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In the early 1990’s I used to frequent a bar in Seattle called the Knarr Shipwreck Lounge. Most people wouldn’t have considered the Knarr to have been walking distance from my home, but I would frequently walk there and back. The Knarr was one of those bars where before I would even make it to a stool the bartender would be putting my beer down on the counter. I don’t know if they knew my name, but they sure knew what kind of beer I drank. The Knarr also had two pool tables, one of which was usually available, as well as an awesome jukebox, stocked with everything from classic rock to the most recent grunge releases. The Knarr was often filled with bikers, their motorcycles proudly displayed out front as they enjoyed a few beers and some tunes.
An open pool table and a great jukebox. What better way for friends to spend an evening?
One night in particular I was shooting pool with my friend Jay. We’d stuffed the jukebox with $5, so we had around 20 song selections. We lost track of the time joking about things, drinking beers and one upping one another on the pool table. Eventually our selections ended and one of the bikers took the opportunity to put on some music.
The first song up was “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan. I suppose I felt comfortable, but I turned to Jay and said, “How weak is this? Someone’s already covering Guns N Roses.” Knowing my sense of humor, Jay played along: “So weak!”
At this point, a biker who would have looked at home on the set of Sons of Anarchy had to intervene. “Guns N Roses didn’t write this song. Bob Dylan did.” “You’re crazy” I responded. “Everyone knows Slash and Axl wrote this song”.
“No” The biker persisted, “Bob Dylan wrote it in the early seventies”.
“Who?” I asked.
“Not ringing any bells”
“Bob Dylan. Mr Tambourine Man?”
“That’s a Byrds song.”
“No Bob Dylan wrote that.”
“And he wrote All Along The Watchtower ….”
“I think you’re thinking of Jimi Hendrix”
“No! That’s a Bob Dylan song!” He also wrote Like A Rolling Stone …”
“Pretty sure that’s the band.”
“…Blowing in The Wind”
“Peter, Paul and Mary”
This went on for a few minutes, with me countering every song he threw out and him eventually catching on when I tried to claim “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” was really written by Edie Brickell and possibly a New Bohemian or two. He chased me around the pool table until the bartender intervened. I guess some bikers just don’t have a sense of humor.
To the biker, Dylan was a musical genius. But the underlying truth to what I had said to him was that I preferred the cover versions of Dylan songs better than his originals. Any song of his that has been covered, I think is done better by the other artist.
I know many out there will think that’s blasphemy. Many of my friends especially. I know a lot of people who think of Dylan as a god and I suppose he is in the sense of being the creator. He’s a brilliant song writer. There’s no denying that fact. His lyrics are incredible. I mean, there’s a reason why so many of his songs have been covered and why he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Dylan is music’s equivalent of Shakespeare. Not only because of his brilliance with words, but both seem to be a rite of passage. While young actors will cut their teeth on Shakespeare’s soliloquies, so will buskers and street musicians with Dylan’s songs. I mean, what’s more natural than playing a Dylan song on an acoustic guitar? The way Dylan himself did it all those years ago in Greenwich Village.
Those were halcyon days.
But listening to his work, specifically the years where he had taken on a band and gone electric, he seemed to be going through growing pains. It was one thing when it was just him and an acoustic guitar, but that was in an era when sometimes the music seemed to be secondary. Perhaps the most famous part of “Like A Rolling Stone” is the organ refrain in the chorus, and that was improvised by Al Kooper. In fact, that part is so famous that most people think of Kooper as an organist, but at that point in his career he was actually a guitar player.
I’m not the only one who feels at times that Dylan’s instrumentations and arrangements are an afterthought. And his vocals, for that matter. More than anything, that’s where Dylan loses me.
The songs are undeniably good, as are the musicians behind him. Where I stumble is with Dylan himself. Sometimes Dylan’s cleverness with lyrics seems to overshadow everything else in the song. And then you couple that brilliance with a singing voice only his mother could love.
And I know people will argue that he doesn’t have a classic pop star voice, and that’s his charm. But the same could be said of Lou Reed, Keith Richards and Tom Waits, and I like all of their voices. I like their gruffness, the gravel and the whiskey soaked larynxes’. There’s an authenticity in their voices. Their voices resonate with me. Dylan’s doesn’t.
No matter how much I listen to him, I just can’t latch on to his voice. It doesn’t suck me in, it doesn’t seem well traveled, weary or wizened. I will listen to his songs and I’ll like the composition. I’ll like the arrangement. I’ll like the production. I’ll maybe like a guitar or piano riff or a bass line. I’ll like his lyrics. But despite liking all those elements, I won’t like the song itself. It will fail me on the most basic and most primal level: the singing voice. Connecting with his words becomes that much harder when I can’t connect with the voice behind them.
Instead of coming off as someone offering sage advice or a different perspective, his words seem rote. It’s like he, himself, just memorized them before singing the song, and isn’t completely sure of their meaning or how he relates to their message.
But then, upon hearing the same song by Hendrix or Clapton or Johnny Cash or even Beck, it will invariably be like a lightbulb has gone off in my head and it will have achieved everything I thought it could. The sum of the parts will finally add up to the conclusion I expected.
Perhaps this is an issue of expectations. Because I can enjoy the extended musical passages of a Led Zeppelin or an Iron Maiden or a Metallica. I can get sucked into the guitar interplay, the virtuoso playing and the changing time signatures. I can enjoy them on a purely musical level, while feeling the vocals are melodramatic or in some cases, hokey.
But those aren’t things Dylan is about. You don’t listen to Dylan for his guitar playing. You listen to him for his lyrics. You listen to him because he is a poet. You listen to hear what he has to say. And to hear what he has to say, you have to listen to his voice.
Just as the eyes are said to be the gateway to the soul, the voice is often the gateway to a song. Certainly to understanding and connecting with it on an emotional level. When I think of the bands I love, and the songs I have a connection to, it always comes down to the voice of the singer. It’s the guide through the journey. A voice you have to trust and believe in, otherwise, why take that journey?
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