It’s no secret that Bob Dylan is a pretty weird guy. He’s legendary for creating a enigmatic air about him, mostly by telling fabricated stories to the media. (Do you think he really ran away to join the circus as a teenager?) Artistically, the man has taken so many left turns and reinvented himself so often that almost nothing he can do will surprise people—although, thankfully, he keeps trying; Tempest, his 35th album, hit streets in September. Remember his Christmas album, his Victoria’s Secret/will.i.am Pepsi commercials or his 2009 run-in with the N.J. police when he was stopped for peering through people’s houses in the rain? We kinda feel that on some level, Dylan’s just doing all this to screw with us, and god love him for it. Shoot, he’s Bob Dylan—he can do whatever he wants.
In preparation for his show Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center, here’s a look at five of his most musically weird moments.
1. Kurtis Blow, “Street Rock.” One of rap’s first superstars, Kurtis Blow’s classic 1980 single, “The Breaks,” along with his self-titled debut LP, forever cemented his role in the history of the then-new artform. On his 1986 album Kingdom Blow, he asked Mr. D to join him on a track called “Street Rock.” Although Bob was no stranger to fast spoken lyrics himself (“Subterranean Homesick Blues” is basically a club banger), Blow consequently turned him onto rap, which he recounts in his excellent autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One. “These guys definitely weren’t standing around bullshitting. They were beating drums, tearing it up, hurling horses over cliffs. They were all poets and knew what was going on.” Dylan only has a short rhyme in the song, but still—it’s Bob Dylan rapping. He also didn’t write his own lyrics, but he shouldn’t feel bad. Dr. Dre doesn’t either.
2. “This Old Man.” Although it sounds like it would be a fake parody—something you might have found on the early days of Napster or on a terrible morning radio show—Dylan really did make a version of the traditional nursery rhyme, “This Old Man.” Recorded around the same time as Under the Red Sky, the song appeared on Disney’s For Our Children, a 1991 charity album benefiting the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Never has “knick-knack paddywhack” sounded so weighty.
3. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” Almost any song from Dylan’s mid-’60s period could be on this list, when his wordplay, prose and drug-influenced surrealism was changing songwriting forever. Some of it’s nonsense, some of it’s immaculate, but it’s always a fun ride. Bringing It All Back Home, his 1965 LP, is a classic example, while “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” a track on Home, is the silliest. Fittingly, it starts with Dylan breaking into laughter after the first line, as giggling producer Tom Wilson tells him to try it again. The song is a strange retelling of the discovery of America by Bob and “Captain Arab,” although it seems the country is already up and running, as the two are arrested for “carrying harpoons.” Bob breaks out and attempts to make bail for his still incarcerated captain, but after surviving a crepe explosion, flashing a bank teller as “collateral,” a robbery at the hands of two French girls and a stray bowling ball (among other things), he’s ultimately forced to leave Arab in his cell. (He’s eventually released, only to get “stuck on a whale.”) The song ends with our protagonist running into Christopher Columbus as he heads to the new land, who he wishes the best of luck.
4. “Ugliest Girl In The World.” In the late ‘80s, Dylan spent a lot of time palling around with The Grateful Dead. Owing to the success of their surprise hit single “Touch of Grey,” in 1987, Jerry and the boys went on a stadium tour together with their fellow ‘60s icon, culminating in the live album Dylan & The Dead, which everyone regards as horrendous. (They’d be correct.) The next year, on Bob’s Down In The Groove, he hooked up with the Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter to pen “Ugliest Girl In The World,” about a girl who is, well, just that: “The woman that I love, she a got a prizefighter nose/Cauliflower ears and a run in her hose/She speaks with a stutter and she walks with a hop/I don’t know why I love her, but I just can’t stop.” The song is surprisingly punky and not completely awful, but why it took two world-renowned songwriters to write a song like a 15-year-old boy, we’ll never know.
5. “Knockin’ On The Dragon’s Door.” In what was no doubt an incredible event, Dylan, members of The Band and Neil Young performed a one-off supergroup set in San Francisco on March 23, 1975. Appearing at legendary concert promoter Bill Graham’s benefit concert for S.N.A.C.K. (Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks) after funding for school programs were cut due to city budget constraints, the crowd at the mini-fest didn’t know how incredibly lucky they were. Although it’s only available on bootlegs, Dylan and Young’s set is thoroughly sloppy, but never uninteresting. The show’s highlight is a electric version of Young’s beautiful “Helpless,” which segues right into Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” only not quite. Instead, he sings a new set of lyrics to the tune, with the chorus becoming “knock, knock, knockin’ on the dragon’s door.” It’s not clear why the song was renovated or what the dragon’s significance is. Heroin? His wife, Sara? Whatever it is, the results are fascinating.
Mon., Nov. 19. 7:30pm. $45-$89.50. With Mark Knopfler. Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. wellsfargocenterphilly.com
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014