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THE LEFSETZ LETTER: Bob Dylan Starter Kit


Bob Dylan Starter Kit
Spotify playlist: https://goo.gl/r3gvVK

I'm hearing people complain that Bob Dylan is not of the stature of the other Oldchella acts. This is patently untrue. The only star of his caliber is Paul McCartney, maybe in the history of rock and roll (extending Paul's fame and talent to the rest of the Beatles). Don't equate grosses with talent. Don't equate accessibility with talent. Don't equate airplay with talent. Years from now, it might be Dylan's material that maintains, certainly not that of the Stones, who have a soulful, blues-influenced sound and were great performers but were rarely groundbreaking. Waters had his moment, but it's hermetically sealed, it doesn't translate to modern times, you're looking back through binoculars. The Who is maximum rock and roll, but despite breaking ground with "Tommy," it was Bobby who was constantly testing limits. As did Neil Young, test limits and listen to his own heart, Young is Dylan-like, but I think even if you asked Neil he'd put Dylan atop the heap.

Not that this is about bringing the rest of the Oldchella acts down, they're all great. It's just that Dylan is on a higher plane, and too many people don't know it. Forget today's standards album, forget the ragged voice, forget the endless tour, let's go back to the music.

1. "Blowin' In The Wind"

Everybody starts somewhere, and it's not obvious where they're going to go from there. But then there are visionaries, who see something in acts, a talent, that few others can perceive. Credit John Hammond for seeing the genius in Bob Dylan. The first album consisting of mostly covers had no impact. It could not and did not prepare us for what came after, the second LP, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."

Now this was 1963. The Beatles didn't break in America until 1964. Surf music and pop music, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons ruled, and they were both great acts, but if you can trace a line from them to Bob Dylan you're a better person than me. Dylan had different influences, primarily Woody Guthrie and the folk scene, and with this LP Dylan became the king of the folkies, not because the songs were all over the airwaves, but because covers were all over the airwaves!


It's hard to believe that once upon a time not only did everybody own a guitar, but they sat around in circles singing songs. And none was more popular than "Blowin' In The Wind." That's where the answer is, my friend, even today. If you can tell me how this election is gonna turn out, what everybody's gonna do for a job in the future, you're a seer exceeding anybody pontificating.

Peter, Paul & Mary made it ubiquitous, but there's a naked power in Dylan's iteration. There's more emotion, it's not purely about melody, not even solely about the words, this guy obviously believes what he's singing. We need more of that today.

Now if this sound resonates, if you want to dig a little deeper, listen to "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." My favorite cover is by Bryan Ferry, but this is definitely Bob's song, you listen and feel the track is coming directly from his soul.

Catchier and more easily accessible is "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," also made famous by Peter, Paul & Mary. Never underestimate the power of a manager. One can argue Albert Grossman ripped Bob off, but he also built his career, he's responsible more than the aforementioned John Hammond. Grossman had a vision that Dylan's songs could become iconic. Not in his own versions, but those of others. It was years before the public was ready for Bob himself.

"Girl From The North Country" resurfaced on "Nashville Skyline" in a duet with Johnny Cash, but the original is here on "Freewheelin," as is "Masters Of War," which has been resuscitated in this century of endless wars, students of the game can see how it's still so appropriate, that's timeless work!

2. "The Times They Are A-Changin'"

The anthem of the internet era, one wherein the young stole the present just like their parents did back in the sixties. Hell, oldsters still don't know how to use their devices, never mind get their heads around the fact that music is now a service. This ain't no ditty, just pure truth.

3. "It Ain't Me Babe"


Released almost simultaneously with "Meet The Beatles," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" album continued in Dylan's folk vein, and although it contains classics, there were fewer famous covers. And then came the summer of '64's "Another Side Of Bob Dylan." Not only was Zimmy putting out albums at a regular clip, the quality of the material was insane! This is probably the most famous song off of the LP, because it was covered by the Turtles, it was their breakthrough track, before most people had any idea who Bob Dylan was. But people were starting to read the credits, the modern rock era had begun, word started to spread.

If you want to go deeper, listen to the album opener, "All I Really Want To Do," which Sonny & Cher so famously covered. And the Byrds had a hit with "My Back Pages," I had to get old enough to understand I can be younger than that now. And if "Masters Of War" resonates, soak in the truth of "Chimes Of Freedom."

4. "Bringing It All Back Home"

Yes, I'm including a whole album here, not just an individual song. Because this is my favorite Bob Dylan LP, it oozes truth that is so up to date it seems to come from the future. Unfortunately, it's not instantly accessible. Dylan wouldn't make that kind of music for years. But if you want to put in some time, "Bringing It All Back Home" will yield rewards.

a. "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Has permeated the culture even though you may have never heard it.

First and foremost there's the famous video replicated by so many modern acts, where the lyrics are written on cards which are displayed and then discarded. Refresh your memory here: https://goo.gl/4pZt39

And despite being a jaunty trip, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" got no airplay whatsoever, this was before underground FM radio, the Beatles were still singing about love, but…

"You don't need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows"

Innocuous in theory, but a radical group lifted this lyric and called themselves the Weathermen and blew up buildings. I'm not condoning their efforts, but this was back when music not only had power, but influence.

"Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift"


As poignant and accurate as the day it was written, whew!

"The pump don't work
'Cause the vandals took the handles"


Became part of the vernacular, people quoted the closing lyrics without even knowing the song, that's cultural relevancy.

b. "Maggie's Farm"

You never hear it referenced anymore, but back then it was a pejorative, when selling out was anathema and we hated the corporations.

c. "Mr. Tambourine Man"

The Byrds' first hit. But this has power as opposed to sweetness. You can see why Jim McGuinn was inspired to cover it, this anthem for an era.

d. "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

The piece-de-resistance, the pinnacle, the apotheosis.

Most famous for Roger McGuinn's iteration on the soundtrack of "Easy Rider," this seven and a half minute cut is laden with so much truth that I INSIST that you listen to the whole thing while reading along with the lyrics, which are here: http://goo.gl/JFHw29

"That he not busy being born is busy dying"

Yes, this is where that famous lyric first appears. Imagine writing a lyric so insightful that it permeates the culture and people don't even know it came from your song, that's ubiquity.

"For them that obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Do what they do just to be
Nothing more than something they invest in"

And that's America. The suck-ups playing by the rules jealous and angry that there are people who dare to go their own way.


"Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you're the one
That can do what's never been done
That can win what's never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you"

You can't just pick yourself up by your bootstraps and get rich. You just can't be Bill Gates. And rather than take the bait you should live your life, don't fall for the bait.

"While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society's pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he's in"

People don't like it when you break ranks, when you're different, they want you to be like them, a miserable pawn in the game.

Now I was aware of Dylan's hits, but I did not get him at first, probably like many of you. But then he reunited with the Band and went back on the road and I bought all the albums and listened to them over and over again so that I would be prepared for the show.

And in the winter of 1974, when our President was getting caught in a noose of his own device, Dylan sang the below lyrics at Madison Square Garden and everybody stood up and cheered. That's the power of rock and roll.

"But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked"

Nixon resigned. Beware of who you put on the pedestal.

5. "Like A Rolling Stone"

It was the summer of '65 and Dylan was all over the airwaves, with a rock and roll sound, outdoing his children the Byrds with a song with such attitude people would wince if it was recorded today.

You know it. Not everybody loved it. But it gets sweeter with time. Listen.


"Highway 61 Revisited" was the break, from folk to rock, it's the album that got all the accolades, it spews not only attitude but anger and yes, the folkies resented it, but the rest of the public cottoned to it, because this is how they felt. Today you're supposed to suck it up, put a smile on your face, be optimistic as you run through the gauntlet of the game. But in the days of yesteryear some questioned the game outright.

Listen to "Desolation Row" and "Ballad Of A Thin Man" also.

And know that if you leave the metropolis, if you venture out from the Twin Cities, it won't be long before you encounter Highway 61. Everybody comes from somewhere, everybody's got roots.

6. "Positively 4th Street"

For some reason this is not on Spotify, and I'm having trouble finding the original on YouTube.

A gigantic hit with with lyrics that cut to the bone.

"You got a lot of nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that's winning"

Legends write songs that are not of a time, but are forever, because of the truth encapsulated.

And most famously:

"I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is
To see you"

Eclipses any put-down I've seen or heard in the rap wars!

7. "Blonde On Blonde"

Was released fifty years ago Monday. And this double album is great, consistent, but I still prefer "Bringing It All Back Home."

a. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"

EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED!

Couldn't be, was he really talking about drugs?


Media was puritanical. Which made it easier to pull the wool over its eyes, this was not banned, but played. Then again, was it about smoking at all?

"Like A Rolling Stone" broke down the barriers, Dylan was safe for mass consumption, this was everywhere.

But the heart of the album is "Visions Of Johanna," "Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine," the side long "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' and "I Want You," which you can love even if you think you hate Bob Dylan.

8. "All Along The Watchtower"

Yes, Dylan wrote it, Hendrix just covered it.

From "John Wesley Harding," the return to roots, when the media caught up with the bard, this got a lot of press and it satiates, but my favorite cut is the second side opener, "Dear Landlord," with lyrics I quote all the time:

"Now each of us has his own special gift
And you know this was meant to be true
And if you don't underestimate me
I won't underestimate you"

I've learned that's true. The person with the low IQ, the one who's uninformed about so much, has much more wisdom than you in certain areas, just pay attention, you'll see. Warren Buffett has nothing on me. Or you either.

