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Dylanology
July 14, 2010 3:01 PM   Subscribe

How to listen to Bob Dylan, a guide.

"Those of us that are Dylan fanatics have heard various versions of the above objections throughout our whole Dylan-listening careers.

To be sure, Bob Dylan, like great Scotch—is an acquired taste. Yes, his voice is “nasally.” Yes, his inflection is odd. Yes, he can be hard to understand and way off-key. Yet, his sound, his instrumentation and above all his songs can be salvation to the ears of those who learn to appreciate him.

Thus, we think it’s about time that someone laid out a viable plan to help those Dylan deprived people figure out how to navigate through his discography without hating him before giving him a chance. We hope this site will leave you wanting more and more of arguably the greatest songwriter on the planet today."

The blog link doesn't work, but there is a printable listening plan (pdf) available.
posted by gman (171 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
We challenge anyone to listen to this album all the way through at least 5 times in a two-day period

That was just step one, which they call Square One.

And I will do this right after they send me to my own personal hell.
posted by bearwife at 3:11 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Will this help me apprecialte Rush and Neil Young too?
posted by Brodiggitty at 3:11 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have perfect pitch, and listening to Dylan sing is actively painful. Usually ten seconds is enough to make me run shrieking out of the room.

I can't listen to the Stones, either. Queen, on the other hand, is wonderful. Freddie Mercury was always exactly on pitch.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:15 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


People enjoy Rush?
posted by entropicamericana at 3:15 PM on July 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


Ah, yes, Moaning Minnie.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:22 PM on July 14, 2010


Dylan is the closest thing to a living American fucking genius.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:22 PM on July 14, 2010 [13 favorites]


Alternatively, save yourself some time:

Replace #4: Time Out Of Mind with Bob Dylan.

After #8: The Times They Are-a-Changin, move these up:

John Wesley Harding
Desire
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

Ignore everything else, especially if it came out after 1976.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 3:23 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


These people have terrible taste in Bob Dylan.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:26 PM on July 14, 2010


I quite like "Under the Red Sky", "Nashville Skyline", "Basement Tapes", and "Before the Flood" (none of which ranked in the "first tier" of selections.

"Love & Theft" and "Live 1966" are probably my two favourites.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:28 PM on July 14, 2010


Dylan is the closest thing to a living American fucking genius.

I thought he was known for his music.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:30 PM on July 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


People enjoy Rush?

Oh hell yes.
posted by marxchivist at 3:30 PM on July 14, 2010


Replace Blood on the Tracks with the better versions of the Blood on the Tracks tracks from the Bootleg Series.

Replace everything after Blood on the Tracks except for Infidels and Oh Mercy (and parts of Good As I Been to You) with the 26-disc 1966 boot Jewels and Binoculars.

Oh screw it, just listen to this heartbreaking live version of "Abandoned Love". How can anyone fail to love this man with every fiber of their being?
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:32 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


"how to listen to the grateful dead"

first, of all, there's this nice little sugar cube i'd like you to take ...

---

Will this help me apprecialte Rush and Neil Young too?

if you play rush at half speed geddy lee sounds just like muddy waters

and if live rust doesn't get you into neil young - well, it's hopeless, i guess
posted by pyramid termite at 3:36 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's my guide:

don't.
posted by unSane at 3:37 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dylan audio is best taken studio'd.
posted by uraniumwilly at 3:38 PM on July 14, 2010


the basement tapes - It’s fun but not very deep

it's the deepest album he ever did - epic fail
posted by pyramid termite at 3:39 PM on July 14, 2010


I love how the reviewer(s) are all like "Why Dylan went back to the well by doing another album’s worth of old folk and blues songs is beyond us." on World Gone Wrong.

I mean, they love Dylan but they hate roots music and folk? I said it about SSBM, and I'll say it about this: tiers suck.
posted by BYiro at 3:39 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Chocolate Pickle: " Freddie Mercury was always exactly on pitch."

Not to mention his four octave range.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 3:47 PM on July 14, 2010


"The Ballad of Hollis Brown" is a dud??!?
*closes tab*
posted by Bromius at 3:51 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


I mean, they love Dylan but they hate roots music and folk?

I've been to a couple of Dylan concerts in the last five years (FWIW, I don't like his current touring band - too bland), and invariably I hear people leaving the concert all confused and angry that he changes most of his older songs so they are almost unrecognizable live.

I think a lot of people just want to hear Bob Dylan circa 1965, preserved in amber, like a fossil or a Rolling Stone.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:54 PM on July 14, 2010


Bob Dylan was a good singer in his prime. Bear with me here. Here's what I think confuses people into labeling him a bad singer:

1) He has obviously never been a technically good singer or had a "great voice."
2) His voice just rubs some the wrong way.
3) He went through a period in the 70s and 80s (maybe 90s too) where in concert he mumbled, forgot lyrics, and seemed to be generally not trying. Those performances are just unlistenable to me, and I love Dylan.

But, at his best, his voice was a great tool for delivering his songs. There was a ton of feeling and emotion in it. That, to me, is a good singer. I would recommend starting with the so-called "Royal Albert Hall" concert- he's at his peak there as a performer.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:58 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do like Dylan, but I like singing other people's songs in his style even more. It's like quoting lines from movies in Sean Connery's accent even if he had nothing to do with them - just makes it much more entertaining. The rather wonderful No Direction, Period plays with this brilliantly.
posted by ZsigE at 4:11 PM on July 14, 2010


How to listen to Dylan: Start with Guided by Voices and the Velvet Underground. It's all about developing your palate.
posted by limeonaire at 4:16 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do like Dylan, but I like singing other people's songs in his style even more. It's like quoting lines from movies in Sean Connery's accent even if he had nothing to do with them - just makes it much more entertaining.

Hayden Christensen is awesome as not-quite-Bob-Dylan in Factory Girl. Well, actually he's terrible, and it's a terrible movie, but somehow the combination of those two kinds of terrible is really amusing. Also he drives a motorcycle into a lake for no reason whatsoever, which is awesome.

Actually I think there is a reason - he's talking to a babe about material success. "It ain't real, babe", I think he says, then sends the bike off to it's doom.
posted by Artw at 4:22 PM on July 14, 2010


However one approaches Bob Dylan, learning to appreciate him can be one of the most rewarding efforts of your life. Like Shakespeare, it's all in there. Some of it's difficult, some of it's easy. Some of it's infuriatingly obscure, some of it is stupidly obvious. Sometimes you can tell he's coasting and taking it easy, then suddenly, he comes up with words or a melody that are so startlingly unexpected or perfectly right that universe for one brief second actually comes into focus. This is art. It's the real thing. I'm sure he doesn't understand how it works or what he does any better than we do. The man's a fool, along with his audience, and yet the world is immeasurably enriched by having this great body of work happen, however it happened. Strange. Banal. Miraculous. Unique.
posted by Faze at 4:23 PM on July 14, 2010 [12 favorites]


This approach would have turned me off to Dylan entirely. I knew him peripherally, like everyone does; Like A Rolling Stone, Rainy Day Women, yada yada. It wasn't until I sat down and really listened to Blonde on Blonde (in the correct frame of mind, natch) that I got blown away and had to explore his back catalog. It was Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands and Temporarily Like Achilles that really got me to appreciate what Dylan was doing.

Which led to whole swaths of my life being accompanied by Blood On The Tracks, which was probably not a good idea.
posted by MrVisible at 4:25 PM on July 14, 2010


From predictable genuflection to a boast of perfect pitch, this thread is like spinning class for my eyeballs.

That said, this Dylan disliker will give their "printable listening plan" a look. Thanks, gman. I might also consider learning at last how to enjoy plain yogurt, so let me know what you find.
posted by applemeat at 4:31 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


They don't mention Dylan and the Dead, or the Christmas album.
posted by box at 4:34 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dylan is the closest thing to a living American fucking genius

What? Did Ron Jeremy die?
posted by philip-random at 4:35 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, Basement Tapes not first-tier? I don't believe you!
posted by box at 4:35 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


You all are going to point and laugh when I say this but old Bob is one of my favorite singers. His songs have been re-done a million times by better singers but I almost invariably like his version better. Listen to the Duhks version of "It's Alright Ma" compared to Dylan's live version. The Duhks singer are barely keep up with the song and is fighting to get the lyrics out in time while Bob easily spits them out without breaking a sweat.
posted by octothorpe at 4:56 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of those online support groups for people who want help reading Infinite Jest.
If you really need this to be able to appreciate Bob Dylan's music, it probably just isn't for you.
posted by Flashman at 4:56 PM on July 14, 2010


The first time I listened to Bob Dylan, it was because my music teacher described him as having "both the ugliest voice and the most beautiful sound you'll ever hear on the radio." I was 13 and my favorite singer was Britney Spears, and even I got Bob Dylan.

If you need a guide to listen to him, you're doing it wrong. Just fucking listen. If all you hear is the "ugly" voice, maybe he's not for you.

(And I pity you for that.)
posted by sallybrown at 4:59 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have perfect pitch, and listening to Dylan sing is actively painful. Usually ten seconds is enough to make me run shrieking out of the room.

