Sunday, 8 February 2015


For reasons that are far too vague and uncontroversial to explain, I've never been 'into' Bob Dylan in the way people are 'into' Dylan. So I assumed I'd never write a piece about him, meaning of all the things I've ever written than make me sound like an arsehole, a Bob Dylan article wouldn't be one of them – because it is a fact that nobody has ever written anything about Dylan without sounding like an arsehole. No exceptions.

Anyway, that was well and fine, until I kind of realised that if I didn't write the review of Bob Dylan's Sinatra covers album Shadows in the Night for DiS then no-one would and long story short I have become obsessed with Dylan's voice and now I'm going to write an arsehole thing about Bob Dylan.

Basically, I wrote the review (here is a link in the interests of not looking ostentatiously humble) and I ended it by using my unparalleled grasp of rock trivia and referencing the time Dylan said 'I don't believe you' to a heckler, but I wanted to check I'd got the quote right so I looked it up on YouTube and HOLY FUCK I watched this…


…which I have maybe seen clips of before and is quite famous (I have a feeling that it's the Manchester 'Judas!' incident spliced into the actual live performance from the Royal Albert Hall show on the same tour) but I've certainly never watched all the way through and to reiterate HOLY FUCK. I have a semi-irrational aversion to watching online videos, partly because everything's so tinny and crappy, but this performance actually seems to work better with that – his voice is just totally fucking glorious, a wild foghorn so loud and rough and untamed that the tape can't record it properly, the top end is all battering ram crackle and it is indescribably exhilarating, by far and away the best live performance I have ever seen on a tiny video on my small laptop. It obviously helps that he was cool as fuck etcetera, but I think the two things that make it for me are the is the sheer, seething impoliteness of it, combined with a madly winning puppy dog enthusiasm… about 4.15 he starts bellowing through his cupped hands while bouncing up and down...  if his records sounded like that I would be writing arsehole essays like this all day every day.

And this fascinates me because while I have been long aware that his voice is a mess now, I didn't realise that he was so good back then. Which kind of makes the mess more fascinating. Seriously, look at this:

Or fuck me, in many ways much worse, this:

Now I am even less of a music expert than I am a theatre expert, but let's be clear about this: it is 100% objectively straight up bullshit to say that his voice sounds in any way good now. It is a gurgle, a deathrattle, enfeebled and sickly. On one level it seems remarkable to me that anyone could possibly fail to appreciate this fact – and on the off-chance this blog has acquired enough SEO for a random Dylan fan to accidentally read it: sorry buddy, it is a fact – and yet go and look at the comments under any of those videos, or an article like this, and you will find very angry people saying his voice sounds amazing, and that indeed the whole sound of it is the culmination of some sort of elaborate masterplan.

On the one hand, this is obviously just partisan silliness. His voice sounds shit, thin, hopelessly diminished: if he had released 'Like A Rolling Stone' in that style the first time around, the limited number of people that would have noticed would have told him to piss off. And let's be clear: there is absolutely no way that Bob Dylan wants to sound like that, because whatever else he is, Bob Dylan is not a fucking idiot.

And yet, and yet… the music Dylan DOES make with his horrible, ruined voice is probably almost as good as the psycho Dylan fans say it is - again, not necessarily my bag, but this, for instance, is something I can get on board with:

My theory after listening to loads and loads of Dylan to try and pinpoint when it all went to shit (he still has some frayed bottom end in 1989's Oh Mercy; 1990's Under the Red Sky is getting gurgly; 1992's Good As I Been To You is full gurgle) is that part of his appeal is his intrinsic tragedy. People like Neil Young and Springsteen have been essentially unaffected by the years; McCartney and Jagger have turned themselves into perfectly preserved theme park attraction versions of their old selves. Dylan, though, is touched by the intrinsic sadness of the fact that you hear not only the death of his '60s self in every ghastly, wheezing syllable, but worse than death: degradation, debasement, decay. He defiles his past every time he tackles one of his old songs. And yet he dusts himself off and makes music that is good, that is different: he is a triumph over adversity, and inspirational, but part of his triumph and inspiration is that he doesn't admit that he's fucked, maybe he doesn't even know he's fucked. And possibly his fans who won't admit he's fucked don't know either.

Sometimes looking in from the outside you want to shriek 'ARE YOU ALL EXTREMELY HIGH?STOP PRETENDING THIS IS NORMAL'.

But like the scene in T2 where Arnie says 'I know now why you cry,' I think I get it. And while Dylan fans may disagree with me, it is worth pointing out that Arnie never actually expands that thought and so it's in fact quite possible that he doesn't know why we cry. Yeah.

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