9. "Lay, Lady, Lay"

This was more of a risk than picking up a Stratocaster, country was seen as backwards redneck music. But Dylan made it cool, and opened others' eyes to it. This was a gigantic hit, and for those who said Bob couldn't sing…turns out he could!

10. "Days Of '49"

I include this not because it's Dylan best cut, but because it's from the maligned "Self Portrait," Dylan's first misstep, if only others' greatness could be as good as this.

11. "Sign On The Window"


"New Morning" was the first Dylan album I purchased upon release. That's right, I was late to the game, but what a treasure trove of material I could go back and experience.

And I know every lick, because when you paid for something back then you listened to it ad infinitum.

And this song is not famous, but it contains one of my favorite Dylan lyrics:

"Build me a cabin in Utah
Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout
Have a bunch of kids who call me 'Pa'
That must be what it's all about
That must be what it's all about"

12. "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"

A cut that's endured from a third rate Sam Peckinpah movie that Dylan was featured in under the moniker "Alias."

One cannot deny the haunting quality of the track though.

13. "Forever Young"

From "Planet Waves."

Geffen stole Dylan from Columbia, the band went on the road, but the album was a stiff. Then Howard Cosell utilized the lyrics to describe Muhammad Ali and the song entered the canon, it gained legendary status.

14. "Tangled Up In Blue"

Time passes quickly. It was 1975, Dylan's hits were long behind him, the tour did boffo at the b.o., but his cultural impact was in the rearview mirror.

And then came this.

He returned to Columbia and dropped an album that didn't sound quite like anything that came before, where every word dripped truth and you could play the LP over and over and over again. "Idiot Wind" gets a lot of ink, but my favorites, other than this, are "Meet Me In The Morning," "Buckets Of Rain" and, of course, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go."


Meanwhile, "Tangled Up In Blue" is a story song you can visualize, it's forever fresh, like life. I'll never forget the first time I heard it, in the pre-satellite era, driving up the access road of Mammoth Mountain on a sunny May 1st day, I'd twisted the dial looking for a radio station after experiencing nothing but static in the desert and I tuned into this, I'll never forget it.

15. "Hurricane"

We'll never know the truth of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter but we do know this story song benefited his case.

This got airplay in an era when FM radio was king and not everything had to sound alike. A period piece, but it still stands on its own merits, and Scarlet Rivera's violin is a revelation.

Meanwhile, check out "Mozambique," and "Isis" and "Joey" if you want to go deeper.

16. "Gotta Serve Somebody"

You most certainly do, we all have a boss.

From the Jesus album, "Slow Train Coming," which has a sound so enrapturing you'll love hearing it even if you don't catch a single lyric.

Go deeper, listen to "When You Gonna Wake Up" and "Man Gave Names To All The Animals."

Credit Barry Beckett, who's all over this LP, as well as his co-producer Jerry Wexler and, of course, in addition to the Muscle Shoals players, you've got Mark Knopfler.

17. "I And I"

"Jokerman" was the famous track on 1983's "Infidels," "Neighborhood Bully" got airplay, but this is the cut. Once again, something you'll love even if you hate Dylan and don't listen to the lyrics, but the lyrics make the track, along with the guitar and piano playing, an unheralded masterpiece.

18. "Things Have Changed"

From the 2000 film "Wonder Boys" based on the Michael Chabon book, it's one of the few flicks that's better than the source novel.


And the flick was very good.

But as soon as I heard this track in the theatre I knew it was a winner.

And it instigated hope in Dylan, in his abilities, showed after a meandering slew of albums that he still had it.

And I'd be lying if I told you his recent work was as entrancing, I think it's lauded by those needing to feel superior, but maybe it will reveal itself to me in time.

Meanwhile, start here. And dig deeper where you have interest.

Not only is there a cornucopia of hits, there's a journey, changes…Dylan's lived a life, not beholden to the game, surprising us all the while, triumphing now and again, especially when we considered him down and out.

And maybe he'll surprise us in the desert, by performing his hits faithfully, just to blow our minds and blow the others off the stage.

Or maybe he'll do his usual show, just to mess with us, to battle our belief that the artist lives for us and should deliver what we want.

Dylan never did this. He went his own way and most likely we ended up following him.

He's the embodiment of the sixties, wherein everything was up for grabs and everything could be challenged and you didn't have to come from the right family or go to the right school in order to have a say, in order to leave your mark.

And you might listen to the above and still be unmoved.

But so many were.

And these are not just ditties that please our ears.

These songs changed minds, they impacted the culture, they affected the landscape.

If there's one artist who's playing Oldchella who's a beacon, who's an inspiration, who you can learn from, it's Bob Dylan.

And he might not care.

But the rest of us do.

It's not about money or fame, but the work, the underlying art. It's about hearts and minds, not just the wallet and the booty. Songs are more than commerce, when done right they're anything but evanescent.

Bob Dylan proved this.