Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ballad of a thin man



The greatest gift the internet has given us is that it has made the stuff of our collective teen years, our conquer-the-world years into the stuff that is retrieved from that attics, basements and from the garages of  memory and posted on the social media one a user’s choice. We get to oohh and ahh   or groan with embarrassment over how wonderful or, on reflection, how preposterous the playthings our younger selves are in retrospect.  Barry Alfonso, writer, journalist and cultural historian par excellence, posted this on a site. I laughed when I witnessed this items reappearance, an album of Sebastian Cabot, gentlemanly English actor best known for his work as Mr. French on the hokey sitcom “Family Affair”, reciting the lyrics of Bob Dylan. This was, of course, intended as an inspired jam session in which Dylan’s worth as a poet was established without equivocation. The equivocation remains, though, as the results are a classic case of belated comedy. That accent and that acting style can't help but sound incurably absurd considering the kind of poetic vernacular Dylan, an idealized form of street jive. 

The problem is made worse in that Cabot's actorly dramatic pauses, his stressing of certain syllables over others in a line, the rising and falling of his voice as though in actual conversation, is just the sort of thing if you're dealing with the multi-rhythmic beats of Shakespeare, Marlowe or, say, Elmore Leonard; there is more for a man with a trained voice to work with. A parallel example would be that it is more interesting to hear Miles Davis improvise on "My Funny Valentine" or "Someday My Prince Will Come" rather than "Time After Time" or "Human Nature." Genius lyricist as he has been over the decades, Dylan’s lyrics is not stand-alone poems, as they require the melodies to achieve their full power. Cabot is game in trying to make these words seem larger than they are, but it is a ridiculous combination. 

The comedy is as unintentional here as it was in "Plan 9 from Outer Space"; since it was a "hip" thing at the time this record was made to insist that Dylan was a poet, first and foremost. Since this was the conventional wisdom at the time, it was also a selling point and doubtlessly some record exec had an idea that they should get a "real”, i.e. British actor to recite Dylan's words. Sebastian did what did best; apply his voice of refined elocution, to what Dylan did best. The results are a conspicuous mismatch, I think, and don't sense anything purposefully subversive, intentionally comic, or post-modernly ironic about this. It is funny in the way the pursuit of an innocently bad idea is funny--the awfulness is obvious to everyone but the participants, who've been seduced by their expectations.

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