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.
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.
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: