That wild mercury sound.
August 30, 2006 7:27 AM   Subscribe

"'It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.'" Louis Menand on the mercurial nature of Bob Dylan's interviews.
"Dylan's sound [is] 'very much like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire.'" Nat Hentoff's profile of Dylan for the New Yorker from 1964.
posted by OmieWise (32 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
tonight at KGB there's a "Dylan is teh shit" conference, with Remnick and Alex Ross and others
posted by matteo at 7:30 AM on August 30, 2006

and the Menand story's good but at this point references to that old Playboy "wild mercury sound" interview are beginning to sound stale
posted by matteo at 7:32 AM on August 30, 2006

“Now there’s this fame business. I know it’s going to go away. It has to. This so-called mass fame comes from people who get caught up in a thing for a while and buy the records. Then they stop. And when they stop, I won’t be famous anymore.”

Any day now.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:45 AM on August 30, 2006

A great Dylan moment! In case anyone's too lazy to click Alvy's link, here's the entire "interview":

DYLAN: This next number is a song I once did with the Band. You remember the Band, don’t you? It was on an album called Planet Waves. It sold twelve copies.


DYLAN: Get this guy outta here.
posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on August 30, 2006

I like the new album, although it lacks (thus far for me) a song as dominant as Mississippi.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:12 AM on August 30, 2006

I really like the idea of an interview with Bob Dylan being a game between what the interviewer wants to hear and what Dylan doesn't want to say . It's a fairly common dichotomy, but Dylan's capricious twisting and reporters trying to ground what he's saying is a pretty unique and fabulous, even if generally useless, collision of purposes.

Some very neat observations from Menand.

(FPP Workshop Note: Maybe I'm lame for not knowing the "metallic and gold" quote is Dylan's, but I was expecting a completely different article based on its implied attribution to Menand.)
posted by pokermonk at 8:31 AM on August 30, 2006

FWIW, I think the new album is fantastic, almost as good as Time Out of Mind, alternating great tunes with pretty damn good ones. Right now I'm partial to Working Man's Blues #2, Spirit on the Water, and When the Deal Goes Down, but that's bound to keep changing.
posted by muckster at 8:47 AM on August 30, 2006

The point at which I feel in love with Haruki Murakami's writing was when he described Dylan's voice as the sound of "standing at the window watching the rain” in Hard-Boiled Wonderland.

That pretty much sums it up for me. All other comparisons are spurious and odious.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 8:49 AM on August 30, 2006

posted by cenoxo at 8:52 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

That's a nice pic of David Spade. Where did you get it?
posted by maudlin at 9:33 AM on August 30, 2006

All of those comparisons are a bit overly-decorative for my taste. Dylan sounds a lot like someone who can't sing trying to sing. Because that's precisely what it is, even by his own admission.

If I remember correctly, he objected to calling himself a singer, preferring to call himself a storyteller who used music. Or something like that.

I remember an interview with him a few years ago where he said he could in no way ever write the songs he did back then again, and in fact, was not even sure how they were written in the first place. That he recognized there was no way to "recreate" what he had done in his youth.

I think that is an incredibly wise and mature approach for someone so iconic in the industry. For all I dislike his musical style, I really respect him for being what he was, for forging his own trail, even when his own fans were booing him.

So, I think he is a luminary of the musical world, just please don't make me listen to him.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:46 AM on August 30, 2006

Thanks OmieWise.

There is a tepid piece about the new album in Slate with a few song snips. It's impossible for me to tell my reaction. One thing I know is that new Dylan music needs/deserves repeated listenings...with full tracks.
posted by peacay at 9:59 AM on August 30, 2006

tepid piece --- the writing was tepid; the writer liked the album a lot.
posted by peacay at 10:02 AM on August 30, 2006

Orrrrr maybe I just should have used a different adjective.
posted by peacay at 10:03 AM on August 30, 2006

Dylan's voice is an affectation - stylized to fit his particular style. He actually did an album (Nashville Skyline) where he used his more normal register, but it didn't sell very well.

