Will the Real Bob Dylan Please Stand Up?

If you saw Martin Scorsese’s classic documentary No Direction Home on the virtually overnight transformation of Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, from average American folksinger to poetic musical genius you can probably imagine the sequel, which chronicles his equally meteoric fall to mediocrity and beyond. We can debate and quibble over just when that slide occurred – personally I place it somewhere as far back as Blood on the Tracks – perhaps that’s a bit harsh especially considering the quality of what Dylan is pedaling these days.

Let me say straight away that I am not a purist, am not against change per se, and do not fault an artist for trying to reinterpret their own work no matter how sacred their fans believe it to be. There are plenty of examples of musicians who have maintained their legacies by continuing to create new material while still willing to perform previous hits (in some cases what many of their fans came to see) and in all fairness how many times can you sing Sweet Baby James without driving yourself bonkers? But those artists who have successfully managed to stand the test of time like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and opening act on Dylan’s reent tour Leon Russell (and of course, then there’s the Stones) have been able to re-examine their earlier work and put it within a fresh context, able to contemporize it without ripping out the heart and soul and sinking to the depths of self-mockery.

Joni Mitchell

And after many years, age can take its toll on the vocal chords so new versions are spawned out of necessity as much as creative inspiration. Joni Mitchell lost her silky and soaring soprano range after one too many two-pack-a-day cigarettes but has come back to record and perform both new and old tunes several octaves lower in her new found alto voice. She even had enough faith in her creativity to commit a new interpretation of her prior hit Big Yellow Taxi for posterity by including it on her latest recording (Shine). The album got mixed reviews and her harshest critics complained she could no longer sing but I found the newly reinvented Joni to be outstanding and every bit as musically creative as her previous work. Levon Helm is another example of a singer who lost his voice (in this case to the ravages of throat cancer) but was miraculously able to return with several critically acclaimed albums – he never quite regained the range and vocal quality that contributed to the unique sound of The Band but was able to capture and deliver its essence and even when he’s not able to sing, his tight and talented band including his daughter Amy on vocals can rock the house.

...not to be confused with THE Band

So having established the context, let’s return to Dylan. Again, in the spirit of fairness Dylan has suffered the disappointment of loyal fans on several occasions, most notably during the genesis of his folk rock period, quite famously documented by Scorsese. He quickly emerged into the greatest American folksinger since Woody Guthrie but for Dylan the times were changing – he saw new creative possibilities and didn’t look back. Let’s face it, Bob Dylan just about invented folk rock by combining the very best elements of the two genres into something so hypnotic and powerful that 45 years later almost everyone I know can automatically recite the next line of his tunes when prompted. Don’t believe me? “If you see Saint Annie…” “The pump don’t work…” And talk about prolific – anyway, I digress.

We saw Dylan at the Jones Beach amphitheater last weekend. I knew full well going in not to expect too much. How could I when after ruling the folk and folk rock scene for seven years and putting out eight of my favorite albums of all time, he continued on to release 26 more that ranged from mediocre to downright awful? I was surprised though – surprised that his voice, while never his strong suit had degraded to a rough growl as he barked his way through the evening. Surprised that even though my friend Harvey was a more accomplished keyboard player in our 7th grade rock band than Dylan is today, Dylan built the musical arrangements around his (lack of) instrumental technique. Surprised that a superstar such as Dylan would tour with a C- backup band. And finally and most disturbingly, surprised that Dylan’s notion of reinterpreting his classics was to “sing” them all in an up-tempo monotone that would surely cause poor Hattie Carroll to roll in her grave. Bury the rag deep in your face…

A video from his latest concert tour filmed in Israel:

 

Published in: on August 19, 2011 at 12:30 pm  Comments (7)  

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  1. Check out the critique of Dylan’s art exhibit:
    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/26/questions-raised-about-dylan-show-at-gagosian/?hp

    Seems like artistically, he’s not dead but undead, hulking around stealing and eating others’ brains.

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  2. Here is a grainy version of what is arguably the worst Bob Dylan performance in history. Playing harmonica (sort of) at a 1989 Chabad fundraiser with son-in-law Peter Himmelman, and Harry Dean Stanton: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGXcTAHCcmo

    Editor’s response: Wow, now that is bad… but still a toss up with what he’s dishing out on his current tour. For those not familiar, Chabad refers to the Chabad Lubavitch, the self-appointed leaders of the orthodox Hassidic movement.

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  3. Hey Paul. I didn’t get a chance to start clicking over here un’til now. And just this weekend, I howled along to my old vinyl copy of Blonde on Blonde this weekend, I had to read this post. And I have very similar feelings to yours.

    I still have most of his lyrics memorized, at least through Blood on the Tracks (or is it the one with Emmy Lou Harris? – can’t remember which was later).

    But maybe 20 years ago or so, I chanced to find him performing on TV and was shocked. No discernable notes in his vocals, not even slightly off ones. He looked like death and sounded worse. I looked up some of his lyrics and was just left shaking my head.

    When the kids were little, we received the CD with his cover of “Froggie Went a Courtin'” as a gift, but it only got played once. Sounded like he croaked instead of Froggy.

    So I’ve passed up many chances to see him in comparatively small venues in Asheville. I’d rather enjoy the old recordings than cringe for the expensive privilege of staying current.

    But his old lyrics have aged so well. This weekend, my son rented the movie “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” (perfect for a high school freshman slumber party) and a character quoted the line, “He not busy born is busy dying.” When I identified it as a Dylan line, the teens raised their eyebrows at me, but no one had the nerve to ask “Bob Who?” I gained credibility when the cute girl in the film then identified the line.

    But as I read your blog, I’m left with the sad feeling that Dylan himself, at least as an artist, has been busy dying for decades.

    Editor’s response: well said… just watched a replay of Pirate Radio and in the final scene one of the DJs risked his life going back into their sinking ship to retreive his records including his early Dylan collection.

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  4. Like most of us, my favorite Dylan incarnations are his first two, in the 60s and early 70s. (Steve used to play his albums for me all the time when I was still a hard-core Motown boy.) Again, like most of us (I presumptuously assume) I didn’t care much for his Christian-infused incarnation, and stopped paying attention. But, I give him respect for continually changing and recording what he wanted.

    I can’t really rag on the last 35 years of his career, not having listened much, but I love “Time Out of Mind” (1997), though it shocks me to realize even that’s from last century. And playing live still? Damn, dude is 70.

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  5. I’ve got a slightly more positive take on the performance, which I saw the night before the Jones Beach concert up on the former Woodstock site in Bethel. The Dylan I saw was very much into his performance, something that I haven’t felt when I saw him 15 years ago. I do think though that he’s lost his voice completely, and that his band was lackluster at best and woefully inadequate compared to the sidemen that Leon Russell brought for the opening act. The clip from Israel doesn’t reflect him having any enthusiasm though, and instead there he seems a bit over medicated. I wasn’t close enough to tell in Bethel, but that didn’t seem to be the case that night.

    So, I’m glad that I saw him, though I won’t be going back again unless he’s in a small club, which could eventually happen if he keeps this up. I first saw him at a Joan Baez concert in the ’62, and most memorably at Lincoln Center on Halloween night in ’64. My roommate in college and I used to fall asleep nightly stacking all four sides (two double albums) of “Blond on Blond”on a turntable. I can see why people would think that he is “only in it for the money” (wasn’t that a title of a Mothers album?) or perhaps trying to hold onto something that has already slipped through his fingers. My only point was that he wasn’t phoning it in the night I saw him, but his solution to having shot vocal chords was so much less satisfactory than, e.g., Leonard Cohen who still breathes his own life into his songs with virtually no more voice than Dylan. Instead, as Paul said, his tempos and arrangements all blended into one big growl fest. Fortunately on Friday I didn’t have to see him do this to “Hattie Carroll” or any of his pre-electric songs.

    Editor’s response: Jerry, Thanks for your slightly more positive take but from your detailed comments I think our reactions were really pretty similar… and I wonder if he actually was more engaged during his performance in Bethel because of fond memories of his time in Woodstock.

    Interesting that this topic stirred up so many comments – which got me thinking, how about a survey? What was the last great Dylan recording? Send a comment or email to Opinion8ed.tripod@yahoo.com with YOUR opinion.

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  6. Did you hear Dylan’s Christmas Album last year? I thought it was a riot. I think it was supposed to be humorous.

    Editor’s response: No, I didn’t hear his Christmas album. Was he saying that it doesn’t matter what he puts out… people will still buy it?

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  7. My question is:why can’t the real Bob Dylan stand down already? Only in it for the substantial money at this point. Re: James Taylor – OK, I can do the occasional PBS special and I have about 5 songs on my i’Pod – especially “Lighthouse”, one of my all time favorite songs. But the whole JT – Carole King thing -VOM! I started watching on PBS and went back to reading after 1/2 song. Why can’t we all just remember them as they were? If they have new material, OK, but if not – please go gently or otherwise into that non-celeb night.

    Good issue, Paul.

    May I toss a bomb (nothing new here) and open a discussion about “The Help”, book and movie. How about it? To me, enjoyable but more “o your poor downtrodden let the benevolent “with-it” nice white people lead you into the light”, a branch of the Magic Negro (Shawshank Redemption) genre.

    Editor’s response: Thanks Eileen. Stand down indeed. That You Tube video at the end of the piece really says it all. Re: “The Help” (read the book and saw the film) let’s agree to respectfully disagree… yes, Stockett is vulnerable to the politically correct interpretation e.g., espoused by Melissa Harris-Perry but the fact remains that the story of the Jim Crow period of our history needs to be told to current and future generations and she did a powerful job in doing so. Thanks to your comment I went on to add an additional article on this topic which I’ve dubbed Special Issue 19.5

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