Songs where Bob Dylan, well, sucked: Gimme Five

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It is fair to say that the most difficult comparison Bob Dylan ever faces is with his former selves. Still, over the years, there have been some selves that were undoubtedly worse than others.

He can be dogmatic, reckless with his gift, frankly quite ornery. And that was just the 1980s. So, we compiled a checklist of five avoidables the next time you’re loading up the MP3s.

Certainly, you say, 1985’s “Tight Connection to My Heart” — with a horrifying video that attempted to make this old scamp into (gulp) a sex symbol — or his yowling 1975 paean to the thug life “Joey” made the cut, right? Nope. We were looking for things that were far worse.

By the way, 1966’s caterwauling “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” which sounds like it was taped alongside a drunken street band, wasn’t considered, either. It’s simply too delicious, even now, to think that Dylan once worked a double entendre about getting stoned onto AM radio …

5. “RANK STRANGERS TO ME” (DOWN IN THE GROOVE, 1988): What’s maddening about this album is how clunkers like the half-baked, bizarrely distant, annoyingly crabby “Rank Strangers” stand in such stark juxtaposition with its smattering of successful moments.

Elsewhere, a pair of collaborations with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (“The Ugliest Girl in the World” and “Silvio”) in particular show an infuriating level of promise, as if Down in the Groove could almost have been snatched from its own spiral of mediocrity. Instead, as with so much of Dylan’s work in the 1980s, this is just a mess.

He knows it, too: “I can still play those songs, but I probably can’t listen to those records,” Dylan said in 2004. “I was just being swept along with the current.” Thankfully, he finally washed ashore, though it would take a while.

4. “THEY KILLED HIM” (KNOCKED OUT LOADED, 1984): The worst song on an album so bad that it can’t even be saved by the 11-minute Americana epic “Brownsville Girl” — a moment which, oddly enough, points directly to the third-act successes Dylan is having today.

Don’t look for any of that kind of sharp-elbowed storytelling elsewhere on Knocked Out Loaded, this weirdly disjointed offering which somehow sounds simultaneously hodge podge (there are tracks from several previous sessions scattered throughout) and yet so absolutely corporate (from its synthesized horns to its glossy backup squallers). Yes, in two short decades, Dylan has gone from poking the establishment in the eye to suiting up for the latest plasticine trends.

Worst of it all, to my ears, was the maudlin mish mash “They Killed Him.” Creepy, creeping, and (worse really) too obvious, it finds Dylan retracing the awful deaths of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ to the brief accompaniment of (gulp) a children’s choir. The only saving grace is the hindsight realization that this would be one of the final signposts in what turned out to be a blessedly brief, though deeply uninteresting, period of religious rumination.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: For all of the off-handed menace found in Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest,’ for its many betrayals, the album offers commiserate moments of community, of gritty determination, of desire, of grace.]

3. “ALL THE TIRED HORSES” (SELF PORTRAIT, 1970): Shambling, at times willfully disconnected, Self Portrait remains one of Dylan’s most inscrutable albums — if only because we may never figure out exactly why he compiled this garbage-pail compendium of oddball covers, tossed-off asides and largely uninteresting leftovers.

Was Dylan trying to puncture the god-like status that had built up around him in the previous decade? Then the very-tiring “All the Tired Horses,” with its brain-meltingly repetitious two-line lyric from the faceless Dylanettes, would certainly do the trick.

Here’s the song, in its entirety: “All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any ridin’ done?” Repeat. Seriously. It’s not hard, after listening to this for more than three excruciating minutes, to see why Griel Marcus opened his now-legendary review of Self Portrait in Rolling Stone magazine thusly: “What is this shit?”

2. “ARE YOU READY?” (SAVED, 1980): Certainly, there are rock albums with religious themes that are seen now as transcendent successes — not least of which is All Things Must Pass from Dylan’s old buddy George Harrison. This isn’t one of them.

Sunk by its utterly routine proselytizing, Saved is often a featureless snooze. And when it’s not, it is deeply, profoundly depressing — as heard on this, the album-closing rapture anthem. Dylan ends up seeming so very much smaller, like a sloganeer with a megaphone, rather than someone who helped frame a generation’s search toward something bigger than itself. This is the sound of someone settling for an easy out, this shattering realization even today.

And so, as an angry God rains fire and brimstone down on the unbelieving, Dylan becomes the schoolmarm fingerwagging his way through Armageddon: “Have you decided whether you want to be in heaven or in hell?” Yes, indeed I have. And, as far as I can discern, hell is this album.