Bit of a derail here, but I'm curious. Is this an absolute pitch frequency thing, or is it relative to the key of the song? For example, I understand how singing out of tune with a song's accompaniment would cause discomfort (and I don't have perfect pitch). But say the entire ensemble is tuned a quarter step up or down from concert pitch and the singer is perfectly in tune with that. To me it sounds fine, because there's no outside reference hardwired into my head and it's all in tune with itself, but to someone with perfect pitch is it hard to listen to because everything is a little bit off from where it should be?
posted by Balonious Assault at 5:00 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


greatest songwriter on the planet today

No, sorry, abso-fuckin'-lutely not. Not even close. Christ I'm sick of baby boomers. If you're looking for the greatest songwriters on the planet today, try looking at the work of people like Stephen Sondheim or Stevie Wonder. Yeah, some of his stuff is alright, but he is definitely nowhere near the greatest songwriter on the planet. He's not even the greatest songwriter in America.
posted by MattMangels at 5:01 PM on July 14, 2010


Oh, and Balonious, yes, perfect pitch refers to being able to hear any note and be like "Yes, that's an A", or "that's an E-flat". It's something that cannot be taught; you must be born with it and it's related to linguistic ability rather than musical ability.
posted by MattMangels at 5:08 PM on July 14, 2010


Chocolate Pickle: “I have perfect pitch, and listening to Dylan sing is actively painful.”

I think it's pretty obvious by now that these two things don't have much to do with each other. I mean, considering all the people who also have perfect pitch and happen to love listening to Dylan. I've got pretty damned good pitch myself (wouldn't say "perfect," I guess) and Dylan makes me very happy.

That said, this guide to getting into Dylan is, to be charitable, a good piece of evidence that there are a billion different ways to be into Dylan, even if none of us probably completely understand what he was actually trying to do. Actually, though, I don't think it's a good guide. Like bearwife says above, starting off by telling a Dylan-hater to listen to an album five times over a two-day period is a little much.

Moreover, I get the feeling they haven't really tried hard to figure Dylan out at all. They list Self Portrait right at the bottom, quoting Griel Marcus' famous review unironically, not even pausing to notice that, uh, Dylan obviously meant for it to be a ridiculous record. I actually really like that record for what it is: a set of strange parodies of everything he'd done up to that point, mockeries of his voices, weird caricatures of his folkiness... it's interesting. And some of the things these people have listed as "duds" for various albums simply make no sense. Honestly, "The Man In Me" is a dud? Really? If you don't like that song, how can you like Dylan at all? Have these people not seen The Big Lebowski? The only people I've seen who really want to argue against "The Man In Me" are these uber-hardcore fans that seem to think that Dylan is all about being coy, and don't trust what seems to be a bald-faced loving tribute; but I somehow don't think that's this website's perspective. So I don't really get it.

It seems like a real guide to listening to Bob Dylan would have to actually address the issues that non-fans express: that they hate his voice, that they feel like he's just a faker, etc.

In any case, I think people who want to get into Bob Dylan should just start with his best record by far, at least if you count stuff in the bootleg series as records: Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue.
posted by koeselitz at 5:17 PM on July 14, 2010


Christ I'm sick of baby boomers. If you're looking for the greatest songwriters on the planet today, try looking at the work of people like Stephen Sondheim or Stevie Wonder.

stevie wonder's a baby boomer - and bob dylan said that smokey robinson was "america's greatest living poet"
posted by pyramid termite at 5:19 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the past two weeks, I've seen Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan and Pink perform live. They are all brilliant. There's plenty of room out there for genius. Enjoy it when and as it presents itself. You'll be doing yourself a favour. (I am not a Baby Boomer).
posted by Optamystic at 5:24 PM on July 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


I was 13 and my favorite singer was Britney Spears, and even I got Bob Dylan.

A twelve year old explains: "Everybody says Bob Dylan has an awful voice, but if it's so awful, then why do I like it so much? So sharp and cool and even though most of the songs don't rock that much, his voice sure does, always singing so hard. And then there's the words."
posted by philip-random at 5:26 PM on July 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


MattMangels: “If you're looking for the greatest songwriters on the planet today, try looking at the work of people like Stephen Sondheim or Stevie Wonder. Yeah, some of his stuff is alright, but he is definitely nowhere near the greatest songwriter on the planet. He's not even the greatest songwriter in America.”

Steven Sondheim? Yeesh. I'm sorry, that dude is not in the top ten. And I am a passionate fan of Stevie Wonder (I own every one of his pre-1980 solo records on vinyl, including Music Of My Mind) and I have to say that Stevie is certainly not as good a songwriter as Bob Dylan.

This is all subjective stuff to a degree, I know. But if you'd like to argue content, quality, lyrical significance, I can discuss it. Stevie Wonder can write an incredible song, a song that makes me very happy and that brings joy to the lives of millions; to the point where it's almost pointless to compare the two. But Bob Dylan understands words in a deep and intuitive way that very few others have. One takes a random tune from one of his least-known (and lower-quality) albums, a song he threw together and then cut in a matter of a few months, probably not spending more than a day or two on in the final equation: "I Went To See The Gypsy." This is a tossed-off song on a forgotten album of his that nobody even listens to really, and he hasn't played it in years, but there is more insight and brilliance in this song than in every other song about Elvis ever written. The tiny details of the tune - referring to him as "the Gypsy," the reference to his comeback stand in Las Vegas, the sideways glances at Bob's own "little Minnesota town"... if all Dylan had done was write this stuff down, what we'd have is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. As it is, they're recorded. They're still absolutely brilliant songs.

This classic Metafilter post is probably a great place to start if you'd like to see the way that Dylan was able to take his personal life and weave it into his music in a compelling way. Many of the links are unfortunately now dead, but you'll get the gist.
posted by koeselitz at 5:32 PM on July 14, 2010 [8 favorites]


Maybe I'll give this plan a go someday.

Probably not, though. I heard him play a few years back and it was like listening to Scooby Doo sing karaoke.
posted by asperity at 5:43 PM on July 14, 2010


Also, if anybody wants a non-"baby boomer" (how can you be sick of people because of their age? seems odd) who I believe has taken up Dylan's mantle – Mark E Smith is the Bob Dylan of our generation. Really.
posted by koeselitz at 5:45 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Curse that stupid Dylan. I will never forgive him for just one thing: Dylan did an electric guitar tour, and he had guitar god Mick Ronson play electric guitar backup. It was the last musical tour before Ronson died. So a virtuoso who could play circles around Dylan had to play second fiddle, and even worse, folky crap, not rock, ended his musical career behind Dylan. It should have been Ronson on center stage.

I mean seriously, go find Ronson's one album and listen to his cover of Pure Prarie League's "Woman" and then tell me he should be playing some other asshole's guitar arrangements, even if they are folky/country tunes.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:48 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you're looking for the greatest songwriters on the planet today, try looking at the work of people like Stephen Sondheim or Stevie Wonder.

Can't speak for Sondheim but if I suddenly had to compile a quick Top 10 records of all time list, there's no question that Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" and Wonder's "As" would be duking it out right near the top. But I wouldn't be confused as to which song had the better writer/poet, and which had the better singer/performer.

And yet as soon as I say that, I'm reminded of some of the stuff that Allen Ginsberg had to say about Dylan (the writer/singer/performer/scientist) back around the time of Blood On The Tracks. A quick big of googling reveals this discussion ...

Allen was awed by what he heard. Dylan's lyrics
and vocal phrasing were in top form, as fresh and gripping and courageous
as any of the Dylan songs Ginsberg had heard. Allen was particularly
impressed with "Idiot Wind," Dylan's excoriating attack on hypocrisy and
mindless stupidity. "His genius intuition's become scientific art," Allen
gushed in a lengthy journal entry that examined the song line by line.
Dylan had beaten Ginsberg at his own game: He had found a way to introduce
elements of meditation into his music. This is what Allen hoped to
accomplish in his poetry, and he had to congratulate Dylan for showing him
a practical way of doing it. "What an unexpected victory for Dylan and
the generations whose consciousness he carries forward into common sense,"
he wrote. "I want to see the words written out on the page, in stanzas,
divided by pauses and breaths, into dependent droop'd symmetries."

posted by philip-random at 5:52 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've got pretty damned good pitch myself (wouldn't say "perfect," I guess) and Dylan makes me very happy.

Ditto that. Humans aren't perfect; just like Zimmy's voice. If you want to hear someone singing in perfect pitch, listen to recordings mixed with Autotune (which I hate).

My pick for My First Zimmy CD: Blood on the Tracks.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:06 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


A Voice Like Sand and Glue.

Dylan captured the imagination of a generation because he combined the comforting styles of the old-timey past with an overlay of new sophisticated intellectualism.
posted by ovvl at 6:10 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Balonious, yes, perfect pitch refers to being able to hear any note and be like "Yes, that's an A", or "that's an E-flat". It's something that cannot be taught; you must be born with it and it's related to linguistic ability rather than musical ability.

Right, of course. I understand what perfect pitch is, I understand that there are varying degrees of it and many people who claim to have perfect pitch actually have a really good sense of relative pitch, and I also understand that an A or an Eb might have a slightly different frequency depending on who you ask. But that's wasn't my question. I was asking whether people who are afflicted with perfect pitch are able to mitigate its distractions if a song is in tune with itself or if they are doomed to suffer through every single note that isn't precisely what their brains say it should be. If it's the latter, I'd think guitars would be difficult to listen to in general, because guitar tuning is an approximation at best, and things like barbershop harmony must be excruciating because the groups that are good at it use microtuning to reinforce overtone structures (for example, you generally want to sing a third a little higher than it would be on a piano and a seventh a little lower). Likewise, I'd think someone with perfect pitch would have a hard time singing barbershop harmony because in order to tune chords precisely they'd always be fighting that inner voice telling them what the notes should be.

And while I'm not a huge Dylan fan I do recognize that while he's in no way a virtuoso singer he is a brilliant craftsman, and anyone who says that the voice of a generation sucks is missing the point completely.
posted by Balonious Assault at 6:11 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Regarding that intonation issue: gruff-voiced singers like Dylan, or Louis Armstrong, or Tom Waits make the needle on the electronic tuner quiver like like crazy, because they cushion their central tone in quagmire of overtones. This is not to everyone's taste, and it is not a sine wave.
posted by ovvl at 6:17 PM on July 14, 2010


So much bullshit about perfect pitch out there.

