Five amazingly personal songs by Bob Dylan

Dylan wrote a lot about everything and almost all of it turned to greatness.

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“KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR” (1973)

From Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Dylan had a role in the film. He’s OK – nothing special. But this elegiac consideration of death was his real contribution. The usually loquacious Dylan is remarkably restrained here.

At two-and-a-half minutes, it is one of his shortest songs. The entire song is comprised of two simple requests made by a dying lawman to his wife – take my badge, and take my guns. That’s it, along with a beautiful, heavenly chorus accompanying him on the wonderfully evocative title phrase.

The song has lent itself to much longer guitar workouts from legends like Eric Clapton and Slash, who teamed with Axl Rose’s tortured vocals to produce the most famous version. The Grateful Dead closed their shows with “Knockin’…” quite a few times back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A decade later, it would help give some gravitas to 19-year-old Avril Lavigne’s My World album.

“SILVIO” (1988)

From Down in the Groove, at a time when people were beginning to doubt whether Dylan would ever get back to where he had once been. His albums from earlier in the ‘80s were decent, but not special. You might say the same thing about “Silvio.” I mean, I would be hard-pressed to call it a ground-breaking song. But it is great fun, with great pace, a catchy chorus, and enough lyrical wit to claim a respectable place in the Dylan panoply.

If none of that makes the case that should be counted as one of his best, let me offer this defense. After some of the playful songs Dylan recorded very early on, this might be the most fun Dylan is having in at least two decades.

I think of this song in the same way I think of one of my honorable mentions on this list – “Forever Young.” You see, fifteen years earlier, people were asking the same questions of Dylan. Had he lost it? Would he ever be the same guy he was before his motorcycle accident in the mid-1960s?

When he released Planet Waves in 1974, he signaled a return to form. Not his best album maybe, but there were flashes. “Forever Young,” a gorgeous song about youth and age, was the brightest flash. A year later, he would release Blood on the Tracks. “Silvio” is the flash that preceded Oh Mercy the following year.  Maybe he did really do what he said he would in “Silvio” – “find out something only dead men know.”