[SHOWS I’LL NEVER FORGET: On this singularly magical night, Bob Dylan once again proved he was no fan of history. And that’s why I’ve been a fan of his for so long.]

1. “WIGGLE WIGGLE” (UNDER THE RED SKY, 1990): Dylan, it seemed, had started a long-hoped-for late-period resurgence after making some thoroughly enjoyable contributions to the Traveling Wilburys project, then issuing 1989’s Oh Mercy. He also had a smart series of collaborators on board for this Don Was-helmed project that included George Harrison, David Crosby, Kenny Aronoff, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bruce Hornsby.

So, he goes and sinks all of those expectations with “Wiggle Waggle,” a song so unmusical and nonsensical that you wondered if Dylan’s career could, in fact, recover from its sweeping banality. The previous decade had been unkind to Dylan and many of his generation, as brethren like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Paul McCartney likewise struggled to adapt to the glossy, image-conscious times. Oh Mercy seemed to herald a step back toward relevancy, but Under the Red Sky in general and “Wiggle Wiggle” in particular represented an ass-over-tea kettle tumble backwards.

He’d morphed from “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row” to this: “Wiggle wiggle wiggle, like a bowl of soup.” Wait, what? This was, really, worse than the Jesus stuff — which at least held together within its own tired literalism. More than two decades later, I still don’t get this one. There was, really, no where else to go but up.

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Down In The GrooveSavedSelf PortraitUnder the Red Sky

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Chris MacCormick

    Nothing much wrong with Rank Strangers (a pretty intense version of a glorious song by the Stanley Brothers), All the Tired Horses, or Wiggle Wiggle, no matter what you say. The others aren’t too hot, I admit, although most of the material on Saved was performed with much greater verve and presence elsewhere. Why is it so important for aspiring pundits to tee off on Wiggle Wiggle? It doesn’t pretend to be much. What makes it dreadful? It’s not dreadful. And your reading of Rainy Day Women as principally a double-entendre moment is just stupid. There’s nothing in Dylan’s career that should make anyone think he’s trying to get away with stuff. Good luck with your next great idea.

    • Nick DeRiso

      There’s so much in Dylan’s career to suggest that he’s “trying to get away with stuff” that I grow weary at the prospect of replying to your comment. Suffice it to say, though, that there is to my mind no more mysterious figure in all of rock history — and a good portion of that intrigue comes from the fact that we’ve simply never known just how much of what he says, sings and does is for real. That is not, in and of itself, an insult, by the way. It’s huge element of his very mythology, part of what makes Bob Dylan … Bob Dylan.

      Finally, nobody said “Rainy Day Women” was “principally” about anything.

  • Chris Mitchell

    i would have to side with Mr MacCormick. There really is nothing in Dylan’s career to suggest he is trying to get away with anything, other than perhaps The Girl. Dylan is definitely gnomic & illusive, not to mention allusive, but the mystery is mostly in our dirty little minds. Dylan has always been reasonably open & up front. Difficult? Certainly, but i dont think there is any question that everything he does is for Real. i would agree that “They Killed Him” is not Dylan at even a luke warm temp, but “All The Tired Horses” & “Wiggle Wiggle” are exactly what Dylan intended them to be. if we dont get it, well, too bad. & when we do get it, aint it grand. i think “All The Tired Horses” is wonderful. i catch myself singing it sometimes. Chrises of the World, Unite!

    • Nick DeRiso

      Dylan, to my ears, has never cared one whit about being authentic. He’s simply had too many personas, told too many tall tales, issued too many left-turn recordings, for that to be the case.

      This is the same guy who insisted to Hubert Saal, the late longtime music critic for Newsweek, that he never really cared with folk music — then, in a 1984 Rolling Stone interview, said he deeply missed the folk scene and what it stood for. He once said: “I’ve never written a political song,” then years later: “I think all my stuff is protest material in some kinda way.” There are countless examples. Do you really think he changed his mind, or that he was simply playing the role of provocateur? I’m not positing that Dylan was never on the level, but to say he always has been is to gravely misunderstand what makes his life and work so magical.

      To me, the question is not whether Dylan was simply (pick one) the conscience of a generation or a consistently bold plagiarist, a deeply religious man trying to lead us away from apocalypse or a shill for Victoria’s Secret; he’s always been all of that — and more: A brilliant synthesizer, and someone who only ever lets you in on half of his jokes. I’ll leave you with one more thing that Dylan said: “Sometimes it’s not enough to know what things mean; sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean.”