Dylan sings decently in tune, actually. No vibrato, piercing timbre, but nothing wrong with his pitch.

People with perfect pitch usually make lousy musicians.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:20 PM on July 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


Actually, I agree with the song picks of How to listen to Bob Dylan, a guide.

I could quibble that there is a missing gem, which is his version of 'Let It Be Me' from 'Self Portrait'. Sorry, no YT link available.
posted by ovvl at 6:25 PM on July 14, 2010


The "how" is all well and good, but I'm still hung up on the "why." Despite the claim that this is for Dylan skeptics, this site is for Dylan fans. Skeptics aren't going to be sold on His Whiny-ness by being told that songs that we had forced on us time and again are "stone classics." We've heard them. We disagree. Actually explain to me what to listen for, or let me get on with my happy Dylan-less life.

Seriously, I'm still convinced that Dylan's "genius" is a grand, passive-aggressive practical joke being perpetrated by the baby boomers. I'm just not sure if it was being played on their parents, or their kids. But I'm here to say, "Okay. We get it. Joke's over. You can stop now."
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:26 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Stephen Sondheim? Are you fucking serious?
posted by waitingtoderail at 6:33 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


SELECTED INTERVIEWS WITH MR.ZMRMN:
posted by ovvl at 6:34 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've got a pretty good ear -- I can usually tell you what key a song is in if I stop and think about it for a minute. I can listen to a bass progression and know the intervals -- a lot of this from practice, but some I was born with. I'm also a not-terrible singer. Not great, but I can yodel along with the car stereo pretty well.

I'm a Dylan Fanatic. Mostly his "early" stuff, through about Blood on the Tracks, and for me, Blonde on Blonde is just so perfect. It's imperfect in a million ways -- there's little flubs all over the place, but it's not got a note out of place, really. Even the flubs are part of the majic because they stand as testament to how the work of art was created -- almost spontaneously. A high-water mark of human creativity. I also love the long dirges from his earlier albums especially, like It's Alright Ma, and Gates of Eden. Like a Rolling Stone is goddam magisterial. He had an effortless way with words in those days, coining phrases with a sort of offhand bravado that was just astonishing, really. His biting iconoclasm especially hits home with me, and none of it would work as well without his particular delivery.

His pitch is not perfect, but he's a damn sight more in tune than Morrissey or Robert Smith or Gerry Garcia or Rik Ocasek, and people don't carry on about how terrible they are. They have/had distinctive voices that were unusual, and thus immediately recognizable. They all augured them in to a style. Dylan is (was-- his voice is pretty shot these days) actually not a bad technician, either. You can feel the ease with which he sang -- he strains to hit a high note now and then (loves that ooooh vowel too much) but the intervals he just glides though. Singing Dylan exhausts me.

Seriously try to really sing along with Mr. Tamborine Man, and get the melody really right, with all the nuance. All the way through without stopping. It's fucking hard. It's crazy hard. Dylan wrote some difficult melody lines and pulled them off very well, and with more than a touch of human emotion.

Hate all you want, but it's your loss.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:37 PM on July 14, 2010 [9 favorites]


Seriously, I'm still convinced that Dylan's "genius" is a grand, passive-aggressive practical joke being perpetrated by the baby boomers.

i'm convinced that complaints about baby boomers and their music are a passive-aggressive admission that younger people are having trouble coming up with anything as good
posted by pyramid termite at 6:41 PM on July 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


N'thing the claim that Dylan is a national treasure. Some personal observations:

1. Infidels never gets the respect it deserves.

2. Dylan's voice is the absolute best voice for Dylan's songs. I realize that his style is not everybody's cup of tea, but he's spectacularly brilliant at times. (He can actually sing. He tried a more "respectable" approach to singing on Nashville City Skyline, but returned to his more stylized singing after that.)

3. Even if you don't like his voice, I don't think you could seriously argue that he is not one of the best phrasers in American popular music ever.

4. You might want to discount everything above, because I own every Dylan album and bootleg that I'm aware exist, and he still gets heavy rotation in my music listening.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:55 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I said it about SSBM, and I'll say it about this: tiers suck.

#9 on the list of Remaining Events Til The Metafilter Apocalypse:
        SMASH BROS. MELEE MENTIONED IN DYLAN THREAD.

Next up is #8, YOUTUBE FOOTAGE FOUND OF DICK CHENEY'S TRUE FORM.
posted by JHarris at 7:01 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aaron Neville can cover Dylan very well. The Brother's version of Hollis Brown is amazing.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:02 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Christ I'm sick of baby boomers. If you're looking for the greatest songwriters on the planet today, try looking at the work of people like Stephen Sondheim or Stevie Wonder. Yeah, some of his stuff is alright, but he is definitely nowhere near the greatest songwriter on the planet.

Whatever. I'm not a baby boomer. I don't worship Dylan, but I agree with the website's assessment that Highway 61 is a masterpiece. Stevie Wonder? Yeah, if you restrict yourself to to anything he wrote prior to 1984. Sondheim? Isn't that a little like mixing apples and oranges?

In any case, whatever "sick of baby boomers" argument you're making is more than somewhat undermined by the fact that Stevie Wonder was born in 1950 and Sondheim was born in 1930.
posted by blucevalo at 7:06 PM on July 14, 2010


i'm convinced that complaints about baby boomers and their music are a passive-aggressive admission that younger people are having trouble coming up with anything as good

In a way, you're right. It seems to me that if they accept that Dylan is the standard for quality, and that he is therefore to be emulated, then the younger people are pretty much doomed to come up with nothing worthwhile. This would suggest that the joke may be being played on the kids.

The other option, of course, is that it's all a joke that the boomers ended up pulling on themselves.

Look, I'm not here to shit on Dylan. But the site purportedly offered a guide for skeptics to get into Bob Dylan, and I'm suggesting that it's of no use at all to this skeptic. It's a shame that it doesn't -- I'd like to hear what others value in his music, but I've tried and I don't hear it. I just don't get any enjoyment out of listening to him.

The closest I've come is on "Highway 61 Revisited" -- the casual, borderline blasphemous, hipster jive lyric on the first verse, with that uniquely American racket going on behind him, kind of makes me smile. But beyond that, so far, nothing. And nothing in that site suggested to me that additional careful attention paid to his records will change that.
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:10 PM on July 14, 2010


I know it's not important to most people, but knowing Dylan's personal history can help in appreciating his music.

Bob Dylan is a real student of American folk and roots music. He emulated Woody Guthrie and, supposedly, has an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of American folk music.

He showed a lot of that knowledge (and a good deal of wit) as the DJ of XM Radio's "The Theme Time Radio Hour". If you do a little searching on the internets, you can download old episodes of the show - if you don't like his singing, maybe you can give him props for being an awesome DJ.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:22 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Not that anybody asked, but I like starting things from the beginning, which is why I'd start with Bob Dylan, or maybe Bootleg Series Vol. 1 or Live at the Gaslight, or the Witmark and Broadside demos (I am familiar with the Minnesota tapes). Of course, last time somebody asked me this question, I had a different answer.)
posted by box at 7:42 PM on July 14, 2010


Stephen Sondheim? Are you fucking serious?

Yes, actually. I kind of anticipated taking a lot of shit for mentioning him as a great songwriter, but that's because Sondheim has the balls to write music that isn't just meant to entertain and make you tap your toes, but meant to convey a certain emotion within the context of the musical. Not to derail here (maybe that ship has already sailed), but I think lately in our 21st century world we've become accustomed to the idea that art's sole purpose is to entertain, rather than to to challenge us or make us think about the world around us. I guess this is a pointless argument; I'd argue that Sondheim is an acquired taste just like that person who wrote this guide does about Dylan. So, different strokes for different folks, agree to disagree, etc. All I'm going to say is that Dylan's music is just too plain and diatonic; the Steves (Wonder and Sondheim) use a much more sophisticated musical vocabulary, replete with extended chords and unexpected modulations that make their songs interesting to me.
posted by MattMangels at 7:46 PM on July 14, 2010


Dylan as a singer is great, if you're tone deaf.

Dylan as a songwriter is great, period. This is why Dylan's songs sung by ANYONE with a mildly pleasant voice is amazing. Case in point: Listen to Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" and it makes you want to jump out of a building. But listen to, say, Adele's version, and you're looking for Kleenex.
posted by thorny at 8:02 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm more of a words person than a sounds person, so when I think of "best songwriter" I'm really thinking of "best lyricist", and Bob Dylan is one of my top five, easy, no contest at all.

There's something funny about saying a composer who has focused primarily on writing for musical theater isn't writing mostly to entertain, but since I don't think entertaining music is a bad thing, I am not going to put any effort into trying to work out the irony.
posted by padraigin at 8:05 PM on July 14, 2010


I'd rather listen to Metal Machine Music.
posted by Eideteker at 8:15 PM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Stephen Sondheim? Are you fucking serious?

Well, at least he didn't cite Arthur Lee as the better songwriter. I mean, Jesus, some people.... But here I think the Duke had it right:
Those who most obstinately oppose the most widely-held opinions more often do so because of pride than lack of intelligence. They find the best places in the right set already taken, and they do not want back seats.

François de La Rochefoucauld
True dat, in this case, and in spades with the baby boom haters. All bent out of shape by society's pliers.... Just because we got to do everything first. Poor poopsies, can't get a break.

