This essay has been a while in coming. It is time to address one of the Big Boys of American Music, that I have not yet addressed - the (other) pride of Minnesota (actually, the fourth pride of Minnesota post in this series, since I got to Husker Du and the Mats a couple years back), Mr. Bob Dylan.
It's been a while in coming because Dylan is a hard one to write about - I imagine for anyone, but definitely for me. I like old Bob - always have; I respect old Bob, always have, maybe do now more than ever - and he is obviously one of the great artists of the last 60 years - but it's still hard sometimes for me to get my head around him. He isn't obvious to me - even now - his virtues are elusive, sometimes. Or what should I say? I always heard Dylan on the radio, and always liked him - I knew how important he was almost from the start, and how good he was - I've always listened to him, and, I suppose you could say, taken him for granted. I guess it's that for some reason he never made that personal connection to me most of the bands in this series have - I can't come up with stories about listening to Dylan the way I can for almost everyone else. I always liked him, but there were never times when he took over my head for a while, again - the way everyone else here has. I've written similar things about some of the others - Bowie for example - but with Bowie, there was a jump, a point where I kind of sat down and listened, and kind of reevaluated him, upwards. Dylan - has just always been this major figure I agreed with everyone else when they said how good he was. I don't know if that makes any sense. Especially since you listen to the songs and of course he's one of the great ones. That's what makes it hard to write about him - as far back as I've cared about Dylan at all, I've known how good he was, never doubted it. It probably would be easier to write about him if I dismissed him, even just had a spell where I thought Dylan was overrated - but I haven't. I suppose he is overrated if you say he's as good as the Beatles or Stones, but otherwise, no. So -
Leave it then. Let's get to the good stuff. Because there is no denying his genius: as a writer at least, though he is not slouch as a songwriter, and though he is not what you would call a singer - he is most definitely a voice. But it is the words that make him what he is. I sometimes come across people who doubt the Bob - who try to show he wasn't so good after all - they are incorrect. They might complain about some aspect of his writing - the obscurity and obliqueness of some of his songs - but they complain about those things by ignoring the songs that are nothing like that: that get to the point and fast. What's obscure about Hurricane or the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll? But plain or obscure, conventional or experimental - he was always sharp, dazzling, surprising and careful. The words make him what he is, the words and how he uses them. It's there in those piles of words, lines, images in the early songs - in the clear, direct statement of songs like the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll - in the meandering narratives of 70s songs, from Desire or Blood on the Tracks. He uses words to make music - the way they clash and throng, jammed together out of time, their mysterious pauses and transitions, repetitions, all the poetic tricks he uses - rhymes and internal rhymes and alliterations and assonance - While preachers preach of evil fates/Teachers teach that knowledge waits... lay slain by a cane... (or those three tables, also in ...Hattie Carroll...) - they all add up. However they read on the page, he always wrote these words to be sung - or performed, anyway - they are rhythmic and propulsive, ragged (usually), fitted to his voice. It's as if the words were a musical instrument.
Musically, he is not as dazzling, but he is always interesting. He gets a nice sense of propulsion in his music quite soon - the early acoustic songs usually roll along pretty well, and when he went electric, he did it in style. Right out of the gate, Subterranean Homesick Blues, fast and straight and no looking back. You feel like you've stepped onto a fast train, rattling along, steady and relentless.... He picked good collaborators for his music, and all through his career, the backgrounds remain as interesting as his voice - moments spring out at you - the piano and sleazy horns in Rainy Day Women, organ on Like a Rolling Stone, the drumming on Tangled up in Blue or all Along the Watchtower, the violin haunting Hurricane (indeed all of Desire) - making the songs, always fitting them, adding to them, pulling them away, surprising you.
And finally - it's impossible to overstate just how important Bob Dylan has been as an artist. Some many artists came directly in his path - so many I have written about - Lou Reed, The Byrds, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave; and he had profound influence on almost all rock songwriters after - the Beatles and the Stones were shaped by him, and everyone after. He raised the stakes for songwriters - issued a kind of challenge to them, to make the words matter, and carve out your own space in your words. It's obviously something that was around before him - blues and country songwriters always worked with similar material, and greatly influenced him - though that was just one mode he worked with. He shifted things - bringing in ideas from modern poetry (subject matter and devices) - bringing in (and adapting) longer narrative forms - bringing in a lot of things. His voice is everywhere in rock and roll.
And so we come to the list: not easy, but that's not new. This is made more troublesome by the fact that while I have a decent collection of Dylan records, he's been at it for almost 60 years, putting out a pretty steady stream of music for that whole time. That's another reason to put this essay off - all that work, all that unexplored work.... But that's can't be helped (except by waiting a couple more years to do this.) So here you go:
1. It's Alright Ma (Im Only Bleeding)
2. Tangled Up In Blue
3. Subterranean Homesick Blues
4. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
6. All Along the Watchtower
7. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
8. Like a Rolling Stone
9. Buckets of Rain
10. It's All Over Now Baby Blue
Here he is in 1964 - Blowing in the Wind:
It's All Right Ma - another of those acoustic songs that rocks harder than any metal and punk you might come up with:
Electric Bob, not working on Maggie's farm no more:
One of the great music videos (I hope this one's legal, and sticks around, so this post won't look like the Prince post from last month, which is all blank YouTube links now...):
Dylan in 84 with Mick Taylor, Ian McLagan, etc. - Mick takes a pretty epic guitar solo here as well, a nice touch - one fo the most underrated guitar players in the business:
Latter day Bob, tangled up in blue - 2014:
And leave with - Bob's Christian phase? whatever - this kicks ass: