Showing posts with label Bob Dylan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bob Dylan. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 18, 2020


Of course there had to be a Dylan record on a list of albums that had a high impact in the manner I put my straight shoulder to the wheel, and its this one, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED. This is less a music collection than a weapon, a dual- edged shiv that brought everything that songwriter was interested in--Burroughsesque nightmares, the plaintive flatness of rural folk traditions, a carnivalization of the inane and crucifying obligations we've bought into to rationalize lives based on a religion comprised solely on the idea of debt. It was a glorious anarchy as well, a chamber of blues, boogie, electric guitars , guitars and drums thrashing forward without penance with a momentum that ripped the seams of whatever structure these songs had to begin with. Dylan is nasal, braying, mewling, nasty in his vocalizing, which is to say that he's pissed, a combination of gotcha!, dead-to-rights broadsides against what is false and based on distraction deception and deceit and outright school yard finger pointing, an aggrieved creep ranting at others about how unfair he's been treated. 

This is a fantastic combination, folkie Dylan backed by an electric band getting the tracks done fast, taking little time for finessing the brew. It's worth mentioning that while blues guitar genius Mike Bloomfield was on the session (with Al Kooper as well, late of the Blues Project and later to found Blood Sweat and Tears), Dylan, jerk/punk/asshole/speed freak he was, told Bloomfield that he didn't want "any of that B.B.King shit..." Or words to that effect. The disc is full of rawboned, ethereal masterpieces like JUST LIKE TOM THUMB'S BLUES, FROM A BUICK SIX, BALLAD OF A THIN MAN, QUEEN JANE APPROXIMATELY, and his epic Masterwork DESOLATION ROW, which may be the most convincing evocation of Dante's 9 Circles of Hell. One can enthuse, elaborate, abstract from and wax philosophical upon these keen nihilistic odes, but it will have to suffice to remark that I consider this record one of the albums that needed to exist for the birth of punk rock to take place, along with the KICK OUT THE JAMS by the MC5, and the first albums by the Stooges and Velvet Underground. . 

Everyone seems to start and end at different places, tempos are ragged, sometimes tentative, the pace is bludgeoning, the instruments are often out of tune, and its all glorious,brilliant Dylan in the middle of it all, snarling, burning through his genius and abusing his muse for the greater glory of what would become a definitive record. It is raw and spiky and gives you a perspective that says that there is no proof because there is no pudding.You'd be right, I suppose , in linking Dylan's early cynicism about the motives of people and the institutions they represent to his dalliance of brimstone Christianity. It does seem a natural progression, although I've expanded my view on is SLOW TRAIN COMING album and would equate it closer to the fatalistic Christianity of Flannery O'Connor, a writer who was obsessed with the vision of Christ, the afterlife, as a strange way of thinking that you've cut the spiritual requirements to sit at God's right or left hand,which ever comes first. Her's was a body of thinking about Christianity that was too weird and personal to be of any use to any to anyone except those readers of American Southern fiction who marveled at the writer's skill at imagining the worst while dealing, even in submerged form, on matters of Belief.Her measure of Christian love was a love of Christ himself, not so much for the fellow man. 

What had been pure in intention, spreading a gospel of love and service to others--to be genuinely 'Christ like"--had been perverted and become ritual, fetish and an excuse to gather material riches and oppress others in the name of silent God and savior. O'Conner was cynical, and her stories in many ways reveal how characters sacrifice their best interests and the good of others in pursuit of that goal. Wise Blood had a preacher who very much made me think of a young, venomous preacher who founded a Church that had no God. God is a brand-name and the institution is the thing itself, its real purpose being only to perpetuate its own existence. She is closer to Dylan's finger wagging than most of us care to think about. Dylan's Christianity is likewise too weird to be of any use to any evangelist who might to cite him as a saved celebrity. His view was apocalyptic and I think no less nihilist than when he was a mad lad surrealiZing the universe with his skill at saying profound sounding things that no one honestly understood. But for HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, it's more profitable , nay, more enjoyable to take this on its own terms and it's own era-defined conditions of composition and again get wowed by the spiked punch of insight, insult, revelation, resentment, love , rage, the general rampage of impulses he contained with the simple guitar chords he had in his armory. The wonder of the album is that unlike so many discs by great artists at the time, including, this one hasn't aged.


