We wandered around in the 1950s lifestyle. We were vacant and a bit dim. Thoughts of instant death from above seemed jokingly absurd and, at the same time, as real as milk. We drank a lot of milk. None of it came from our mothers. That may have been the problem.

Cowboys were still the heroes and the music was tame, at best. The big record collection my parents bought when we got a new console stereo contained about 10 LP's of "the best music in the world." It was an off white container with some very white American music. Much of it was classical, and I've never cared for that. I guess I'm not a classy guy. There were two or three of the LPs that I kept listening to. I can't recall all the songs, but there was some piano stuff by the likes of Floyd Cramer. There was "Twilight Time," My Blue Heaven, "Venus" and other such love songs. I caught a glimpse there of something that could be done with this stuff called music. But it was faint.

Fast forward to driving in cars drunk and groping girls when they said they didn't like it. (They did.) Here came the British invasion. The Beatles were so hot. Then there were the wannabe Beatles: Manfred Mann, the Hollies, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and on and on. Who could have predicted all this wave after wave of talent, flooding the open market with some new hybrid of poetry? And yet, that was what was missing. It wasn't really poetry; it was just good-sounding stuff about some girl dumping your sorry ass, or it could be some lame-ass protest stuff about how VietNam was a bad idea. If the noise could be so pleasant, why couldn't the idea be worthwhile? Why couldn't we have a worthy person step up to the plate and give us some Shakespeare or Homer, or at least T.S. Eliot? I'd venture to say that little Bobby Zimmerman at least approximated the latter of those worthy forefathers.

As with my other favorite singer/songwriter from those days, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan should have been more selective with his output. I guess you've noticed on this site that a few good writeups will earn you more respect than a whole bunch of mediocre ones? Instead of the 40 or so albums he's put out, about 10 would have been perfect. Ironically, almost the same numbers could be applied to Van Morrison.

I had turned into one of those hippie dudes who was a purist in everything except logic. I would sleep with a diseased phlemball, I would inject shit that could have been harked up by aliens for all I knew, but I would only listen to the best of music. And that meant folk music. None of this Rolling Stones or Iron Butterfly crap (and that's what it is, I might say) for moi. No, it had to be Ian and Sylvia or Patrick Skye or Buffy Sainte-Marie or Jackie Washington (most of these folks were on Vanguard, the holy label) or, at its best, Bob Dylan.

As you can see down there by the discography, the first four albums by Mr. Dylan were folk albums. He said he was inspired by Woody Guthrie. That's good. I'm glad someone kicked his ass in gear and got him out of Minnesota and to New York to do what he was meant to do. Can you imagine how close he might have come to just driving a beer truck or something? Thoughts like this should scare you and make you think about the choices you make every day.

Anyway, I had those first four albums and I was holed up in my little teen angst pit of despair and gloomy doom listening to them over and over. I tried to get worked up over the protest crap, but I kept coming back to the ballads. The ones like, "If you're traveling to the North Country fair; remember me to one who lives there." I didn't give a flying Commie rat's ass about the war in VietNam (as long as I didn't have to go) or about the evil Nixon: I wanted that hippie muffin out there who was into making love, not war.

(You might rethink the motives of your typical Greenpeace activist or the folks following around trade summits to throw rocks and insults. World peace or piece of ass? I know the truth about these matters from personal experience, but I'll not make blanket statements. You might feel strongly about this crap.)

Still and all, there was still something missing from little Bobby's work. What was it? We all found out in 1965 and 1966. This is when he either injested some serious mind-altering substance or had an epiphany worthy of the Buddah himself.

So, here's my suggestion:

If you've never really listened to Bob Dylan and want to figure out what all the hype is about, start with Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, or Blonde on Blonde. If you don't like any of these, you won't like the rest. If you do like them, you can go back to his early folk days (such as The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) or you can try his recent efforts (Blood on the Tracks) or the marvelous Love and Theft.

There's a whole lot out there to choose from, so don't start with a CD that's going to turn you away from the guy who changed everything in both my life and in modern music.

I don't even know where to start with Dylan. Bob Dylan IS my youth. I worshipped the man. We all did. I always thought he should be poet laureate of this great mucked-up indescribably non-linear acid-trip of a country of ours. I guess that makes me an idealist.

Is it possible we were all idealists? Back in the fabulous day? Quite. We were, after all, teenagers caught between the formless fears of our nuclear childhood and the certain horror of the Vietnam War.

But a truth spun out from our funky little 45 RPM RCA record changers—in grade school, really—all the way back in the fifties. The truth was about love and the truth was about fun and the truth was about what it meant to be young, and we called it, in the beginning, rock n roll. But by the end of the Eisenhower years our youth truth got all mixed up with the harder truth of oppression and the truth of circumstance and the truth of voices too small and powerless to be heard, and—probably most important—the truth of the mystical American collective poetic heart, as it beat, this time around, within the scrawny breast of this middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota, of all places. The son of an appliance salesman, from the deep-freeze interior of our times.

We didn't have a name for this, which is, I guess, the way all revolutions start when you think about it, but we knew we couldn't get enough of this newest, greatest truth who called himself Bob Dylan. And that wasn't even his real name.

Sure I made love to Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Of course I sang Love Minus Zero/No Limit to my future wife pretty close to the first night we met, playing bad quitar and not even beginning to syncopate the way Dylan did. But for me anyway, it was about a lot more than that. It was about how Dylan could say what you were thinking when you didn't even know you were thinking it, in exactly the same way your lover could.

Like youth and love itself, Dylan was an alchemist of the highest order. He turned teen angst and the zeitgeist—the time-ghost—into gold and we loved him for it.

I had an odd collection of what you might call geek/nerd-type behaviors when I was a kid. I played both piano and violin. I sang soprano in the children's choir in church. I liked school and wasn't particularly good at most sports. But when I was ten years old I discovered Elvis Presley, whose records were promptly banned from my house. Of course I bought them anyway. Stashed them away from prying eyes. I tried to comb my hair like The King too. Learned to play a little guitar. It felt good to have a secret vice that made me feel so good (some things are constants in life, aren't they?), and it's really a very very small step from Elvis to Dylan, with one important consideration—with Dylan, it wasn't so much about entertainment. Dylan made us feel like whatever it was we were looking for was worth the time it took to find it. You didn't lay back and groove on Dylan on any album he made before Nashville Skyline. His songs demanded your attention. It took work to listen to Dylan. He didn't even publish lyrics because he knew that sometimes what you heard was more important than what he said.

And the kids who listened to Bob Dylan's songs demanded society's attention as no generation of children has before or since.

Bob Dylan scored the political ascendency of the 60's generation. He was the fullest flowering of the Second Renaissance, the one that sang the body electric and wrapped itself in denim and dreams. We'll never see his like again.

The year was 1959 and Bob Dylan had just graduated from Hibbing High School. In order for Bob to prove himself, he thought he had to go out on his own. He did just that by catching a bus across the North Dakota border. There, he got himself a job at the Red Apple Cafe bussing tables. It happens to be the only real job he ever had. In Fargo he met local musician, Bobby Vee. He tried out for his band The Shadows but did not make the cut. Only weeks beforehand, as an interesting side note, Dylan attended the last concert Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper would ever play in. Two days after that concert, they died in a plane crash en route to Fargo, North Dakota.

Bob Dylan has also appeared in several films.

There are two DA Pennebaker documentaries of the man the (released in) 1967 feature length Dont Look Back anf the 1968 (released) TV special Eat The Document. The former being filmed on Dylan's 1965 tour of England and the latter being fillmed on Dylan's 1966 world tour with The Band.

His first major acting role was in the 1973 western "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," directed by Sam Peckinpah. He also did the soundtrack.

Dylan also starred in and directed and wrote the 1978 "Renaldo and Clara," co-written by Sam Shepard,

His next staring role came in "Hearts of Fire," directed by Richard Marquand (the director of Return of the Jedi).

Other film appearances include an uncredited parts in "Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment" in 1999 and in Dennis Hopper's "Catchfire" in 1989.

Dylan most recently starred in "Masked and Anonymous."

Dylan plays as Jack Fate, a wandering troubadour, and washud up musician who is released from jail by his former manager for one last concert. Hummmnn interesting.

Two additions:

I. Contrary to popular belief, Dylan did not change his name in tribute to the author Dylan Thomas. This is perhaps one of the most common misconceptions in popular music. In an interview with Jules Siegel for the Saturday Evening Post, he states,

"Get that straight, I didn't change my name in honor of Dylan Thomas. That's just a story. I've done more for Dylan Thomas than he's ever done for me. Look how many kids are probably reading his poetry now because they heard that story."1

II. Perhaps this might come off sounding like a rant, or perhaps I'm just not as mature as most Dylan-philes, who can shrug off the ad hominem attacks on Bob Dylan's vocal capabilities. The grounds for the critics' statements are slim to none. No better, either, is the pandering, fence-sitter's statement of, "He's a great songwriter, but he just can't sing."

