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Bob Dylan - The Best of Bob Dylan Print E-mail
Friday, 01 September 2006

Bob Dylan

The Best Of Bob Dylan
format: 16-bit CD
performance: 8.5
sound: 9
release year: 2005
label: Columbia/Legacy
reviewed by: Stephen K. Peeples

Image When Bob Dylan’s name comes up in conversation about music, songwriting or poetry with anyone younger than a certain age, and you get a “Bob who?” response, it’s almost flummoxing to first-generation fans.

For anyone even remotely aware of American pop culture over the past 40 years, it would be tough to miss the direct impact and lasting influence of Dylan’s songs, and/or his shape-shifting life in and out of the public eye. There’s been almost as much written about him as there has been about the Beatles.

However, let’s face it: There are people walking around now who’ve never heard of the guy, or have no awareness of him beyond simple name recognition.

It’s not just teens and college-aged people, either. Two years ago, at a local coffeehouse, I caught a set performed by a 30-something pop-folk singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist I won’t embarrass by naming. His originals had a James Taylor-esque confessional flavor, and he did justice to a couple of early Beatles covers.

We talked after the show. I asked about his songwriting influences, and he mentioned people like Lennon, Taylor and Carole King. “How about Bob Dylan?” I tossed out, thinking as soon as it passed my lips what a moron I was for belaboring the obvious.

“Yeah, I’ve heard of him, but never got into his music,” he said offhandedly. “I couldn’t get past his voice.”

I should have looked at him incredulously for a beat, then busted out in uproarious laughter and said something flip and derogatory about the depth and breadth of his pop cultural ignorance. Such as: “Dude, Dylan’s voice may be an acquired taste, but it’s about the SONGS.” And/or: “What do you think J.T. was listening to coming up?” And/or: “Where do you think Lennon got the stones to write stuff like ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘’In My Life’?”

Instead, I was flummoxed. My response was a weak, “Hmm…” and a change of subject. Well, young fans who probably didn’t know about Dylan, either, surrounded him. It would have been a real buzz kill for me to try to break it down for him just then. So I just shut up, and tried to get my head around how anyone his age singing original songs and accompanying himself on guitar would not think of Dylan as an icon.

Actually, when someone says, “Bob who?” and he or she sounds as though they really want to know, and they’re willing to invest a little time to listen, I think it could be a real kick to be the first to turn someone on to the former Robert Zimmerman, born in Duluth and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota.

Like when Dylan turned the Beatles on to pot in New York in 1964. What a delicious moment that must have been for Bob, who thought they were fellow stoners because they were singing “I get high” in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” when in fact the lyric was really “I can’t hide,” and they were actually pill heads (uppers). They all had a larf about that.

The Best of Bob Dylan is the perfect package for such a turn-on. I’d hand the initiate a copy, and offer some encouragement.

“Dylan’s a great poet and songwriter you ought to know more about,” I’d say. “This album is an excellent point of entry. It’s the first single-disc collection that spans his career all the way from July 1962’s earnest ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ to 2001’s throw-caution-to-the-wind ‘Summer Days’ – even if only four tracks represent his adventures during the last 25 years.

“Listen to it in sequence, tracks 1-16, which are mostly chronological, and read Bill Flanagan’s liner notes for context,” I would add. “Forget about Bob’s voice – listen to his phrasing. It’s really about the songs and the cinematic imagery of his writing, and how almost every track sounds different, as he worked with different producers and musicians and experimented with different ways to frame his songs.”

Then I’d shut up and let time take its course. In a bit more than an hour, the listener would travel with Dylan’s restless spirit through 40 years of phases and stages of search, discovery and escape; heartbreak and hardening; and perhaps even self-realization.

What a remarkable journey it was from 1963’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (“Come Congressmen, Senators, please heed the call…”) to 1999’s “Things Have Changed” (“I used to care, but things have changed…”). I’d program just those two tracks back to back for my freshly minted Dylan fan. That’d get the point across inside of 10 minutes with all the subtlety of a two-by-four upside the head.

The Best of Bob Dylan’s packaging drives home that four-decade stretch, too, but far more subtly.

When you open up the CD package, on the left side you see Don Hunstein’s archival photo of young Bob with baby-fat, circa 1962. Then as you slowly slide the liner notes booklet out of the left sleeve, you see Ken Regan’s back cover portrait of the grizzled Vaquero carney sixtysomething Bob looking over his left shoulder (like a Siamese cat) (sorry, couldn’t resist) back toward his younger-than-yesterday (ditto) persona.

Kudos to graphic designer Geoff Gans, who does Dylan’s packages. (Disclosure: Gans and I were nominated for Grammys as compilers/ producers of the 1992 Monterey International Pop Festival box set. He also designed the package and I wrote the liner notes book.)

Soak up these two images and marvel at the things that happened between

the times they were taken, the stories in the lines on the face, and wonder about the mysteries Dylan has yet to reveal.

To receptive ears, hearing The Best of Bob Dylan could be a life-changing experience. By the end of “Summer Days,” the listener should be both exhausted and exhilarated. He or she will either hate Dylan or be voraciously hungry to hear and know more.

If the latter, I’d introduce them next to Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1 book/CD, Martin Scorcese’s “No Direction Home” film (now on DVD and PBS) and two-CD soundtrack album, and Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” on XM.

Then I’d throw the novice into the deep end – Dylan’s complete catalog of albums. Hearing the songs in their original context brings it all back home. As Flanagan points out, there’s a complete album or more of stuff for new fans to wade through behind every track on The Best of Bob Dylan.

So you’d better start swimming….

Columbia’s Legacy division has treated Dylan’s catalog well in the past decade. All these tracks are the released versions, remastered and presented here in 16-bit stereo. The tracks originally recorded on analog equipment sound crisper and cleaner than they did on vinyl, and there are no surprises on the tracks recorded digitally. Considering the 40-year time span, the variety of Dylan’s producers and band lineups, and the developments in recording technology in that time, the overall consistency of sound from track 1 through 16 is impressive.

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