BARRY ALFONSO: I sniff off-the-cuff nihilism, crank-'n'-reds know-nothingism and wink-twitch name-dropping glibness, though it IS better to drop T.S. Eliot's name than, say, Stevie Nicks's.You can trace our current era of Trumpean meanness right back to the unbridled rudeness and insensitivity of "Like A Rolling Stone." That song is arguable the first pop hit featuring a man insulting, belittling, shaming and humiliating a woman in front of the world. Fast-forward 51 years to Trump's behavior towards Megan Kelly at the first GOP debate and look at the naked lunch dangling at the end of the populist FORK.I disagree that O'Connor was cynical -- she believed than man was fallen and helpless and blind as the bats of Jehoshaphat -- but there was the possibility of redemption. She wanted to shock people into realizing their utter need. Dylan has spent most of his career looking for a stick to beat people over the head with, whether it is poor Mr. Jones (who isn't "with it") or unbelievers during his Jesus phase. O'Connor used dark satire to point out truths about humanity -- I don't hear ANY truths about humanity in Dylan's three Christian albums except that you are all going to burn in Hell unless you submit immediately. I would say O'Connor was profound. Dylan? He was a sour, nearly burned-out rock star who needed a new nozzle for his bile. Dylan wanted the applause of the crowd so he could piss on it, causing his sopping-wet fans to worship Bob the Bard all the more. A dump truck for an overloaded head and a cold, cold heart. I can see Reed now, wringing out his own neck like a dishrag wrapped around an old biddy's broom handle...

Sunday, April 26, 2020


Murder Most Foul is the best set of stanzas Dylan has written in decades, and they indeed cover a lot of ground as to where he's been strategically in taking pen to paper, starting off with the kind of burned-out, cracker barrel chattiness that has made much , if not most, of his eighties, nineties and yes, 20s output a slog through the long grass of intensification, but Murder Most Foul rapidly morphs into and the kind of acerbic acuteness that made his late folk and early electric work so damn satisfying. Less fingerprinting, let us say, softer, but there is a compassionate irony here, something found in the third-person omniscience of John Cheever and John Updike, something all seeing, interested, sympathetic to unsatisfactory results of best laid plans and the best intention ed art, but resolutely detached all the same, the Kierkegaard God remaining silent and unmoving following our dire consequences and continued mediocrity, the sort of irony that contains no message apart from pose the question concerning what our next move is. 

This song is a welcome, if sadly belated companion to the Phil Ochs masterpiece The Crucifixion, which is among the best rock-poem lyrics ever scribed and which handily beat Dylan at his own rock-poet game; this is prime Dylan, I believe, older, older, wizened and wiser, but a man aware of his legacy and reputation as an artist who needs to put life into perspective, the ways in which he emerged after the Fall From Grace, meaning the assassination of JFK and the end of the myth of an American Camelot, a sprawling attempt to reconcile what seemed to be promised by the Presence of John F. Kennedy under whose direction a country could transcend the differences that separate us and have us join together in common cause of a creating a more perfect union and the witnessing and not wholly disguised disgust toward the same culture that, in the current climate, is drunk on personal pronouns and the assumption that gross materialism and mythological entitlements come with the words that refer to oneself as the only agent of action that matters. (@bobdylan) | Twitter