As for the comments regarding Mr Tambourine Man and It's Alright Ma, I have to agree. I was reading Clinton Heylin's new book on Dylan's songs and where and when they were written and one version of It's Alright Ma's genesis puts it when Dylan was putting up Joan Baez, sister Mimi and Richard Farina. I was thinking Poor Farina, having to be there at the creation of one of Dylan's most ambitious songs in terms of rhyme scheme and timing. How humbled he must have felt. It's Alright, Ma is not my favorite Dylan song but, man, it has the most quotable and quoted lines per capita of anything he wrote. And as for Mr. Tambourine Man -- according to Allen Ginsberg, it was written after attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1964. And that song is a watershed. And even Dylan thought so
There was one thing I tried to do which wasn’t a good idea for me: I tried to write another Mr. Tambourine Man. It’s the only song I tried to write “another one.” But after enough going at it, it just began bothering me, so I dropped it. I don’t do that anymore.
I can see why he tried, even if it was a fool's errand to do so.
posted by y2karl at 8:16 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


But listen to, say, Adele's version...

When you say "you" you're not talking about me, you're talking about you. I find it poor form to use the second-person voice when offering opinion. You may want to jump out of a building, but don't say I will.

I've never heard of her before. See, here's the thing about taste. I came away from that thinking that she does have a great voice, and great control, but wondering why the weird speech affectation that makes her pronounce things so weirdly. An impediment? I can't say as I'll seek her music out again. I'm put off by affected accents with singers. I'd rather have gravel and a little bit of stretching the pitch than affectation. The plink-a-plink piano emoting seemed pretty contrived, too. Ultimately, it seems cookie-cutter, with the producer trying to over-use her affected pronunciation to make it stand out. It fails. To my taste, anyway.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:44 PM on July 14, 2010


I was not a Dylan fan back in the day, and had, at random, two of his albums: New Morning and Nashville Skyline (the only country album on the shelf). I thought he was fantastic. Go figure.
posted by kozad at 8:49 PM on July 14, 2010


I started listening to Dylan when I was 10 years old (1985) because I had read that Springsteen was supposed to be the next Dylan and I thought that Springsteen was great. I think I started with a tape of Another Side of Bob Dylan from the library and what.the.fuck.is.this.shit? I kept at it for a while, desperately trying to figure out where the comparison between the two came from and finding a few songs here and there that I thought were ok (mostly Highway 61 stuff) before I figured out that Asbury Park was sort of like mid 60s Dylan and quit.

These days I can't listen to much post-Nebraska Springsteen and I think that this article got it right on 5 of the first 6 Dylan albums they listed. Still, if you don't like Dylan, just move on. There's tons of other music out there to listen to. I get Pink Floyd, I think most of it is shit, and I find being told that I don't like it because I just "don't get it" to be really fucking annoying.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 8:53 PM on July 14, 2010


Dylan was born in '41; the baby boom started after the war. He's associated with the baby boomers because of his annoying fans.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:11 PM on July 14, 2010


but that's because Sondheim has the balls to write music that isn't just meant to entertain and make you tap your toes, but meant to convey a certain emotion ... but I think lately in our 21st century world we've become accustomed to the idea that art's sole purpose is to entertain, rather than to to challenge us or make us think about the world around us.

Switch Sondheim to Dylan and this is statement loses none of its accuracy.

All I'm going to say is that Dylan's music is just too plain and diatonic; the Steves (Wonder and Sondheim) use a much more sophisticated musical vocabulary, replete with extended chords and unexpected modulations that make their songs interesting to me.

I hear what you're saying here but it strikes me as an example of hearing the mathematics in the music at the expense of the soul. Fair enough, I guess. We've all had our ears trained in different ways (consciously or not). But one lesson I learned the hard way a long time ago is that no mastery of technique (or harmonic complexity, or melodic complexity, or ... whatever else blah-blah-blah) can trump a true and soulful performance of a damned good song in terms of complexity and sophistication.

Case in point. Nina Simone vs the Bee Gees. Or vs Leonard Cohen. Or vs Dylan.
posted by philip-random at 9:17 PM on July 14, 2010


There's something funny about saying a composer who has focused primarily on writing for musical theater isn't writing mostly to entertain

Ah, perceptive comment my friend. You get to the heart of why I like Sondheim so much. For example, with Company (1970), a musical Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for, he explained that Broadway had historically been the domain of the upper and upper-middle classes who went to musicals to be entertained and escape their daily lives, but the content of that musical threw their problems (e.g., urban loneliness, divorce, marriage problems) right back in their faces (albeit in a humorous way; listen to the song "The Little Things You Do Together" for a prime example).

Just today I read an interview of Penn and Teller (I found it via Kottke so it'll probably show up on the blue sometime soon) where Teller quotes a line from Sunday in the Park with George: "Look I made a hat where there never was a hat", and Teller gets all teared up because he says it gets right to the core of what he does as a magician/artist. That musical may not be "entertaining" to a lot of people, but to artists it (and its songs) carry a lot of emotional resonance.
posted by MattMangels at 9:19 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Honestly, I thought this was a discussion on the music of Bob Dylan and an article suggesting how to listen to it. What's with the Boomers vs. GenXers snide cracks?

For christ's sake, stick to the discussion/debate of the content and leave the attacks at the door.
posted by mnb64 at 9:27 PM on July 14, 2010


Man, I am fucking gutsick of those snotnose kids all driving by my apartment all hours of the night, blasting Gypsy out of the speakers if their pimped-out rides.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:30 PM on July 14, 2010


Bit of a derail here, but I'm curious. Is this an absolute pitch frequency thing, or is it relative to the key of the song?

Actually, what I have is known as "perfect interval". It means I can sing a two minute piece of music a capella without drifting up or down at all. (Or I could when I was younger. I haven't done any singing in 20 years and my voice is shot now.) But I didn't want to try to explain that.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:45 PM on July 14, 2010


I was recently introduced to a Swedish singer-songwriter who goes by The Tallest Man on Earth.

He makes me think this is what Bob Dylan might sound like if he was starting out today.
posted by Jaybo at 9:46 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


But I didn't want to try to explain that.

Yeah, sort of takes away from your first comment a bit.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:46 PM on July 14, 2010


The other option, of course, is that it's all a joke that the boomers ended up pulling on themselves.

sigh - there's a 3rd option - admitting that generations before you had musical talent - which is why i have a continued fascination with the big band era and old time blues and don't feel compelled to call out duke ellington, count basie, glen miller etc etc as some kind of perverse joke played upon me by my parents' generation - even as a 10 year old who really liked 60s rock, my dad's collection of old 78s had a real part in my musical education - it wasn't my kind of music but i couldn't deny the worth of it

i'm not the world's biggest dylan fan - his voice does need getting used to and his early folk/protest stage just doesn't move me - but there's no denying his place in musical history or his talent and your attempt to call him a joke is simply shrill vanity and insecurity

if you don't know your roots you don't know nothing - and dylan, like it or not, is part of the roots of rock and pop music - he pretty much made rock music go beyond the trite "oooh, i love you, baby" cliches and we all owe him for that
posted by pyramid termite at 9:55 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


But I didn't want to try to explain that.

Ah, OK. Thanks for clarifying. I understand where you're coming from, and I totally get how someone with perfect pitch, relative pitch, or even just a good sense of tonal center can be made uncomfortable by certain types of singers. As to my more precise question, which as it turns out I shouldn't have directed at you at all, I found a good answer here. In case anyone else is interested. I'm very happy to learn that someone with absolute perfect pitch can enjoy music if the ensemble is in tune with itself. Otherwise, what a horrible, horrible affliction perfect pitch would be.
posted by Balonious Assault at 10:01 PM on July 14, 2010


Otherwise, what a horrible, horrible affliction perfect pitch would be.

as a person with near perfect pitch, it's my experience that one can learn the pleasures of microtonality and alternate intonations without shuddering - in fact, being able to hear things like a note being a few cents off can greatly enhance one's musical experiences once one gets used to the idea that not all music has to be locked into western just intonation

it does, however, make tuning a guitar an unpleasant ordeal
posted by pyramid termite at 10:06 PM on July 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


it does, however, make tuning a guitar an unpleasant ordeal

Heck, tuning a guitar can make tuning a guitar an unpleasant ordeal! Those who know only to use an electronic tuner to tune each string independently are the very definition of blissful ignorance.
posted by Balonious Assault at 10:17 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


.kobayashi.: “The other option, of course, is that it's all a joke that the boomers ended up pulling on themselves.”

Hmm. The trouble is that "the boomers" is so ridiculously broad – I honestly think it's a safe term for us (I'm thirty-one, dunno how old anybody else is) because to us it means simply 'our parents.'

But if you trace the influence of Bob Dylan's singing - just his singing, not his songwriting or anything else, so we're just talking about "the ugly bit" that everybody hates here, okay? - we're talking about stuff that stretches right up and through punk rock and into alternative music. And maybe that's a legacy people genuinely dislike. But we're talking about a style of singing that's discernible, first and foremost, in the singing style of Lou Reed (who I've yet to hear anyone dismiss as "a boomer," though I guess somebody probably will) – and then Glenn Mercer (of The Feelies), and Steven Malkmus (of Pavement), et cetera. This is honestly a major stream in modern singing. So even if you hate it, I think you've got to appreciate that you're hating one of the three or four major movements in the way people sing songs today.

MattMangels: “All I'm going to say is that Dylan's music is just too plain and diatonic; the Steves (Wonder and Sondheim) use a much more sophisticated musical vocabulary, replete with extended chords and unexpected modulations that make their songs interesting to me.”

I have heard this idiotic argument so many times before, and every single time it's in the mouth of somebody who doesn't know jack about theory. So please, explain to me why Dylan's songs, which are no more "diatonic" than those of Stevie Wonder or George Gershwin or many of the great songwriters of the century, are somehow plain and uncomplicated when it comes to changes; while you're there, maybe you can explain the chordal tension in "Lay Lady Lay" or "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." I imagine you're just talking about Dylan's willingness to repeat chords; I can never discern any actual knowledge of music theory behind this line of reasoning, so I assume that's it. In which case, yes, Bob Dylan is harmonically boring, in the same way that Steve Reich is harmonically boring.