      • Chris Mitchell

        Mr DeRiso, I agree with most of what you say. I too suspect that Dylan has never cared one way or the other about authenticity. And yes, he has had many personas, told many tall tales, and issued many left-turn recordings. And yes, he has often contradicted himself. And I agree that sticking him into a narrow (pick one) definition is not the question. But for all that I do think he has been for the most part on the level & that he has let us in on most of his jokes. That seems to me to be the very basis of his entire career. The contradictions & left turns are, I suspect, the result of an honesty & a single-minded dedication to his music that do not constrain him in the least. Go back and listen to that rendition of “Rank Strangers.” Is not that an absolute cactus of a performance? You are absolutely right to leave us with “sometimes you have to know what things dont mean.”

        • Chris MacCormick

          I’m with the other Chris–and I do appreciate your clarifications, Mr. DeRiso, which make good points. I’m sorry that I oversimplified your comment about Rainy Day Women: but why in the world would that song even have come up in a discussion about clunkers? And to pile on about Rank Strangers: I’m surely not alone in thinking that Down in the Groove was as demoralized an album as Dylan ever has made, but (as with Dark Eyes on Empire Burlesque and Brownsville Girl on Knocked Out Loaded), it had one performance that was for the ages, and that was Rank Strangers, not Silvio. If any song hints at his later resurgence, which began with the two solo acoustic albums of others’ songs, it was Rank Strangers. Have you ever heard his duet with Ralph Stanley, The Lonesome River? Beautiful.

      • hans altena

        A lot of the contradictory things Dylan said were part of his game with the press and those that wanted to frame him into one image. Doesn’t mean he was dead serious in his songs ore sometimes just fooling around, not to be grounded down to much by the humorless weight others connected with his work. That said, he did get lost in the eighties when the gospel modus took away his poetic inspiration and he tried to fight his way back in by replicating his surrealism of the sixties. The one time he did look back and duplicated himself. Then there was no way out but to get to the stuff that inspired him in the first place, the old blues and folk songs, which led to his great richness, crowned by Tempest… And Rank Strangers, mr Deriso, try to sing this gem, it is one of Dylan’s best vocal moments and is instrumentary in him finding his way back to his prime.

  • karate chop yoda

    Few things are sadder than watching small minds throwing their tiny pebbles of ignorance against the massive edifice of greatness that is Bob Dylan. Zillions of two-bit music critics trying to tear down Bob, or to “catch” him in a “slip-up” have come and gone. You’ll be forgotten like the rest of them. Dylan’s work will last as long as the English language does. “Tight Connection” would be the greatest song most any other artist would write in a career. Why not sit back, learn and appreciate from the genius and majesty that fate has allowed you to behold.

    • Craig Danuloff

      Perfect comment ‘KC Yoda’ – I may cut and paste it as a reply to the stream of hundreds of other similarly silly Dylan commentary and analysis that keeps showing up.

  • Mark Saleski

    yes, and one of those things happens to be commenters whose confidence in their opinions of their favorite artists are so weak that they must resort to ad hominem attacks on critics whose opinions don’t align with their own.

    poor babies.

  • James Spina

    Terrific and fanciful observations Nick. You’d be a great guest on that BD radio show chomping down on these and other dirges in his career and having a bit of fun filling in the gaps on garbage tunes he’d likely yuck at as well.

  • stanley hampton

    did someone delete a post cause i dont see anything in chop yoda’s post or the other posts that could be in any way construed as as hominem.

    • S. Victor Aaron

      Let me help you, then.

      ad ho·mi·nem? ?[ad hom-uh-nuhm ?nem, ahd-]
      1. appealing to one’s prejudices, emotions, or special interests rather than to one’s intellect or reason.
      2. attacking an opponent’s character rather than answering his argument.

      chop yoda characterized Mr. Deriso’s article as one by people with “small minds throwing their tiny pebbles of ignorance”. By any measure, that’s failing to answer Nick’s argument and instead attacking his character.

      I.e., an ad hominem attack.

      • stanley hampton

        fair enough. you are correct. my mistake was in misunderstanding that ad hominem argument must involve a fallacy. chop yoda was certainly impolite, but i confess that we all in this discussion, myself included, could be seen from certain angles as “small minds throwing their tiny pebbles of ignorance.” none of us know Bob Dylan. we know his music. and even on that there appears to be no consensus.

  • Mark Saleski

    also, “zillions of two-bit critics…”

    clearly, nick is at LEAST a four-bit critic.

