Monday, July 3, 2006

Dylan's voice finds him

I am , for the moment at least, sated with all things Dylan, and hope that my fellow Dylan obsessives feel likewise gorged. I'm on a strict diet of Bud Powell and cool-period Miles Davis. There is little new information in the Scorsese assembled documentary, but there is plenty of rare footage to feast on, all of which gives us a way of studying the history of Dylan's vocal affectations; one might say that he film is Biography of a Bad Singing Voice. Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Irish laborers, blues groaner, gospel exciter, drugged out whiner. Of themselves, the qualities are slurred and nasal, harsh and authentic, as it were, to the degree of being nearly unlistenable. His rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow" from an old TV clip wasn't at all pleasant no matter how I try to approach the sequence.

Yet there are wonderful transformations with that voice, when he began writing his own material, his own lyrics. Vowel and voice met and a sound was made, dramatic, effective, beautiful in a new way. His performance of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" at the Newport Folk Festival was riveting, vocally masterful. Nasal, howling, pinched, but asserted, shaped, honed. This wonderful song couldn't have been performed any more effectively with a so called "better voice". The prettier voice would only decenter a sentiment from whatever anecdotal grit that would have the splintered hint of truth and make into an exotic backdrop for professionally trained
posers for whom emotion is not a gauge of connection with the world but instead a sickness, something to be endured in alluring, self-loathing poses.
I would say that Dylan is an especially bad singer, but I would also insist that he is an absolutely brilliant vocalist. Joan Baez seemed to be more about a pure, high note flirting sound rather than the rattle and cough of voice finding pitch and cadence through scar tissue; this isn't to say that she was insincere, only that she sounded studied. She was more sincere than Dylan was, I'm sure, but Dylan was the better actor, the genius poser, the seamless liar, the creator of a personal mythology you couldn't tear yourself from.

No one could dramatize a lyric like he could.What he does with a lyric is something other than render cozy rhymes against assuring melodies as sweetly as possible.
There is a point in his career, when he eased off topical songs and moved toward more expressive, metaphorical, "poetic" lyrics that his voice became something wholly new in pop music. It's not far off to maintain that what Dylan did vocally between Another Side of Bob Dylan up through John Wesley Harding literally forced us to reconsider what "good" singing was really was. It was Dylan more than anyone else in pop music history who gave license to the singers-of-limited means to take the microphone and create an emotional experience with vocal qualities that are less than perfect. That is fitting for songs that dealt squarely with less than perfect realities, and this an achievement no less profound than any other Dylan has wrought in folk, rock and pop music.

The most inept rendition of a Dylan song was a cover of "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" by the Trade Winds. They had a previous song that did placed briefly on the charts, "New York's A Lonely Town (When Your the Only Surfer Boy Around)" which,in itself, was a wonderful Beach Boys knock off, moderately chunky guitar chords, sweet harmonies, Phil Spector wall-of-sound production. It sounded big, empty, and over stated. Their Dylan cover was likewise overstated, overproduced, but it was merely loud and bludgeoning, not overwhelming like you imagine rock and roll being. The worst part of it all was the lead singer, sweet and melodic on the surfer song, now attempting an angry folk-rock snarl Ala Barry McGuire. It didn't work, 'though I wouldn't have been surprised if it had turned up on Roger Corman soundtrack.


  1. Anonymous8:43 AM PDT

    I completely agree with you about the fitting of Dylan's voice and his songs. It seems that only Dylan can express the emotion of his own songs. Other people with better voices do not do the justice. Yes, the Byrd's version of Mr. Tambourine Man is nice, but only Dylan can bring out the poetry and the feeling of "underneath the diamond sky, dancing with one hand waving free" of the song. And don't forget, no one else can sneer "how does it feeeeeel?" like Dylan.

  2. Yeah, his voice is an interesting case study of how the popular concept of "good singing" has changed over the last fifty years. The way Dylan sings has been around in similar forms in American folk traditions, but it was Dylan who brought the grittier, less pretty qualities to the mainstream. Lampooned and reviled at first, Dylan's influence took hold, three successive generations of rough hewn singers have found their own way thanks to Dylan's pioneering ways, and yes, Dylan has been imitated but never bettered in this game.


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