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Bob Dylan: Songs of our time

To commemorate the rock star Nobel Laureate’s 80th birthday, here are 10 songs dedicated to the heroes and villains of 2021
Bodies buried in the sand near the banks of the Ganga in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Shantanu Datta   |     |   Published 22.05.21, 12:36 PM

Of the many gut-wrenching events of the pandemic, particularly poignant was a doctor’s account of how Soham sang to his mother Sanghamitra over the phone upon knowing that she wouldn’t make it. He broke down in the middle but was able to finish what he wanted to say: Tera Mujhse Hai Pehle Ka Nata Koi. Dr Dipshikha Ghosh and her nursing compatriots stood by.

A raging pandemic is no time for celebration. Hence, we will not. We will live through the time as only humans can. Try. Help each other. And if a song or poem helps us on the way. So be it. Not that you needed Bob Dylan to mark his 80th milestone to recall his songs, but it sure helps. Many of his songs seem written for now, and for the people we were, the people we have become.

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There is a song for everyone _ for all those who helped us try, those that stayed true to the Hippocratic Oath they signed up to, those that stayed true to the logic of science; for the gurdwara that set up an oxygen langar and the autorickshaw driver who fitted his three-wheeler with an oxygen cylinder; for that lone daab seller at the crematorium who parched thirsty souls by offering free coconut water to the bereaved; for the elderly man who moved from town to town distributing “amity leaflets” among bus and rail passengers, urging them to read the appeal he had penned about shunning hatred, divisiveness and bigotry; for all those who were left in the lurch, burnt the soles of their feet during a long, treacherous, lonesome walk back home; the delivery boys on two-wheelers that keep our home fires burning; for our children, those blessed with the luxury of online classes and those who are not; for all those who stood helpless as they watched their loved ones being taken away from them; for the powers that be who celebrated too early, prescribed dark chocolates and abdicated all responsibility, the decision-makers who did not decide, and their cheerleaders with blinkers in their eyes.

There’s one for us too, we who have failed our country by not learning from the past and by not choosing responsibly; we who have failed our children by not asking the right questions, and demanding answers. And now, the only thing we have bequeathed to them is a long and arduous battle that we should have fought.

SHELTER FROM THE STORM has a deceptive foot-tapping feel-good touch to it with the bass playing a counter melody. Yet it is meant to be an ode to a love affair that has run its course. The song faithfully, and affectionately, recalls the good times, but never shies away from dwelling on the reasons behind the relationship falling apart. Evidently, Dylan loved the way it turned out. For it was one of the tracks from the New York recording sessions he retained in the final album and did not replace, like he had done with five other tracks, with re-recordings done with a local band in Minnesota while visiting his brother. The endearing tone about the song is the manner in which the protagonist takes responsibility for the good times and the bad, thereby acknowledging his own shortcomings that led to the collapse of ties. Discerning chroniclers of life say that is the first step towards any kind of resolution.

Now there's a wall between us, somethin' there's been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on a noneventful morn
"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm".

FOREVER YOUNG is one of Dylan’s most popular songs. It is a song he wrote for his children, and said he’d never wanted it to be “sentimental”. Yet, it may seem so although if you read between the lines it is more than a mere wish-list that everything turns out good for our children, a sentiment all parents readily embrace. The song is in the nature of a preparatory sermon. In simple words it holds aloft an ideal to pursue in a lifetime. The version I like best is the one with The Band of the 70s, it is not quite the rough-edged improvisational magic he and the boys created back in Woodstock in the late 60s. It’s neater. The mandolin and accordion/organ embed in it the soul of truth, the need to first recognise it to be able to give it due respect; then standing up for it with nothing less than a joyous heart.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young.

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RING THEM BELLS is regarded as the most profound of all songs in Dylan’s album, Oh Mercy, cut in 1989 when he was going through a creativity crisis. It’s a beautiful hymn, described varyingly as a “post-apocalyptic gospel prayer” embedded with “stately piano”, Biblical richness and elegance”. It seems to all come together in the last line when the poet talks of breaking down the distance between right and wrong. “There are good deeds and bad deeds. A good person can do a bad thing and a bad person can do a good thing,” he writes in Chronicles while discussing the song and goes on to praise producer Daniel Lanois for putting the “magic into its heartbeat and pulse.”