    • S. Victor Aaron

      I didn’t notice that second “zinger.” Probably because I got bored reading the comment from the first sentence and stopped right there.

    • Nick DeRiso

      You old guys are going to have to remind me how much a bit is worth. Also, how long a cubit is.

  • Miguel Planas

    There’s something about this posting that really bothered me. Maybe it’s the smugness. Maybe the general smartass, “I’m so cool” tone.

    Bob isn’t always great or even good, but who is? Can you do something better than “Rank Strangers to Me”? Let’s hear you do it. And while we’re at it, let’s see you do better than “All the tired Horses”. Maybe I’d pay more attention if you didn’t have that insulting tone throughout. It does worse than nothing for me.

    Your worst are the comments on “Are You Ready”: “Dylan ends up seeming … like a sloganeer with a megaphone, rather than someone who helped frame a generation’s search toward something bigger than itself. This is the sound of someone settling for an easy out…” Please get that “generation” crap out of your brain. I don’t know if you were there, but I was. So what? Is “our generation” that great? You may not like what he was doing in that song, but it deserves respect, as does the performance you linked.

    BTW There was a comment above about “ad hominem attacks” on critics. I believe the comment was intended to mean “abusive attacks focused on belittling or insulting one’s opponents”. It might be best, for the sake of clarity, that we keep to English in these comments. Otherwise, I know lots of cool phrases in Spanish, Italian and French I could contribute.

    • Nick DeRiso

      The point here is not whether I could do better — or tracking back to what others have said, whether others of succeeding eras could — but whether Bob Dylan could. To me, it’s clear that in these instances he very obviously could have done better. That doesn’t have anything to do with lack of respect. Part of respecting someone, in fact, is understanding both their limits and their reach. He didn’t, as far as I’m concerned, live up to his own towering legacy in these instances.

    • S. Victor Aaron

      Feel free to contribute any cool Spanish, Italian or French phrases found in a standard English dictionary.

      • Mark Saleski

        i can count to three in polish

  • T.S.

    that’s pretty rich, calling out some guy for ad hominem arguing when the entire basis of the above column could be seen as exactly the same thing. even the degree to which the column is about the music & not Dylan’s personality is questionable – you cherry pick a handful of duff performances & run roughshod over a guy who has banged out 700 or so tracks at an almost superhuman level. Miguel is right that there is something smug about that. why shouldnt Dylan or the Beach Boys or anyone else be allowed some bum notes in careers that often test the limits of pop music.

  • JC Mosquito

    Sometimes, artists are gifted with talent, but burdened with longevity. Another way of putting it – if you put out a lot of songs over a lot of years, there most certainly will be some better than others. Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, Chuck Berry, Paul McCartney – they’ve all been around long enough to realize they have within their own catalogs their own personal favorites, and their own personal “wish I hadn’t released that” moments. And they likely know that the public at large and individuals in particular have their own hit and miss lists.

    How about this for a review, courtesy a friend of mine who saw Dylan when he came through town a couple of weeks ago: “If you taught a monkey how to hit a piano with a hammer and scream into a microphone at the same time – that was Dylan.” Ouch. That was harsh. He also said: “[Guitarist] Charlie Sexton would periodically just stop in the middle of a tune and peer over at Bob, as if looking for a clue as to what song they might be playing.” On the surface, this second statement is less nasty than the first one, but in the end, maybe more truthful and maybe sadder. Maybe the fact that people still care about who Dylan is or what he does is the ultimate compliment.

  • Web

    “Are you Ready” is one of my favs of his, as is the whole Saved album. Very musical and catchy with the back-up singers, whether one is religious or atheist. “Wiggle Wiggle” again, very catchy. “Rank Strangers” not the best, but not his worst. I’ll give you “They Killed Him” as a one of his worst, but I wouldn’t even consider “All the Tired Horses” because we were intended to be disgusted by that album.

  • Chris Ripple

    Hmmm… My own comment would be does it matter and who honestly gives a toss ?

    I cannot and never have understood why people are so single minded as to extol one musician over another, and for anybody who tells me Dylan is the best ever/most important songwriter, and name another who has had that much influence, I will always answer George Gershwin just to deliberately piss ’em off.

    The fact is, Bob’s stuff is popular and people buy it, but for some reason there is a ‘this song is great and that song isn’t’ aspect to everything he puts out, and yet it really is just a question of musical taste and very little else.

    Lets take one sadly misunderstood album from all those mentioned above as an example.

