Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Listen: Bob Dylan

Nobody ever questions my taste in music when I wax poetic about The Beatles. You'd be hard pressed to find anybody of normal intelligence that has not at least heard the name. And yet, when I then go on to talk about Bob Dylan, a lot of people just shut down. 


This is probably, "why."

Well, the main critique of Dylan is his voice. Really, I can't argue with that, because it's not everybody's cup of tea. Even at 21, Bob kinda sounds like an old man. He's got a very midwestern nasal sound that eventually drips into this liquid ghost feel. And then he sounds like Kermit the Frog. And then he sounds like he's congested. Much later, his voice sounds like it's being fucked with rocks. 

Of course, these complaints are usually followed by an additional, more positive statement about his lyrics. "The man's a poet/genius/prophet, but he can't sing." This is ultimately where I have the problem. You'd think that if common opinion was correct, that this one guy from Minnesota was such an awful singer, he wouldn't be able to maintain a record contract for two years, let alone 60. Thankfully, popular opinion is often worthless, so by September 2012, Dylan will have released 35 studio albums.

So let's pretend you're actually interested in getting into this guy, but you're timid, afraid, almost...English. Well, fear not, Chairman Jmao's got you covered. 

Before I get into the meat of this "how to," I'm going explain how I got into Dylan.

I grew up mostly in small towns. I was born in New Hampton, Iowa, a town of 6,000 people. When I was 7, I moved to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a town ten times that size, but compared to a lot of other places, it was still nothing. Small towns are quaint, and I'll probably retire in a small town to harrass the children, but when it comes to music options, you're kinda fucked. From the mid-to-late 80's, we had records, tapes, and radio. In the 90's, we had CDs, tapes, and radio. In a small town, those are your options, and there not being many music stores from which to procure this music, you kinda had to just wait on the radio. I grew up listening to a lot of 80's pop and heavy metal from my two sisters and my brother. But for some reason, I never cared about Metallica or Guns-N-Roses. It didn't reach me the way it reached my brother. Searching for a musical identity was difficult. My parents listened to folk music, but not a lot of it, so I was kinda left with Peter, Paul, and Mary, and that's not going to give anyone ANY cool points.

"Puff, puff, pass, nigga!"
They did, however, have some various "one hit wonder" tapes with music from the 50's. I couldn't get into all of it but there was one song that just kept blowing my mind. It told the story of a gambler that felt that he got cheated as a result of losing his new hat. Despite the other gambler's insistence that no wrong had been committed, the first man shot him so many times that it broke the bartender's glasses behind him. The song, of course, is "Stagger Lee" by Lloyd Price.

The music is infectious, but it was the story that captivated me. I didn't want to dance so much as watch the events in this song unfold and write them down myself, just to prove that it really happened. I was 8, so I didn't know a lot about hyperbole, but a man that gets his ass capped enough times to create a hole so other bullets can pass through and destroy other things behind him sounds like he really pissed somebody off. I got that much, at least.

That song alone started off my obsession with what us Yankees call, "the oldies." There is a longer name, but it's dumber than, "the oldies," so I'm just going to stick with what I originally wrote. I discovered so much music that blew my little mind in so many ways. I then found the Beatles and a much longer list of lesser bands from the 50's and 60's.

Of course, this is about the time that Nirvana started to make it really big. The video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was constantly playing on MTV. Then Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, and the safer rock of Collective Soul, Soul Asylum, and the Gin Blossoms started hitting the airwaves. I kind of absorbed it all, all the while continuing to listen to the oldies, and most especially, The Beatles.

I can't really tell you where I first saw or heard of Bob Dylan, but it could easily have been "The Concert for the Prince's Trust," on HBO. I saw a picture of an old man, huddled over the microphone, just doing something. Maybe singing. I wasn't quite sure.

It wasn't really until 1998, when I was 16, that I saw Bob Dylan. Radiohead's OK Computer was up for a Grammy Award for Best Album. So was Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. For those of you who weren't watching, this was the now infamous "Soy Bomb" performance. While Dylan was singing a brooding, anti-love song, a man in pants runs up on stage and begins to gyrate and pump. On his chest, written in green paint: "Soy Bomb." Nobody knew what was going on. Even Dylan just kinda looked out of the corner of his eye and went with it. I'm still not sure if it was entirely deserved, but Dylan won the Grammy for Best Album that year. So I guess that was what set it off. Thanks, "Soy Bomb" guy.