A few thoughts to ponder:

1. If anything, Dylan opened the door for others; The whole idea that you had to conventionally "sound good" by traditional standards was an idea with which no one had ever trifled before Dylan, and the music world has never been the same, since. This especially bothers me when I hear it from Generation X, and their (our) ilk. Granted, I have some sympathy, as most have been consistently spoon-fed a diet of mass-media, bland, blathering pop-music porridge. Regardless, to lambast Dylan for his vocals and then turn around and praise and/or selectively ignore the gutteral yowls of Kurdt Cobain or the whiny screech of Billy Corgan is a quick way to lose any sort credibility, in my book. Where would either of these guys been if Dylan had never come around? It wouldn't be MTV, that's for sure.

2. The actual change in Dylan's voice over the years could be a historical study in and of itself, and most Dylan critics have likely only heard a smattering of his work. I challenge the cynical to listen to some older Dylan, perhaps something off of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and attempt to find it cacaphonic. If anything, it'll probably sound, to the untrained ear, like any other country/folk singer you've never heard. Failing that, listen to the Nashville Skyline album, especially "Lay, Lady, Lay", which will blow to bits any preconceived notion one might have about what Dylan "sounds like". Finally, for what might be the best chronological study of Dylan, one might pick up a copy of Live: 1961-2000, and trace the changes. Yes, arguably, somewhere along the way in the 80s, Dylan's voice took a downhill turn -- but he was able to adapt and change, something he's always been doing, his whole career.

3. If Dylan has such a "bad voice", why would Emmylou Harris, a self-confessed perfectionist when performing and recording, agree to record Desire with him?

"To me singing with somebody is a very personal thing so I just tried to zero in on what he was doing and watch him very closely. I was having to sing harmony with him, watching his phrasing."

"Dylan's a very emotional singer in a different way to someone like Gram but there's such a real intensity in his music that it's so easy to get into lyrically and musically."2

4. Finally, all that is left to be said is that if you're listening to Dylan, and can only manage to focus on his voice, you're missing the point. Likewise, you're also missing the point if you just choose to pay attention to the poetry, or if you just listen to the way he plays the harmonica. Each of these individual facets are Dylan, but a single facet does not a gem make. Listen to Dylan for all of him: the enigmatic songwriter, the musician, and the storyteller together make up one hell of an artist.

See Also: The E2 Bob Dylan Literary Analysis Project




1 "What Have We Here?", (c)1966, 2000 Jules Siegel. http://www.cafecancun.com/bookarts/dylan.htm

2 "Cowgirl's Angel". http://home.planet.nl/~jsomers/cowgirlsangel.htm


It struck me the other day, when arguing with a friend who reckons Bob Dylan's studio cuts are better than his live performances that, to a greater extent than anyone else, Dylan's art, his real craft, is on the stage, summoning the fermented emotions for the right phrasing of each word.

He has been on his breathless 'Never Ending Tour' since the early nineties, invoking agony and ecstasy in Dylan obsessives such as myself. The 1991 opening of a show in Stuttgart was allegedly 'New Morning', but the original joy and freshness of this title track is hard to salvage from the train wreck. It opens with energetic guitar from the backing band, and some pleasantries from some guy on the piano. There are yelps of delight as Dylan emits as note from his trusty harmonica, but this turns out to be a splutter, the musical equivalent of a smoker clearing his sore throat of phlegm. The instrumental continues...did he just sing something? Or was that just feedback? Fully five minutes in, he tries again to execute a single verse, but he sounds untimid, unsure of the words. A vague mumbling, with few decipherable phrases. This gang rape of a pretty song comes to an end, leaving the previously rapturous crowd bemused.

However, four years later there is a polar opposite to this travesty in Prague 1995. After a hearty 'Peggy-O' and many other delights, a new, utterly revised version of 'Shelter from the Storm' begins. Amazingly, the show the night before had been cancelled due to Bob and his band having flu, and the likelihood of this show coming to pass seemed slim. So nothing would prepare the audience for the virtuoso singing...real singing...that Dylan pulls off here. It starts off quietly, like a beautiful but tentative adolescent relationship, and with a placating almost reggae rhythm. Suddenly, astonishingly, Bob goes up an octave and hollers, in perfect tune: 'In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes'. His nerve endings exposed, all his spleen exorcised, Bob has never sung like this before-lusty, with the conviction of Pavarotti singing 'Vincero...Vinceeeeeerrrrrrrooooo!' in Nessun Dorma.