    ‘Saved’ is a gospel album from start to finish and just that. Listen to it. It does not pretend to be anything but a straight gospel album. Many critics and so called fans dislike it, but then how much gospel have they in their music collections ? As far as modern singers go, it is probably the most unpopular genre of the lot and yet artists as far apart as Dylan, Emmylou Harris (Angel Band) and Dion (Inside Job) have made them. In the case of all three, the ‘gobby know alls’ have stayed away in droves, and yet accepting them for what they actually are, proves a worthwhile listening experience.
    If Bob had given the entire Saved album to Mavis Staples to record then she would probably have won awards around the world for best ‘Gospel’ album, but he didn’t, he recorded it himself and some people can’t live with that because their expectations of who Bob is (to them) are dashed.

    In the words of an old Bonnie & The Treasures track… ‘Why can’t you let him be what he wants to be…?’

  • marcel levesque

    yes there were some clunkers. inevitable given the breadth of his recording career. i am here, though, to stand up for Self Portrait. it was the first Dylan album i bought as a young man. here’s my story:

    one early Saturday morning (1973) I make my way downtown. this summer there is a ‘street festival’ in Toronto, the first of its kind during my lifetime. our main thoroughfare, (Forever) Yonge St., the longest street in Canada, is closed down to vehicular traffic. well, a few blocks in the heart of downtown anyway.

    it’s such a liberating and exhilarating feeling to be walking down the center of a normally busy road. it was very early in the morning; my plan was to be at the doors of Sam the Record Man when they swung open for business. straddling the white line I took in the wonder of the city, it was a fresh day, brisk in the early hours, a new morning. I only had to wait 45 minutes for the store to open. one of my vices…I’m never late.

    this is the largest record outlet in Canada and tucked away on the third floor, in the FOLK ARTIST section, is every official Dylan release. stacks of wax of Bob. fishing $20 out of my pocket, I look them over. and for my first purchase of a Dylan record, I pick up Self Portrait. hey, it had Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) on it.

    not a usual first purchase but you gotta remember the year. it’s 1973. Bob has been a virtual recluse since the ‘accident’, appearing here and there as a guest. eschewing a home field concert at Woodstock for an away game at the Isle of Wight. he wandered the grass at Toronto’s Mariposa Festival the summer before…that made big news for one day in the local papers. his recent official releases have left behind another legion of fans as the man who forced folk into bed with rock seemingly got bit by the Bo Dean bug…as in Jethro. Bob had gone country and his 60’s leftist, college student fan base was torn asunder once again, unable to accept the change. some were wishing the ‘brain-dead’ rumour were true, others were pointing at the proof.

    for me there wasn’t the same feeling of abandonment. though someone once warned us not to look back, what else can we do? tomorrow’s never what it’s supposed to be anyway.

    I’m coming into his career after what are 5 incarnations:
    bluegrass-rockabilly Bob, a brief moment at the very beginning where rock n roll and amplification were part of his make-up. witness the Mixed Up Confusion single, unlike anything he’d release for the next two years.

    folk Bob, for many he’s never transcended this image. the era includes primarily the early club shows and hoots, the private home tapes and radio shows…all that Guthrie-esque stuff he still clings too.

    folk-rock Bob, or what I like to refer to as the caterpillar years. mostly 1964 when the writing started to change before the sound did. 1965 was the transition year that led to…thin wild mercury Bob…the single most influential and energetic force in rock music for the blink of an eye. 1966.

    and then country Bob from Nashville Skyline to the most recent soundtrack, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. a couple masterpieces buried inside with John Wesley Harding and New Morning, both harbingers of a future transition that would rock the world of Bob once again in 1979.

    in ’72, he’d returned to the public with his guest appearance to help out his buddy George. in ’73, he was appearing in a movie…in an acting role. it seemed he was touching anything and everything he wanted. for me he wasn’t set in any mold he couldn’t break with a slight shrug and grimace.

    so Self Portrait goes on the turntable and my first attempt at independent research, my first try at unraveling the mystery of an artist’s catalogue without the overt aid of radio or peer pressure, was underway.
    what the f*ck is this sh*t?

    All the Tired Horses had me checking the disc label to make sure there wasn’t a packaging error. nope, said Bob Dylan, and there’s that song. Alberta #1 wasn’t too convincing either but at least there was a guy in it. I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know About Her was a welcome relief. vaguely familiar, either I’d picked up more Everly Bros than I care to admit, or the tune is based in some tradition in music whose key generator code is buried deep in my psyche. after Days of ’49, I’m converted…and we have just scratched the surface.

    the battle still rages over this record…is it sh*t, is it good? worthless songs, classic songs. terrible voice, angelic voice. in the end, it’s probably all of that and more. depends on what day it is.

  • john

    self portrait was the first dylan album i heard all the way through. cassettes had just come out and i taped it with the microphone up against the speaker of the record player as i had borrowed the album from a friend. i liked it then and i like it now. it made me want to hear more so i bought more bob dylan’s greatest hits and then i was hooked . it was later that i read the critics appraisal of it. i don’t play the early albums much now but i still play self portrait.

  • Chris Ripple

    When Self Portrait came out, the record racks were stuffed with Dylan bootlegs from Great White Wonder, Little White Wonder, Waters of Oblivion, John Birch Society Blues et al. I know cos I bought ’em. Years later, back in the 90’s I think, Bob was asked about it in an interview and he said something to the effect that all the crap that was being released under his name in these bootleg recordings made him decide to put out his own ‘bootleg type’ recording where tracks came from here, there and everywhere because people were obviously buying the other stuff.
    Personally I think his sense of humour coupled with his anger over what was going on in his personal life at that time (Webberman and his ‘garbage’ crap) prevailed on Self Portrait because if you think about it with that sensibility then it does make perfect sense with that perspective.
    I’m not saying he wasn’t bullshitting in the interview, but with hindsight it does make sense.

  • roy carter

    Actually I always liked his cover of Rank Strangers..and he did in his shows for a while and it was really cool..a nice tribute to the Stanley Bros

  • Jared Howe

    As a huge Dylan fan, I never have quite understood why there are fans out there who insist that everything Dylan has done is incredible. He has his share of clunkers (“If Dogs Run Free”, anyone?). Why is it so wrong to admit he sucked at times? That doesn’t take away from his greatness.

  • Jim guun

    I like ” If Dogs Run Free”. but Dylan has written a lot of songs and some of them I don’t like . But His Good stuff, and there is a lot of it , is amazing .

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    “Rank Strangers” is actually one of the better cuts on the album. There’s ample pickings for trash, but then again you could have listed the entire “Knocked out Loaded” album and would have been right.

    “Lenny Bruce” is an unlistenable stinker.

    • whalespoon

      Thank you for that assessment of “Lenny Bruce.” I’ve always that song was among the worst of his worst… The truth is that no artist hits a home run every time. There’s a reason why some of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s works are performed over and over again, while others hardly ever see the light of day in a concert hall. It is because their works are of uneven quality–the best of it is brilliant; much of the rest of it, not so much. Bob is no different in that regard. He has undeniably created some of the most wonderful, creative popular music of the last fifty years–but not all of it is up that standard. Not by a long shot. Sometimes the inspiration and magic is there, and sometimes it is not…

  • colm mccloskey

    For me, the critical assessment of the worthiness of certain items of bob dylan’s prostigious output inevitably hits a fundamental difficulty; namely that he operates in a sense, in an aesthetic sphere that is unique and transcendant. His spirit has soared religiously beyond most mortals’ ken and his weary boots have been travellin’ through the sub-conscious at a plumbed level that some will sense but none will likely divine. The usual crtical armoury is redundant in this terrain.
    So called comparable artists; likesay Neil Young, Beatles, Stones, leonard Cohen, joni Mitchell…will fashion their art with beauty, insight and genius and this can be readily recognised and their insight will often move and astound us.
    With Dylan it is different. In his sphere ‘What’s good is bad and what’s bad is good’…Wiggle wiggle’ ‘All the Tired Horses’ et al are of dylan’s fabric and are by necessity astounding, These so called musical asides can be momentous when we attune to the terrain that this artist is moving in and reporting back. I still don’t understand after 40 years how he can deliver the hate and revenge filled lyric of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and through the alchemy of his unique artistry, reveal pure love and compassion in such an elemental form.

  • Richard Marks

    Dylan has hit some bad patches and you’ve nailed some. But the most egregious of all his bad stuff was surely his Christmas album (unless it was intended as a joke – pure and simple). One critic likened his take on “Come All Ye Faithful” to a drunk wandering into midnight mass and trying to sing along with the choir. An unspeakable mess.

  • Paul

    My jaw dropped when I saw “Rank Strangers” on this list. Along with “Silvio,” it’s frankly the only reason to own that record. The full-throated vocal is also surprisingly nuanced for Dylan in the late ’80s, and it was probably the last time he sang with something remotely resembling his full range in the studio. Maybe you should reconsider “Tight Connection,” bud.

  • Bob usually depresses me 😉