Bob Dylan Stays the Same, Really

This week in our Festival News, we covered Bob Dylan‘s latest reflection of our times — through his mouth more than his music. [August 25 -- Dylan on Today's Music: "It Ain't Worth Nothing" -- Guardian].

In Dylan’s interview with Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone (gee, wasn’t there some connection with the magazine’s name?), he made some groan with his current view on our times — or at least what we hear:

You do the best you can, you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded ‘em. CDs are small. There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, ‘Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.’ I was like, ‘Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.’

Is there just a little bit of mine (LP) is bigger than yours (CD)? Is the man just Blowing in the Wind? Does he just want to be alone with his own music? Or, is this master mentoring the next generation of musicians by demanding that they Quit their Low Down Ways?

Leave aside for moment that his most recent album release (on CD) is entitled Modern Times; or, that he was the one who was roundly jeered when he lost the acoustic folk sound and plugged in for electric rock. Dylan is - as always - on to something.

In all art forms, one way of defining the difference between today’s mediocrity and genuine artistry is in the differences — what work stands apart, expresses something new, appears fresh in a field of commonalities. In dance and theatre, if you see a piece and it is no different from other works’ of today, chances are it is not going to have a lasting affect on the art form, let alone an audience. The same, of course, is true for pop-music: if a song sounds just like any other song, who is going to be listening to it next month, let alone twenty years from now?

Dylan has never been enamored of working in the studio. His career has been defined as much by his transitions as it has been by spontaneity.

The issue he is identifying here is sweet music to all of us who crave the immediacy of a performance; meeting a unique voice/sound; hearing a work of music and knowing the artist because it is unlike any other singer/songwriter.

So, Dylan is not just being a cranky 65 year old. Nor, is he changing his religion, again.

He is singing the words that make us stop and think, just as he has always done.

Now that he has tackled the evils of the studio, what is he going to say about today’s politics?

- Bill Reichblum

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5 Responses to “Bob Dylan Stays the Same, Really”

  1. Ruben
    August 29th, 2006 09:02

    Methinks Dylan _is_ being a cranky old curmudgeon - and an unoriginal one at that. The “ohmygod, all these recordings are being overproduced” refrain is an old one - it’s been around since at least the “wall of sound” issues with Phil Spector in the sixties. It’s also become very fashionable of late - witness the rerelease of “Let It Be” as “Let It Be”¦ Naked”.

    No-one disputes the problems with CDs that have been produced to “max volume” - and artists who really care about the issue have taken pains to make sure that that didn’t happen to their recordings (four quick examples: Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Joe Strummer, Neil Young). Listen to Johnny Cash’s lovingly produced (by Rick Rubin) “American” series - not only does it not “max out” the CD’s dynamic range, but it has some lovely subtleties in the rendering of the human voice that I don’t recall _ever_ hearing on LP. If Dylan could not be bothered to do this for his own albums, that’s fine - but twenty years of recordings do not deserve to be lumped in together with them.

    Finally, while it is true that many artists perform less richly in the studio than live (my favorite example: the Grateful Dead), it is also true that many of the richest, most _generous_ recordings of the past twenty years could only have been accomplished in the studio - Radiohead at its best, the amazing remixes of Mad Professor (check out “No Protection: Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor” for a great example), and the aforementioned “American” series, to quote just three examples. Dylan himself is pretty uneven where live performances vs. studio are concerned - while some shows have been remarkable, I have yet to hear a live performance of “Ballad of a Thin Man” that compares to the original studio version on “Highway 61 Revisited”.

    At the end of the day, Dylan is the same as he’s ever been - a brilliant musician, but with a nasty, misanthropic edge to his personality and work. A good friend of mine once commented that when Jimi Hendrix covered Dylan’s songs, Dylan’s vindictive nastiness and schadenfreude was replaced by a more compassionate sorrow that made the songs all the greater - I agree. For a statement on contemporary music, I’ll take Johnny Cash’s “American” series, with its rethinking of works from all sides of the musical spectrum. Johnny Cash took a remarkable song by Trent Reznor (“Hurt”), and created what is probably one of the greatest performances by anyone in the past twenty years. The most Dylan could muster in his latest album for a fellow living artist was a throwaway line for Alicia Keys”¦

  2. KadmusArts - where culture speaks » Blog Archive » A Life of Irony
    September 4th, 2006 00:15

    [...] Last week’s post on Bob Dylan acknowledged his strongly articulated stance against today’s technology, music, and delivery systems. Ruben’s comment on the blog posited a different point of view of Dylan’s modus operandi. Well, it’s time to add yet another point of view. [...]

  3. Ame Silver
    September 7th, 2006 10:22

    I tend to give Dylan a wide berth in most things, because he is the greatest man of music of my century (the 20th) and no poet will come close. Crankiness? Who cares. Opinionated and strident? Ni modo. I actually agree with him about production values in music on CD and also about the calibre of music in the last twenty years. Sorry Ruben, Radiohead is nuthin…. Calling Dylan misanthropic is like saying Shakespeare hated women-his love and passion and torment render him completely unobjective, yes, but hostile? No. Seeing the naked shortcomings, feeling the anguish that comes from the breach between what could be and what is, that is the domain of the seer/artist, and Dylan roams that domain forver. I think he loves humanity just as he should. He gave us the “geranium kiss” -only a saint or lover would offer that.

  4. Chris Fallon
    September 8th, 2006 14:50

    Enjoyed your post on Dylan, Ame. Well said. And way to quote “Sad-Eyed Lady”! But if I may, your dismissal of Radiohead is an uninformed one, I fear; their album “OK Computer” is a modern masterpiece that perfectly reflects the alienation that plagues modern life”“”“not to mention its excellent, challenging music. Dylan did it too of course, but wouldn’t you agree that the perception of, and subsequently the experience of alienation, misanthropy, what have you, changes over time, and thus requires new interpreters? Dylan’s music, alas, is not the “popular” sound nowadays. Indeed, electronics and new technology have a much stronger presence in music than they did in Dylan’s golden era, and Radiohead utilize them as ironically charged tools, if you will. Radiohead make music with modern equipment, which they are, in effect, denouncing along with the culture from which it came…

  5. LookbackAZ
    August 12th, 2009 21:11

    Bob’s lyrics are poems of history and stories of truth. We loved his music, we looked up to his brilliant poetic mind.
    We had a GREAT 60′s Generation! Now, we are
    60…The new music isn’t so great but neither are we!

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