Aside from this oscillating between genius and ineptitude, Bob also changes lyrics and settings so that songs mutate beyond all recognition. Compare the versions of 'Simple Twist of Fate' on the album 'Blood on the Tracks' and 'Live 1975'. The former is placid, vaguely poignant. The latter is deeply, intensely moving. Whole new verses appear, such as

'People tell me it's a crime
To know too much for too long a time
She shoulda caught me in amy prime
She would have stayed with me instead of going off to sea
And leaving me to meditate on a simple twist of fate'
.

Further variations are 'He woke up..the room was thick' in the place of 'He woke up...she was gone' and a 'desk clerk dressed in white' who says 'check-out time's at eight'. The whole nuance and implications of a song can be changed by minor alterations, affording Dylan's songs the subtlety and mutability of oil paint. On 'Bye and Bye', a track from last year's album Love and Theft, the lyrics have changed from

'My tears keep flowing to the sea...who knows for whom the bell tolls love?It tolls for you and me' to
'My tears keep flowing without end..it tolls for you, my friend',

lending it a heightened sense of wistfulness and compassion.

'Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You'features on More Greatest Hits as a sweet, charming, vaguely humourous little country song: Bob sings, somewhat mawkishly, but endearingly

'Throw my ticket out the window/throw my suitcase out their too...thrown my troubles out the door, I don't need them anymore cos tonight I'll be staying here with you'
But on Live 75, it becomes very different.
'Throw my ticket in the WIIINNNDD!
Throw my mattress out there too!
Throw my letters in the sand, cause you got to understand that tonight I'll be staying here with YOOOOUUU'
.
Coupled with aggressive, nicotine-stained singing, it sounds like a threat rather than a romantic proposition.

Dylan's harmonica represents a whole other language with which he can convey the sentiments that are particularized in his lyrics in a more abstract, suggestive way. Just listen to the solo on 'It Ain't Me, Babe' from Real Live. He repeats the same simple riff, but as his guitar chords progression changes, this riff becomes more urgent, like a melancholic, desperate pleading. Its insistence and reiterated meaning is picked up by the audience and they respond with rapture.

I can only compare Dylan's unique craft to the practice of the bards of ancient greece, where stories in epic verse form were passed down by words of mouth, memorized by their apprentices. The new bards add their own personal inflections, accents and nuances. Particular implications and even events in these epics would change as gnerations passed. This practice still takes place: men gather in rooms, smoke and listen to three to eight hour versions. Dylan, in his different moods, romantic situations and stages of his life, manages to evolve his own songs so radically that they can be infused with new life. They are special artistic entities that will remain in a state of flux as long as he continues performing. Studio versions are but the narrowest glimpse into their potential.

Peace Love Harmony Discipline

Besides being my personal Lord and Savior, Bob Dylan is also a song by Nine Days.

There are certain songs that sneak up on you, that whisper in your ear like gossip overheard in a hallway that tells you exactly what you need to hear. They might not be great songs, or even good songs. They might be bland, or silly, or stupid. But they speak to you not in metaphor or allusion but in the most direct language possible saying I understand. I hear. I agree.

This is one of those songs. It's an obscure song by a mediocre band with one minor radio hit (Absolutely (Story of a Girl) that falls into roughly the same category. It's a guy who's Jakob Dylan on a good day and his band of ersatz Wallflowers attempting some connection with their idol, reaching desperately out to grasp a bit of his genius: "Inspiration of my art", they sing, recalling similar invocations Dante made to Apollo in his Divine Comedy. It's a nice phrase, oddly formal, and its undermined by the second half of the phrase: "Call for love out from the dark".

Love? From Dylan? How? Why? The triteness is endearing. This is no longer slick radio pop. It's a bunch of friends sitting around bullshitting, making up songs in their garage. One of them (I imagine him as the distant one who chimes in only occasionally to offer a bit of stoner insight) realizes: "If I am only dreaming /then me and Bob are not that far away?".

