Sunday, February 11, 2007

In The Dock: Bob Dylan

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Bob Dylan

The case for the prosecution (Swiss Toni)

Robert Allen Zimmerman. Bob Dylan. Singer-songwriter, author, musician, poet. His lyrics incorporate politics, literature, social commentary and philosophy. In the course of his 40+ year career he has dabbled in many styles including folk, country, blues, rock, jazz and gospel. He has recorded some of the most famous albums of all time: The Times They Are A’Changing, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks... blah, blah, blah. Only a fool or a madman would look to prosecute Dylan wouldn’t they? Isn’t he one of the untouchables?

No. I don’t think he is. I’m not going to try to deny that he has been incredibly successful and influential, but I put it to you, the honourable members of The Art Of Noise jury, that Bob Dylan should be sent down.

My case is threefold:

1. He is overrated.

Yes, he has produced some of the greatest and most influential albums of all time. But let’s not beat about the bush: he’s also produced some absolute shit. In fact, I would hazard a guess that he has produced more out-and-out rubbish than many artists have produced records. Out of 31 studio albums and God alone knows how many live albums and bootlegs, how many can you name? Maybe five? There’s precious little evidence of any quality control in there. It’s got worse over time too.

Here’s a man who had a purple patch like few other people in history, but that purple patch was more or less spent by the end of the 1960s. Yes, I know that Blood On The Tracks was produced in 1975, but these gems are now the exception and not the rule. Every album he releases is seized upon by reviewers for evidence that he’s still got it, and once in a while, he proves them right with a diamond like Time Out Of Mind or Modern Times. More often though, he just reminds everyone how brilliant he was, not how brilliant he is now.

2. He’s a relic and a sellout.

Here’s a quiz for you: who said this?

"I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 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 ... CDs are small. There's no stature to it."

That’s right. Bob Dylan. Everything was better in the 1960s, right Bob? You do realise that includes you, right? Have you heard yourself singing recently? This is the same Bob Dylan, incidentally, who has licensed Starbucks to sell his CDs. Way to stick it to the Man, Bob. He once exclusively licensed a compilation album to Victoria’s Secret. He also appeared in an advert of theirs, but I suppose you can’t blame the old goat for that, can you?

3. The Never Ending Tour.

Dylan is famed for his hard touring, and he’s been playing more than 100 dates per year for the last twenty years. That’s a pretty amazing achievement for a man old enough for a bus pass ... but have you heard him performing recently? His voice is absolutely shot and he seems hell-bent on either refusing to play his most famous songs, or in reworking them until they are unrecognisable. Why exactly does he think that people go to see him? Why does he book out the biggest arenas and set the ticket prices at well over £50?

I saw him at the Docklands Arena when he was touring Time Out Of Mind - a good album. I was looking forward to the gig and put aside the ridiculous ticket prices and the godawful venue for a chance to see a real genius. He was fucking awful. Every single song he played was unrecognisable and set to a funereal dirge. I actually found myself hoping he didn’t play any of the really good stuff because he was sure to ruin it. He was so bad that I actually fell asleep. I’ve been to hundreds of concerts, and some of them have been dreadful, but I’ve never actually fallen asleep before. The great man clearly did not give a rat’s arse about the ten thousand people who had come to see him and had paid through the nose to do so. It was unforgiveable. He was a brilliant, brilliant artist, but for that gig alone he wanted hanging, drawing and quartering.

Remember him as he was. Vote guilty.

The case for the defence (James)

Let me get this out of the way: I am surprised to find myself in this position. Defending Dylan is a little like defending like defending God, but easier – after all, I have seen Dylan. Not in the flesh, but on TV... and that is more than can be said for God. But looking at the body of work that Dylan has produced seems to me to put him way beyond prosecution. Just looking at his output between ’63 and ’66 is like looking at the apple that inspired Newton. Nothing was ever the same again, and while it would be rash to say that nothing has ever come along since which is comparable in importance, those LPs are clearly remarkable, if only for the impact that they had.

Even if we take the imaginary step of ignoring his mid ‘60s output; he is still a behemoth of staggering proportion. Blood On The Tracks and Desire validate his entire output single-handedly. The same can be said for the single track, ‘Not Dark Yet’ from 1997’s Time Out Of Mind which confirmed Dylan’s renewed importance and has continued until last year’s Modern Times.

In the spirit of the proverb, the best defence is offence, then, I am going to try to address possible reasons for wanting to prosecute Dylan.

1. "I just don’t like Dylan".