Ring them bells St. Catherine
From the top of the room
Ring them from the fortress
For the lilies that bloom
Oh, the lines are long
And the fight is strong
And they're breakin' down the distance
Between right and wrong

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THINGS HAVE CHANGED is a song that doesn’t “pussyfoot around nor turn a blind eye to human nature,” said Dylan after it won an Oscar for Best Original Song for the film, Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson). Recorded in 1999, it’s a bluesy jaunt of a track that unspools the predicament of a man clearly out of sync with today’s world. He’s waiting for the last train, finds himself running after folks he doesn’t care about, all the while watching time hurtling past as he travels 40 miles of bad road. Poignantly enamouring is the opening line about this “worried man with a worried mind” who is coming to this dreadful conclusion that indeed his time is up. Or is it?

I hurt easy, I just don’t show it
You can hurt someone and not even know it
The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity

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Gonna get low down, gonna fly high
All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie
I’m in love with a woman who don’t even appeal to me…

People are crazy and times are strange
I am locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed

ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER has been performed by Dylan more than any other of his songs. And a lot many more musicians have played it _ thanks to the genius of one Jimi Hendrix, whose riveting guitar interpretation of the track stunned the world for its dexterous outpouring of emotions hidden between the lines, as if dragging us by our throats to feel the force of what is an ode to societal conflict. We are on edge, waiting for lift-off. But it never quite happens. There’s an underlying tension throughout this conversation between a joker and a thief as images come floating by, of plowmen and businessmen, of princes watching out from distant towers. The wind is howling as the two riders hurtle towards each other. No one knows what is to come of it.

There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth.

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IF NOT FOR YOU is a love song that celebrates the simple pleasures of domesticity, a yearning that at times seems utopian in the very nature of its appreciation. It is among the more familiar songs of its parent album (New Morning) probably because of George Harrison’s meditative version in his seminal album, All Things Must Pass. Interestingly, the Beatle uses an array of guitars for low-key background embellishment, his own slide, a Dobro and some acoustic additives, courtesy Peter Frampton. There is also, somewhere in the music, according to George Harrison, The Apple Years 1968-75, a harmonium too. The two friends performed it together at the Concert for Bangladesh (1971), the full performance of which was only included much later in a DVD re-issue of the concert film. If Not For You is a timeless song of sincerity, of elegant verse and heartfelt gratitude.

If not for you
Winter would have no spring
Couldn't hear the robin sing
I just wouldn't have a clue
Anyway it wouldn't ring true
If not for you.

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HARD RAIN IS GONNA FALL, says Dylan, is a “desperate kind of song.”  Written when he was 22, at the time of the 1962 Cuba Missile crisis, there has been much speculation about where its real origins lay. But this song is a “small epic”, too vast to be confined to specific timeframes of history. “Every line in it," says Dylan in the album’s liner notes (The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, 1963), "is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one." Every verse is an account of events and people observed keenly, and lessons learnt. From the astounding opening line, “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? And where have you been, my darling young one?” to the last verse, Dylan lays it out as it is. His observations, in black and white, ring true even today.

I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin'
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where their home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner's face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number…
And it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

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Dylan wrote I SHALL BE RELEASED during his time with The Band in 1967. His own version did not make it to the Basement Tapes album of 1975, but The Band put up theirs in the exceptional debut album Music From Big Pink. It’s Richard Manuel all the way. He takes the song, a paean to the departed, to places in our hearts and minds we never knew existed. His unparalleled emotional investment captures the hymn-like qualities of this ultimate tribute to life. Many also like to hark back to the star-studded version of the song in The Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell concert in 1976, for the manner in which the lyrics evoke both reverence and inspiration. In today’s world, this is one song that can be played over and over again.

They say everything can be replaced
They say every distance is not near
So I remember every face
Of every man who put me here

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I see my light come shinin'
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released.

MASTERS OF WAR, as Dylan has said, was never intended as an anti-war song. It was, instead, meant to go hammer and tongs against the industry of war, deride those who profit from war and, therefore, push national leaders towards the path of confrontation. The song’s bluntness and stridency, betrays a purposeful abandonment of subtlety and nuance that is the hallmark of Dylan the songwriter. It opens with a line that attacks his target head-on. “Come you masters of war,” he says as the guitar strums emphatically. And from then on, he unleashes lyrics of unbridled power and rage.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

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NOT DARK YET is an astonishing song about a man on his last legs. It is not so much about the physicality of death as it is about something worse. It is the squashing of the internal self, that innate sense of belief that leads to understanding, contentment and happiness. Things are so bad that death would be a saviour. Yet, that’s not to be. Musically, the song is impactful in its slow, funereal pace; a stoic acceptance of a state of being that is a painful surrender. This is a sad song; a very sad song, whose import is startlingly real in the world we inhabit.

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.

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