The new Dylan album, “Tempest” prompts me to correct, or comment on, a number of things that are commonly said about the great man by the sadly uninformed:
Great songwriter, but can’t sing
Wrong. Great songwriter – indeed, obviously, but also a great singer. I guess you’d have to admit that there are better singers from a technical point of view, but since when did that matter in rock’n’roll? The point is that Dylan has an unmatched expressiveness in his singing. He writes long songs with many verses and only a great singer could keep it as alive and interesting as he does. The ironic drawl of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, the plaintive directness of I Want You, the raw power and drama of Isis live from the Rolling Thunder tour or the world weary, resigned Trying to Get to Heaven are all wonderful examples among many. Yes, the voice is at its ragged end now, but it still compels and is particularly suited to the dark tales of his new album.
Great songs of a certain kind but doesn’t do tunes
Not true. Bob is clearly no tunesmith in the manner of McCartney or Neil Finn but there are plenty of great melodies. How about Make You Feel My Love, the ballad made a hit by Adele? Or Lay lady Lay? Or Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright? Or One More Cup of Coffee?
Great songs but the best versions are by other people
Even less true. The Byrds version of Tambourine Man, for example, is a classic piece of pop in its own right, but Bob’s original is a work of art and much more compelling. On the whole covers of Bob’s material, rather like covers of the Beatles, only really tell us how brilliant and unique these original artists are. Adele’s version of Make You Feel My Love is unusually effective, Hendrix’s cover of All Along the Watchtower truly rare in that it probably really is an improvement.
Bob’s guitar playing is average at best
Error. He’s no Clapton, and the period when he insisted on playing lead guitar live is best forgotten, but you try playing all those early acoustic songs and see how you get on.
It’s great perhaps, but a bit too earnest
This might be said of some of the pretenders to Bob’s throne and of the folkies he later fell out with (step forward the unbelievably tedious Pete Seeger) but Bob is funny, very funny. I draw your attention to the arrogant and dismissive conversations with besuited, baffled journalists in the mid-sixties (“What’s your new song about Mr Dylan?” “About four minutes”) to lines in songs like Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat (which “balances on your head like a mattress on a bottle of wine”) or Bob Dylan’s’ Dream (“The doctor said you don’t need to worry bout those dreams boy, them dreams are only in your head”). These songs are meant to be funny but there are plenty of jokes in the more serious songs: “I said where’s that glass of poisoned wine, she said I gave it you, you drank it” from Po Boy on “Love and Theft”.
File him under ‘folk rock’
No. Bob spent his early years playing his version of American folk music. He then invented rock music as we know it with Highway 61 Revisited and the 1966 tour, combining loud electric rock’n’roll style instrumentation with ambitious lyrical themes. Every rock band with something to say since owes it all to Bob and the Beatles. Yes, it’s their fault! He’s done all kinds since.
He was embarrassing at Live Aid
Undeniable, I’m afraid, but at least he was there. And yes, he has been erratic live over the last 25 years or so. No-one else can be so thrilling, tedious, shambolic and inspirational in the same gig. But lest anyone think Bob is a dead loss live, have a listen to recordings from the 1966 tour, or the Rolling Thunder tour. Bob has done some of the best live shows there have ever been.
He did his best work a long time ago
Well, I guess he did. How often can you define an era? How do you follow work that changed the history of popular music? The miracle is that he still doing top class work when most of his contemporaries are gone or living off past glories. If you ask “which rock artist could be legitimately considered alongside the artistic giants of the last century (e.g. T S Eliot, Picasso, D H Lawrence)?” there is only one candidate. Bob really is history.
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