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.