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81 reasons why Bob Dylan is the greatest artist in human history

@TomTaylorFO

Human history is a long time, to put it mildly. Naturally, it contains the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and his Vitruvian Man, PSY and his ‘Gangnam Style’, and Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel ceiling. But I haven’t seen that apparently beauteous ceiling myself, and I can’t afford to go to Rome or wherever it is to lay my peepers on it, perhaps I never will. But I can pluck Bob Dylan’s New Morning off the shelf, pop it on and drink it in. For me, that is every bit as beautiful. Bearing in mind that New Morning isn’t even considered his masterpiece, that is some achievement.

You see, Mr Mozart might be considered a virtuoso akin to the Albert Einstein of the arts, but aside from a microscopic coterie of the European elite between 1761 and 1791 (his first and last concerts), nobody ever heard the little pompous prodigy with the pompadour play. We have his written works to testify to his genius, but aside from what can be contained on paper, we have little else. Of course, this is a question of circumstance—time decreed that Mozart would arrive before Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville and the first recorded sounds in the late 1850s. 

Dylan arrived afterwards. However, in a break from the bleeding obvious, he might have been a benefactor of auspicious timing, but he has been the orchestrator of his own fate thereafter, and the world has had the pleasure of basking in the munificent harvest of his honest toil and the boon of his singular artistry ever since. And in the words of Joan Baez, he was just a scruffy vagabond from Minnesota.

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Beyond his own musical Mona Lisas, what sets him apart is how he seized the zeitgeist like no other. He has not only created masterpieces, but he also crafted them in such a way that he reflected back on the world that he set out to change. Marcel Duchamp may well have done something similar half a century earlier when he hung up a urinal in an art gallery amid the First World War and essentially said, ‘well the world is so crazy, so far beyond reconciliation, how the hell could I encapsulate it with paint and pastels?’

Well Duchamp, in a way, Dylan did just that. And he did it in such a way that didn’t require an explanation or retrospect to celebrate it either. His revolution would not be confined to art school or the bourgeoise. It helped to defy the notion that virtuosity defines the artist and it celebrated individualism and the profound punk proclamation that art is for everyone who has something to express. 

Recorded music is now a gift that we can access with the click of a button. It is a miracle of infinite multitudes that we can medicate ourselves with at any moment. And while there were a million precursors and the unfurling reverberations will continue ad infinitum, at the core of the most momentous movement since the Italian Renaissance is a young fellow who took dominion over the arts like only a kid with his head in the clouds and his clogs in the subterranean basements could. Then with cognizance and craft, he ensured the bliss of our age would not be ignorant. 

After all, art is important. With beauty and bolshie balls, Dylan made anyone who thought otherwise look stupid. The list of those who have followed in his illuminating wake is testimony to this.  Thus, he might not be your favourite artist, he might not even be mine, but here are 81 reasons, in no particular order, why he may very well be the greatest.

81 reasons Bob Dylan is the greatest artist of all time:

  1. For embracing the boos and going electric: In the process proving that you could couple folk introspection with the visceral edge of rock ‘n’ roll and showing that individualistic expression counted for far more than any preordained notions of what ‘authenticity’ should sound like.
  2. For a prolific 1960s spell: During which Dylan recorded nine masterful official studio albums, countless songs, and even tracks for his compatriots.
  3. For ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’: Just imagine recording a song as utterly beautiful as this and never even thinking about releasing it until it was discovered abandoned and someone decided the world needed to hear it.
  4. For the justice of ‘Hurricane’: A song so pointed and plainspoken about a miscarriage of justice that it eventually helped to result in a retrial and the release of Rubin Carter.
  5. For Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’: When discussing the song’s origin, L.C. Cooke, Sam’s younger brother: “I know you know ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan. Sam always said a black man should’ve wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, it was unfair, so he said ‘Nah, if he can write a song like that surely, I can come up with something equally as good’, so he sat down to write ‘A Change Gonna Come’.”
  6. For his daring expansion of pop: Joni Mitchell once said: “There came a point when I heard a Dylan song called ‘Positively Fourth Street’ and I thought ‘oh my God, you can write about anything in songs’. It was like a revelation to me.” It was a revelation to millions of creatives, Joni.
  7. For his persistence: Contrary to how it might seem, Dylan’s record that changed the world, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, reached a disappointing 22 in the US charts, but he continued with his societal sagacity and proved that great art might not be instantaneous but it always endures.
  8. For the greatest counterculture anthem: Well, for that matter, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ may well be simply the greatest song, period.
  9. For making The Beatles smarten up their act: As Paul McCartney once declared: ” He showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further.”
  10. For Chronicles: Volume One: The superb memoir that proved Dylan is just as impressive and innovative in prose as he is in poetry and song.
  11. For his endless comebacks: Not everything that Dylan has put out is a masterpiece, but he always seems to have a ‘Jokerman’ or Blood on the Tracks up his sleeve to prove that he never went away, it’s just that geniuses are fallible too.
  12. For lending his voice to the civil rights movement: Dylan boldly joined the civil rights movement when he was only 22 and played ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ at the monumental 1963 March on Washington in front of 200,000 people.
  13. For the most cutting protest verse in history: The reason ‘Masters of War’ resonates on a more profound level than just about any other is down to one simple verse and its unshrinking delivery: “And I hope that you die / And your death will come soon / I’ll follow your casket / By the pale afternoon / And I’ll watch while you’re lowered / Down to your deathbed / And I’ll stand over your grave / ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.”
  14. For allowing himself to laugh: Art is a serious matter, but that doesn’t mean that art has to be serious, and his back catalogue, live shows and other exploits are often pitted with humour.
  15. For the first double album: With Blonde on Blonde, Dylan put out what is considered to be the first double LP featuring only self-penned songs. These longer records called for more introspection. Suddenly not every song that a commercial artist put to record had to be a radio hit.
  16. For one of the best opening lyrics in history: “Sign in the window says ‘lonely’ / Sign on the door said ‘no company allowed,'” Dylan sings on ‘Sign on the Window’, perfectly delineating the duality of the turmoil he was facing at the time: the company that came with fame was bad, but the loneliness of self-imposed solitude was worse. In a spiritual sense, loneliness versus the fear of taking the first steps against it is a battle that resonates with a far greater universality. 
  17. For one of the best closing lyrics in history: “Half of the people can be part right all of the time / Some of the people can be all right part of the time / But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time / I think Abraham Lincoln said that / “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours” / I said that.” The world champion iconoclast set his wit out early with ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’ in 1963.
  18. For his sustained brilliance: 58 years on from his debut album, Dylan released Rough and Rowdy Ways. It was another masterpiece to add to his long list.
  19. For one of the greatest music videos ever: Bob Dylan in a London alleyway leafing through the lyrics of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’; it’s a simple premise, but it is now part of the iconography of counterculture and it no doubt has the elders in your family wondering whether this will finally be the time they watch it, and he fumbles one of the cards, but much to their mild chagrin, he aces it every time. 
  20. For not always being the hero: Dylan often happily makes himself out to be an arsehole in many of his songs lending them an air of sincerity and the temperance of the humility of the human comedy.
  21. For the ultimate passive-aggressive love song: The beautiful thinly veiled disdain of ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right’ changed the way we look at a love song.
  22. For The Band: Literally, every single modern-day songwriter has been influenced by Dylan one way or another, but of all the acts he had a hand in creating, The Band were just about the most directly linked.
  23. For the Rolling Thunder Revue: Dylan amassed some of the greatest artistic talents for a tour like no other which provided some of the finest live shows of all time.