I understand that Dylan is an acquired taste for most people, but, at his best, there is no one (before or since) that can turn a musical phrase as well as he.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:04 AM on August 30, 2006

If I remember correctly, he objected to calling himself a singer, preferring to call himself a storyteller who used music. Or something like that.

That's interesting since I love his early singing style. And really, singing is just being able to carry a tune, and Dylan can definitely do that. If he meant that he can't sing in a traditionally pleasing tone, then yeah, but it's definitely more appealing to my ears than Neil Young's style, which grates me to no end.

But I haven't yet been able to get into much of Dylan's more recent work. For me the canon of Dylan is Bob Dyan, The Times They Are A-Changin', Bringing It All Back Home, and Blood on the Tracks.
posted by effwerd at 10:04 AM on August 30, 2006

I feel pretty neutral about the new Dylan LP, bordering on meh. Some of it's pretty, some of it's just too safe in light of his recent work.

Only really listened to it through once. Maybe it'll grow on me.

The newish Johnny Cash though? I'm likin' it.
posted by bardic at 11:28 AM on August 30, 2006

Song writing is a young man's game, a form of sexual display. It's absurd to expect an old dude to be churning out new songs. The biological motivation is gone. Now, there is the potential for spiritual motivation to take its place. Dylan's best post-"Blood on the Tracks" work is "Slow Train Coming" and some other of his Christian-phase works. But there seems to be a conspiracy afoot to pretend this episode (one of the most fascinating in his life) never happened. Louis Menand doesn't even mention it in his New Yorker piece.
posted by Faze at 12:12 PM on August 30, 2006

It's absurd to expect an old dude to be churning out new songs.
All I know is that I’m thrilled by your kiss,
I don’t know any more than this.
Po’ boy, pickin’ up sticks,
Build you a house out of mortar and bricks.
Po' Boy

Thank god he doesn't take advice from you.
posted by y2karl at 12:34 PM on August 30, 2006

OK, but he doesn't seem to take advice from his OMFGBOBSHITSDIAMONDS believers, either

and Faze has a point re: low Train Coming. the Christian phase work is indeed deeply fascinating
posted by matteo at 1:03 PM on August 30, 2006

Faze writes "Song writing is a young man's game, a form of sexual display."

I actually think that one of the things which most fascinates me about Dylan is that he's clearly given some thought to what he can an cannot do as a song writer now. His last three albums have been laconic and relaxed in a way that makes them seem very much like late work (see, maybe Edward Said's On Late Style). Before that he consciously went back to acoustic roots stuff, checking the influences (was that Good As I Been to You?). He's made a very intruiging set of choices, and expecially so when compared to the Stones, for instance.

I'm not sure that people really know what to do with the Christian years.
posted by OmieWise at 1:13 PM on August 30, 2006

Someone once said that covering Dylan is a great idea -- it's impossible to write better, and impossible to sing worse.
posted by danb at 1:36 PM on August 30, 2006

That someone was wrong. There's something in his diction. He is a lousy singer in the same way that Louis Armstrong is a lousy singer. Armstrong could make the flimisisest of songs seem deep. Though not at all in Armstrong's league as a singer--who is?--Dylan conveys a great deal of significance in his readings of his own lyrics. His readings of the songs are usually the deepest. Very few people succeed at conveying as much and most of those are people who have spent some time with him.
posted by y2karl at 1:57 PM on August 30, 2006

And a listen to his cover of Roscoe Holcomb's Moonshiner from the Bootleg Series, 1-3 ought to disabuse one from this 'Dylan can't sing' nonsense. He sings and then some on that one.
posted by y2karl at 2:04 PM on August 30, 2006

Holy crap y2karl, I was just going to post exactly the same thing about Moonshiner! It's what I play to all the disbelievers in my circle (which is pretty much my entire circle) when they say Dylan can't sing. That is amazing!
posted by onlyconnect at 2:22 PM on August 30, 2006

(Unless I got the idea from you from a previous mefi post and internalized it as my own. Then, not so amazing. Could have happened. If so, thanks - it's a beautiful song.)
posted by onlyconnect at 2:35 PM on August 30, 2006

In coralized form, here is Dylan's Moonshiner.
Which came from Jacob Sudol .
Of course, I posted this after downloading it myself...
posted by y2karl at 2:41 PM on August 30, 2006

He is a lousy singer in the same way that Louis Armstrong is a lousy singer.

That's an interesting observation y2karl. I've always been a fan of Armstrong whether he was singin' or blowin'.

You've given me something to reflect upon. Dammit.
posted by Ynoxas at 2:53 PM on August 30, 2006

I didn't really have much feeling for Bob Dylan until last October, when my dad showed me Don't Look Back. I found it fascinating just to watch Dylan."The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol" and "It's Allright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" struck me--hit me hard. It's kind of weird to fall desperately in love with an artist like Dylan for the first time at 31. I gush about Dylan to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, anyone who cares has already heard. I feel like a groupie who's been in a coma for 40 years. The upshot is that I've only just begun. I adore all of the 60s stuff, but I know there's so much more to explore.
posted by apis mellifera at 3:37 PM on August 30, 2006

y2karl: Well, I wasn't that someone, if it makes you feel any better. :) I used to bothered by the semi-atonal style he uses sometimes (e.g., Stuck Inside of Mobile...), but now I enjoy it as much as anything else.
posted by danb at 2:28 PM on August 31, 2006

Just for the record, Eyolf Østrem, proprietor of the now mirrored Dylanchords, where there is now a page of guitar tabs for Modern Times, has collected his blog articles into a creative commons pdf book, Things Twice, where, in Chapter Two, Beauty May Only Turn To Rust, he meditates on Dylan's singing voice:
'Dylan can't sing.'

90% of the Western population

'That boy's got a voice. Maybe he won't make it with his writing, but he can sing it. He can really sing it.'

Woody Guthrie

...Have a look at the Guthrie quotation at the top again:

He can really sing it.

It. Not just 'sing', but 'sing it'.

That little extra word turns this short statement from the dying hobo-poet into the most precise description of Dylan's art. Because to sing is not only about music, but, as Plato knew, and Josquin, and Monteverdi, and Dylan, it's about words too. It's about what you sing, what you project, what you express.

It is a commonplace among musicians to claim to be influenced by Dylan, but apart from a general desire to write meaningful lyrics, it is often difficult to see more precisely how this influence really comes through. And by taking only the style of writing, they miss half of the equation -- perhaps the most important part, for a singer, anyway. What makes Dylan so special, I believe, is not only his ability to shape words according to the 'disposition of the soul', but also to let this disposition come to expression, through the words, in a style which is shaped precisely to fit this expression. As with Monteverdi, this style will go beyond the requirements of the beautiful, of criteria of melodiousness, because Dylan's art is founded in a perfect symbiosis between lyrics and singing style.

And just as personal and individual as the perception that is expressed is the style: the symbiosis between lyrics and style includes the singer himself, in an identification between singer and song, so that when Dylan sings, we not only hear the song, we hear Dylan. This is most immediately evident in songs like 'Sara', where the singer is almost physically present in the song, but fundamentally it is just as true about 'Blowin' in the Wind', and just as irrelevant a perspective on a song like 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand'. What we hear is one individual's perspective on the world, and since it presumably is the same world we ourselves relate to, as we tear up grass somewhere else along the same train line, this perspective is potentially of vital importance -- far more so than some divine principle, long forgotten and well hidden in the kind of beauty that will, inevitably, only turn to rust.

This is precisely the point that Toby Richards-Carpenter made in his article in the previous issue of 'Judas!', where he compared Dylan with Paul McCartney: 'Bob Dylan owns his songs. The songs are his tools and he will use them as he likes. Paul McCartney, on the other hand, is the tool that 'Hey Jude' uses in order to get heard.
posted by y2karl at 11:20 AM on September 5, 2006

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