Bob Dylan the poet: songs and lyrics that delivered Nobel prize

From the apocalyptic vision of A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall to the complex meditations of Ain’t Talkin’, Dylan delivers poetry in emotion

The gloomy English poet Philip Larkin hated most things about the modern world – even Miles Davis – so the fact that he was even half-tolerant of Bob Dylan counts as a massive compliment.

He was prepared to grant that Desolation Row, Dylan’s epic ramble from Highway 61 Revisited, had an “enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words”. That counts as a rave.

Larkin never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan has now done so. Here are 10 of the reasons why. We have left out around 50 songs that deserve mention. No Mr Tambourine Man? Arrest us.

Let us know your favourite Dylan lyrics in the comments section below

A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall (1963)

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? And where have you been my darling young one?”

Dylan may have been fibbing when he argued that, writing in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, he wasn’t sure he’d live to finish the song. Whatever the truth, Hard Rain… contains a gut-churning vision of the apocalypse.

Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965)

“Keep a clean nose Watch the plain clothes

You don’t need a weather man

To know which way the wind blows”

No conversation, however brief, on Dylan’s lyrics should avoid mention of how funny he was. Subterranean Homesick Blues reinvented the popular song as surreal shopping list. It also gave the world the above indestructible aphorism. The song’s structure was later aped by REM and, ahem, Billy Joel.

Desolation Row (1965)

“And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower

While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.”

Any song from Highway 61 Revisited would do. Any line from Larkin’s favourite Dylan song would suffice for a quote. We list the above because – in T S Eliot – it references a previous American winner of the Nobel Prize. Little did he know. “Cinderella, she seems so easy, ‘It takes one to know one,’ she smiles/ And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style.”

Like a Rolling Stone (1965)

“Ahh you’ve gone to the finest school, alright Miss Lonely

But you know you only used to get juiced in it

Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street. And now you’re gonna have to get used to it.”

Greil Marcus, the world's premiere Dylanologist (with apologies to Sir Christopher Ricks), managed to get a whole book out of Dylan's most resonant bawl. There are riches buried in every corner of this petulant address to yet more acquaintances who have got above themselves. Discontent raised to the status of demotic literature.

Positively Fourth Street (1965)

“You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend

When I was down you just stood there grinning.”

You need to hear the opening of Dylan’s rogue single to understand why it competes to be the best first line of any pop song. Dylan could conjure up sweet romantic visions, but he was also a master of poetic bile. “Wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you,” he continues. Well, excuse me.

Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (1966)

“My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums

Should I put them by your gate

Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”

Any song from Blonde on Blonde would do… There will be riots at the exclusion of the heartbreaking Visions of Johanna. But Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands deserves mention as the most Dylanesque of Dylan songs. It is the song in which he is most himself. The title alone deserves a Nobel.

All Along the Watchtower (1967)

“Two riders were approaching

And the wind began to howl”

Following a motorcycle crash and (by his staggeringly fecund standards) a period of creative silence, Dylan fans wondered if the great man was finished. The John Wesley Harding LP offered a new timbre and a new interest in hidden America. The “howl” is now inextricably linked with Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo in that doomed performer’s 1968 version.

Idiot Wind (1975)

"Idiot wind Blowing every time you move your mouth … You're an idiot, babe It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe" Following the awful Self Portrait LP, Blood on the Tracks felt like yet another comeback. What is most notable is the sheer variety. There are sweet tales such as Simple Twist of Fate. There's the Biblical narrative of Shelter from the Storm. Then there is the only Dylan song that might be nastier than Positively Fourth Street.

Not Yet Dark Yet (1997)

“Feel like my soul has turned into steel

I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal.”

Kudos to those loyal Dylan enthusiasts – Nick Cave is one – who argue that the albums from the 1980s compare favourably with those from Dylan's high period. It required no wishful thinking to appreciate Time Out of Mind, his sombre classic from the Clinton era. Christopher Ricks reckons that there is something of Keats's Ode to a Nightingale in this strange, pessimistic lament. It felt valedictory. But nearly two decades, later Dylan is still at the heart of the conversation.

Ain’t Talkin’ (2006)

“As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden

The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine.”

The voice is both literally and figuratively darker, but the sexagenarian Dylan retained his gift for the meandering surreal saga. The Modern Times album abounds with complex meditations on the wretchedness of the human condition. Ain’t Talkin’ sees the singer on a quest that has taken him from the Camelot era to the Trump nightmare. All life is here. If you can unlock the code.

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