Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pope Dylan and the Excommunication of Vegas

As I thought a little bit about this site and the contributions I have made thus far, it comes to my attention that even though I'm not a big fan of the "singer songwriter" title and genre, I have written my first two posts about quite possibly my two favorite songwriters, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. In both cases I mentioned that each artist had the "Next Dylan" label placed on him at some point in time. I also mentioned that while I appreciate Dylan and the contributions he made to pop music, I do not go crazy about him like a lot of people do. He's not my favorite songwriter in the world nor is he probably in my personal top ten. That's not to say that I don't think he's one of the greatest, he's just not anywhere near one of my favorites. (For the record, my top 5 favorite songwriters probably look something like this in no particular order: Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, John Prine, Stevie Wonder, Jay Farrar. Yes I know that was a list of 7 people for my top 5 songwriters. This is hard to do. Deal with it.)

It's not that I don't like Dylan. I really do. In fact I went through a small Dylan stage several years back where I got into him and really started digging a lot of his stuff. Blonde on Blonde is great. So is Highway 61 revisited and Blood on the Tracks. But the truth of the matter is that Dylan just really doesn't do much for me. In fact, 9 times out of 10 I'd rather here someone else sing and play his songs because at least then the songs begin to come alive and breathe a little. I feel like in another life Dylan could have been William Shakespeare or even Tennessee Williams. Both were brilliant writers, but when you start thinking about their plays they don't really come alive until the right players take on the right roles and make them their own. Hendrix did this with All Along the Watchtower much like Marlon Brando did with Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. The words and characters that each artist wrote were brilliant in their own right, but it took someone else to truly give the words life. (For the record I have a Marlon Brando post in me somewhere just dying to get out. We'll tackle that at a later date.) Dylan had the incredible ability to put words together that created unbelievable art. The only problem with him, in my assessment, is that he lacked fire, soul, hurt, emotion, feeling and balls.

For my money I would always rather hear Hendrix play Watchtower, or Mike Ness' testicular tour de force rendition of Don't Think Twice It's Alright. They Band's version of When I Paint My Masterpiece has been a favorite as of late, and hell even Rage Against the Machine's (another band to whom I am pretty indifferent) at least give a sense of aggression to Maggie's Farm that is just lost to me in the Dylan version. Again, this doesn't make Dylan less great, but it does make you think a little about this greatest ever title. Can you be the greatest ever if other people performed your songs better than you did, especially with a guy like Neil Young on deck? Neil's voice isn't much either but the way he sings speaks to me. Cortez the Killer, Down By the River, Southern Man? Could anyone perform these songs better than Neil Young? Not in my mind.

Let me, however, be perfectly clear in saying that I do not fault Dylan for the fact that other people covered his songs better than he ever played them. I think this is something to be admired, to have created such sensational music that so many others wanted to be a part of it is one of the highest compliments any artist can be paid. His versions just don't do anything for me, and for that reason I just can't get into him as much as the rest of the known universe seems to think I should.

I will, however, make one exception to this whole post. I truly love to hear Bob Dylan sing It Ain't Me Babe. For some reason either the song, the words or the way he sings it (probably a combination of all three) just seems to work. He seems to embody the spirit of that song like no one else does, including Johnny and June (Hollywood please don't hate me for saying that). The combination of desperation and heartache and a little hint of a middle finger in the air just works with him in that song. That's probably why it's my favorite Dylan song ever.

Even though the movie was juvenile and crude, there is a line in Road Trip where the old Grandpa character tells the nerd pothead that he's "all brains and not enough cock and balls." This is how I feel about Dylan and a lot of other cerebral musicians like Radiohead, Joy Division, The Cure and others. Yeah they have some good songs, but they don't speak to me at all. They don't get into my guts and make me feel anything. They don't make me stop everything that I'm doing and listen to a song again. I could never put a Dylan song or album on repeat and let it almost burrow its way into my head or heart. I just can't seem to soak him in. For that matter, I don't get Dylan songs stuck in my head. He's brilliant, talented, and will be considered by most to be the greatest pop songwriter to ever live, but for me, it's simply too much brains and not enough cock and balls.

It's interesting to think about why Bob Dylan is the savior of pop music songwriting. Was he really that much better than everyone else? Did he come along at the perfect time? Are there others who would have been just as successful had they had the same timing and fortune as Dylan? I don't really know. I do think that Dylan was great, but I don't think he's any better of a songwriter than Neil Young, Springsteen or Johnny Cash. And I do think that timing played a major part in it. But then again I think that's true of any truly great artist. The same can be said of Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Springsteen, The Ramones, Nirvana, and Public Enemy. Sometimes timing has as much to do with greatness as anything else, not only with music. Would JFK have been the icon that he was if he had been President during the 50's? Not likely. Does that diminish his greatness? Not at all. I think the same can be said of Dylan.

I know that I might lost the 3 readers that Hollywood and I have in posting this, but then again this is my time to write what I think and feel, and the bottom line is that with Dylan I think plenty but I rarely feel anything at all. I don't deny his greatness, but just like you can have The Beatles, I'll take The Rolling Stones. You can have Dave Matthews, I'll take Steve Earle. You can have Ryan Adams, I'll take Jay Farrar. You can have Bob Dylan, I'll take Neil Young.

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