Getting into Dylan was difficult, because I had no idea where to start. The first album seemed like the logical choice, but I didn't recognize any songs of his, so I went with Greatest Hits, Volume I. In retrospect, I could have done much better with a few other albums, so to help you, dear reader, here is a list of great ways to start off with some Dylan.

1. Chronologically

This is obviously the easiest way to start, just diving in. You really only have to get through one really folky album before you hit The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which has some of his most amazing songs. Be warned, though. You won't get electricity until 1964's Another Side of Bob Dylan, which is Dylan's first anti-album, and his first attempt to cast of the "folk singer" moniker he'd been lassoed with. From then on, it's pretty smooth sailing until you get to 1969's Nashville Skyline, which is a pretty tame adventure in country western-style lyrics. 

For the first-time listener, the 60's is a daunting task. It's not until 1974-1976 that you get the next truly mind-blowing albums, and that's about 15 albums so far. So for now, let's stop here and review some of our other options.

2. The Greatest Hits

Any artist that's had such a lengthy run is bound to have some decent "Greatest Hits" releases that encapsulate his music. For many artists, that's true. Styx. You can pretty much sum up Styx in a greatest hits album. The same is true for a lot of 50's and 60's artists whose main source of income came mostly through the sales of singles. You can't do it with the Beatles, though, and you can't do it with Dylan either.

Greatest Hits, Volume I

This greatest hits has three songs from three consecutive albums (skipping, of course, his first album), and then everything else is from 1965-1966. There are so many great songs that get passed over on this release, so I'd pass it over, too. It's a waste of money and time, with the exception of "Positively 4th Street," but you can get that elsewhere.

Greatest Hits, Volume II

If you were to get one Dylan "Greatest Hits," this is the one to get. There are so many great songs from a much wider timespan. I can still listen to this "album" on its own.

Greatest Hits, Volume III

This is kind of a difficult one. It was the fourth Dylan release I got when I was younger, and it covers a later time period, from "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," through Dylan's divorce and Christian albums to his somewhat shitty 80's albums. Still, there are some great tracks on it if you're not really interested in delving into the darkness that comes after Street Legal.

3. Dylan by "Genre"

Aside from the last option, this is probably the best way to go. You want to "get" Dylan, but you don't want to invest money and time into every single thing right away. Why? Because Dylan's a bit of a chameleon. He strays from one musical territory into another in the span of a couple albums. Just when you think you have him pegged, you don't. There's a great way to do this chronologically, too:

Folk: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin'

Rock: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde

Divorce: Blood on the Tracks, Desire

Christian: Slow Train Coming, Saved

80's: Infidels

Old Folk: Good As I Been to You

"Song and Dance Man": Time out of Mind, "Love and Theft", Modern Times

4. The Best Live Rock Performance Ever Captured

You might be thinking, "Jesus, 14 albums!? Are you out of your goddamn mind?"

Yes. Yes I am.

But that's neither here nor there as I can pretty much give you one more option that you can absorb for a while. It is:

This, to me, is pretty much the ultimate Bob Dylan experience. Sure, he's not as "folksy" as he was back in 1963, but this is a concert experience I constantly come back to. 

The first disc is just him and a guitar, which you might think is pretty lame. Yet, when you listen, it's hypnotizing. The man has serious breath control. It's astonishing how he can project the images of his lyrics into your mind and consciousness just with his rhythm. 

The second disc is just balls-out rock and roll. Same concert. And it is because of this "new electric sound," that drives the audience against him. Close to the end, just before the band kicks into "Like A Rolling Stone," listen to an audience member call him, "Judas," just before Bob responds to his own band, "Play fuckin' loud." 

This album is less of a concert than an experience.

Again, Dylan's not for everybody. There's not one thing I can convince you of that will make you like his music the way I do. Say, for instance, you appreciate Eminem more than Woody Guthrie. The closest Dylan ever got to hip-hop, aside from his love of Public Enemy (I'm totally not kidding, either) was two songs from 1965: "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and, "It's Alright, Ma, I'm Only Bleeding."

Now tell me that's not some proto-hip-hop.

Now if you'll excuse me. A nob has stolen my shirt, and I must laugh to get it back.