Dylan's finds himself in a universe crueler, stupider, more self-seeking than when he started, and finds himself spoken of as deity, philosopher, poet, all manner of seer, sage, and prophet who is supposed to tell what to do and how to think about a reality does not yield its activities to the dictates to personal whim or the mythology of immutable laws of history. The only law of history is that there is no law of history. The undercurrent in Murder Most Foul's seventeen-minute reach is that for Dylan, a man who has been alive long enough to see the major movements of American life, that nothing has changed in terms of what American feels it needs, which is the belief that we as a Nation are number one in the history of all things, that we are a nation of men with unlimited liberty, that self-seeking is a virtue that cures every perceived ailment; we find that the passage of time has changed the fashions, the furniture, the architecture of appearances, but the stupidity remains. This stupidity is not an element that goes deep, but rather THE WHOLE THING we base all we tell ourselves on. Murder most foul is loopy, long, prolix, an overstuffed set of luggage filled with name checks and the like, and likely could have benefited had it been cut to , say, ten minutes, but it is the work of a fine poetic mind that has woken up, or at least discerned a way to discuss what's been brewing in that brain these so many years.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


image If you're wondering, ever, why rock criticism is The Red-Light District of the reviewing arts, this article recently posted on the Esquire website to celebrate Bob Dylan's 78th birthday, shows the reason. The essay baldly asserts that Dylan is "The Greatest American Singer of All Time". Written by someone named Jeff Slate, a songwriter and occasional music journalist, the piece an unctuous, overeager stroll through the obvious facts of Dylan's career , laced with fatuous claims for this to be the greatest American singer. The basic formulation is that as a developing artist, a man dedicated to making a splash in the music world with the resources at this command, the young Dylan had tried on several musical styles—blues, folk, field hollers, gospel, rock-and-roll, and that he had made each style his own reinventing all of them. The basic problem is that Dylan has an awful instrument for carrying a tune. 

There's room for an agreement that the Bard of the Counter Culture has created a good number of impressive, moving, and subtle vocal performances during his long stay in the public eye, but that isn't the same thing as being the Greatest Singer this culture has ever produced. Slate gushes like a nervously prolix fanboy as he over rates the artist's obvious accomplishment. He undersells what was going on in the kind of reinvention that's required for an artist of latent genius to accomplish anything beyond the bathroom and the hairbrush.Dylan is a great singer because he had the ability that suited the qualities and limitations of his voice. All great songwriters do this, especially with Burt Bacharach, who wrote perfect melodies for a stream of quirky vocalists who , without him, likely would have trouble finding a good ftt for their native sound. I am thinking specifically of Dionne Warwick and Gene Pitney, two singers who, I'm convinced, might have languished without Bacharach's melodic accommodations of their strengths. 

Dylan is a more extreme example of this. His early versions of anonymous folk classics are drearily cluttered with many affectations that make me cringe when played . The genius of his vocal style didn't develop until he committed to writing his songs; the affectations began to fall away and, by the time we come to Blonde on Blonde, we've experienced a long string of potent lyrics dramatized b y a singular , original style that handily introduced and forced acceptance of a new aesthetic in pop singing. Mick Jagger is someone I'd say is an artist who followed the same route, a man with a technically awful voice who, in partner Keith Richard, had a voice that could create musical context and frame Jagger's singing.

 I've argued that Dylan and Jagger were not singers, but VOCALISTS, men who could do interesting things with their voice to dramatize a lyric. What those two do is a certain singing, but the distinction is helpful in keeping one's statements about an artist's work both sober and sane.Dylan, though, is not the greatest American singer. Sinatra can , hypothetically, could sing "Blowing in the Wind" or "Just Like a Woman" with style and aplomb (the results , no doubt, would sound ridiculous), but Dylan couldn't handle a single tune from Sinatra's songbook. Many  argue otherwise,insisting he could pull off the fete and change music history again.but the brilliance of this man, Dylan, lies entirely on the work he created.On his own songs, the gentleman rules without peer. "No sings Dylan like Dylan" was an early Columbia slogan for the songwriter, quite a prescient declaration as we take the long view of his career. But is less about Dylan's singing than it is about the article writer's rote hyperbole.

