One thing I can't stand is when a music critic tries too hard, especially ones who push past the material being reviewed in such a way as to make it perfectly plain that what they are really offering is a chance for the rest of us to bask in the glorious sunlight of their own genius.
I recently read an article for an e-magazine where a young lady stated that one could better appreciate Bob Dylan's music if he wasn't always singing the songs himself. She went so far as to imply that it is always best to listen to his music when it was being covered by other artists because his singing so terrible. She was actually writing in defense of his selection as a Nobel laureate by saying we should just appreciate his lyrics but not his versions of the songs. She finished the article with this cringeworthy statement, "Bob Dylan is one of the greatest writers of our time — and you don't have to listen to one of his records to agree."
If the lady had stripped down naked and dipped her entire body in yellow tinted pig shit while farting and belching in unison with a calliope and carrying a sign that said she wanted to have a baby by Spongebob Squarepants, she couldn't have come off looking any sillier. She made it worse though, however, by adopting both a diffident tone and the snarky attitude of a spoiled child. I feel she must have written the piece looking in mirror and telling herself how great it was. But, actually it wasn't.
I had just recently used my blog to blast another writer who had slapped together a list of John Prine's most influential songs within nanoseconds of the music legend's death. My youngest daughter took me to task and informed me that I maybe I should go easier because some people are just trying to make living and must write what they are told. I changed the tone of what I had written. This time it's different because the lady in question was being so unbelievably ignorant and mean spirited.
Admittedly, Dylan might not be for everyone. There are people who actually hate Jesus for telling us to love our neighbors. The ability to appreciate transcendent genius is not a gift; it is something that people achieve after expending energy, and usually after experiencing no small amount of suffering. It is almost never given to childish, the dull, or the unappreciative.
The writer's quote that you can appreciate Dylan's genius without listening to him sing is like saying you can appreciate a great restaurant by reading its Yelp reviews.
I did run across another article that got it right exactly. The author paraphrased Elvis Costello when he said, “You don’t listen to Dylan to hear a sweet voice singing, you listen to experience the feeling he is singing about.”
The author also quoted Christopher Ricks to point out, “Song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words.” The article's author goes on to firmly nail the truth down by stating that, "With Dylan, the compound becomes more than the sum of the parts, and we experience something that combines emotions and intellect and spirit; something that transmutes, and transcends."
The article also asked the reader to compare a Dylan cover to the real version. The author compared Elvis Presley's version of Tomorrow Is a Long Time to Dylan's own version. It came off a bit like comparing The Mamas and the Papa's performance at the Monterey Pop Festival to Janis Joplin's.
I have taken the liberty of following those directions by comparing a few other covers to the real thing.
Just Like a Woman
Just Like a Woman - Bill Medley
I don't think that anybody would argue that Bill Medley can't sing. His is a very polished version. It is a great listen. But that is all it is. Dylan's on the other hand, is the lived-in version. It is scruffed at the elbows and the knees. He is singing to and about someone he knows. It has roughness about it because life has a roughness about it. In Medley's version, he is singing to the audience, and the piano is way too smooth and polished to lend much support to the lyrics. In Dylan's, the dry, cracked, sandpaper voice is the essence of the lyrics.
To Ramona - The Flying Burrito Brothers
Once again, the smoother, polished version comes off as a bit detached. The Flying Burrito Brothers were known for their vocal harmonies, and once again the treatment fails to get to the heart of the song. In fact, it works against the lyrics and becomes a part of the scheme that Dylan writes about.
"Your cracked country lips
I still wish to kiss
As to be by the strength of your skin
Your magnetic movements
Still capture the minutes I'm in
But it grieves my heart, love
To see you tryin' to be a part of
A world that just don't exist. It's all just a dream, babe
A vacuum, a scheme, babe
That sucks you into feelin' like this."
I Threw It All Away
I Threw It All Away - Cher
I'm not even going to say anything about this one other than some people transcend and others pretend. There is a nice version of Chris Cornell singing the song that serves to support my argument though. Cornell's version sadly expresses the truth because Dylan's lyrics about losing his wife and marriage are universal in meaning. You step inside of them; you eat them, you let them enter into your bloodstream, you don't just sing them.
I'm not trying to knock other artists either. There are many great versions of Dylan covers, Joe Cocker's Just Like a Woman comes to mind and Jimi Hendrix's All Along the Watchtower. I'm just irritated at how many people try to look better than they are by trashing his voice.
The ancient Greeks knew that true beauty always contains a flaw. It is the trademark of our species. We ain't perfect. Neither is Bob Dylan. Some people foolishly like to seek perfection out in everything. As for me, I am beyond ecstatic that Bob Dylan wasn't born with the voice of a Pavarotti, or even Elvis Presley for that matter.
And it makes me very sad that we still have to explain why this is true.