If it seems odd to pick a greatest hits double album to write about, well, this is an odd greatest hits album. Released during one of Dylan’s dry spells (first words on the first record: What’s the matter with me, I don’t have much to say), it’s a record label product but with Dylan’s cooperation in sequencing and recording. Only three of the songs had been hits for Dylan, more were hits for other people, most were good album songs which hadn’t been singles, and five of the twenty-one tracks hadn’t even been previously released.
More significantly on a personal level, this was the first Dylan album I owned. I was too young in the early 60s to appreciate the complexities of Dylan’s most famous albums; I was happy just to watch pretty Sheila dance to Rubber Soul in her parents’ basement. So although I later purchased all of Dylan’s earlier albums where most of these songs originally appeared, this is the setting where these songs seem most familiar to me, and where they seem to fit together best. Researching to see what others had written about this collection, I found a couple reviews calling it the best introduction to Dylan.
My first real appreciation of Dylan came here in 1971, from the single Watching the River Flow earlier in the year and his very strong public reappearance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh which led me to buy this album with its cover photo from that concert, a photo of his head developing a halo as the album cover wore down.
In high school at the time, I was too young to notice that the era of the 60s was not gone but fading although the peak of the Endangered Species Act was still to come, too caught up in my youthful invincibility and hippie girls in miniskirts. Valerie, right behind me in alphabetical homeroom, wore some of my favorites. The yearbook showed values clearly with long hair and struggling beards. I wore a flag as a liner in my army jacket as I kept an eye on where my birthday was coming up in the annual draft lottery, wrote against The Man in a high school newspaper and even in a letter in Newsweek. In classes, I was part of the college bound artistic and political elite who explored the latest drugs and music, but because I was a couple years younger (crucial in the teens) than my classmates, I never socialized with any of them outside of school.
But after graduation, while I endured two more years so I could start college at eighteen like a normal person, spending as little time at home as possible (walking three miles to work at a supermarket and a mile to church on Sundays appreciating the horses and cows as I passed, running like an animal on trails through the woods, when I wasn’t out of the house I was sealed in my room with headphones on), I started hanging out with working class alumni still in the area, bowling with a couple guys, hitchhiking around the three towns which made up my high school district, going to parties with a former classmate, making out in her car before we’d go in and act like friends. Spending a day hiking with a different pair of guys, we stopped by Valerie’s house where her younger sister invited us in and told us that Val was out with an older man. We hoped and dreaded that we might become older men too.
The titles of the first three posts in this series came from songs included here. There are others where I love to hear Dylan painting with lyrics which seem to mean nothing but still have an impact, such as Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again with its rare clear and favorite line, Your debutante just knows what you need, but I know what you want. And the magnificent Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues with its hungry women, silent doctor, cops who don’t need you, and Angel looking just like a ghost--Everybody said they’d stand behind me when the game got rough, but the joke was on me, there was nobody even there to bluff. The gentle kiss-off of a relationship in Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, and the more assured farewell to his protest singer past (I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now) of the excellent My Back Pages.
Many other songs have the straightforward country pop feel of Dylan in the late sixties, such as the long string of quiet songs which finish the collection: the live from 1963 Tomorrow is a Long Time, the Leon Russell produced (along with Watching the River Flow) When I Paint My Masterpiece (everything is gonna be different), the rerecorded trio of I Shall Be Released, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, and Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood). Back it up to include It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and If Not For You for the mood if you like, but either way it was the final stretch of unreleased songs which made even Dylan collectors want to buy this and which left a feeling of simple peace after all the complications and confusions which had preceded them.
These were the days when I still believed, despite all the available evidence—in love, fighting the good fight, women, myself. Soon I would be released into the world—I was getting out of nowhere and there was still a masterpiece I was going to write.