Sunday, August 26, 2018


Image result for bob dylan
No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese directed five hour documentary on Bob Dylan has finally aired on PBS after much advertising and hype, and those fans eager, as always, to hear the songwriter talk about his music and his life free of evasion and tall tales are treated, again, to another example of how closely Dylan wants to control the public's perception of him. He was, admittedly, quite a bit more forthcoming to questions that he has been in the past, but one never senses that Dylan wasn't done being cagey with his answers; considering that Scorsese himself was brought in late to a project that Dylan's company had been preparing for seven years and that it was Dylan's own employees asking him the questions, it's doubtful we heard everything he had to say about his affairs. 

Chronicles, his memoir, was a best seller, and it is a publisher's desire to save the best of the rest for the sequel. In the meantime, the trade paperback edition has just come out, and sales are brisk. The audience is a curious mix, being primarily baby boomers who want the inside skinny from the man they might well consider the last vestige of authenticity (whatever that is) an American performer has demonstrated, and young people, from teens to those just entering college, either late admirers or the merely curious. I am, for the moment at least, sated with all things Dylan, and hope that my fellow Dylan obsessives feel likewise gorged. I am a strict diet of Bud Powell 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 the 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". I would say that Dylan is an especially bad singer, but I would also insist that he is an absolutely brilliant vocalist. 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 were 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.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

making Sinatra grate, again

Mikal Gilmore is a good critic overall, a fine writer with a literate style. He is very much a fan of the musicians he praises, and I've read him at times where he displays a reasonable skepticism at some of his heroes' less appealing efforts. Above all else, Gilmore's rock and roll writing is vital because he's a writer who never stopped believing that music had the power to change the way people see the world and that music, as well, could inspire, empower and embolden generations to create a more perfect union. Even when I feel that all that is lost to us now, that music, even when it was routinely superb during a period in the Sixties, was always about parties getting paid their due (and more), Gilmore could convince me, for a moment, that cynicism was a callow response to world events that didn't behave according to my own private timetable. 

But there is the habit of seeing everything particular artists do as evidence of genius when in fact what is served is dried out, tired, mannered, lifeless as a stain. Sinatra and Dylan, though, are two seemingly fault-free icons of Americana that Gilmore, like more than a few old guard reviewers, goes into a bubble of a kind and create their very own mythology, a homemade dialectic. In this case, it's the convenient narrative that Sinatra and Dylan represent the thesis and antithesis of American pop music and that what's happening with Triplicate amounts to a fabled synthesis. Gilmore gets disconcertingly close to aping Greil Marcuse's worst habit, which is to treat a trilogy of albums as a Major Historical/Cultural Event. In making such claims against a word limit, it is necessary to exclude practically everything and everyone else in the historical record. His four-star review is premised on the assumption that one thinks Dylan's performance of this material is arguably good on considers other than technical skill. One can make such an argument, of course, but I don't find them especially convincing. Willie Nelson has a reedy, nasally voice, but he does have range and color and a demonstrated mastery of his abilities as a vocalist; his renditions of old standards ala "Over the Rainbow" or "Blue Skies" work rather well and are effectively reimagined, as that atrocious phrase goes. We can push this even a bit further by remembering Elvis Costello's moving and too-brief reading of my "My Funny Valentine", choice ballad one would associate with the soaring and splinter texture of Tony Bennett's offhand croon, or the rich tone poems that Mel Torme turns his vocal performances into. 

Costello style, at the time, noted for being nasal, untrained, bellowing, only occasionally tuneful in straightforward line readings, demonstrates on "My Funny Valentine" that he, like Nelson, could shore up is supposed limitations and turn them into virtues that could make the performance memorable; while we can continue on  and on that Costello's rendition doesn't come near to achieving the definitive version Bennett imprinted upon the culture, that would be to miss the point of interpretation. Costello's version is his own, his vocal apparatus had richer registers to use to approach the delicacy of the melody and simple poetry of the lyrics, the result being, I think, is that great songs are written for a great vocalist. The further point is that Costello's voice had the technical qualities to make his version worth a listen or ten.  

