So it's Bob Dylan's 70th birthday. For some, it's one of those annual affairs on a par with the great holy days of the year: Christmas, Easter, MLK's Birthday, Ramadan. Don't act like it isn't. For decades Robert Zimmerman has been looked upon as a deity. Most fans of rock & roll (at least the ones I meet) seem to be card carrying congregants in the church of Dylan. But just call me a non-believer. In this month's typically obsequious issue of Rolling Stone magazine, a large swath of pulp was dedicated to the 70 greatest Dylan songs as described by such brown-nosing, bloated rock stars as Bono and Sheryl Crow (Do people still care what they think?). There was also a psuedo-academic deconstruction of what makes a great Dylan song written by Jon Pareles.
Really? We're going to put Dylan's rambling strummers, laden with gobbledygook lyrical material up against the "supple, singable melodies" and "sophisticated harmonic underpinnings" of tin pan alley songs?
The one thing Pareles hit on the head was a description of Dylan's voice, which the author wrote has rarely been pretty. Indeed, Dylan's raspy, unintelligible mumble isn't just ugly, it shouldn't be called singing. It's more of a talky ramble. Pareles goes on to write that despite the fact Dylan has been dismissed by critics as "tuneless," he actually "knows melody" and uses it "to trace psychological landscapes." Hmm.
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This declaration brings my mind immediately to the song "All I Want to Do" from 1964's Another Side of Bob Dylan, which features a chorus I can only describe as abjectly impotent. The jarring, off-key caterwauling of the hook is only rivaled by the motion sickness-inducing sing-songy verse. Then there are his lyrics: Cryptic, vague, highly metaphorical, but capable at times, according to Pareles, of carrying "us into labyrinths of ideas and emotions, into Desolation Row and down the Endless Highway."
This made me think about the song "All Along the Watchtower," the lyrics of which were rendered moot by insanely expressive guitar work when covered by Jimi Hendrix. Though I'm not quite sure anyone should claim to know what Dylan is singing about in this number. It has something to do with horse riders, too much confusion and wine drinking businessmen.
Pareles attempts to anchor these metaphors to political summits, battlefields and music festivals but adds the descriptors have the ability to shift meaning decade after decade with each new context. I don't know where Pareles comes from, but in my book, that just means the words had no tangible meaning when the song was written and continue to have no meaning today. Kind of like showing up to an empty room at an art installation and being invited to see whatever you want to see.
I should add here that I don't dislike Bob Dylan personally, I've never met him. It's the people who continue to constantly lionize him than I dislike. He's just a musician, not rock's reigning savior. He's a man who plays guitar poorly, harmonica even worse and is as elusive in interviews as he is in his songs. His fans see this as last aspect as adding to his artistic persona. I just see it as a Herculean effort to mask insecurity--a characteristic common to many artists and performers. Either way, happy birthday Mr. Zimmerman. Here's to 70 more years.