Around the world with Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s career took off in New York City’s Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. Several early songs chronicle his first days in the city such as “Talking New York” from his debut album in which Dylan sings about “People goin’ down to the ground/Buildings goin’ up to the sky.” A few years later, Dylan wrote “Positively 4th Street,” referring presumably to the street he used to live on in Greenwich Village. The song attacks the folk community’s attitude to Dylan’s move into rock.
After a barren songwriting period in the 1990s, Dylan’s 30th studio album, Time out of Mind, released in 1997, was seen as a return to form and hailed as one of his best albums. The 16-minute surreal closing song, “Highlands,” is loosely based on the poem “My Heart’s in the Highlands” by Scottish poet Robbie Burns. It sees the narrator dreaming of “bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow,” listening to Neil Young, ordering soft boiled eggs in a restaurant, discussing women authors with a waitress and then confessing “the party’s over and there’s less and less to say.”
A lot of Dylan songs are unsurprisingly set in the US. But “Highway 61 Revisited” is perhaps the most seminal and symbolic. The song is from the 1965 album of the same name, which many consider one of the greatest and most revolutionary albums in the history of popular music. Like much else on the album, the title song is a driving blues-rock number with surreal lyrical imagery. Highway 61 runs 2,300km from Minnesota in the north where Dylan grew up to New Orleans in the south, passing through Memphis and the Mississippi blues delta. It essentially travels through the heartlands of American music.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ album from 1964 saw Dylan at his protest songwriting best. But in “Boots of Spanish Leather,” he sings a beautiful love song to his girlfriend who was traveling in
Europe. She offers to bring him back “something fine made of silver or of golden/Either from the mountains of Madrid/Or from the coast of Barcelona.” But all he wants are “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.”
Blood on the Tracks from 1975 is the ultimate break-up album and its songs of supremely honed but brutally raw and open lyrics have earned its reputation as one of Dylan’s best. In the song “If You See Her, Say Hello,” Dylan speculates that his ex-lover has moved to Tangier. “Whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in the way/Though the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay.”
In the 1971 song “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” Dylan sings amusingly about wandering the streets of Rome. “Got to hurry back to my hotel room/where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece/She promised that she’d be right there with me/when I paint my masterpiece.” In recent years Dylan has gained some acclaim as a painter and sculptor. There is currently an exhibition of his works at the Halcyon Gallery in London (ends December 11).
The bright and breezy song “Mozambique”, also from Desire, will make you want to go to the tropical paradise that the singer has you believe Mozambique is, with sunny skies, couples dancing cheek to cheek and lovely people living free on the beach. The song garnered some criticism though as the country had just come out of a bloody 10 year war of independence and was about to enter a protracted civil war.
Mexico is another destination that pops up regularly in Dylan songs, but nowhere as atmospherically as in “Romance in Durango” from the 1976 Desire album. With mariachi trumpets and a chorus sung in Spanish, this is a western movie in song. It opens with the line “Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun.” The 1973 movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which Dylan had a small role, was filmed in Durango.
In “TV Talkin’ Song” from the 1990 Under the Red Sky album, Dylan chronicles a riot breaking out at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park when someone preaches about the dangers of too much TV. After the singer escapes the crowds and gets back to his hotel room, he re-watches the incident on the TV! Open-air discussions and debates still regularly take pace in Hyde Park, notably on Sunday mornings.
Dylan’s most recent album of original songs, Tempest, from 2012, was another critical and chart success. The final song on the album, “Roll on John,” is a moving tribute to Dylan’s old friend John Lennon. The song features snippets of Beatles’ lyrics and recalls Lennon’s days in the Liverpool Docks and the “red-light Hamburg streets.”
Text: Danny Chapman