"Redefined "is perhaps the better word. Sinatra's songs were written for Sinatra's voice, or voices similar in color, nuance, range, and regardless of what style you wish to cast the material in--soul, reggae, country, folk, blues--the requirements for voice remain the same. Dylan's appeal as a vocalist was that he wrote his own songs and that those songs fit the limited apparatus he had. His original material, and the songs by others (early on) he selected to perform fit his voice, his rage, his tone, which he was able to manipulate in effective ways. I am quite a bit more reductionist in my opinion of Dylan's attempts to interpret the great American songbook. I think it's awful stuff, a grating and embarrassing display. That said, I am also willing to admit my view reveals my limits more, perhaps, than they do anyone else's.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Stax of wax and wane

Well, creating a timeline concerning the rise and wane of Dylan's considerable talent is easy, but the criticism of his work is a more subtle enterprise. That is the actual analysis, inspection, parsing, interpretation, theorizing of the music and words themselves, and the taking into consideration the external factors --politics, fashion, religious conversions, divorces, age--that inform the creation of the music. Criticism is the x-ray we use to get inside the work and attempt to come up with adequate terms and descriptions as to how Dylan's material works and , perhaps, why it stands out among the throng of other singer-songwriters who hadn't near Dylan's resourcefulness.

Criticism, distinct from the consumer-guide emphasis with reviewing, is an ongoing discussion that seeks less to pass judgement than it does to comprehend large subjects thoroughly by interrogating one aspect of the work at a time. It is, of course, something like a make-work project as well, a means that some of us use to escape the terrifying silence that falls behind all of us at one point or another, that emptiness of space that sends a shudder down your spine when it seems even your thoughts are too loud and echoing off the rafters. Many writers keep writing, turning from mere expression into pure process, and it is with a good many worthy writers where we can look and see where their particular timelines became crowded with product that vacillates crazily between good , bad and awful, rarely matching what critical consensus considered their best material from their best period.

Edward Dorn is said that almost any good poet has written all their best work by the time they reach age 35, with the general output after that time becoming less daunting,daring, spry. Dylan is like this, I suppose, as is Woody Allen, John Ashbery , John Upidke, and Elvis Costello. I'd always thought that it was a hedge against death, that as the hair and teeth fall out , the arthritis escalates its assault on the joints and the memory takes on the consistency of swiss cheese, the writing, one poem after another, one novel after another, one movie, one song, one opera after another, the work somehow forestalls the inevitable darkness that awaits everyone. And criticism comes in again during these late period efforts of less notable content and turns itself into apologetics, where one theorizes about the proverbial canvas and kinds being changed, the brush strokes being bolder and less intricate as established ideas are played through yet again. It seems we're stuck with this crazy cycle ; even critics, great ones and mere carpetbaaggers, want to deny death in some sense and also avoid the idea altogether that they've nothing left to say about another man's words.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Over sold

(Barry Alfonso, a scholar, writer and a cultural critic of uncommon depth and equipoise, is a friend with whom I've having an ongoing conversation about many interests we have in common, Bob Dylan among them. I have been skeptical of Dylan's work since John Wesely Harding, and Barry has been an impressive defender. But with all things Dylan achieving critical mass , even Barry had to slam on the brakes. The dust mote that tipped the scale was an inanely praising review of Dylan's pricey retrospective, The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966 that appeared on the increasingly tone deaf news site The Daily Beast.  We had a brief exchange over what appears the relentless pouring over of Dylan's great period of work. We  both agreed, it seems, that it's gotten thick and mindlessly redundant. -tb)
Barry Alfonso:Ted, one of our first literary set-to's was over the value of Bob Dylan's work. I defended Bob -- as I continue to do for the most part, with reservations -- while you made him into a most delicious chew-toy. However, this constant regurgitation of Dylan's golden years is getting pretty boring, leading even the most dedicated fan to scream ENOUGH and go put on some Ken Nordine albums
Ted Burke:Most of our departures on Dylan's work, I think, was bout Dylan's post-John Wesley Harding album to the present day. I don't dismiss it entirely, but as a collection that accounts for his middle and late career, it is spotty at best. His is the problem of Having the compulsion to produce even when his muse isn't having lunch with him. But, yes, enough of exhuming of the glory days . As is, Dylan's work from that period is over examined and, I think, the tragic recipient of something that has cluttered and clouded appreciation of Shakespeare's plays, namely "Bardolotry", a near deification of the playwright. The writing that comes out of that is a slog. Writing about Dylan for most of the mainstream arts press, on line and print, has become a hagiographic exercise. The problem with the worshipful approach is that it obscures the real instances of brilliance in the work.

Barry Alfonso:I think some of that hagiography comes out of a fascination with Dylan as the embodiment of arrogant visionary youth circa 1965-67. His work after this period seems to exert less fascination. It also speaks to the lack of a commanding voice in popular music over the past 50 years. There's some combing and re-combing through the Costello catalog these days, but still there is no stopping the endless parsing of Dylan's prime era. His burst of brilliance speaks to the lack of similar bardic vision today.

Ted Burke:Umberto Eco, the novelist, has written that there are limits to how texts, in this case songs, can be interpreted and made to seem to have yield previously undisclosed meanings and nuance. He insists that there really does come a point where interpretations only repeat themselves if we wish to stay with what is actually in the material; beyond that,it is a matter of academics and pop music critics trying to stay in business. Dylan, not to diminish the greatness of his best work, has been over discussed , inspected, and extrapolated upon where the actual man who wrote the songs no longer exists and the songs becomes mere props to brace up the flimsy theorizing that dims the worth of the music. I am not sure if I would say that there haven't been other songwriters in Dylan's time or in more recent years who haven't had visions, bardic and otherwise, comparable to Dylan's; Van Morrison, Costello, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, off the top of my head, have written and recorded work over the decades that has moments of major greatness that is , I think , no less than Dyan's .

Dylan is the case of being the first one out of the gate, the mood of the times and the songwriter's desire to excel as no else had creating a synergy that changed the way the rent gets paid. I almost think it was merely a happy accident that it was Dylan who became the poet, the spokesman, the prophet, all that rot; if it hadn't been Dylan, another musician would have filled the need.Or maybe not. Phil Ochs, who I think is Dylan's equal as a "rock poet" , certainly had the talent but not, from what I've read about him, the temperament to get to the top and remain there. Dylan understood the complications of persona. In any event, it maybe a case of that if Dylan had not existed, the times would have created him, or someone like him. Contrarily, there is the Great Man Theory of history that puts forth that events of historical consequence are the result of the impact "Great Men" have on the destinies of the countries they rule . In this instance, if Dylan hadn't been born, we might still be wearing side burns and be listening to Como and Clooney through cheap car radio speakers.

Barry Alfonso:Yes and yes. Dylan did a lot of things first. And he changed. He rebelled against the rebels. Phil Ochs was an eloquent advocate and a poignant chronicler of his own disintegration. But he lacked that cruel streak, that arrogance that people seem to gravitate towards. The Great Man theory in history is pernicious and leads to the sort of blood and thunder hero-worship Carlyle and Wagner engaged in. But there is some truth to it and, yes, Dylan may have saved us from unchallenged Comoism.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Shadows in the Night--Bob Dylan
The so-called Great American Song Book was written specifically for singers who had better than average singing voices. One needed to not only be able to "carry a tune," but have a pleasant/intriguing/personable/tonally expressive quality to their singing that would make the blend of singer and song a memorable one, or at least one that entertained. Bob Dylan, from this standpoint, is an awful singer; his genius as a vocalist was constructed on the fact that he blended his influences--rock and roll, blues, country, old-timey folk--and wrote his own songs. He created the opposite effect than the ones regarding TGASB, which was rather than melodically nuanced songs being joined with musically suave vocalists, Dylan's mirror image was that of a ruffian, a street visionary, a man with shamanistic qualities who was in touch with the wild spirit of poetry, especially the surrealist sort, and sought to capture his visions in a neo-primitive format. Smartly simple song structures and Dylan's bracing nasal sneer made it clear that he didn't carry his tunes as forced them on you.

He couldn't sing well, but he could dramatize. So we have this paradox with "Shadows in the Night," a lousy singer from a technical viewpoint taking on songs that, from a technical standpoint, are sophisticated to the extent that expectations demand a vocalist who can actually hit the notes correctly and do something stylish with them. The result here is an awful, painful album to listen to. It's that simple. I am sure there are subtly argued defenses of what's been done here. I don't buy the apologies. I think less of what's been accomplished with this record and more of what's been committed, as in sin, a crime, a horrible insult to the brain. It's one thing for rock, and pop singers noted for singing styles that even the most uninterested among our company can admit to having tuneful voices to attempt the classic songs of Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, or a Tony Bennett. It's been enjoyable, if not always rewarding, to hear vocalists as diverse in approach and grit as Linda Ronstadt (good) to Rod Stewart (awful) to Pat Benatar (middling) try and wrap the gritty edge of their usual approach to a song around the sumptuous curves and segues of pieces that beguiled radio and ballroom audiences in World War 2. It's become a career stunt for old rock and rollers to dig into the vaults and revive the songs their parents were listening to, something that no longer intrigues.

Dylan's approach might have been interesting had he done this album quite a long time ago when the raggedness of his singing still had a bit of a range, and Dylan was capable of remaining in pitch; one thinks that Dylan of the Seventies and the Eighties, with a voice that was more versatile than people like me, have admitted, could take the classic songs and truly and surely redefine their melodic and thematic essence. Dylan was not a great singer, but he had a genius as a vocalist, the same fleeting skill one regards Mick Jagger's work. He could cajole, announce, exclaim, insinuate, and fashion an effective, reedy croon to dramatize, characterize a lyric. But that is not to be, and one can only sigh over what might have been had Dylan attempted a project like this when he still had the equipment to make it credible. One can only wonder, and one is better off not suffering his dead, toneless rasp here.

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.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dylan's Greatest Lyrics (in small caps)

1.just like a woman
2.desolation row
3.memphis blues again's all over now baby blue
5.girl from the north country
6.positively 4th street
7.i want you
8.ballad of a thin man
9.chimes of freedom
10.visions of johanna a rolling stone
12.sooner or later (one of must know)
13.crawl out your window
14.too much of nothing
15.tears of rage
16.all along the watchtower aint goin nowhere
18.the mighty quinn man
20.drifter's escape
21.farewell , angelina
22.gates of eden
23.simple twist of fate
24.just like tom thumb's blues minus/no limit
26.queen jane approximately
27.spanish harlem incident
28.when i paint my masterpiece
29.maggie's farm's alright man, i'm only bleeding
31.i shall be released
32.high 61 revisited
33.a hard rain's a gonna fall
34.absolutely sweet marie
35.i dreamed i saw saint Augustine

I do admire the work of artists who remain interesting as they get older, but it is a fact that many writers, poets, songwriters do their best , most compelling work in their early years. Dylan is one of these--the greatest songs , in my view, were those that combined equal elements of Surrealism, Burroughs inspired language cut ups, blues and rural south music vernaculars, and heady doses of French Symbolism by way of Rimbaud and Mallarme. This gave his stanzas a heightened, alienated feeling of sensory overload, making him  principle Lyricist of the bare existential absurdity that life happens to be. No one got to the infuriating heart of the sensation that life had ceased to mean anything after those matters that "mean" the most to us--marriages, friendships, tastes, financial security, spiritual or religious certainity--were changed, destoryed or simply vanished. Dylan's writing was of the individual suddenly in the choking throes of uncertainty , batting back encroaching gloom with the kind of swinging, poetic wit that reassembles existence. It is stance, a state,an aesthetic state of being that made it possible for him to fire on all cylinders for a good run of time. Generally, the poetic quality and intensity that Dylan produced in the longs on the list I made are substantial body of work that lines up perfectly with and matches the strongest work by Eliot, Pound, WC Williams, Burroughs, Ginsberg. It is also not the kind of work you can keep doing for a life time; like Miles Davis, he had to . His mature work has quite often hits the mark and offers the long view of experience in an especially moving way. Just as often, I think he misses the mark and overwrites or is prone to hackneyed phrasing. There is much quality to the later songs, but as a body of lyrics, they are not among Dylan's greatest.

Dylan is called more often than not a poet because of the unique genius of his best lyrics; I don't think he's a poet, but a songwriter with an original talent strong enough to change that particular art forever. I do understand , though, why a host of critics through the decades would consider him a poet in the first place. My list are the songs I think that justifies any sort of reputation Dylan has a poetic genius. I like most of the songs mentioned above for various reasons other than the ones on my initial 35 choices; the longs there manage an affinity for evoking the ambiguities and sharp perceptions of an acutely aware personality who is using poetic devices to achieve more abstract and suggestive effects and still manage to be wonderfully tuneful. No one else in rock and roll , really , was doing that before Dylan was. On those terms, nothing he's written is quite at the level of where he was with the songs on my list; this list consists of the body of work that substantiate Dylan's claim to genus.

"Just Like a Woman" is one of the finest character sketches I've ever heard in a song. What's remarkable is the brevity of the whole, how much history is suggested, inferred, insinuated in spare yet arresting imagery. I rather like that Dylan allows the mystery of this character to linger, to not let the fog settle. It is the ambiguity that gives it's suggestive power and there is the whole element of whether the person addressed is a woman at all, but rather a drag queen . It's an open question, it's a brilliant lyric.

"Drifter's Escape "was on twice and is now a single entry. There is a concentration of detail in the lyric, a compression of Biblical cadence and sequence that makes the song telling and vivid not in it's piling on of stanzas , but in its brevity. He does the same for "All along the Watchtower", which i regard as a condensed "Desolation Row," a commentary , perhaps, from the tour bus just passing through; the tour guide finally tells the driver "there must be some kinda way outta here." What I regard as the true "poetry" of Dylan's music is in the earlier music, where he is spectacularly original in how he forced his influences to take new shapes and to create new perspectives. Post JWH, I just find too much of his lyric writing prolix and meandering, time-filling rather than revealing; the surreal, fresh, colloquial snap of his language has gone and is replaced with turns of phrase that are trite , hackneyed, ineffective;' they strike my ear as false. Even "Blind Willie McTell" , a song  that has been persuasively  defended by intelligent fans of Dylan's later work, strikes too many false notes for my tastes  Musically it  drags  and philosophically seems a victim of convenient  thinking,  a PC version of Song of the South; some of the imagery is simply cloying and seems more suitable more for Gone with the Wind than a poet of arguable worth
...See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell...

Really, that is awful, a dreadful presentation of atmospheric detail meant to create historical context and mood, but it trades on so many received ideas of slavery, racism,the south, et al, that the intent no longer matters. It strikes as more minstrel show than tribute. Had anyone submitted this to a serious  poetry (or lyric) writing workshop, it would have been handed back to us for revision, with the advice that we rid the narrative of the creaky, questionable window dressing. "When I Paint My Masterpiece", in contrast, works wonderfully because of its lack of any messages about social justice. It works because it is a sharp, terse, vivid travelogue, vague and evocative in equal measure. The ambiguity and absence of relevance to anything other than Dylan's need to speak off handedly about a in interesting time in the life of a particular character is what makes this song memorable.

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

Perfectly natural language here, good and unexpected rhymes, telling use of local detail that give us color and history without sagging qualifiers to make it more "authentic", the lyrics are recollection of a trip, of places visited, of perspectives changing, a nice string of incidents in a language that sounds like a real voice telling real things, with genuine bemusement .
Well, I had a feeling that the general good feeling this album conveys is that Dylan wasn't trying too hard to prove he's a genius. The record is straight forward and the language is remarkable free of affectation , a tendency that has plagued him, post JWH. I especially like "Sign in the Window"; it has the sincerity an actual and momentary acceptance of where one happens to be in a certain part of life, and offers a new set of expectations.