Bob Dylan might have just missed the birth of pop culture, but he was certainly there at the bar mitzvah when it was moulded into the behemoth that we know it as today. Now, over half a century later, he is still producing masterpieces, and with each passing one, his influence on the industry has been felt. In short, we can all be glad that he was able to use his Promethean force to wrestle music culture towards an entirely new and interesting direction, and even more blessed that barring the occasional blemish, he has continued in that driving vein since.
Nowhere has that direction-pointing been signposted more clearly than with his lyrical content. When others were writing about heavy petting and dancefloor-based courtships or rehashing folk songs as old as time, Dylan propagated societal reflections and introspective poetry like no other. It would seem that every single songwriter following his emergence has seemingly been influenced by him in one way or another. In fact, there’s scarcely a lyricist out there who wouldn’t tout him as a direct influence.
Much like one of Dylan’s favourite writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky said regarding the explosion of Russian literature: “we all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat”, it would seem that every reverential songwriter after 1962 crawled out from Dylan’s cambric shirt. And it is very much his ‘writing’ that has had them clinging to his gingham coattails forevermore.
Although the term ‘a soulful singer’ often gets bandied about, he certainly doesn’t possess the vocal skills of someone like Nina Simone, and though his guitar plucking may well be prodigious it pales in comparison to some of the true greats of the six-string, but his writing is near incomparable. His skill even earned him a Noble Prize for Literature in 2016, and while his soft touches are often gilded pieces of poetic perfection, it is equally true that he is sometimes at his best when his pen is moved by rage.
It is these moments of spewed out bile, that we will be focussing on below, with ten of the nastiest lyrics that he ever crafted.
Ten of Bob Dylan’s nastiest lyrics:
10. ‘Masters of War’
“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 as you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead.”
Naturally, ‘Masters of War’ was never going to be a tale of sunshine and rainbows. With Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell message of guarding against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex” still ringing in the air, the song was set to be a million miles from some sanguine songsmiths hopeful rally cry, but when this final verse lands the bluntest bludgeon in the history of music, it almost shakes the needle off the groove.
“I hope that you die,” is a line that will simply always cut, and Dylan spits it out with as much caustic rage as he can muster. The lyric is neither screamed nor hysterical, it’s just a thing of unflinching fury that lands with the sound of a bowling ball being dropped on the heads of power. Perhaps ‘nasty’ isn’t the right word though, he’s rightfully indignant about warmongering bastards, but he’s certainly not being nice about it either.
9. ‘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.”
With Blood on the Tracks, Dylan’s writing took on a slight change in style. The songs were more so stories regaled rather than predicaments dissected. Amidst all the loveliness on the album, however, is this standout stanza. It is spewed-out bile that proves for all his wonderful, sweet touches and poignancy; he’s often at his best when wrath races his pen across the page.
This particular passage also has humour and a pithiness akin to punk poet John Cooper Clarke. It’s a brutal tirade that any rapper who be happy to host on a diss track. No punches are pulled, but there seems to be a bit of distance between the rage and delivery that allows Dylan to retain dignity and tower over his dupe.
8. ‘Positively 4th Street’
“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.”
Perhaps one of the greatest songs ever written without an album to call home, the history of the track seems to back up the point that this is Dylan unloading something off of his chest. If there is a better break-up middle finger in music than the lambasting that Dylan offers up on ‘Positively 4th Street’, then it needs to make itself known.
This verse is a searing attack that diminishes even the casual listen to a boot quaking hot second, so lord knows what Edie Sedgewick (who it is thought to be about) felt when she heard it. And the beautiful paradox of it all 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.
7. ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’
“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark
Easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred.”
Even when the personal element is removed, and the target of his scorn is something as nebulous as the consumer culture that sells vapid Christian iconography out of the front door and shifts bullets out the back, the scratches can still be felt. The whole song is an unfurling barrage of societies contradictions and a slander of the puppets that parade around it, but some verses are a little too cryptic for a layman.
