The Freewheeler, revisited
Finding middle ground between the musicianship and the mythos of Dylan
With a new album and a new tour rolling into Sacramento this week, Bob Dylan’s name comes up rather frequently these days, and when it does, objectivity regularly gets trashed. I’m consistently amazed at the fawning, hyperbolic, pseudo-poetic fluff that gets passed off as critical discussion. A single disparaging word about Dylan invites tirades from offended myrmidons. Even a critic as esteemed as the New Yorker’s Louis Menand felt compelled to acknowledge, mostly in jest, that his “life may not be worth much” after he called some of Dylan’s lyrics “truly lame.”
Well, fans, the problem isn’t me or Dylan, it’s you. Fans, in general, suffer from an unwillingness to judge entertainment value and cultural status separately from musicianship, but there’s an important difference between the phrases “I like it” and “It’s good.” The safe haven of personal taste is, as Immanuel Kant astutely observed, the excuse “with which every tasteless person proposes to avoid blame.”
I believe Dylan is every bit the cultural icon—the embodiment of an era—that his fans, and most critics and historians, vociferously declare him to be. Instead, I take issue with the assumed impunity with which Dylan supporters weave uninformed paeans to his talent. I’m troubled by the need to “perpetuate the god myth,” as former Dylan girlfriend Suze Rotolo called it (that’s her on the cover of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan).
Dylan is a masterful songwriter, a skill born of his trenchant observation and his love of the form. Dylan is, despite his protests, a cultural touchstone. Dylan is a very good musician—but there’s the rub. Let’s be very clear: Putting aside his influence, when it comes to objectively evaluated musicianship, Dylan is very good and no more.
As a vocalist, the former Mr. Zimmerman’s tone and timbre—though hardly as bad as early critics proclaimed—are thin and inconsistent, but that’s offset by his impeccable phrasing. As a guitarist, he’s as solid a rhythm player as any troubadour should be, but for folk-guitar skills, look to his peers. He has little of Bert Jansch’s dexterity and none of Davy Graham’s broad technical palette. Dylan’s sound is very distinctive, but to declare that sound “great” is like taking comfort in a “great” case of cancer.
The irony here is that Dylan, older and wiser, seems far less impressed by the quality of some of his recordings than his fans are. “The record was an art form,” he told Jonathan Lethem in a recent Rolling Stone interview. “… Maybe I was never part of that art form, because my records were never artistic at all.” As to his legacy, Dylan’s own words often lie starkly in contrast to public opinion. In his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, he states quite unequivocally, “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.” An exaggeration perhaps, but his fans should take a lesson from Dylan’s humility.
Prejudicial examination exists when we ignore the evident in favor of the empiric. Defending our favorite artists means assuming we share their tastes, but as Menand recently pointed out, the musical tastes of musicians are typically much richer and varied than that of their fans. How many of Dylan’s fans hold a special place in their hearts for Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny”? Can’t we admit, all of us, that the music we revere too often becomes a fetish, adored not so much for what it is, but for what it represents? We expend so much energy defending the quality of our favorite musicians when we’re actually defending our own memories.
We need to remind ourselves that accurate examinations of influential artists, Dylan being but an example, accountings of their missteps as well as their triumphs, are more valuable than a cultural reliquary. Let’s concentrate on expanding our own cultural horizons and let the musicians defend themselves, if they even want to.