Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Blah Blah Blah Dylan

Before I go any further, I should probably acknowledge that yes, Bob Dylan is a great artist. I should also make clear that I used to really like him a lot. There was a time not so long ago when I had all his albums and enjoyed even the most modest of them. Those days, perhaps unfortunately, are over. I don’t like Bob Dylan anymore. When I hear him my only reaction is to regret the years I spent fascinated by him, followed by an overwhelming urge to stuff my fingers way down deep in my ears.

Why has this come to pass? I’m not exactly sure. I’ll tell you one thing, it doesn’t have anything to do with his awful voice. I like lots of bands and singers with awful voices and his is no worse than any of theirs. My trouble with Dylan runs deeper than that. First, I’ve come to understand that his music is incredibly static. Whether he’s wearing his folkie or his rocker hat, he tends to favor simple, repetitive melodies and thick drones that go on forever. This could be fine, of course, but with him the music feels thrown together and thoughtless, as though it’s just something to have plodding around behind him while he indulges his poetic soul in that quivery, nasal whine of his.

And let’s talk about that poetic soul, why don’t we? Let’s try and be honest about it: it isn’t as good as every music critic on earth will have you believe. It’s indulgent when it should be exacting, solipsistic when it could be penetrating, and overwrought when it ought to be open-hearted. To me, his lyrics are instructive only in their capturing of a particular pseudo-bohemian mindset. I can’t help but think that it’s all about him: how free he wants to be, how inventive and authentic he is, how he’s cut from different stuff than all the world’s boring straights. He throws up a lot of imagery to distract from the fact that what he’s saying is really very simple, really just a series of stale beatnik cliches.

Think of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, which once moved me as a great love song. Now I hear it and I’m amazed that the only way Dylan felt he could express the wonder and beauty of this woman was to throw a hundred tortured metaphors at her. Eventually, the subject of the song becomes not the “Sad Eyed Lady” herself, but Dylan’s fevered attempts to describe her. Leonard Cohen, a much subtler and more sophisticated lyricist, can convey a lover’s ineffable glory with far fewer words and much more piercing insight. Compare his “Many men have loved the bells/you fastened to the rain/and everyone who wanted you/they found what they/will always want again/your beauty lost to you yourself/just as it was lost to them...” from 1973's “Take this Longing” to Dylan’s “The kings of Tyrus with their convict list/Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss/And you wouldn't know it would happen like this/But who among them really wants just to kiss you?” Dylan is interested in imagery and wordplay and taking oblique shots at “the kings of Tyrus”–yet another vague oppressor for him to rage righteously against–even in the context of a love song. In doing so, he scants his Sad-Eyed Lady in favor of himself, a guy we already have enough songs about. Leonard Cohen doesn’t do that. He wants you to feel his lover’s beauty, not just be numbly impressed by his ability to describe it. He realizes that the best poetry is a distillation of life, it isn’t a plowing over of it with words, words, and more words.

What’s more, it seems that many of Dylan’s hagiographers politely ignore how derivative he can be. At first, he wanted to be Woody Guthrie, then he wanted to be Allen Ginsberg, for awhile he wanted to be Hank Williams, but then he changed his mind and decided he’d rather be a really bad pentacostal preacher before he finally regained his sanity and jumped into the role of a grizzled, ancient Delta bluesman. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, but I also don’t see why Dylan should get a pass when other artists–the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, etc–have taken the knocks for having made their millions, at least in part, by swiping the sounds and moves of less marketable figures.

If you’re inclined to hate mail, please save it. Like I said, I think Dylan is a great artist. I just don’t want anything to do with him anymore. As the pretentious classicist in me might say, de gustibus non est disputandum...