Fine. No-one is telling you that you have to like him, but this is not a reason to prosecute. The impact that he has had on musical history is more than enough – changing the face of the folk movement on both sides of the Atlantic, his contributions to new genres (folk-rock, country-rock), his impact on lyricism, his impact on numerous other bands – including The Beatles, who subsequently influenced others.

2. "His lyrics are meaningless and obscure".

Maybe some of them are, but so what? His lyrical style has shifted according to his purposes at that given moment. ‘The Times They Are a Changin’’ is not obscure and neither is ‘Hurricane’, along with countless other songs. I do not personally agree that his lyrics are so meaningless. They are sometimes difficult, even impenetrable, but they are not necessarily intended to be straightforward and accessible – and this is not the same as meaningless.

3. "He is just sooo over-rated".

Again, so what? I think it quite hard to over-rate someone so influential, but let’s play ball... Where does it say that you have to match the rating that you are given by critics? I don’t think Dylan has performed for the adulation of the critics for an awfully long time. It seems fair to say that Dylan has released some very good LPs over the years (if you disagree, see point one). Now, assuming that they were rated higher by the critics than they deserve – whose fault is that? Dylan’s? Is it fair to prosecute an artist because the critics are over-exuberant in their praise?

4. "He has proved inconsistent, having some serious lulls in quality".

So did Johnny Cash, but no-one was putting up a gallows for him. Having a lull is no crime in itself. Most artists that have been performing for nigh on fifty years will have a lull at some point. The fact that he has come back from them is far more important.

5. "He has a whiny voice".

Have we all become voice fascists now? Who are you? Simon Cowell...?

Besides, see point one again...

6. "He is a big phoney".

So was Salvador Dali; but he painted pretty pictures, so what do I care? Al Pacino never carries a gun when he walks around his house at home, or snorts mountains of cocaine while speaking in a Cuban accent. I hear that Kylie hardly ever sunbathes surrounded by beautiful people who move in unison. Nick Cave laughs himself stupid at Peanuts strips. He is an artist, and if he wants to project a persona in his music or on stage, who am I to complain? And if he is evasive when interviewed or difficult, fair play to him. I would be a little awkward if someone tried to psycho-analyse my every move too. Besides, where is the rule that says that you have to be sincere if you are a musician? And anyway, I am reliably informed that is his terribly sincere in his autobiography.

7. "I am a crazy person with an axe. I want to prosecute Bob Dylan".

Fair enough. You win.

* * * * *

Thanks to Swiss Toni and James. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...

Update: over on Troubled Diva, Mike has offered his advice to someone whose partner is suffering from "a rather nasty outbreak of Dylan Worship". I think his vote would definitely be for the prosecution, but it hasn't yet been cast - hurry up Mike, if you want to make tomorrow's deadline!


Blogger Damo said...

I'm very amused by how well the defense appeared to anticipate the prosecution's case, and the angle it would take.

Easy one for me though. False prophet. Guilty.


>"I do not personally agree that his lyrics are so meaningless."

Two words. Or one. "Wiggle Wiggle".

7:43 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

PPS. "Damian" and "Damo" are one and the same, for final totting-up purposes. Not sure how it suddenly reverted to my real name from my stage one...

7:46 pm  
Blogger Del said...

Damo, I think it's probably cos you have a google account and a blogger one. Same thing happens to me and I pop up as "Derek".

Still make my mind up on our Bob, though. I initially leant to the side of the prosecution, but a spirited defence has swayed back to the middle again. I shall have a good think...

8:55 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

If we're going to say that Dylan influenced the Beatles who influenced loads of other people, perhaps it would be worth saying that Dylan himself has said he would have been nothing without Woodie Guthrie... now there's an artist who has been overlooked almost as much as Dylan has been celebrated.

Actually, Dylan has the bad grace in his "Chronicles" to try and diminish the work that Billy Bragg and Wilco did with some of Woodie's back catalogue on the "Mermaid Avenue" albums. He made out that he could have done that stuff, and actually went to Woodie's house to have a look at the archives, but he wasn't allowed in because Woodie's daughter didn't like the look of him. Frankly, who can blame her?

His implication is clear: that he was the true successor to Guthrie, that he was there first, and that he would have done a better job. Perhaps all of that was true, but I thought it was spectatularly mean-spirited and arrogant of him to say so.

... and in case I hadn't made it clear, and anyone here was thinking of going to see Dylan live as some sort of heritage or nostalgia type trip (in the same way that you might go and see the Rolling Stones). Really, don't bother.


1:28 pm  
Blogger Ian said...

Sorry, Toni, but if you were going to get me to vote for the prosecution you'd have had to have done a better job at explaining why the things you mention outweigh, for example, Highway 61 Revisited. You present a fairly good case, but without that (and with James' excellent work) I've got to side with the defence.

6:34 pm  
Blogger Bobby D. said...

I like Bob, and recently heard him in concert twice, once in good voice in September, and another time in November on a pouring rain sort of night, he seemed to have a bit of a sore throat.

His voice being good or not was never an issue for me, because I like a lot of singers who are not classically trained with lovely voices. I think people will always disagree on music they like, foods they like, and so forth. It is so personal.

I could attack Justin Timberlake, but I wish him the best, and see no point in attacking another human being based on their career ups and downs. There are so many screwed up things going on in the world, music I shrug off that others love, doesn't bother me at all.

8:45 pm  
Blogger Dead Kenny said...

Am currently just getting into 'Modern Times' (I know, catch up, old-timer etc.) so there's not much chance of me siding with the prosecution on this one.

People who over-worship Dylan (step forward, Uncut editorial team) *are* really irritating, but that should be taken out on them not Mr Z.

So, despite his dirty grin in the Victoria's Secret ad and his lyrical references to cheap sluts on his latest album, I declare Bob INNOCENT!

8:57 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

um, is it worth me saying that if Bob is convicted here, nothing will actually happen to him?

There are a lot of screwed up things going on in the world... but this is just a game.

I'm starting to see why the defence ALWAYS wins this. Nobody here will convict anything! damn your eyes!

I own several Bob Dylan albums. I paid to see him live. I'm not a fan of his ratty little moustache, but I don't actually wish to see him dead.

Just for the record.

Vote guilty. He'll survive. I promise.


9:16 pm  
Blogger Del said...

I think I might answer your prayers, ST. As wonderfully influential as Dylan has been on some of my musical idols, I still don't rate him. And that fact that he seems to be such a monumental arse, yet remains unconditionally adored by his legion of fans really annoys me.


12:22 am  
Blogger Samantha said...


More defense later (I'm exhausted right now and not thinking clearly), but I just had to get that in there...


12:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To paraphrase Chuck D; Dylan is a hero to millions but he never meant shit to me....

My Dad bought me the Dylan biography a couple of years ago, he just assumed that I liked him because I like lots of other stuff from before I was born. I tried reading it but was a bit bored to be honest. That's the main thing that annoys me about Dylan, the assumption that anyone 'seriously' interested in music worships the man (very good point about Uncut mag Kenny). I really couldn't give a toss about the fella.

Will have to sit on the fence again as I have no real love or hate for Dylan - it's a shame as you both argued well.

I abstain.

12:57 pm  
Blogger Kwok said...

Long time reader, first time commenter. Felt the need to contribute:

"Overrated" - if you've read Chronicles, then you'll know that Dylan himself HATES those that over laud him. Those that call him messiah and prophet, he HATES those people too.

"Relic and a sellout" - let's do some maths. 20 years ago leads us to 1980's NOT 1960's. Dylan had a torrid time in the 80's with the only music of note being Oh Mercy, Every Grain of Sand and Blind Willie Mctell. As for sell out, yeah who cares? Trust the tale, not the teller.

"Never Ending Tour" - he isn't a young man anymore and he's being playing the same songs for over 40 years. He's allowed to freestyle his own songs. If you want to listen to a studio perfect version then listen to one of those small statureless CDs. Does Jesus have to walk on water twice to prove a point?

Just some thoughts. Not sure if I'm on the jury, but if I get a say then I say he's a free man.


11:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with the prosecution on this one. Does Jesus have to walk on water twice to prove a point? Well, the thing is that Jesus was smart enough not to keep publicizing any failed repeat attempts he might have had.

3:04 pm  
Blogger LB said...

I could think of a stack of reasons to prosecute this miserable old duffer, but I'll use the defence's first line if I may.

"...No-one is telling you that you have to like him, but this is not a reason to prosecute...

It certainly is. I don't care one whit what his supposed influence might have been on anyone, I find him dull, whiny and turgid. It's the musical equivalent of eating dry cream crackers.

Guilty as sin.

Can we not send him to the chair as the result of this verdict? Really?

4:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not guilty, I enjoy communicating with my friends through bad Bob Dylan impressions, it fun! And although I'm not a fan, I like hearing his music when it passes my ears.

4:42 pm  
Blogger Samantha said...

Okay. I'm awake, and I'll start by reiterating my Not-Guilty verdict and by saying I'm not an expert on Bob Dylan by any means. Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited affected me just as much as the next guy, and I'm sure I was just as disappointed by many of his subsequent releases.

