Saturday, March 07, 2009

Bringing It All Back Home

Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

There are certain cardinal rules in Rock & Roll that all self respecting music critics and fans agree on: Elvis is The King, The Beatles are the greatest rock band ever and Bob Dylan is the ultimate songwriter. I like each of the artists above and can appreciate why they have their standing for the most part. I grew up listening to Beatles records because my Mom is a fan, records like Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper and the White Album were all great. Elvis was still heavily featured on TV in my childhood even after he died, the crazy leg dancing and early hits like "Hound Dog" or "All Shook Up" were fun songs. But Bob Dylan? The people "in the know" insist he's the greatest thing ever. For most of my life I did not get what the big deal is about this guy.

About ten years ago or so I finally started to have some appreciation for Dylan. It started with hearing the song "Masters of War" on a record, I really liked that song a lot. I bought a box set of his Greatest Hits (which did not include "Masters of War" ironically" and later took a liking to his Love and Theft disc. I liked Bob Dylan now. But I don't worship Bob Dylan to the level he is often held by the general public. He's good, but I didn't get why he was so adored.

Recently I watched the film I'm Not There (2007) by filmmaker Todd Haynes. The movie had a bout five different story lines running from different decades to illustrate the meaning or impact of Dylan's music. I found I'm Not There to be an interesting but somewhat off putting experience, it was well structured and had a host of notable actors (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere) including Cate Blanchett playing a version of Bob Dylan from the 60's. The film succeeded in bringing some fresh meaning to Dylan's music to someone not immersed in his catalog like myself, but as a film it failed to hit home on any emotional level for me.

So after watching this movie I decided to dig into Bob Dylan's music with a fresh perspective. At one point in I'm Not There, an unfriendly music critic says Dylan's music and nasally voice is considered the honest sound of the people and their feelings. After a week of listening to Bob Dylan in my car, here's what I found out.

"Blowin' in the Wind" actually is a good song

That song, Blowin' in the Wind, has been a cliche' for most of my life. It's a song I felt was sort of rammed down my throat as being "good", it is so revered that it seemed it could never be questioned just accepted as is. When hippies or ex-hippies on tv would grab an acoustic guitar and play, they usually played this song. It became a parody of itself, most memorably when Merideth Baxter Birney would perform the beginning over and over again on Family Ties. But this past week I paid close attention to the song out of any context other than it was music. And I found the song actually has lasting meaning about raising questions about maturity, death and war without offering any pat answers. I've never heard it as a fresh piece of music before, it's actually kind of moving. Who knew? Oh yeah, hippies knew.

I like that he's harshly sarcastic
I've found that my favorite Bob Dylan songs are the ones where he's really harsh on people. Like I mentioned earlier, Masters of War is my favorite Bob Dylan song. In "War" he takes the people who have power and money that create war to task and ends it with hoping they die soon so he can watch their funeral and confirm they're dead. That's harsh! My second favorite song is Idiot Wind from his divorce album Blood on the Tracks. In that one he describes the speech from his "babe" as the "Idiot Wind blowing each time you move your teeth". That is so scathing yet oddly poetic that I find it really funny. Even It Ain't Me Babe cracks me up as Dylan outlines all the reasons for his "babe" why he wouldn't be good for her, pretty much says you can count on him to treat you like dirt. Don't Think Twice It's All Right is humorously dismissive. When it comes to mean relationship songs, this guy can't be beat. And last but not least, Maggie's Farm uses a metaphor to mean he won't be owned or held accountable to anyone.

His political stuff is just OK for me

Dylan made his name based on the political angle of his music. While I do like the political songs I listed before, other songs I mostly just find as decent. This includes another immortal classic, The Times They Are A-Changin. While listening to his discs in the car, this one failed to come alive for me the way "Wind" did. It has been covered and used so many times to signify cultural revolution that I can't separate it from it's tired context of the Peace and Love 60's. The only political song that really connected for me was Hurricane, a song that sharply told the tale of a boxer falsely imprisoned for racist reasons crushing his hopes for a professional career. But other than that, I really haven't heard anything to really grab me the way I was led to believe.
The thought of Bob Dylan getting it on is really out there

Now obviously Bob Dylan has gotten it on, he has a son Jakob after all. And the sex life of Bob Dylan is really not something I give a lot of thought to. It's just that on certain songs he takes on a lover man persona. When he does this, the crypt keeper element of his voice seems heightened calling to mind that he's a little scruffy ragamuffin dude that doesn't look like he bathes regularly. It's like listening to a homeless man come on to a girl, which is something you don't really want to think about unless you're homeless yourself. Lay Lady Lay, a song I like, almost works with that worn out voice of his and smear of steel guitar. But then when we go to, say, I'll Be Your Baby Tonight with it's slight country blues raggedness it becomes a bit comical.

Murphy Brown Homesick Blues

Another song that hit the TV a lot back in the day was Subterranean Homesick Blues, mainly because of it's innovative video where Dylan dumps a bunch of flash cards in front of the camera with some lyrics and other references. It became cemented by watching Murphy Brown bond with Frank the reporter over the lyrics to this song when they first met. It's a catchy, fun song that I have no idea what it's about. I think it's about being on the run or something. It's good though.

I Like His Music Better When It's Covered By Other People

Purists, David Crosby is one I saw an interview with, contend that Dylan's music has more meaning when heard from the original artist himself. Maybe it does. Still, I like his music better when other people perform it. I remember in the late 80's getting into A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall because of Edie Brickell's version. The Byrds (which included Crosby) covered a lot of Dylan, most memorably Mr Tambourine Man. My favorite cover is The Byrd's version of You Ain't Goin Nowhere, I thought they brought more of an offhand feel to it. Later day Dylan sounds good in other people's hands too, Make You Feel My Love was a hit for Billy Joel and is on Adele's current CD as well.

So to summarize I like Bob Dylan though his music doesn't live up to the historical hype for me personally. I realize this is just my take on it because there are plenty of artists that are my age or younger that like Dylan a lot. He laid down the framework for a lot of music and musicians that followed. Writing this post has given me more insight to Dylan's artistry and impact on music yet I can't list the guy as an all time favorite. There are parts of his music that's just impenetrable to me, I just can't get into it strongly enough. But that's how it feels. To be on your own. With no direction home. A complete unknown. Like a Rolling Stone.

7 comments: said...

Great post! I love hearing how folks come to appreciate Dylan. If you ever feel like a bit of experimentation into a wider assortment of Dylan, give a listen for an hour.

Anonymous said...

Bob Dylan, the absolute KING of anti-war music. Long live the King.

Mr. Mike said...

Thanks Dylan Radio, I'll have to give your site a visit!

And you know when I think about it, I can't think of a better anti war song than "Masters of War". Awesome song!

Some Kinda Wonderful said...

I have read many of his lyrics and I can really appreciate them. Since I am a taddy older than you I can say that I did hear Dylan when his stuff was fresh and new. A lot of it anyway. But I was quite young. It took me until I was a teenager to really "get" what he was saying a lot of the time. But his voice is still godawful and I can't stand it. He should have stuck to writing and left the singing to someone else.

Mr. Mike said...

The best thing I can say about Bob Dylan's voice is that without Dylan there would be no Tom Petty. And I like me some Tom Petty music!

Some Kinda Wonderful said...

Nope! Nope! Nope! I must respectfully disagree with you. Tom Petty is so much better, so much more listenable than Dylan. He's the best thing to ever come out of the great state of Florida. He's wonderful! The best! No comparison to Dylan allowed. I LOVE Tom Petty.

Mr. Mike said...

Ha Ha! Ok, I won't compare the two :)