Why ‘Not Dark Yet’ is my favorite Bob Dylan song

I know.

“Shelter from the Storm.”

“All Along the Watchtower.”

“Like a Rolling Stone.”

Ten to fifteen others could be listed ahead of “Not Dark Yet,” a song Bob Dylan recorded and released in 1997. An album called “Time Out of Mind” was a quiet revelation; a collection of tunes that revealed a late fastball for the singer-songwriter. The man could have retired twenty years before that and still been a revelation, but he kept going.

The song just haunts the shit out of you, stretching its legs slowly over its six and a half minutes of play. The best part about it is that the second half outdoes the first part, a feat that instantly gets the claim of classic tune. Dylan’s lyrics are evocative and thoughtful as usual, but there’s a higher supply of levity and foreshadowing here. Think about all the songs that came a little before 9/11. If any writer could time-travel with his own words, it was Dylan.

“It’s not dark yet… but it’s getting there.”

But his song, once again, had legs. It wasn’t just about impending doom; moreover, it was a rumination on mortality. How life can begin and end not only in the same city, but the same exact zip code. It’s weird when you think about life by attaching an imagined ending to its existence. This can help with the cold, hard truth that many loved ones-both family by blood and the acquired loyals-aren’t around anymore. Brothers. Best friends. Sisters that are irreplaceable.

Dylan’s song confirms the idea that none of us are making it out of here alive–so just get it all done before it’s time. Don’t think too much about what could be ahead, especially when you’re still deciphering what just happened. It’s a way the brain and mind can trick the creativity right out of you. I don’t know if all that has a main idea, but Bob got me thinking up there.

He’s created lyrical genius rounds that hold up over the decades, even ones enlarged by the voice that made it legendary. Jimi Hendrix may have played it the best, but it was Dylan who first introduced the joker to the thief. You can throw a dart at a board stuffed with his greatest hits, but I think fewer than many would select this dark yet insightful track.

Confession: I first heard “Not Dark Yet” in an underrated mobster movie, “Knockaround Guys.” Before they created the brilliant “Billions,” Brian Koppelman and David Levien gave us this “Goodfellas” b-side, a rather enjoyable hunk of lean muscle starring “Saving Private Ryan” good luck brothers, Barry Pepper and Vin Diesel. This was Diesel when he first met the game-changing character, Dom Toretto. Raw and fiery, before the money game went to his brain. The creepy Tom Noonan playing the corrupt sheriff. The late Dennis Hopper gave us not one but two, hilarious lines.

“Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”

“He’s half an idiot, and that’s the good half.”

Dylan’s fateful track accompanied the violent end of the film, carrying the film to a higher place, even without the John Malkovich malevolence. But aside from a cinematic sirloin steak that this film was, the lyrics late in the song can feel relatable to anybody who took their first and last breath in one place. I’ve long said that St. Louis is and always will be my home; the place I rise and fall.

“I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will.”

There’s something about a song that can be sad in most of its regions, yet still somehow gives you hope and meaning. “Not Dark Yet” is arguably my favorite Dylan track, because it’s different yet still Dylan-esque in its finality. While it’s got a cynical outlook in the end, it identifies a feeling that you’ve always felt yet couldn’t properly identify.

Give it a listen.

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