This weekend will see a peak of pieces about Bob Dylan as we approach his 80th birthday. Would the young-person version of myself who first encountered his work as a teenager have expected that?
I think probably I would. He was widely written about back then, as in since, though from different viewpoints and judgements. The Nobel Prize a few years back allowed most of the reductionist and disparaging commentators ample opportunity to remind us of his limits, the ways he demonstrates the rule that you must hear me repeat here again: that All Artists Fail. The current moment has not brought those detractors forward, though I’m sure those thoughts are still with them should they be stirred up.
I do not write this for those who have, with whatever wisdom they’ve accumulated, found those limitations defining. I write instead for the much greater mass of people, those who know nothing substantial of Dylan’s work, even if that’s from the framework of having other things that are important in their paths.
Because he’s still living, because he’s still artistically active, those who care to debate the subject of Bob Dylan will often focus on the performer. I will ignore that, as eventually history’s focus will, even though we have film and recordings which we presume will be preserved. So, no talk here today regarding the charges that he’s a terrible singer or indifferent musician or undemonstrative stage presence. All those charges have evidence — and are wrong.
I’m here instead to say that singing and performing Bob Dylan songs is rewarding, enjoyable, illuminating. I won’t go into great length, because I might not convince you of my case. My case must be proven by your experience, if you take it upon yourself to do that.
In this one photo, Dylan is trying to convince you in a number of ways not to think of him as a performer. He’s almost exactly in the null point of the mic where it’ll hear nothing. Awkwardly, he’s trying to finger an F5 chord on an instrument he was never known to play, and he’s nearly the only Fender Jazz Bass player to ever keep those two chrome covers over the strings and bridge, indicating a straight-out-of-the-box “Here, endorse this!” photo ambush.
The songs written by singers of extraordinary technical talents, or by composers with a great deal of musical matter to express can often daunt the general singer. This is not a bad thing, only another kind of limit. Sometime in this century for example, Joni Mitchell has become recognized (yes, tardily) as a songwriter of extraordinary talents. One can enjoy singing her songs; but for some of them, expressing them requires more skills than many of us humans can bring to the task. How well do some of her songs survive a singer of insufficient range, melodic memory, pitch accuracy, and rhythmic sophistication? Or closer to my home, Prince is the most extraordinary performer and pop musician anyone living can recall, but some of his songs are built around superlative vocal effects, and the original arrangements may call for a musical versatility that would daunt most professional musicians. I’m not damming those exemplary songwriters with faint praise. Their achievements are great, and those that want to extend those artists songs by performing them are to be praised.
But to a large degree those merely musical technique challenges are not a problem for those who want to perform Bob Dylan songs. There are a few. Dylan’s most underestimated talent as a singer is his phrasing. With his wordier songs, it can be hard to fit all those word-beats into a regularized musical phrase without successfully playing a game of h.o.r.s.e with his own idiosyncratic phrasing.
What instead does a modestly talented or untrained singer encounter in a representative Bob Dylan song? Two things I think: characters, and a charged, yet ambiguous, emotional environment.
Taking the last first. Many Dylan songs present, as great poetry often does, emotionally intense moments, sometimes several of those strung together. In fewer cases than one might expect, these are not cut and dried here’s-what-we-must-feel presentations. The few times when Dylan does do that —tell us what to feel — those songs in context may gain power for his appreciators because he generally doesn’t. I said I wouldn’t talk about Dylan’s own performances, but over his career he eventually demonstrated different emotional environments that his songs may live in. This design means that we, as individual performers — even those who sing in the shower, while cooking, or going to or from work — are given leeway to impose our own moods and learned outlooks.
Dylan has increasingly peopled his songs with characters over his long career, people who speak from their own varied experience. Actors speak of the enticing challenge of playing Lear or Hamlet and the reams of lines they must master to do that. But in Dylan songs, one may be given a verse or even just a line to embody a character, a challenge of a contrasting sort. I can’t say that the practice of portraying characters not oneself is a sure-fire path to wisdom. If it was, there’d be no foolish actors, and that is not the case. Yet, there is value in that to be found if you want there to be, and it’s fun to not be yourself for the course of a song or a verse! Every child dresses up, plays imaginary games. Adults could need an excuse to do the same, and a Bob Dylan song can be that.
One need not engage with either of those things present in so many Dylan songs in a way that would succeed with an outer audience, that would convey your experience in the songs to some of them. If one can do that, as many professional performers have over the years, that’s great — but it’s not required for enjoyment or reward.
In this project I perform words, mostly other people’s, mostly poetry, because that’s a more intense and intimate way to connect with the text. How successfully it might illuminate something for you, patient listener, I can’t say. As with all art, it will fail some/to most/to all of the time, but if you read other things this month about Bob Dylan, take from this post one thing I wish to suggest to you today: all that commentary and weighing of significance may have some value, but what the man did was write songs, things which do not live or exist other than when some human breath vibrates in a throat. Perhaps some poetry — certainly some writing — exists largely as worthwhile thoughts or impressive inventions. But songs truly exist that way, that way alone: inside us. Why take the hard way to try to generate that experience out of only silent thoughts about Bob Dylan, or even listening to Bob Dylan, when you can put a song of his inside you?
Oh, and not to leave you with the idea that singing Dylan is all heavy going capitol S seriousity. here’s The LYL Band taping up the basement with a set of unused Dylan lyrics a few years ago. Player gadget visible for some, or this highlighted hyperlink for others to play the performance.