Can you actually give real, detailed examples of what you mean? Seriously, I don't care if you know music theory - just clips from Youtube (or references to Dylan tunes, since I know one won't find clips of him anywhere online) and statements about what you find "too plain." And honestly, when I hear that I get a sinking feeling that I'm going to hear that the person saying this thinks Gershwin is 'sappy' or doesn't like Vernon Duke numbers. I've been playing jazz piano for a decade now, and those changes don't just 'get old.' Sondheim might have pretentions to being some sort of grand revolutionary, but he's not; he got most of what he does well from somewhere else. (Largely Kurt Weill, who was a far better composer.) The difficult thing, and one of the arts of the 20th century, is to take that framework that others have used and bend it into something great. This was a fact of the art many, many years before Bob Dylan came along, and it's been a fact ever since, Sondheim's detour into what he thinks of as more complex and more 'intellectual' harmonies notwithstanding.

Sorry if this seems harsh; it's just this "Dylan's songs are harmonically flat" line is so played out, and it indicates that you actually haven't paid any attention at all to the harmony of those tunes. You're free not to like him; you don't have to make stuff up to give yourself an excuse.
posted by koeselitz at 10:20 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


... and -- where do you find "extended chords" and "unexpected modulations" in Stevie Wonder? Stevie's awesome. I don't ever remember hearing those things in a Stevie Wonder song, though.
posted by koeselitz at 10:28 PM on July 14, 2010


> sigh - there's a 3rd option - admitting that generations before you had musical talent

You don't have to read very carefully to see that I have spoken poorly of no one's music except Dylan's. I think Dylan's reputation is out of line with his output, and have a hard time taking him seriously. But I certainly have neither denigrated the music of the past writ-large, nor have I expressed a preference for contemporary artists. Moreover I have no desire to defend these positions that you seem to want to pin on me. Where are you getting this nonsense?

What I'm saying is that the site linked in the original post claims to be designed to help those who have not acquired a taste for Dylan's music see what all the fuss is about. But it really offers more debate for aficionados than advice for the skeptic. In fact, as I read them, comments like koeselitz's in this thread (1, 2, 3) help to explain what others see better than the linked site does.

As for my shrill-ness, why not take a step back and then ask yourself who among us is really being intemperate. The answer may surprise you.
posted by .kobayashi. at 10:32 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Bob Dylan is harmonically boring"...if you can't do it with one chord, you can't do it with twelve. You just had to be there, kid.
posted by carping demon at 10:38 PM on July 14, 2010


Generations before mine had no musical talent; the world was created in 1997. We were implanted with false memories by the trilateral comission.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:45 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Balonious, yes, perfect pitch refers to being able to hear any note and be like "Yes, that's an A", or "that's an E-flat". It's something that cannot be taught; you must be born with it and it's related to linguistic ability rather than musical ability.

Perfect pitch means you're born with it. However, ear training is all about learning how to do this, so it can be taught. I know many musicians who can instantly pick out a note who were not born with that ability.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:00 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just here to chime in for Street Legal. Thanks!
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:44 PM on July 14, 2010


On the one hand, I enjoy quite a few Dylan songs. On the other hand, he's the whiniest bastard in the world. What a fucking judgmental asshole. Seriously.

So I avoid listening to the words.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:49 PM on July 14, 2010


Those who know only to use an electronic tuner to tune each string independently are the very definition of blissful ignorance.

Using a tuner jacked the accuracy of my ear way up.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:59 PM on July 14, 2010


Dylan is the closest thing to a living American fucking genius

Dylan IS a living American fucking genius. FTFY.

For me the Rolling Thunder period stuff holds up the best ... the seasoned pen loses its precociousness ... i.e. Hard Rain and Desire. Best song? Gotta go with Tambourine Man. But many can hit me just right depending on the weather. "Idiot Wind" is the best description of American politics ever.

But Dylan's very personal (like Waits or Cohen, who I never got) so YMMV and fare thee well.
posted by Twang at 12:12 AM on July 15, 2010


With one hand on your cock and an enormous sense of self-importance?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:19 AM on July 15, 2010


What's with the Boomers vs. GenXers snide cracks?

Yeah, I don't get that. There are plenty of Boomers who despise Dylan (Haruki Murakmi, himself a Boomer and a fan of plenty of 60s music, seems to hate Dylan's harmonica playing especially), and the biggest fans I know are all my age. In general, I don't like the implication that if I don't like a musician, it's because I don't "get" them and haven't *really* listened to them. It's really condescending. Just accept that not everyone's going to like the music you like.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:31 AM on July 15, 2010


I kinda hate his harmonica playing too, actually.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:41 AM on July 15, 2010


I'm biased because I've never heard good harmonica playing. It's an instrument that causes an immediate and visceral reaction in me.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:51 AM on July 15, 2010


The harmonica in general does have a piercing quality, especially in Dylan's case. I'm that way about accordions most of the time, but I love the finest practicioners of both, like Little Walter & Flaco Jimenez, where I would not ordinarily listen at all. Bagpipes though... (Yes, I'm sure I'm missing out on something but that's where I draw the line. Listening to bagpipes is the eating bugs on the musical realm for me. You just have to draw the line somewhere)
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:38 AM on July 15, 2010


I've tried, man. I've tried. I know how important Bob Dylan is, musically and culturally. He's an amazing songwriter - absolutely. But I can't get past the voice. I don't have perfect pitch, but I am a trained singer and knowing that I could do it "better" in terms of voice quality and staying in tune - it's not just Dylan, it hurts me to listen to anyone who actively can't sing. (Though that perfect interval thing, while I wouldn't say that I *have* it, sounds like a skill I've cultivated - I can sing a capella quite well and very, very rarely waver from the pitch.)

It's amazing to me how few people I know can really recognize this - when listening to some pop or heavy metal music (not MY idea) with 'moonMan I sometimes force him to turn it off, or at least change it, because they're out of tune or just singing BADLY. And he honestly can't tell. He can't hear the difference. I've also met singers who, while singing "correctly," were so flat that they were practically below sea-level... and they honestly couldn't hear that. How is this even POSSIBLE? How can you not hear how close to the pitch you're NOT? Especially if you're singing in a group or with accompaniment - how does it not grate your nerves to hear that discord? (Unless, of course, it's called for - and even then, you need to have the right discord or it doesn't work.)

I love Bob Dylan's songs... when sung by ANYONE else.

(And I, obviously, love the hell out of Tom Waits. He can sing. As in, if you got him to stop doing that gravelly thing that he chooses to do, he would be on pitch and has an amazing sound. Dylan sings through his NOSE because that's the only place he channel his voice. And it pains me.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:39 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Little Walter & Flaco Jimenez

This is the first time I'm seeing these names. I'll have to give 'em a shot.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:52 AM on July 15, 2010


This is the first time I'm seeing these names.

O_o ? No, seriously though, I wasn't bringing them up in an attempt to convert you -- I was just mentioning specifically instruments I didn't care for except in the hands of particular practitioners. Little Walter was the Hendrix of the harmonic, though. Still, some people hate Hendrix, and I can follow that.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:27 AM on July 15, 2010


No, seriously though, I wasn't bringing them up in an attempt to convert you -- I was just mentioning specifically instruments I didn't care for except in the hands of particular practitioners.

Oh, I know. I never want to completely write off a musical instrument, so being told that it sounds well when played by Musician X always prompts me to want to check them out.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:39 AM on July 15, 2010


Actually I know quite a bit of music theory, probably as much as you do, if not more. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but "Lay Lady Lay" seems to be just I - iii - bVII - IV (the same chords as the verse of "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me" by Billy Joel, somewhat ironically, and not STRICTLY diatonic due to the flat seventh), which is hardly an unusual progression. I mean, it's a common one for a reason, namely that it works and is satisfying to our ears. "Knockin of Heaven's Door" is just I - V - ii*, again a progression that I happen to like a lot but it's EXTREMELY common. Been done to death. And Stevie Wonder's music is FULL of extended chords; listen to stuff like "Smile Please" from Fulfillingness' First Finale or "Joy Inside my Tears" from Songs in the Key of Life. The former song's progression starts with I7 - vii7 - vi7 - V/V7 - IV - iv6/5 - iii7 - vi7, and that's not even all of it but I think you can see my point.

And so you know, I LOVE Gershwin. Last month I got to see his actual piano and some of his manuscripts at the Library of Congress and it was nothing short of magical.

*He seems to alternate to IV on every other iteration of the progression
posted by MattMangels at 6:48 AM on July 15, 2010


Jeez, let's not judge music on how harmonically complex it is ferchrissakes.

My beef with Dylan is not with his voice or his playing but with the fact that in his songs he comes across as a pretentious, arrogant, judgmental, sexist prick. I cannot think of another songwriter who has a higher opinion of his own opinion, and it makes him completely unlistenable for me.

(Every so often I try to give him another chance and come away reeling from it. Plus, the recent stuff sounds like a bar band to me. Really, life's too short.)
posted by unSane at 7:53 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Glad to hear Murakami hates Dylan's harmonica playing! It's true, he plays harmonica like an amateur. One problem is that he is using a harmonica holder. You need two hands to make a harmonica sound good. Period.
posted by kozad at 7:57 AM on July 15, 2010


The former song's progression starts with I7 - vii7 - vi7 - V/V7 - IV - iv6/5 - iii7 - vi7

not quite
posted by pyramid termite at 8:09 AM on July 15, 2010


Some genuinely nice harmonica at the beginning of this tune. (c/o the Hollies)
posted by philip-random at 8:30 AM on July 15, 2010


Thanks pyramid. I forgot the bvii7 chord, and a few other minor things (I was reconstructing it from memory). But I urge everyone to look at the link he provided. See all those different chords? I'm not saying harmonically complex == good, but it obviously takes a lot more skill to write music with that kind of harmony, which I respect.

Jeez, let's not judge music on how harmonically complex it is ferchrissakes.

Why? Why is it not OK to judge music on its harmonic complexity? To me, harmony is the most exciting aspect of music. It obviously shouldn't be the ONLY factor in judging a piece of music, but it does matter.

One last thing. This lyric, from A Little Night Music, set in Sweden during midsummer:
The sun won't set
It's fruitless to hope or to fret
It's dark as it's going to get
The hands on the clock turn but don't sing a nocturne just yet

I defy anyone to show me a Dylan lyric, hell a lyric by anybody that is as amazingly clever as that one.
posted by MattMangels at 8:42 AM on July 15, 2010


You seem to operate under the misapprehension that your subjective opinions are objective truths. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:46 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

posted by philip-random at 9:00 AM on July 15, 2010


Why? Why is it not OK to judge music on its harmonic complexity?

because by that judgment, hindustani classical music would be entirely lacking - and of course, when it comes to rhythmic and melodic sophistication, a hard core hindustani musician is going to find stevie wonder lacking

no, you've got to consider the musical tradition a musician is working in and what he is trying to do with it - dylan and wonder are working with different traditions and need to be seen in context

you wouldn't want to hear dylan singing "isn't she lovely" complete with wheezy harmonica - and i don't think i'd want to hear stevie wonder jazzing up "tangled up with blue" with a bunch of extended chords

as far as clever lyrics are concerned - well, i'm not sure that cleverness is such a great thing by itself in songwriting - bob dylan can be clever - if you really want cleverness in lyrics, though, i think they might be giants pretty much own that catagory
posted by pyramid termite at 9:32 AM on July 15, 2010


Why? Why is it not OK to judge music on its harmonic complexity?

By this measure, Remain in Light is the worst album ever made.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:35 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I defy anyone to show me a Dylan lyric, hell a lyric by anybody that is as amazingly clever as that one.

Maybe these aren't as clever as Sondheim (?). But they've stuck with me since I first heard them, because they made me FEEL something.

I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells
I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through
Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you


and

Yer gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go


and

Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off


and

I hurt easy, I just don’t show it
You can hurt someone and not even know it


and

Well, I see you got a new boyfriend
You know, I never seen him before
Well, I saw him
Makin’ love to you
You forgot to close the garage door
You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat


and of course

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you

posted by sallybrown at 9:42 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


My favorite Dylan song is "Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You," for the record. I love how he sings the comma in the title phrase.

Seriously, you can have "perfect pitch" without having "absolute pitch." The latter is an apparently neurobiologically based ability to recognize exact identities over time between the same frequencies, to "remember" a frequency exactly with no learning process involved. Very few people have it, and most are not musicians. It is not tied to any particular tonal system, nor is it dependent on relative pitch perception, and the modern western equal tempered scale of semitones is only one of thousands of human tonal frameworks, so people who claim to have Absolute Pitch and therefore to be "disturbed" or feel "pain" caused by music that is out of tune are at best gilding the lily and at worst confusing two different experiences of pitched sound. Or in some cases they're just talking shit.

Any serious musician can develop "perfect" pitch recall. I have it myself pretty much, to the point that if you ask me to sing a "G" I can hit it exactly on one try, and to the point that if I remember a song I know well and sing it to myself and then listen to the recording, I'm almost always within a few cents of the kew of the recording. It is not an absolute neurological faculty. It's because I've heard thousands of hours of music and played it and sung it so that I have learned the sound of different keys, where different notes lie in my vocal apparatus (I have a tuning fork in my throat, essentially, because I know exactly what A440 feels like to sing or even in my ear from hundreds of hours spent in orchestras that tune to that frequency). I work with many non-western musics where the ability to remember frequencies and intervals over time is helpful and conducive to recognizing tonal structures such as the tetrachordal structure of Arabic art music (which uses a quarter tone scale with microtonal inflections that not only don't bother me but sound beautiful to me and are easy for me to discriminate).

There is no real scientific basis for the claim that having absolute pitch should make you sensitive to any particular intervallic combination as "wrong" or "off" in either harmonic or melodic combination. That is absolutely and entirely due to cultural conditioning -- learned perception-- within a particular tonal framework. There is nothing natural about the semitone. The only true universal across all cultures with respect to tonality is the recognition of the identity of the octave interval.

I know plenty of South Asian and Arabic musicians who have "perfect" (learned, non-absolute) pitch and who manage fine working microtonal/non-equal-tempered and western tonal systems, even within a single improvisation. An example would be quoting a Bach violin partita in a raga performance -- one of my favorite examples is a recording of Sangeeta Shankar on violin and Zakir Husseinon tabla playing Rag Bageshri (on a CD called "Rhythm and Melody," which I highly recommend) where they "pun" on the vadi/samvadi (basically, sort of king and prince) relationship in the rag -- degrees Sa and Ma -- and the perception of a Western-conditioned ear to hear the vadi (Sa) as the "dominant" resolving to the samvadi at the fourth above (Ma) (the vadi/samvadi relationship is not always 1st and 4th degree however) when in fact the relationship between the two tones is the opposite in the purely melodic structure of the rag -- the vadi is the resolution tone; in the final few minutes of the recording, Shankar, who is also a classically trained western violinist, inserts a figure from a Bach violin partita that would rely on the Ma (samvadi) as the tonic pitch in Bach's tonal world.

Anyone trained in both traditions as a listener or musician "gets the joke" from the disorienting feeling of two possible resolutions. All that is required is the ability to hear intervallic relationships between pitches, not to recognize the actual pitches involved (which are A,=Sa, and E=Ma, on this particular recording, Shankar apparently using a tuning that sounds good on the Hindustani violin as on the western violin, tuned differently however, for open string resonances).

Hindustani music does not use an absolute pitch standard. You can tune to any frequency at all as the tonic (Sa in this case) and it will depend on the soloist's instrument and mood (or possibly, and likely, the singer's vocal range in vocal genres). So there would be no reason having "absolute" pitch would be any sort of advantage to a Hindustani musician; it would in fact be a real detriment, since any soloist could tune to any frequency as a tonic pitch, and even change it for "the same" raga in different performances.

Just a few thoughts on the subject. Very few people who claim to have "Absolute" pitch actually do have it, and possessing it is unrelated to a sophisticated ability to hear tonal structure.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:57 AM on July 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


I defy anyone to show me a Dylan lyric, hell a lyric by anybody that is as amazingly clever as that one.

The egg was spawned in our mutation pit
In the bowels of your
Earth it was grown
Feeding on the blood of you loinspawn
And all the filthy load that was blown
Now the time is right for birth
And whatever it is shall stalk the Earth
What it looks like, I care not I just hope it kills a lot

Crack in the egg
Crack in the egg
The time is right
Crack in my pipe
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:58 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hmmm... some of us dislike art that others like.

Let's get argumentative!

(Meanwhile, may I just put out there that Mr. Zimmerman is, and always has been, a blues singer, and should be understood in that context?)
posted by Erroneous at 10:01 AM on July 15, 2010


Look I didn't come here specifically to shit on Dylan either. But when someone has a claim that someone else is "the greatest songwriter on the planet" they had damn well better be prepared to back that up. How does that old saying go, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof"?
posted by MattMangels at 10:23 AM on July 15, 2010


So you're saying GWAR is better than Sondheim?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:26 AM on July 15, 2010


GWAR is/was/shall-always-be extraordinary proof of something-or-other.
posted by philip-random at 10:40 AM on July 15, 2010


The only fact that is provable (not a word, I think, but whatever) is the fact that there are differing opinions on this subject, whether we're talking about the lyrics, vocals, harmonies, arrangements, etc. Everyone is going to have their opinion on which is the best. And to them, it IS the best. That's all that matters.

My beef was with the derision of an age group. Which is irrelevant, given the variety in ages responding on this thread (who like Dylan and who don't like him). Perhaps I'm derailing, but I get tired of seeing folks tear others down because of their age (old OR young).
posted by mnb64 at 10:41 AM on July 15, 2010


> Hmmm... some of us dislike art that others like.

Let's get argumentative!


Of course, what's different about this thread is that the original post is to a site which purports to offer a plan to convert non-fans. Here, then, it's perfectly appropriate for people to point out that:

a) The site doesn't seem to do a good job of it.

b) Non-fans don't have a Dylan-shaped hole in our hearts, and are doing just fine without him. Moreover, no one is foolish or misguided for despising his music.

The purpose and tenor of the original post seems to want to engage non-fans. Indeed, it proselytizes. This is rather different than, say, yesterday's David Foster Wallace post (to use another example of an artist who, shall we say, provokes strong opinions). In any Dylan post set up like that one, I'm happy to just stay the hell away, and the mods are right to clean up any "threadshitting."

In any post, however, that wishes to anoint Dylan as a genius, pretends to show skeptics how they might come to do the same, and then casts dispersions on those who would still disagree -- well I'm going to fart loudly at that coronation.
posted by .kobayashi. at 10:51 AM on July 15, 2010


Actually, it is foolish and/or misguided to despise Dylan's music. It's just that you must first learn to love it to understand this.
posted by philip-random at 11:05 AM on July 15, 2010


I'm surprisingly offended by the "boomer" comments. I'm 39, my parents have never listened to Dylan and it took me years to get into him. Part of the reason was that I dismissed him because he wasn't being released on a punk rock label run by a couple of kids out of their trashed back room. The casual disdain, not for Dylan but for those who find something meaningful or important in his music, expressed in the comments that suggest that he's a joke of the baby boomers is galling. Dylan is like a combination of Woody Guthrie, Mark Twain, and David Foster Wallace. He's obviously very smart, extremely talented, and most importantly, he's able to synthesize huge swaths of American experience into art. He's not perfect, but he's been a working musician for a long, long time, and his music reflects his attempt to negotiate what has been a very complex life.

