Voices: Bob Dylan at 70

I don’t remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan’s voice, but I remember the first time I listened.

I must have been 16 or 17, and the world inside my head and outside my door was changing, quickly. The album was “Bringing it all Back Home,” Dylan’s first foray into electric rock music and his first step outside the insular world of the early ‘60s folk scene, with its strict adherence to the past and its acolytes who had all but proclaimed him as their savior.

At the time, the music on that album was over 20-years-old, incomprehensibly ancient to most teenagers, myself included. But sitting in my parents living room that mid-summers night listening to the scarred vinyl disc spin out a series of strange, sad, funny and ominous songs, I was struck by something unfathomably ancient and utterly modern, by a voice speaking from the graveyard of history about the fate of the entire human endeavor. That voice was hypnotic, rude and angry; filled with joy and resigned to the ultimate sorrows of this world.

I was hooked.

In the months and years ahead I would track down every album, song, book, and reference to Dylan that I could find. Though his music would continue to change throughout his career—from harsh garage rock, to mellow country, to what I can only describe as gypsy-carnival folk—the one constant that remained through the years of musical and lyrical shape-shifting was the voice, that rarest of instruments that has been described as both masterful and tuneless, by turns grating and deeply moving.

It’s a voice as old as the first American settlers and as current as last week’s news of yet another politician caught in a snake pit of deception. In that voice I hear: boxcars, atomic bombs, coal mines, germ warfare, the silence of winter wind through bare western limbs, empathy, good humor, corrosive and irrational rage. In that voice I hear the weight of history and the abhorrence of being tied to the past.

For all the emphasis placed on his lyrics, I would argue that Dylan’s voice is the true core of his art. For someone who wrought such a revolutionary shift in popular music, his command of intonation and phrasing harks back to a much earlier era, when singers understood that the slightest shift of emphasis, the slurring of a vowel or pitch of a certain syllable, was crucial to the meaning of the song

On his early recordings, Dylan seemed to be channeling the spirits of Appalachian miners, Mississippi Delta sharecroppers, and Depression-era wanderers, reaching for a depth of experience and knowledge well beyond someone in his early 20’s. His phrasing was startling because it dispensed with the veneer of sophistication cultivated by most popular singers, and instead found inspiration in the regional dialects and intonations of the rural south and mid-west. It’s a remarkable contrast to the popular singers of today, who seem to be joined in a competition to sound increasingly juvenile and devoid of character.

Which isn’t to say that Dylan’s music lacks humor. On the contrary, a handful of the man’s songs contain some of the finest, laugh-out-loud moment in rock history. Songs such as “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” in which Dylan wakes up bald, naked, and senseless following a boat wreck, and later, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” which relates the fantasy saga of Melville’s Captain Ahab discovering America, are among the finest comedic songs in the English language. On both these songs Dylan can be heard laughing at his own words, a jokester doubled over at his own pranks. It’s a vein of humor that runs from Lenny Bruce to Mad Magazine; that recognizes and seeks to come to terms with the absolute absurdity of modern life.

Some of my favorite Dylan performances are also some of his most seemingly off-handed. On “Wedding Song,” from the sadly overlooked album Planet Waves, he sounds like a man who just wandered in after a hard night of drinking and sat down with his guitar, stringing together an incantation of bitterness and commitment as the first rays of dawn creep over the carpet. “What’s lost is lost, we can’t regain what went down in the flood, but happiness to me is you and I love you more than blood,” he sings in a ragged, Jewish hillbilly drawl.

That same spirit of informal abandon can be found in an earlier song, “Day of the Locusts,” from one of Dylan’s earliest “comeback” albums, the strange, wildly uneven New Morning. As the titular insects invade the campus of Princeton University, Dylan describes his combined jubilation and horror as he waits to pick up an honorary diploma with a drug-addled friend.

“Outside the gates the trucks were unloading,

The weather was hot, nearly 90 degrees,

The man standing next to me, his head was exploding,

Well, I was praying the pieces wouldn’t fall on me.”

When he finally escapes the surreal scene, headed for the Black Hills of Dakota with his lover, he does so with the voice of a man who’s made it out by the narrowest of margins, with his life, and more importantly dignity, in tact.  

Listening to Dylan’s finest albums, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, you can hear how his voice has inspired and guided the musicians he’s been lucky enough to work with, from guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Charlie McCoy, to members of the Band, who stuck by Dylan’s side through the bitterness of his first post-electric tour. In turn, you can hear Dylan give himself over to the pure sound of that inspiration, summoning the courage to let the music grow wild, to nearly get away from him; to follow that music and then command it to follow him, his words, his voice, and then to let it all go again, raging in glorious bursts of the here and now that mark his best work as rightfully among the best ever.

While I gloried in Dylan’s classic period stretching from the early 1960s to the mid- ‘70s, I joined most critics in dismissing much of his later work. After a long fallow period in the 1980s, I had virtually written Dylan off as a burned out casualty of the Me Decade. His music, lyrics and voice had grown thin, unpersuasive, without purpose.

But while Dylan’s muse has not always been faithful to his talent, his reemergence in the late ’90s as a scarred sage of love and doom has proven among the more inspirational musical resurrections of the last century.

Dylan’s voice has changed significantly over the years, culminating in an instrument ground down to its essence, constricted yet increasingly nuanced. Like jazz legend Billy Holiday, he’s managed to find new vocal crevices and shadows to explore even as he leaves behind some of the more elaborate tricks of his younger incarnation.

Echoes of the profound changes Dylan wrought in popular music are inescapable: Without his lyrical innovations the radio would still be awash in” moon-in June,” “I want to hold your hand” drivel. Locating his vocal influence, however, can be more challenging. You can hear echoes of it in the paranoid warbling of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke; in the hobo-blues of Tom Waits, and the angry, searching artistry of P.J. Harvey and the late Chris Whitley. While each of these artists are sonically dissimilar, they each share with Dylan the ability to inhabit a song to its core, to move beyond mere playacting and touch something in the listener that, were one so inclined, might be called the soul.

While it’s hard for me to imagine what Dylan, who turned 70 in May, could possibly mean to a teenager of today, my older, hopefully wiser self still feels that connection from several decades past. Instead of the young punk challenging the world and all its stale hypocrisies, what I now hear when I listen to Dylan is the perfect voice for these confused, end-of-days obsessed, dark ages.

In the end I believe the power of that voice is beyond talent, or training, or technique. I believe it’s a skill that’s more than a skill, unexplainable even to Dylan himself. Like the greatest American art it contains a mystery at its core that simply cannot be explained.

I, for one, will keep listening for as long as he cares to share that mystery.


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