  24. For his witty tracklisting: The depth of Dylan’s songwriting is unrivalled. This trait is brilliantly brought to the fore with the way that he can tackle the Cuban Missile crisis in a biblical sense with ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and then immediately go into the self-indulgent breakup middle finger of ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ without it seeming disjointed.
  25. For his unrivalled artistic output: There are more than 600 Dylan songs knocking about and that’s just the music, he is also a prolific painter, memoirist, radio host, filmmaker…
  26. For the greatest album trilogy in history: Bring It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966) – With this trilogy, Dylan quite literally changed the world, and he did it in a 14-month spell, which represents a purple patch of brilliance so prolific that even to Dylan himself it conjures up a notion of divine intervention.  34 songs, recorded in 14 months when he was only 23… And each one of them is in with a shouting chance of being crowned the greatest album of all time.
  27. For his voice of sand and glue: Dylan isn’t a great singer in the traditional sense by any means, but few artists have broadcast the message clearer that expression can make a rattle infinitely listenable.
  28. For his brilliant covers: As the poet John Cooper Clarke once said: “To hear Bob apply himself to songs that someone else has written is a great experience. His phrasing is different. The first version might be the one that defines that song for you, but there is no right or wrong way of singing it.”
  29. For the guitar rhythm of a ‘Simple Twist of Fate’: Dylan’s playing might sound simple on the surface but he follows his own whims throughout and it gives his songs a magnificent sense of intonation and a one-time-only impermanence reflective of the whims of life.
  30. For changing the world in 16-minutes: Much has been said about Dylan’s electric controversy at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but it hasn’t been noted enough that only three songs over 16 minutes comprised the stir that we’re still talking about.
  31. For making music biblical: While most counterculture artists were running away from religion, Dylan’s biblical lyrics made it clear that timeless motifs still had a place in forward-thinking liberation long before his born-again Christian phase.
  32. For his liberal look at appropriation: Dylan might have been accused of theft a few times, but you don’t write 600+ songs without a little bit of magpie nest making. In fact, his approach helped to set up the following Nick Cave message: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”
  33. For prompting the greatest cover version in history: Jimi Hendrix… need I say more?
  34. The masterful postmodern production of Blonde on Blonde: Dylan once said: “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.” You see he didn’t just want a pioneering sound, he wanted it to match the intent of his songs like how prose gives colour to the story of a novel.
  35. For getting out of the rat race: Dylan was at the peak of his powers when he took his hiatus. Even this lay-off has proved influential, as Fontaines D.C.’s Conor Deegan recently wrote: “A boy of only 23-years-old was to be saddled with the weight of the world, the civil rights movement in America, and to be expected to live up to the seriousness of this. In his casting off of this identity, and to live his life for himself, he shows the world the first punk motive – that to be great in itself is not good if you’re not free.”
  36. For the madness of ‘Jokerman’: Gaudy synth production and moments of pure nonsense somehow collide to create a masterful track and nobody can quite figure out why even now.
  37. For the most cutting proto-rap diss around: “Idiot wind / Blowing every time you move your teeth / You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” Hell truly hath no fury like Dylan scorned.
  38. For always evolving: While much has been said about Dylan’s punk-like wayfaring around his own individualistic muses, if you want to sum up the brilliance of his artistic evolution concisely then perhaps the way he hung up his born-again trilogy describes it best: “It’s time for me to do something else. Jesus himself only preached for three years.”
  39. For never feeling dated: Can anyone honestly say that despite being released in 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is anything but timeless?
  40. For the Neverending Tour: For decades Dylan has averaged around 100 performances a year, playing more than 450 different songs and it has kept his expression aflame. “A lot of people don’t like the road, but it’s as natural to me as breathing. It’s the only place you can be who you want to be. I don’t want to put on the mask of celebrity. I’d rather just do my work and see it as a trade,” he says.
  41. For the greatest bootlegs in history: Dylan has been so prolific that he literally left masterpieces lying around. As Joan Baez recalls: “I was going around stealing his songs. I mean literally ‘Four Letter Word’ he wrote, dropped behind a piano and forgot about. I retrieved it, in my own house and learnt it, and a year later I was singing it and he said, ‘Jeez that’s a good song, where is that from?’ And I laughed, ‘You wrote it you dope!’”
  42. For laying it all out concisely: He might be full of words, but with ‘I Threw It All Away’ he dared to say it as simply as possible: “Love and only love.”
  43. For the best break-up middle finger in music: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / And just for that one moment I could be you  / Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Wowza! And the beautiful paradox of ‘Positively 4th Street’ is that rarely has such unabated disdain existed with such a sweet jangling melody, providing the notion that he’s not even mad, he’s just sorely, sorely disappointed. 
  44. For some of the greatest music quotes ever: Reflecting on his own output, Dylan once poetically opined: “I really was never any more than what I was—a folk musician who gazed into the grey mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.”
  45. For retaining artistic mystique: After all these years we still don’t truly know Dylan and that will always be part of his allure.
  46. For mixing profundity with playfulness: Dylan’s live shows have been likened to spiritual experiences by none other than Jimmy Page, but he still finds time to humanise them with jokes like: “When I first met Bucky, he didn’t have a penny to his name. I told him to get another name.”
  47. For his impeccable timing: As mentioned in the intro, Dylan knows how to seize the moment like no other. ‘A Murder Most Foul’ may well have been conceived years before its release, but at the height of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, it gained an awe-inspiring prescience upon release. None of this happens by accident with Dylan. It’s as though he knew “un-presidented” times lay ahead.
  48. For rarely ever soloing: Dylan solos are as rare as Chinese chees, and that is to his credit. There are enough egomaniacs wheeling off ear-splitting ‘look what I can do’ unpleasantries to make it noteworthy how brilliant Dylan is at disavowing the bullshit and staying on task.
  49. For selling 125 million records: You can’t change the world if you don’t have an audience. Dylan proved that fine art can be universal in style.
  50. For getting the best out of himself: Dylan’s voice may now be weathered, but the gravel track of his vocal cords sounds more like a memory lane as he writes to match his timbre with masterpieces like ‘Not Dark Yet’.
  51. For refusing to conform: Playing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 represented a huge commercial and promotional opportunity for Dylan at the start of his career, but he snubbed the show after they tried to enforce censorship of his song ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ proving that his art was always on his own terms.
  52. For remaining self-aware: Dylan’s original draft for the masterpiece ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was 22 pages. He was probably in a position to record it as a rambling epic, but he has always known that certain hit-making rules are best to abide by and he honed his work like a sculptor.
  53. For giving away ‘I’ll Keep it With Mine’: When Dylan couldn’t quite nail his own version of ‘I’ll Keep it With Mine’ he had the musical wherewithal and lack of ego to think, ‘maybe Nico could make this work?’ She did, as have many others all thanks to Bob.
  54. For pouring his own experiences into song: Dylan’s tracks have an air of sincerity because – much like his hero Jack Kerouac – they are borne from experiential wisdom. As Dylan said of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, it took “ten years to live and two years to write”.
  55. For pouring other people’s experiences into song: Whether it’s ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ or Jesse James and Robert Ford in ‘Outlaw Blues’, Dylan proves he can be can bring wisdom to reportage too.
  56. For making pop profound: Dylan’s songs are simply pop music, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t transfigure the medium into something profound. “Songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality. Some different republic, some liberated republic,” he once proclaimed.
  57. For being a stunning live act: Don’t just take my word for it, as Jimmy Page wrote: “In May 1965 I experienced the genius of Bob at the Albert Hall. He accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and cascaded images and words from such songs as ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘She Belongs To Me’ to a mesmerised audience. It was life-changing.”
  58. For one of the greatest opening love song verses ever: Just listen to the opening stanza of this Byronian adoration in ‘She Belongs to Me’: “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist / She don’t look back x2 / She can take the dark out of the nighttime / And paint the daytime black.
  59. For his melodies: It is one thing to write poetry like the verse above, but is another thing entirely to put such prettiness to a perfectly paired tune.
  60. For the gifts that keep on giving: When I first heard ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as a young teen I thought it was a pretentious ramble of words without meaning, now I am continually enamoured by the brilliance of its obfuscated depths, and the dawning reality that there is so much meaning you could drop a bomb into it and never hear it hit the bottom.
  61. For his one-take mastery: While many people in Dylan’s era were beginning to spend hours in the studio fine-tuning their work down to the point you could hear a passing fly fart, Dylan went a different route and imbued his tracks with a fitting rawness. ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, along with the album in its entirety, was recorded on June 9th, 1964, in a single all-night studio session, supplemented by “a couple of bottles of Beaujolais”.
  62. For playing with the press: When Dylan was asked what his songs were about he replied: “Oh, some are about four minutes; some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven.” He recognised early on that the press game was inevitable in the modern era but you could still play the game without giving much away. He did that with humour rather than ugly cynicism.
  63. For the very fact that we’re still listening: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is now closer to the Wright Brothers flying the world’s first practical fixed-wing aircraft than it is to the present day. Yet it is still as fresh and influential as ever with no sign of eroding, proving a level of crystalised endurance that it is hard to match.
  64. For the number of artists he has inspired: David Bowie wrote him an ode and just about everyone else has plundered his depths. As he says himself: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”
  65. For ‘Brownsville Girl’: It’s a song that proves that even when he misses (Knocked Out and Loaded is ultimately a poor album) he still scores. Even Dylan’s off-days always have a few redeeming features.
  66. For leaving stories untold: The line “I saw a white ladder all covered with water,” in a song that seems relatively straightforward to follow is an oddity. What does this mysterious image mean? There are many unexplained enigmas in his work that always seem to have some hidden meaning that we may one day know.
  67. For telling stories: In songs like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ Dylan tells a story with a rounded moral point that he could’ve easily drawn out to a novel.
  68. For ‘The Man in Me’: When Dylan disavowed his early ‘Voice of a Generation’ tag and decided to write songs completely free of any political connotations, he proved he could’ve been a master Motown melody writer with this beauteous hit. Complete with a classic “la la la” chorus (as the best choruses often are), he exhibited that he has every string to his songwriting bow.
  69. For The Big Lebowski: The arch of Dylan’s artistry is so brilliantly contextualised that he transcends the music and masterpiece movies like The Big Lebowski can use his work to make a point beyond the music alone.
  70. For not singing for sex: Sexiness will always have a place in rock ‘n’ roll, but sometimes you get the overt sense of some gyrator thinking ‘this will get me laid’ and that can be a bit vapid and ageing. You don’t get that with Dylan and songs like ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’ which remains timeless but paradoxically feels like it could’ve been written for Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Franz Kafka and all the other dying dreamers of Desolation Row a couple of eclipses ago.
  71. For his theory on songwriting: The notion of his songs sounding like they could be echoes from a few eclipses ago and he’s just lassoed a couple that have been floating patiently from days of old as well as big fresh ones glowing with societal immediacy is backed up by the Hoagy Carmichael quote he uses to describe his craft: “Maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you.” That poetic notion says a lot for the scope of the art he’s aiming for.
  72. For his prophetic ways: Many people have had a go at foreseeing the future in song, but is any back catalogue still as prescient as Dylan’s? I mean ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was about Edie Sedgwick, she’s been dead 50 years but I met her in London last week talking about the cost of living crisis and quoting tweets.
  73. For ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’: Quote any verse and it’s an explosion of words akin to a firework. Joyous and fleeting they spill from the song like paint onto a canvas, but no matter how abstract they get I still feel like I’ve had the same golden night on the tiles that he’s talking about.
  74. For the irony of ‘Just Like a Woman’: Paul Simon once said: “I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. [With] Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time.” A lot has been said about ‘Just Like a Woman’, who it’s about? Whether it’s sexist? But the truth is, it’s all about him.
  75. For Blood on the Tracks: In some ways, Blood on the Tracks is a sort of concept album whereby each song tesselates and weaves into the others like a lattice that tells the full story. It’s a mark of the artist that he was still honing his craft 13 years in.
  76. For his performative vocals: Dylan wasn’t blessed with the greatest natural voice, but he even made that into a world-changing asset by asserting that it is more about how you use it. For example, take the brilliant conveying of emotion with: “GO to him now he CaaaaaLLS you, you CAN’T REFUSE.” You can almost hear him jabbing his pointed finger with those words.
  77. For his daring bravery: When a fan at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall yelled “Judas” at him for going electric, he boldly replied, “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.” Before launching into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and telling his band to “play it fucking loud”. It was a folk gig so he was only really in danger of someone giving him a paper cut with their copy of On The Road, but his fledgling career was at risk from the backlash of an authenticity obsessed folk crowd. He backed himself and successfully called their bluff.
  78. For being a songwriter: Dylan could’ve surely been a poet, but as Nick Cave said earlier “rock music [is] the great artistic experiment of our era.” Thus, it holds enormous weight that Dylan recognised this and paired his words with music. As he said himself: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.”
  79. For making culture reflective: Although the breadline was forever looming when he was starting out, he didn’t seem to be searching for a big break so much as a long cast shadow that he could shelter in. As he puts it himself: “It wasn’t that I was anti-popular culture or anything and I had no ambition to stir things up. I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost that lay outside the window, and you had to have awkward footgear to walk with.”
  80. For not taking it all too seriously: People who don’t like Dylan might point to songs like ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ as proof that all the talk is airy hyperbole, but what’s a daft folly when you’ve ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to you name? After all, as he says: “You’re going to die. You’re going to be dead. It could be 20 years, it could be tomorrow, anytime. So am I. I mean, we’re just going to be gone. The world’s going to go on without us. All right now. You do your job in the face of that, and how seriously you take yourself you decide for yourself.”
  81. For the 80 reasons above: 80 reasons is pretty good going from Dylan, and it’s more than enough for me to get a bit playfully ironic with the 81st. Besides, he’s still got life him in yet, there are plenty more to come.

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