If nothing else, the fact that so many people consider him to be a genius (as do I) should give those with an urge to be dismissive pause.
posted by OmieWise at 11:08 AM on July 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Alright, pretty good content. Now we just have to teach this guy to listen to "Oh Mercy".

Studs... no "Most of the Time"?

Duds... "When Teardrops Fall" ? Shooting Star?

Hmph!
posted by JBennett at 12:04 PM on July 15, 2010


Also, because I'm reading the great piece in the new Believer about Nina Simone... here is someone else who could really cover Dylan.

The Times They Are A Changin'
posted by JBennett at 12:12 PM on July 15, 2010


"Like a Rolling Stone" is so overrated that it's put me off wanting to bother with the rest of Dylan, although even I have to admit that "The Story of Hurricane" is just fantastic. If I want to listen to a Jewish-American folksinger who's better at songwriting than singing, though, I'll take Leonard Cohen any day of the week.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:28 PM on July 15, 2010


"Like a Rolling Stone" is so overrated

How so? Do you just not like it? Fine. But I think you'd have hard time actually "arguing" that it's not one of the most culturally influential, most thoughtfully written, most emphatically performed so-called Pop records EVER released to the commercial marketplace (certainly since 1965).
posted by philip-random at 12:45 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Remember when Dylan, Keith Richards and Ron Wood nearly destroyed Live Aid in 1985? I would post video but I am at work. Somebody post the clip!
posted by punkfloyd at 1:19 PM on July 15, 2010


Actually whether I like it or not has little to do with it; hearing it in a cultural vacuum, I could probably take it or leave it, though I definitely prefer "The Story of Hurricane" and even "Tangled Up in Blue" as far as Dylan radio hits go. But to speak to your actual question...

Culturally influential? Sure. Emphatically performed? Yeah, I'd agree with that, too. It's "thoughtfully written" that I have the problem with. I don't think it's all that strong, lyrically. His delivery is clunky, from a purely rhythmic standpoint; though I get that he does that a lot in his music to emphasize specific verses, I don't think it works particularly well here. Moreover, the rhymes come so fast and easy that they give the song a sing-song quiality that detracts from the seriousness of the themes he's dealing with. The AAABBBB rhyme scheme of the chorus (including the last line of each verse) comes off like Poe's "Bells." That quality, paired with the oh-so-serious-and-wise address to the song's recipient (I'm not a Dylan scholar, so I don't know if he was writing to someone specific) makes the song come across to me as juvenile and self-important. Maybe that's actually what he was going for and I'm totally missing the point he's trying to make, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of self-awareness there, and all the long "o-n" rhymes just come off as faintly ridiculous, which isn't really a quality you want from someone who's supposedly a great lyricist.

It's not awful, but I don't think it's a great song or even a particularly great Bob Dylan song. Not terrible, but not the magnum opus it's often claimed to be. I admit that a lot of this does in fact come down to personal taste, but I hope you'll agree that there's at least a little more to my argument than "Heard it once, didn't like it, Dylan sucks."
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:21 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I seem to have somehow developed an innate dislike of the rhymed couplet over the years. Sure, there are lots of exceptions, but something about it just sounds jouncy, juvenile and forced to me. Maybe because it's the most obvious method of rhyming, it just ends up being used in a disproportionately high percentage of bad poetry and lyrics? I don't know.

I do know that it works in "The Story of Hurricane" because he doesn't use it in every verse and because he performs it in a fast enough tempo that he doesn't really linger on each rhyme the way he does in "Like a Rolling Stone."
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:44 PM on July 15, 2010


It's not a magnum opus -- it's a cultural turning-point. It's pretty much that and A Day in the Life that ended the divide between electric pop/rock music and significant lyrics. I'm sure there's earlier examples, but those were the ones that really grabbed the public zeitgeist and set the stage for the whole musical revolution of the late 60's.

Desolation Row is more of a magnum opus, but he's got several of those.

But Yeah, GREATEST ICONOCLAST IS ICONIC! There is a little irony there.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:45 PM on July 15, 2010


Also, I'm with you about the rhyming structure of Like a Rolling Stone. Some of the rhyming matches seem cheap. Sometimes, I really like lyrics that don't rhyme at all, though it's a rare artist that can really do that.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:47 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm with the people who love Dylan's songwriting, but can't stand his voice. I remember being in a record store on the Ave in the Seattle university district about ten years ago, and they were playing a bunch of Dylan records back to back.

I was okay with it at first. But after an hour I wanted to get a Glock and start mowing people down.

I'm weird though, since I think Richard Hell's cover of Going Going Gone is just amazing. I like my share of odd voices, but for some reason Dylan's voice gets on my last nerve.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 2:31 PM on July 15, 2010


If I want to listen to a Jewish-American folksinger who's better at songwriting than singing, though, I'll take Leonard Cohen any day of the week.

You mean Jewish-North American, right?
posted by mr_roboto at 2:49 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's what I meant. I don't know any Jewish-South American songwriters. Or did you mean because Leonard Cohen is Canadian? I keep forgetting that because so many of his most iconic songs make me think of New York City.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:03 PM on July 15, 2010


Barenboim's all I can come up with re: musical South American Jews. I was thinking the Canadian thing.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:31 PM on July 15, 2010


I hate most Boomers with a white hot flaming passion, but I also think Bob is the best songwriter of his generation and one of the best of all time.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that anyone who doesn't like Dylan is a musical dilettante, but I'm willing to let others have their opinions. These days, I have a hard time imaging anything more tiresome than arguing about music on the Internet.
posted by entropicamericana at 3:43 PM on July 15, 2010


Remember when Dylan, Keith Richards and Ron Wood nearly destroyed Live Aid in 1985?

heh

it's surprising to me that neither keith or ronnie could think of just LOOKING at what dylan was playing so they could keep up with him - it would have helped

too busy doing that rock star posturing thing, i guess
posted by pyramid termite at 3:56 PM on July 15, 2010


I hate most Boomers with a white hot flaming passion,

Man, that's a lot of hot flaming ...
posted by philip-random at 3:59 PM on July 15, 2010


I have a hard time imaging anything more tiresome than arguing about music on the Internet.

Clearly, you haven't tried arguing about Dylan on the internet. You've tried? TRY HARDER!
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:11 PM on July 15, 2010


I came away from that thinking that she does have a great voice, and great control, but wondering why the weird speech affectation that makes her pronounce things so weirdly.

Adele is British, which might explain the speech affectation you refer to.
posted by thorny at 4:20 PM on July 15, 2010


I dunno. 90% of what I listen to is British, and it seems contrived to me. It's kind of a popular production trick these days.

Kids /lawn
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:35 PM on July 15, 2010


(maybe 90s too) where in concert he mumbled, forgot lyrics, and seemed to be generally not trying.

Let me assure you that the 90s should be included in this assessment.
I'd add "seemed lucky to be able to stay on the stool".
posted by pompomtom at 5:36 PM on July 15, 2010


Bob Dylan & The Band -- "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" (from The Last Waltz dir. M Scorcese)

Also, "I Shall Be Released," with, well, everybody.

FWIW I love Neil Young. And here's Muddy Waters doing Mannish Boy, for good measure. All from The Last Waltz.

Peripherally related: Keith Richards has a pretty rough voice too, but some of his Dylanesque stuff is fun.

posted by snuffleupagus at 6:35 PM on July 15, 2010


Dylan, Keith RIchards and Rnn Wood at Live Aid. The horror. The horror.
posted by punkfloyd at 6:40 PM on July 15, 2010


Finale:

1) Last Waltz, mmm.


2) How is it possible to hate rhyming couplets? That's hating half of English verse.


3) It's "Hurricane," not "The Story of Hurricane."

4) Leonard Cohen? Comparing Leonard Cohen to Bob Dylan is like comparing . . . Scorpions to Black Sabbath? Talk about ridiculous rhyme schemes and a true inability to sing a pitched note, portentous lyrics that mean nothing, and a very small catalog of important songs. Ugh.

5) Steve Earle often says Townes Van Zandt is/was the greatest American songwriter, and I am inclined to agree, although I actually think the honors go to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, in that order, followed by Dylan and Townes in a close tie for fourth. But Earle has a great line where he calls Townes the master and then says "and I'd stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and tell him so." If you love Dylan but don't know Townes, check out "Mr. Mud and Mr. Gold" or "Waitin' Round to Die" and get back to me.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:23 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


(PS, sacrilege I know, but I would not place Hank Williams, Sr. in the top 10 American songwriters. A respectable mid-teens, but most of his best songs were co-written by another Jewish guy. Also, did y'all know a Jewish schoolteacher wrote "Strange Fruit"?)
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:25 AM on July 16, 2010


I got drunk with Townes Van Zandt's daughter in a bar one night a long time ago. At some point in the evening, I said "He's a hell of a songwriter." She replied "Yeah, well, he's not much of a father."
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:08 AM on July 16, 2010


You got drunk with Katie Belle Van Zandt? Wow.

Yeah, he was a shitty dad. He was a shitty friend to a lot of people too. He was a raging alcoholic and heroin addict.

