Thursday, May 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Mr.Zimmerman

It was Bob Dylan's birthday the other day, and I had the pleasure to attend a tribute performance of his songs , featuring a curious mix of renditions of obscure Dylan songs and versions of more familiar ones that were, in a word, problematic. The gathered performers, singer-songwriters all who obviously feel their debt to the iconic man is something that they cannot repay in full, obviously had fun with their choices and their occasionally idiosyncratic arrangements. The results were mostly enjoyable, although there continues to be the knee jerk habit of praising Dylan's songwriting beyond good sense. Dylan has been in the music game since the early sixties, his influence on other performers is second only to the Beatles for the unalterable game change he brought to rock and pop music, and it's astounding that that through the decades, weathering fads, trends and  several years of bad road, he remains relevant. But that he remains a touchstone younger generations model themselves after isn't the same that everything he's written is equal to the best work; some of it is , in fact, slapdash, repetitive, and unconvincing as narrative vehicles.  

It's often pointed out by critics   and the occasional  academic like Christopher Hicks that Dylan's writing shares with legitimately Canonical figures like Pope and Milton a life's work that reveals the gathering perspective of one who has outlived their foolishness and impulsive certitude; perhaps, Dylan remains a songwriter, not a poet , and his lyrics are locked into the bare chord essentials that have been his preference since "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan". His melodic range is limited, and part of the problem with the weakest of his later songs is that there isn't musical cue to give the artist a hint of when to wrap up his subject. Instead, one chorus follows another , with little variety in a song's melodic logic to indicate when a subtler, terser phrase is needed, when a more vivid refrain is required.

A consistent tension between melody and lyric creates interest, and makes lyrics quotable. Too much of latter day Dylan is not quotable, but are, rather, prolix, a longish bit of daydreaming in the vaguest of locales. The vagueness would be fine if there were a more evocative word selection, but too often Dylan writes what seems like an interesting commencement upon an intriguing passage, only to quickly bury it with insipid qualifiers and disposable asides. What I keep wondering is whether if Dylan had advanced his musical vocabulary--The Beatles had, The Rolling Stones had, Elvis Costello had, Dylan acolytes all--would his lyric chops likewise seen an elevation in quality and variety?

While pondering that at the concert, a performer on stage was attempting a version of  "Like a Rolling Stone",  a miserable experience. It came off more as a Ricky Lee Jones parody than a tribute to Dylan, with an arrhythmic mix and match of tempos and grating blues inflections and melismatic improvisations on the famously acerbic words that made no connection with the surreal rant that is at the song's center. It was an indecisive version, full of stops and starts and wasted vocal gestures--voice and guitar seemed not to know what the other was doing; it was like watching someone try to park too large a car in too small a space. Dylan's best songs deserve better.