That's the nice explosive bit, the line that may transform all my bloggy ramblings and scribbled 3am notebook song lyrics into something more. A bit of muddled wisdom on an MP3 i downloaded by accident gives renewed purpose, renewed life. "If I am only dreaming/ then me and Bob are not that far away." Is connection to the Godhead that simple? Is the act of artistic creation enough to unite me with my poet/god/king? He is more articulate then I, true, and has lived more lives then I can imagine. But it all starts the same way, I imagine: a blank page, a desire for expression, for connection. An idea. I want to live up to Dylan; Dylan wanted to live up to Woody Guthrie. Are we really so different? Is Nine Days really so distant from their inspiration?

Yes, by several orders of magnitude. But Nine Days is not so distant, and not so much better then me. They're just guys making music, trying and failing to live up to their guy. On days when I'm tired of transcendence, of bowing at the alters of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, of being shamed by their talents and my own unfulfilled hope... i look at that quote written on my notebook and gain strength from the truth burried in a bit of mediocrity. I am only dreaming. Worship creativity.

Bob Dylan, by Bob Dylan

In 1961 Bob Dylan was a 20-year-old folk singer, hanging out in New York's Greenwich Village. From the sound of it, the place was swamped with folk singers at that time. He'd come from Hibbing, Minnesota, via Minneapolis and a brief spell in Chicago, but he seems to have been in the process of freely inventing a past and identity for himself. Improvising a hard traveling biography, appropriating the mannerisms and musical language of black musicians from the deep South, it seems he was making an effort not to let his middle-class roots show.

Maybe he never quite stopped being a folk singer, but for the next 30 years after this album, he almost always stuck to recording his own songs. On his self-titled debut, though, only two of the tracks are entirely his own.

The first of these is 'Talkin' New York', which the liner notes describe as 'a diary note set to music'. It's funny and engaging enough in its rambling way, and an interesting glimpse of his life as a young singer in the big city, but it's not really a highlight of the album, let alone his career. 'Song for Woody' is a sweetly adoring song to his musical hero - 'Hey hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song!' It sounds quite a lot like something Guthrie might have sung himself, and it works pretty well. It's not a patch on his later spoken-word tribute, 'Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie' - but to be fair, that was one of the best things Dylan ever wrote.

The rest is a ragbag of folk, blues and country songs that Dylan had picked up around the place. Some of the songs were made far more famous later, by other singers. To my ears his sparse, dramatic rendition of 'House of the Risin' Sun' carries a hell of a lot more emotional punch than the classic version The Animals recorded three years later, doing without their epic instrumentation and that famous arpeggiation. Dylan's version, like Dave van Ronk's (which it is evidently based on) and Nina Simone's, also leaves the traditional gender roles intact, so we get Bob at his grizzliest hollering 'it's beeeen the ruin of many poor girls, and me - oh, God, I'm one...'

The other song that's much better known now is 'Man of Constant Sorrow', which would become a smash hit for George Clooney's character in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The sleeve notes call it 'a traditional Southern mountain folk song of considerable popularity and age, but probably never sung in quite this fashion before'. Looking back now, we might question whether the young Bobby Zimmerman had really 'seen trouble all his days', but he sings it with such conviction that you can hardly doubt it while it's playing.

There's a preoccupation with death pervading this album, to a degree that might be unhealthy - although perhaps not unusual - for a kid just out of his teens. 'In My Time of Dyin'' is the first of the death-songs, and two tracks later we get 'Fixin' to Die', another song about being at peace with your imminent death. The album closes with a third funereal number, Blind Lemon Jefferson's 'See That My Grave is Kept Clean'.

Elsewhere the album is comical - it is interesting that the sleeve notes credit Charlie Chaplin as a major influence. Sometimes the humour is presumably intentional, as on the immensely silly cover of 'Freight Train Blues' - 'I got the freight! Train! Bluuuuuuuuuuuu-hoo-hoo-hues!' - and the fun, if insubstantial, 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down'. Other times, as with the rousingly overwrought 'Gospel Plow' and 'Highway 51', it seems more likely that he just didn't quite know when to rein in the melodrama. It's not necessarily easy to distinguish the two - Dylan was always capable of laughing at himself, and 'Pretty Peggy-O' (the only British folk song on the album) probably includes a bit of both, as does the opening track, Jesse Fuller's 'You're No Good'. The liner mentions a couple more comedy songs that wouldn't see a proper release until The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 came out three decades later, perhaps because they were thought to just be too absurd for the market at that time.

All in all, it's a pretty decent album of blues and folk music with a few stand-out tracks, and if you're interested in Bob Dylan, the songs and the sleeve notes add up to a fascinating historical document. Dylan grew up to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, and this is as close as we're likely to get to where that all started.

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