robin Murray)
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‘Sick of love’
Much has been said about the work of Bob Dylan’s last days. With Johnny Cash, the bard has mapped out a different kind of rock lexicon, which shifts from the promise of youth to the weight of experience. ‘Love Sick’ – from his 1997 album ‘Time Out Of Mind’ – finds Dylan once chased, a sick and cynical soul unable to shake off his memories.
Austere and relentless, “Love Sick” uses an economy of phrasing – “Sometimes / Silence can be like thunder” – it’s simply unforgettable, a haiku-like resonance that distills its verbosity into a thick elixir of tar. A song that simply dares to be, ‘Love Sick’ is the most bitter lover, bound by their own feelings, desperate to be free of themselves – in the end we only find abandonment. “I don’t know what to do / I would give anything / I will be with you …” (Robin Murray)
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