Friday, October 07, 2005

Dylan's Voice

Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna

Bob Dylan, It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

Bob Dylan, Not Dark Yet

No, this is not going to be my PhD thesis on Dylan's lyrics and the third person voice as performative. Actually, it's just an attempt to better explain why I love the man's music so much. It seems like the best way to return to the subject of Bob Dylan, as it's only fair that I try to put into words why I think devoting so many posts and words to this man is legitimate. I am sure that some readers have never heard his music, and I'm also sure that many more just don't like it that much. I hope that these posts can at least provide people with a chance to hear his music, or more importantly, give people a second chance to hear his music, to hear it in a new context and appreciate what amazing music the man has been making for 45 years.

I imagine the biggest factor in people's dislike of Dylan's music stems from his voice, that oft-caricatured instrument that wheezes and whines and cracks on each and every track. Why would I possibly make this a focus when I want people to listen and love the music? Because it is the very thing that made me fall in love with his songs, the very thing that endears me to him. You heard me, I love the sound of Dylan's voice in all of this imperfect glory.

I don't want to make this a long post, as I've felt like enough of a sycophant already. I do want to simply say that Dylan's voice is as beautiful as his lyrics. Its imperfections make it unique, something that has been lost in pop culture over the decades. Too often in music and art, value is only placed on the perfect, the clean, the beautiful. Look at our conceptions of beauty today, where impossibly skinny, perfectly structured women are held up as the ideal precisely because of their perfection. Our pop music is the product of the studio, where digital alterations take out the slightest flaws. Hell, the rise of the suburbs in the 50s and 60s can be seen as extension of this aesthetic, when people wanted to escape the dirt, the anarchy, the grit and grime of the urban scene. They created a world of 'perfection', of manicured lawns, devoid of trash, homelessness, poverty and noise.

Along came Bob Dylan's voice, devoid of artifice or treatment. His voice struggles at times, goes off-key, cracks. There is nothing perfect about it at all, and that is what makes it so important and refreshing. It comes out of that other America, that weird, unruly America that no one seems very proud of. The one that isn't shown by Hollywood or Madison Avenue. For me, it is the cities of this country that I hear in his voice, as well as the voices of the immigrants who find a home here, the radicals who built progressive movements that changed the world, the gangsters, hustlers, outcasts. I am sure that others hear the rural voices of the early part of the century that were featured by Alan Lomax, Smithsonian Folkways and Revenant. It makes sense really that both can be heard in Dylan's voice, as he is a man from both Hibbing, Minnesota and Greenwich Village, a man shaped profoundly by both places.

It is an aesthetic at play here, one that extends across genres and art forms. I don't have a name for it, and assume that someone has already talked about this and described it far better. It is the aesthetic of ugliness or grit or something, which values art that has imperfections, has traces of the unwanted. Whether it's graffiti that fills the Lower East Side, or music that offends the senses and sensibilities, there is something there.

The songs above are meant to showcase Dylan's voice, which seemed easiest to do with his acoustic work. I feel like that naked setting, Dylan with his guitar and harmonica, captures its brilliance, forces the listener to hear it as its own instrument. The first two tracks come from the Bootleg Series Volume 4, The Royal Albert Hall show in 1966. A legendary show, I cannot recommend more highly this 2 CD set. Honestly, if the "Visions of Johanna" doesn't floor you, I don't know what to do. It left me in tears (sensitive thug) the first time I listened to it, and I truly believe that it is one of the greatest moments in music ever. Finally, I took the most powerful track from Time Out of Mind, what many consider to be the greatest product of his resurgence in the last decade. It is a phenomenal album, and this song sums up the sense of loss and hope that runs through the album. His voice is weaker and less able, but it only emphasizes the narrator's long journey and hard life that much better. Unfortunately, I do not have this song ready to go yet, so here is a little something to tide you over.

Listen to the songs above, and see what you think. I know that my meaningless words are not going to make you like something, but I do hope that you can see the beauty in the man's voice, and begin to see the aesthetics of ugliness that I am talking about above, which I hope to come back to again. Let us know, as I am curious to hear what people think on the Dylan tunes I have put up or the man's music in general.


Rod... said...

Great post... I heard Dylan for the first time many years ago when he was starting out and I was a teenager in the UK - at this distance it's hard sometimes to imagine what that impact was on people like me and my friends - the recent Scorsese documentaries have brought it all back - and these are two of my favourite tracks! Thanks!

Jack said...


Thanks for the comments and compliment. I would love to know more about seeing Dylan in those early days, as it sounds like such an amazing and exciting time. While I did have my problems with the documentary, it did provide a wonderful glimpse into those early days. What shows did you catch as a teenager? Did it seem at the time like this would still hold out attention 4 decades later? Have you seen Dylan recently? I plan on doing one more post on the beginning of the "electric" period, and will post some more songs from the mid 60s. Not sure that anything could top the "Visions", though.