Then, I'll go on by agreeing with K.W.Wan (see above) who insightfully highlights Dylan's own words* in Chronicles, in which Dylan vilifies those who have placed him on the saintly pedestal he had no desire to be placed upon. Dylan states in no uncertain terms that he just wanted to be a rock star so he could pick up chicks. In addition, he admits readily to borrowing shamelessly from Woody Guthrie during those early days in NYC - number one, because he really liked what Guthrie had to say and liked the simplicity of his music, but number two, because folk music was what was selling around the Village in the 60's. Basically, he was just trying to get gigs.

Exhibit A: Dylan's Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1966 (live 2 CD recording and accompanying SWEET booklet picked up for a song at Amoeba Records in San Francisco a few years ago). After performing the first half of the show exactly as the crowd expected him to - accoustic and solo - he showed up for the second half with a 5-piece band and an electric guitar - something he'd always wanted to do. His fans - supposedly free-thinkers, experimentalist, anti-establishment-types - couldn't handle the unknown, the unfamiliar Dylan. They shouted "Judas!" at him when he played rock and roll. He responded in the only was a true anti-establishment type could: he yelled back and played louder, eventually getting booed off the stage.

I maintain that while Dylan did take a while to find his true self (Oh Mercy, perhaps?), every moment he took getting there was him...some part of him, anyway.

He is no more of a legend than anyone, although perhaps more deserving of the title than most for the simple reason that he never asked for it.

I rest my case.

*Of course, considering Dylan's own words gets us into the linguistic debate of structuralism vs. deconstruction (i.e. Derrida vs. Chomsky), and I'm not sure we really want to get into the whole argument of intent vs. interpretation, objectivity (is there really such a thing?) vs. subjectivity; yet, essentially, that is exactly what we have to do in order to acquit Bob here.


4:51 pm  
Blogger Mark said...


The worst singer I have ever heard, equivalent to a gargling tramp falling asleep at the microphone in front of 100,000 people. An absolute dirge of a man.

6:41 pm  
Blogger JonnyB said...

Not guilty. Second most of the comments above and I'll add that 'Planet Waves' is, for Side A, actually pretty good music to fuck to.

7:00 pm  
Blogger JonnyB said...

That was I, JonnyB. I'm afraid the blogger comments system is now causing me all sorts of grief and frustration. Prosecute it, I say!!!

7:03 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

"...actually pretty good music to fuck to" - not an image we wanted, Jonny...

Not knowing a great deal of Dylan's stuff and after much thought, I'm going to go with the defence.

If you discount ST's first argument about Dylan being "overrated" (which I think both James and Wan above have successfully countered), you're left with two. I've seen Dylan live once before (at Glastonbury in 1998) and thought he was pretty good, so that makes me inclined to dismiss the third argument purely on the grounds of personal experience.

The "sellout" argument carries more weight, though, and that's mainly what's given me pause for thought - that and the fact that the vast majority of Dylan fans I've met (Wan excepted!) have been tedious and closed-minded acolytes.

But I'm not going to vote for the prosecution on the strength of the fans Dylan attracts. After all, that wasn't enough for me to convict Belle & Sebastian - it took a genuine dislike of their music too.

The fact is I generally like what I've heard. And I enjoyed 'Chronicles: Volume One', particularly the chapter in which he writes about hating the way he was held up to be some kind of saviour in the 1960s (which goes back to the "overrated" point).

Not guilty.

1:16 am  
Blogger mike said...

Guilty, as anyone who follows the "Update" link at the end of the post will discover. If we go back 40 years, then the ground gets more blurred - but it's the Dylan of 2007 that I'm putting in the dock here.

(Oh, and just like Swiss Toni: I fell asleep while watching him live as well - probably during the inetrminable noodle-fest that Highway 61 Revisited has become.)

10:01 am  
Blogger suburbanhen said...

Not timeless.
Not revolutionary.
Not inspiring.

simply a product of his generation. How is that so fantastic?


10:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ST: I'd be more inclined to vote for the prosecution if doing so would actually cause harm to the self-mythologising generational throwback.

I can't possibly defend a man who, after some 40 years of trying, still plays the harmonica with the grace of a tone-deaf asthmatic and expects to be paid for it.

Regarding the surprising hung verdict on The Beatles, at least they had the good grace to stop touring and split up. Dylan, however, carries on with the skill and dignity of an uninsured eighty year-old stacking shelves to pay for medical care.

Don't encourage him. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

12:23 pm  
Blogger Sarah said...


Any of my other views on this man are overshadowed by the "sell-out" argument.

Nothing more to say.

4:49 pm  

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