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.