I was bored at a relative’s home over the weekend and noticed a copy of the Neil Young biography, Shakey. I started reading random passages and ran across something interesting. Someone (I forgot who) recalls a meeting between Stephen Stills and Bob Dylan. After the meeting, Stills mentioned to the narrator that although he admired Dylan very much, he didn’t consider Dylan a musician. The narrator was horrified. The great Bob Dylan, not a musician?

Stills was correct.  Let’s look at the facts. As a guitarist, Dylan doesn’t display much that you couldn’t teach anyone. As for the harmonica (barely an instrument really, but let’s be thorough), his playing reminds me of why I hid our harmonica from my two sons when they were very young. As for his singing, you could argue that the younger Dylan’s voice gave an appropriate tone to some of his songs. But we’re talking about musicianship here, and his singing has never been good in purely musical terms. And as for his “mature” voice, it reminds me of the noise my stomach was making a couple of weeks ago after I ate too many ribs.

Then there’s songwriting. I won’t deny he’s written some good ones (hard not to do when you’ve written several million). At best, they are effective support for the main ingredient, his lyrics. Musically, there isn’t much going on in them. You can find great instrumental parts, but they’re the work of others such as Robbie Robertson, Al Kooper, et al.  Well-known covers of his songs are always better than the originals. Well, maybe not always.

So is Dylan a musician?  Nah.

Dylan’s talents lie in lyrics and self-promotion. But as a lyricist, he is not the infallible god of his most ardent fans. It’s been pointed out elsewhere that you can’t be “along” a watchtower. You can be in, on, around, or even buried under one (which might have been a better premise), but not along one. Nit-picking perhaps, but it has a reputation as a great song, and great writing must be precise, even where the meaning is obscure. Then, there are some real clunkers. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is just plain dumb. But to be fair, everyone has bad days, and you can’t write as much as he has without misfiring. I find the protest songs to be overly earnest and boring, but my anti-folkie bias might disqualify me as a judge of those.

His real genius has been in nurturing the cult of his own genius. I can’t think of an artist who has more deftly used aloofness and contempt to rope fans into a sort of narcissistic codependency. It has enabled him to carve out a career on his own terms, so good for him.  It has also worked so well that there will be no clear-sighted reassessment of Dylan until most boomers have downsized to the cemeteries.

That said, I’ve always liked his Live 1966 album where he gave a middle finger to the folkies by going electric. There’s real rock’n’roll tension there, and The Band play like gods. I also enjoyed his Theme Time radio show back in the aughties.

9 Replies to “Musician?”

  1. I’ll break your goddam neck.

    If you’ve got something to say about Sebastian Cabot, you can bloody well say it to my face.

    Seriously, I can’t argue against anything you’ve said, but can’t say I agree. Definitely wouldn’t say he’s a musician, but liked the way he always managed to surround himself with great musicians and made them push what they could do with varying results. I would also say fuck him for the way he treated Ronson on Rolling Thunder.

    I’m a huge Dylan fan, and will readily acknowledge a whole host of stinkers across every phase of his career. I can’t tell you the last time I listened to anything before Bringing It All Back Home. To the self promotion end, I’ve gotten to where I sort of think of Dylan as a character this guy is playing, and he just keeps changing it up, but it has absolutely been what has kept him in his fans’ imagination. I mean, Chronicles was great, but I don’t think a word of it was true.

    Nor was it not plagiarized. There’s a guy on Twitter who obsessively tracks down where Bob lifts stuff from, and it’s fascinating. Any other artist I would have written off, but for some reason I give Bob a pass. I guess that’s what being in a cult is like.

    I can only think of three or four Dylan covers that are better than Bob’s. As someone said, Nobody does Dylan better than Dylan. Off the top of my head, those are Hendrix’ Watchtower, Faces Wicked Messenger, Rodman’s I’ll be Your Baby, and that Acapulco Jim James and Calexico did for that film).

    I don’t concern myself with people not getting him anymore. My wife HATES him and I can’t listen to him when she’s around. An annual ritual is me breaking out the Dylan Xmas album and her throwing flower pots at my head in return. But I find him endlessly fascinating, and have periods of his work that I will listen to over and over. He’s really fucking funny, and if I’ve learned anything, words don’t always have to mean anything, and the best ones allow you to place your own meaning into them.