I've told the story on MeFi before, but I last met Townes in the men's room at Gruene Hall in about 1994. He was falling-down drunk and unable to play his half of a double-bill with Guy Clark, who had to carry the whole night. He was drinking Jim Beam and leaning on a urinal, about to collapse. I said something stupid about how I hoped he was OK and he said "My problem is, I can't stop being funny," before he basically passed out in front of me; he was in yet another stint of rehab the next week.

Everyone I know who knew him well says he was a total fuckup, although never mean. But man could he write a damn song.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:31 AM on July 16, 2010


(Also, DR, I hope it wasn't too long ago. Katie Belle is only about 22 years old now. Or is there another daughter I don't know about?)
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:32 AM on July 16, 2010


And interesting question, would you forgive your alcoholic, suicidal father if he wrote these words for you? Probably not, I guess.

Come some day
I'm bound away
Wind and wings on the water
Whatever may
You must stay
And remain my beautiful daughter


There is no deeper blue
In the ocean that lies
As deep as the blue
Of your laughing eyes
No sweeter sound
Than your gentle sigh
No heart was ever so pure

posted by fourcheesemac at 5:34 AM on July 16, 2010


lso, DR, I hope it wasn't too long ago. Katie Belle is only about 22 years old now. Or is there another daughter I don't know about?)

Well, whoever she was, she was in her 20's at the time -- late 80's or early 90's. Maybe she was lying -- I dunno. I had no reason to think so at the time. He was playing at the Cactus that night & we were at the Hole in the Wall, a few blocks down the street.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:06 AM on July 16, 2010


Entirely possible there's more kids out there. Townes was big with the ladies.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:22 AM on July 16, 2010


MattMangels: “Why? Why is it not OK to judge music on its harmonic complexity?”

There's nothing wrong with it. And I want to go out of my way to point out that I do agree with you on this point; I believe in music theory (even if I don't always believe in harmony per se) and I think it's worthwhile to analyze what songs do and what they mean; I believe that this actually tells us something about a song. But I also think that when you say that Dylan is "too simple," you're doing it incorrectly. The simplicity of the chordal progressions doesn't dictate the harmonic complexity or depth of a tune.

That's why I mentioned Gershwin. Because there were people at the time – still are, by the way – who go on about how Gershwin is 'just a pop writer' and 'not a serious composer' because he'll write a song like "I Got Rhythm" that's essentially only four chords, I - iv - ii - V, with a IV-V-I turnaround and a textbook circle-of-fifths bridge. But those chords changed the world! They're incredible. You can do anything within that framework.

So this stuff about "it's too simple for me"... it doesn't ring true, I don't think. If you like Gershwin, then Bob Dylan's chords are not too simple for you. Anyone who's played the Rhythm changes more than a few times knows that the interesting thing is the way different melodies play with the chords, the way other chords can be substituted for them, the way that the progression resolves, the structures that can be imposed on top of it. All of these things can be very complex, even if a chord structure is simple. Hell, you could have nothing but a very simple chord progression, played over and over again for ten minutes, and there could still be a good deal of interesting stuff there - because progressions themselves, even if simple, can have very interesting structures. Where is a progression leading? Where does it resolve? Where is the tension? That's what I meant when I asked where the chordal tensions in "Lay Lady Lay" and "Knockin" are; because it's genuinely hard to tell, and because I think that makes them compelling as chord progressions.
posted by koeselitz at 6:45 AM on July 16, 2010


How is it possible to hate rhyming couplets? That's hating half of English verse.

I just don't seem to like it in popular songwriting, especially when there's rhyme but not really meter. It's too easy, what with about a triillion rhymes in English, so every halfwit that thinks he's a poet or a songwriter can throw together a series of rhymed couplets. If it's fit to an interesting meter, that's one thing, but if it's just basically a bunch of short sentences strung together with end rhymes, well, anybody can do that, but not very many people can do it well.

It's "Hurricane," not "The Story of Hurricane."

I stand corrected.

Leonard Cohen? Comparing Leonard Cohen to Bob Dylan is like comparing . . . Scorpions to Black Sabbath? Talk about ridiculous rhyme schemes and a true inability to sing a pitched note, portentous lyrics that mean nothing, and a very small catalog of important songs.

I'm going to respectfully disagree and also add that I perceive an empathy in his work that I find totally lacking in most of Dylan's. I'm not sure I'd go so far as unsane did, but I can definitely see where he's coming from and it's another thing that bothers me about Dylan. Cohen can be portentious in the way that he uses words and stuff, but he's also often subtly self-deprecating, as well.

Steve Earle often says Townes Van Zandt is/was the greatest American songwriter, and I am inclined to agree, although I actually think the honors go to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, in that order, followed by Dylan and Townes in a close tie for fourth.

I would probably agree with the general spirit of this while possibily quibbling with you over the exact ordering.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:34 AM on July 16, 2010


Steve Earle often says Townes Van Zandt is/was the greatest American songwriter, and I am inclined to agree, although I actually think the honors go to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, in that order, followed by Dylan and Townes in a close tie for fourth.

All great songwriters for sure, but in my opinion a list that doesn't include Irving Berlin in the top five is a bit too narrow in focus to be called "Greatest American Songwriters."
posted by Balonious Assault at 10:00 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


people who claim to have Absolute Pitch and therefore to be "disturbed" or feel "pain" caused by music that is out of tune are at best gilding the lily and at worst confusing two different experiences of pitched sound. Or in some cases they're just talking shit.

I have perfect color. I can only bear to look at Mondrian.
posted by anazgnos at 11:52 AM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


fourcheesemac: “My favorite Dylan song is "Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You," for the record. I love how he sings the comma in the title phrase.”

I just want to say that nothing comes even close to the way he does that song on the Rolling Thunder Revue record.

Also, this is probably my favorite cover anybody's ever done of a Bob Dylan tune. Scary shit, that.
posted by koeselitz at 1:36 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


fourcheesemac: “Steve Earle often says Townes Van Zandt is/was the greatest American songwriter, and I am inclined to agree, although I actually think the honors go to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, in that order, followed by Dylan and Townes in a close tie for fourth.”

These are great songwriters, but your top four reads more like a list of the four greatest white non-Jewish country/rock American songwriters than a list of the greatest American songwriters.
posted by koeselitz at 1:42 PM on July 16, 2010


I have no particular opinion on Townes Van Zandt as the only "song" of his that instantly comes to mind is his brilliant cover of the Stones' Dead Flowers (from the Big Liebowski soundtrack). But seriously, if his songwriting was really that insurmountably great, I suspect I'd at least be able to name one song that he's written, and I can't. I mean, I can name two Hoyt Axton songs.

As for Nelson, Haggard, Cash, I'm sure Mr. Zimmerman would rate them very high himself (and throw in Gordon Lightfoot as he has in the past). But better than Bob. I just can't go there. That's like saying the Kinks are better than the Beatles. Or more to the point, that Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly are better than the Beatles. We're all entitled to our opinions, of course, but I personally don't see the argument.
posted by philip-random at 2:20 PM on July 16, 2010


Pancho & Lefty?

I'd say Woody Guthrie, Cole Porter, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Gillian Welch. In that order. But that's just my opinion.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:50 PM on July 16, 2010


Pancho & Lefty?

Interestingly enough, I know this song from Hoyt Axton's version (which I quite like) on some throwaway cassette that ended up in my car years ago (it's also got his original of Never Been To Spain). I had no idea that Townes Van Zandt wrote it. Maybe there's another few dozen such gems out there that I'm mis-attributing ... but somehow I doubt it.

I mean ...

tombstone blues
can you please crawl out your window?
watching the river flow
like a rolling stone
Idiot Wind
It’s alright Ma I’m only bleeding
One more cup of coffee
Political World
Spanish Harlem Incident
Senor [tales of Yankee Power]
blowing in the wind
million dollar bash
this wheel’s on fire
desolation row ...

That's just a bunch of stuff that happens to be on my ipod right now. And I'd put any of those songs right up there with Pancho + Lefty for pure poetry, wit, resonance, and so on. I actually have no interest in tearing Van Zandt down, just in questioning any assertion that would casually rate him higher than Mr. Dylan, whose influence on the culture (mostly positive I would argue) is so pervasive by now, almost 50 years into his career, you might just term it integral.
posted by philip-random at 3:45 PM on July 16, 2010


That's like saying the Kinks are better than the Beatles.

for one album, the village green preservation society, i honestly believe they were better - and they were dead even with face to face and something else - unfortunately, before and after they were pretty spotty

but of course, we're avoiding the BIG debate of the sixties - were the stones better than the beatles?
posted by pyramid termite at 7:05 PM on July 16, 2010


pyramid termite: “but of course, we're avoiding the BIG debate of the sixties - were the stones better than the beatles?”

Of course not. Exile on Main Street wasn't released until 1972.
posted by koeselitz at 8:22 PM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


"America rules! Our Beatles are way better than your precious Rolling Stones!"
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:38 PM on July 16, 2010


were the stones better than the beatles?”

Stones were better when I was drinking.
Beatles were better when I was toking.

But that was the 1970s. I was just drinking Koolaid (the non-electric variety) in the 60s.
posted by philip-random at 10:54 PM on July 16, 2010


Nothing sucks the pleasure out of something like other people expecting you to do it.
posted by speicus at 12:46 AM on July 17, 2010


Slightly related: apparently Bob Dylan has again taken a new direction with his music.
posted by koeselitz at 11:47 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Kinks were always better than the Beatles. The Beatles have nothing to compare with Waterloo Sunset. Nothing.
posted by unSane at 5:16 AM on July 18, 2010


So one song (admittedly as perfect as pop gets) trumps everything the Beatles ever did? You did say "always".
posted by philip-random at 8:35 AM on July 18, 2010


Yep. Hey, my rules.
posted by unSane at 10:40 AM on July 18, 2010


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