Anyway, I hope that you will check back here often, although I'm not sure that the music I normally post will be of interest. It's great hearing from people, as it's nice to know someone besides my mother is reading.

Patrick said...

I first saw Bob Dylan perform at his comeback gig in (1977 or 78?) at Earls Court. Apparently it's regarded as one of his greatest performances ever .. up there with the 'Judas' gig in 66 (Manchester?) The things I remember about the Earls Court concert are this: he looked tiny, even close up, but his magnetism was huge; he did a stunning version of Tangled up in Blue ('in-a-bluuueeee') introduced Maggies Farm with 'the last time I played this here they booed..' and then left the stage for the intermission with the line 'I'm just going to make a phone call'. His interpretations of his old songs swung between inspired, and downright bizarre. There was a polish and slickness about the show that stopped me feeling completely engaged, but the best moments were electrifying.

I saw Dylan at the Hammersmith gigs in 1990 I think - (sorry, I don't do dates). He sang a number of tracks off the then recent Oh Mercy; most notably Man in a Long Black Coat, Most of the Time, Political World and Everything Is Broken which saw Bob perform a strange little dance
reminiscent of Chuck Berry's duck-walk. The crowd went Berserk. He did a heart stopping version of Forever Young which was never really a big favourite of mine. This performance though built to the point where you felt a dam of emotion was about to burst. Possibly the greatest performance I've ever personally heard from him.

Which brings me to the point of my post here on your site.

The last time I saw Bob was in Newcastle, my home City, in about 1992. It was awful. My girlfriend had just started getting into his albums through me. She loved Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde in particular. I warned her not to expect anything like that. I'd seen him in Glasgow three years before and the decline in his performance, in particular his voice, a gargling death rattle, was saddening. The audience reacted the way all well behaved Dylan audiences do now; wait for the mellifluous yet superfluous introductory guitar noodlings to end; and then try to work out from the grunts, rasps and belches Dylan ommits, what the actual song is. You can watch them shaking their heads in bemusement, and then the realisation; 'It's Tangled up in Blue!' (In case you wondered why a Dylan audience spontaneously erupts into applause half-way through a song, this is why.)

I recently visited to hear some live downloads. I sat at this computer in disbleif at the full horror of the deterioration. Dylan was never considered a singer in the traditional sense of the word, but those of us in the know knew different. Dylans voice, particulary in the 60's and partially the 70's was full of nuance; a flexible tool that could shred or inbue his words with spleen venting vitriol or compassionate emotional depth (see Positively Fourth Street and Visions of Joanna respectively) ('I can hold my breath three times as long as Caruso ..!')

I feel that Dylan has become a different version of Elvis in his remaining Vegas days. The audiences who turned up to watch the King stumble around the stage did so out of love and devotion, a belief that Elvis would
snap out of it and become his old self, the vibrant King of Rock and Roll. I suspect some people also went along for a freak show. But occasionally Elvis would become coherent and the voice would fly to its usual heights. The opposite is true of Dylan. The Scorcese documentary and Dylans biographical Chronicles show a man with a sharp and acute mind, aware of himself, his legacy, the mythology and the real man behid the image. Bob Dylan still possess his faculaties. It's his fans who I believe have lost theirs. They turn up to his gigs with the same expectation as an Elvis fan, although I supspect that the often pretentious fans Dylan attracts, a fact he quite obviously despises, would consider themselves above such gross devotion. The Dylan fan is the equivelent of a train spotter. Swapping High Fidelity like facts about their hero and imagining they understand his every utterance and motive. I once got cornered by one of these cretins who whispered to me .. 'he never speaks on stage you know ..' He reminded me of the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now; fawning over Kurtiz's every fart and non-statement.

The grotesque parody I encountered on Bob Dylans site was heartbreaking. But still the Dylan afficnados write that he's singing better than ever. Oh, please! We may never know what Dylan's motivation for continuing to perform are. I've tried to place him in the Blues tradition from which he originally grew; Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, no one ever criticised these guys for playing until they dropped. But listen to John Lee Hookers last performances and the quality is still high. Okay, he had to sit down, but there was a nobillity about him that made you admire his continuing performances.

Am I a Bob Dylan fan? Nah. Do I admire his art, his songs? Appreciate his impact on 20TH century culture. You bet. I wouldn't have a CD collection without all those CD's I don't even have to list (no more lists, please). The recent Scorcese documentary was the highlight and event of the TV year. I found it informative, inspiring, groundbreaking, remarkable. I was thrilled to see the man himself looking and sounding good; perceptive, ironic, caring, knowing, still avoiding labels and the constant dissection he's endured over the decades. I just don't want to hear him sing anymore.

Don't follow leaders, watch your parking meters.

Patrick said...

Hmm .. actually it was 1999 in Newcastle .. sorry, my girlfriend just corrected me, which I'm sure you will too!