    I never thought much of Tambourine Man, overplayed, too long, early period, etc., until my daughter’s friend was killed in a car wreck. At some point, for some reason, I heard that song that day, and this verse dropped me cold. I could write a book on how much it applies to a specific instance of in my memory of the two of them together:

    Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
    With one hand waving free
    Silhouetted by the sea
    Circled by the circus sands
    With all memory and fate
    Driven deep beneath the waves
    Let me forget about today until tomorrow

    So yeah, all true, but that’s the mystery of fandom, I guess. I mean, how could anyone fucking like Morrisey?

  2. Good points all. I confess to overstatement regarding the covers. There have been far too many of them to make a blanket statement. It might be true for me, though, since I’d almost always prefer to hear someone else singing. Hell, I even think I prefer Olivia Newton-John’s “If Not For You” to his.

    But to return to sanity for a moment, I’d definitely add Them’s version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” to your list of superior covers. Brain Ferry did a good one too. There are probably more, but my aging brain’s drawing a blank.

    Agree that he’s very witty and funny. Haven’t read him, but I picked that up on his radio show and the movies Don’t Look Back and Eat The Document. And your quoted lines from “Mr. Tambourine Man” are good. My problem is that I’ve never paid attention long enough to get to those lines. I couldn’t make it past “jingle-jangle morning” and really the whole premise of someone wanting to follow around someone playing a tambourine. Because how does one play a “song” on a tambourine? You can only play a beat, so the thought of someone playing a tambourine so beguilingly as to draw followers always seemed ridiculous to me (like Jimmy Webb’s cake in the rain). A metaphor, no doubt, but one that for me requires more plausibility at the literal level. So that’s what went on in my head whenever I heard the song, to the point that I missed the good lines.

    Interestingly, everything we’ve said about Dylan is also true of Bowie, who also had to rely on better musicians than himself. And you can find plenty of ridiculous lines there too (“you’re squawking like a pink monkey-bird”). So why do I love Bowie and not Dylan? Probably becuase Bowie hit the scene via glam rather than folk. Diffrerent voice. Mystery of fandom, I guess.

  3. I enjoyed the Beatles running through Dylan songs in the Get Back documentary, and then Harrison suggesting him as a member of the band after Lennon says he wants to bring Billy Preston in as a full-fledged member.

    I also love the story in Trouble Boys about the Mats messing around with Like a Rolling Pin without knowing he was listening, and him dismissing them with a ‘maybe they should practice’ or something along those lines.

  4. Can’t stand him, but I can appreciate his impact and influence. Morrissey just sucks.

    We need a dedicated post for debriefing on the Beatles documentary. Monkeystador, chop cop!

  5. Great post. And I’m delighted/surprised that Fat Elvis hasn’t rained violence down upon you.

    The not a musician angle is interesting and reminds me of how his Nobel Prize Rorshached the hell out of everyone. Either Dylan’s output qualified as literature, more than music, and he was “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition” (Salman Rushdie) and “impressive” (Toni Morrison) OR he was the winner of “an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” (Twitter)

    So, yeah.

    I never listened to him until I went to college and my roommate had Biograph, which hooked me. He seemed musician enough to me. Highway 61 is one of my favorite albums.

    The mystery of fandom, indeed.

  6. I cared about his Nobel prize about as much as Dylan himself: not much. If you ever read through the list of winners over the years, you’ll see plenty of writers whose reputations didn’t last far beyond their deaths. Maybe that’s why he didn’t care. Or maybe he cared and was just playing his game of acting inscrutable and enigmatic. Either way, he played it to his advantage, so good for him.

    Agree that H61 has many of his best songs.

  7. So has anyone listened to Blood on the Tracks? or New Morning? Side 4 of Greatest Hits Vol. 2 is probably my favorite side of any album I have of him.

    I thought the Nobel thing was hilarious. That effort went on for awhile.

  8. I heard Blood on the Tracks years ago, don’t think I’ve heard New Morning. I may climb out of my bubble and give them a listen soon.

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