Hit me, Bobby, one more time

November 3, 2009

At the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson has written a hilarious “exposé” of Bob Dylan and his much abused, relentlessly adoring fans:

A Dylan concert is unlike any other event in the history of American show business. It is notable most for the uneasy sense among the audience that no one has the slightest idea what song they’re listening to. To an outsider, it looks like a cruel hoax, an inside joke that the joker alone is in on. Yet I’ve seen fans weep in gratitude as he garbles his most famous lines. The ovations are deafening. Forget Baby Huey: Dylan fans are the battered wives of the music industry.

This is funny stuff, and I recommend reading the whole thing.  Too bad he’s only kicking down an open door.  I consider myself a pretty devoted Dylan fan — fan enough to figure out what song I’m listening to, anyway — but I would be the first to agree that he has made some real stinkers in his day.  Dylan and the Dead, anyone?  (Dylan and the Dead?  Is there a difference?)  Knocked Out Loaded, Self-Portrait, Down in the Groove, and there are others too that stink to high heaven.  I don’t know any Dylan fans who defend those records.  Mr. Ferguson’s essay is a good example of the perils of overstatement.

Because here’s the thing: when Dylan is good, he’s really good.  When he’s good, there’s no-one better.  True enough, the chin-pulling and high-falutin’ academic talk about Dylan’s songs are faintly ridiculous, but the fact is that he is one of the few songwriters about whom  such talk is not plainly ridiculous.  Maybe “Visions of Johanna” and “Desolation Row” really are nonsense verse — I’ve been listening to them for twenty years, and I’m still not sure — but in the meantime they’ve been pretty wonderful songs, well worth talking about.

He’s had his ups and downs, but it’s a mistake to write him off.  We’ll be mining those hills for a long time.

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4 Responses to “Hit me, Bobby, one more time”

  1. Rufus McCain Says:

    I like your analogy of kicking down an open door. That gets at something about the Dylan’s imperviousness or inviolability which is part of his genius. I’ve been pissed at Dylan a times, too. It’s tempting to write him of as a major league asshole, as Ferguson does, but there is an underlying vulnerability about him — your open door. Mining the hills is another good image.

    I do agree with Ferguson about Dylan in concert. I’ve seen Dylan live a dozen or more times and only twice was I not disappointed. The garbled, spitfire delivery or the monotone melody line that rises at the end of each line. It’s truly weird. I’ve no idea what he’s doing. On the other hand, I can usually identify the songs … and the band is always great … and there were those two amazing shows … and it is always interesting.

    I’ve listened to the Xmas album a couple of times and really liked it. But I kind of liked Wiggle Wiggle and Self-Portrait, too. I guess I basically agree with something Warren Zevon said about Dylan: “He can do no wrong.” Even at low ebb where you get Self Portrait and the odd concert behavior, I want to tune in, can’t get enough.

  2. Rufus McCain Says:

    Also, I wouldn’t defend Knocked Out Loaded or Down in the Groove, but I owned both records and listened to them quite a bit when they first came out. I would certainly defend certain tracks on both records — “Silvio” and “Under Your Spell” to name two. And I even have the urge right now to go back and give both albums in their entirety a listen. It might have something to do with the experiential factor Ferguson brings up, but it also has to do with something about Dylan as an artist. The abused spouse analogy is off the mark, but it gets close to something true about how Dylan opens himself and his art up to a kind of deep connection with his audience.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that, Rufus. I am basically in agreement with you. There is something about Dylan’s songs that gets under my skin — in a good way. There are some albums (Dylan and the Dead being a good example) that I find trying to hear, but for the most part I can’t get enough of him, as a songwriter and as a singer.

    About his live performances: my opinion is that his voice is pretty much shot. He simply can’t do the songs the way they were originally written. He still sounds ok — barely ok — on his studio recordings, but I suspect there’s some magic going on there to clean the voice up. Hearing him live, well, at least we know he’s not lip-syncing.

  4. Rufus McCain Says:

    I really don’t think the live performance issue has anything to do with his voice being shot — at least not entirely — although that may be increasingly a factor. But I think it’s mostly an intentional thing he does, whether out of boredom, experimentation, malice, or all of the above. I mean, he’s been doing it since the 80s. After he played for the pope at the World Youth Conference, an interviewer asked him why he actually sang the songs rather than doing his usual thing. And Dylan kind of played dumb and acted like he didn’t know what the interviewer was talking about.


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