This one, however, lands on the nose and bloodies it. “Not much is really sacred,” is the surmise of the entire song and it slips out with the same casual hatred as the rest of the verses.
6. ‘My Back Pages’
“In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand at the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy in the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats, mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
When Dylan was in his finger-pointing heyday, even he wasn’t spared the rod. On Another Side of Bob Dylan, he turned his poisoned quill upon himself, and he swallowed the medicine he was prescribing others.
If criticism is the cynics last refuge, then by this point, Dylan was happy to move out. Not quite a case of “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand,” and more so a realisation that to sit at your window in judgement of the world doesn’t do much unless you’re illuminating some sort of alternative. Dylan had felt a responsibility to do so, but now he was happy to reclaim his individualism, but not before he’d quickly cursed himself for a self-perceived folie.
5. ‘Maggie’s Farm’
“Well, he puts is cigar
Out in your face just for kicks.”
Amid the cryptic unspooling of disdain that it ‘Maggie’s Farm’, but particular couplet lands scathingly because of the imagery behind it. While the farm, in truth, is probably about a representation of a myriad different things, the thought of a cigar singeing your cheek is jarring regardless.
His style is usually not cocked full of visceral imagery, but this tableau of gleeful oppression stands out as a moment that drives the message home.
4. ‘Ballad in Plain D’
“For her parasite sister, I had no respect
Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect
Countless visions of the others she’d reflect
As a crutch for her scenes and her society.”
Dylan seems to have a way of seeing the world with spooky clarity. As he said in his memoir, to see things for how they really are and reach the sagacious summits of tracks like ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘Masters of War’, “you have to get power and dominion over the spirits. I had it once, and once was enough.”
It would seem that the clarity with which he saw society also stretched out to the personal. He seems to encapsulate someone’s entire, seemingly pitiful existence in one hammer blow in this single verse. Then he moves onto the next one in an unending attack against cynics and judgemental folks living vicariously through their own perpetuating scorn.
3. ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’
“Well, you walk into the room like a camel, and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law against you comin’ around
You should be made to wear earphones
‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?”
It’s hard to know exactly who Mr Jones is in this song, but you certainly wouldn’t want to be him. Dylan’s disdain for the poor camel looking bastard is as caustic as it comes. The blathering fool portrayed by Mr Jones has no idea what is happening all around him, which could very well mean that Dylan is targeting your bog-standard person living in their bubble.
Once again, his humour adds to the ridicule without distracting from the scorn. “There ought to be a law against you comin’ around” is a piece of platitude defiance that singles out Dylan for his unique way of dropping trash talk with total originality.
2. ‘Sugar Baby’
“Sugar Baby get on down the line
You ain’t got no brains, no how
You went years without me
You might as well keep going now.”
It’s one thing dropping caustic bombs in a verse, but it’s another thing entirely having it land repeated in a chorus. The fact he has sent this brainless woman packing indefinitely imbues the track with a sense that it is not just a break-up song but one shattered beyond all recognition of a relationship.
While the verse show ambivalence, the chorus rings out with his final judgement. And that judgement is as condemning as they come. He spares no feeling for the woman in question and doesn’t even dress up with any poetry or prose; it is as stern a shoot-down as they come.
1. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’
“Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”
Edie Sedgwick was the poster girl of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and despite losing her life so painfully early at just 28-years-old, she lived life to the fullest and cut herself out as a prominent figure in the New York art scene. This high-flying lifestyle of parties and possessions has led many to believe that one of Dylan’s most famous songs, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, was written about her.
Edie’s departure from high society to the art scene was all well and good, but it was her dive into the darker side of the counterculture that led to Dylan’s caustic condemnation in this singular masterpiece. Whilst it would seem poseurs and champagne socialists, in general, may well have been under attack, to Bob, on a personal level, that side of society was encapsulated by Edie.
Wrath and rage have rarely met with such poignancy. If Dylan was the Jesus figure of the counterculture movement then this was his moment of caustic condemnation in the temple of his own creation and it proved one thing beyond doubt: hell hath no fury like Dylan scorned.