Crying In The Wilderness (I Could Have Told You… or Maybe Not?)

If you enter “Bob Dylan” in the Spanish Google search engine and you accidentally add a Z, for those random questions of life, the search engine itself immediately suggests the Spanish word “zurdo (left-handed).” Out of curiosity one follows the advice modern technology makes available and, unsuspectingly, a long list of entries appears before us. All of them relating to the lefty status of Mr. Dylan or mentioning the great Columbia Recording artist as one of the most famous lefties in history. Might look inconceivable, but the “Wanted Man” of 5,61 ft height is cited as such, among others, as might be the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, for instance, shamelessly. However, anyone who has ever seen him perform live or minimally familiar with Minnesota Minstrel figure, knows that this is kind of uncertain – at least when it comes to him as a performer. Bob Dylan is known to have been photographed signing with his left hand, so he must be ambidextrous, but he always played guitar with his right hand.  This is relevant today because I believe necessary to start the chronicle of this debate from the premise that there are false assertions that, being constantly repeated ad nauseum, they end perpetuating just as true.

But this accumulation of falsehoods about him is something that the American songwriter is used ever since. As he had already said in his sensational diatribe titled “Idiot Wind,” “They are planting stories in the press …” Another commonly accepted false judgment about Dylan is his vaunted disability to sing. Dylan himself complained about it in the speech he gave accepting his nomination as MusiCares person of the year.

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Bob Dylan accepts the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year award on stage at the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year show at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision/AP)

Why accuse him of having frog voice or, more recently, worn and broken by snuff abuse and not attack others like Tom Waits or Louis Armstrong? This, among other reasons, has not only led him to record an album performing old songs that Frank Sinatra made popular before, but to repeat the experience a second time and, if the rumors are confirmed, even undertake a third installment. There is no doubt that there is a clear intention to recover an old unequivocally American style with roots in the fertile ground of the purest tradition of the United States. Dylan does not conform to reassert itself as “crooner” but seems determined to show the world that he can sing the most melodic songs with that throaty voice of his, as tuned as anyone and so subtle and poignantly as the most gifted interpreters.

His work in these last 2 discs demonstrated so and it has been generally recognized by reporters and commentators. Sometimes they even came to proclaim that he had never sung so well.

Contrary to the resolution of our hero, it turns out that Bob Dylan has become 75 years old and a detractor flood that even advocates for a withdrawal time has become fashionable, as if the genius or creative will could be brought to an expiration date. Precisely because of his recent birthday a daring professional columnist devoted his thread in the New York Daily News to the famous composer with an infectious article entitled “At 75 Years Old, It’s Time For Burnt Out Bob Dylan to Retire.”

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Ignoring the pettiness and opportunism of shallow critics as this one of the New Yorker newspaper, I will focus on the funny heated debate I had a few weeks ago with an Italian colleague, well recognized as a huge Bob Dylan fan. My friend complained of the boredom which currently means attending a concert of his favorite artist, especially when he insists on singing those so hackneyed, oldies and to the naked eye so far from the creative restlessness the rest of his work always denoted.

This well docummented Italian fan commented that people attending Dylan recent concerts didn’t pay so much attention while he was singing the Sinatra tunes. He referred in particular to the debut of a new song the evening of the discussed concert. Many among the audience were walking around the venue, making phone calls, or eating lunch. But my collegue, commenting the video of Dylan doing for the first time ever on stage the cover “I Could Have Told You,” explained such behavior in a quite condescendent way saying “I see why this happens, this is lacking energy, charisma, interest, it doesn’t call for attention, it’s quite boring for real… even though that doesn’t mean you have to walk around the venue, make phone calls, or eat lunch.”

I had to say those were not there to see Bob Dylan. Who knows the reason why they bought tickets to attend a Dylan concert, but they didn’t show any respect for the artist themselves, anyway. Added that I didn’t know what he meant when talking about “boring” version, ’cause no doubt Dylan was singing his heart out right there and he was doing a pretty nice cover, perfectly in tune, loaded with emotion. Maybe not the most beautiful cover of his, from the batch of old Sinatra and Tin Pan Alley songs he has chosen recently, but quite a dignus performance, I believe.

An American woman entering the discussion replied, “It is a matter of taste. I don’t find this ballad boring at all, and I’m honestly mesmerized by Bob’s singing & the feeling he’s investing in the song. He sang many of these ‘Sinatra’ songs in Japan and his audience didn’t behave this way… same goes for many cities in Europe last fall. I think the problem is more an American culture / rudeness thing.” Though I don’t think it is just the Americans, it happens in some other countries here in Europe, as it happens in Spain. What is clear to me is that it has nothing to do with Dylan being boring or stirringly awesome.

Well, of course, boring is quite subjective. Though anything can be boring to you if you don’t pay the necessary attention to get into the subject the song is conveying. My partner disagreed there… as Bob’s music, voice, phrasing has always had a way to hook his attention, immediately, it’s a hook, he says, even on less interesting songs… “aburrido (boring)” was the word here, according to him, and not just he, but Dylan himself too. He said, “Obviously, I am the person who feels that way, but I just need to listen to other performances and that doesn’t happen, as it never did and never will… if I have to make an effort to get the spark, well… maybe the spark is not there…”

When I hear someone declare himself that he cannot get the spark on a certain performance that I loved I just have to say, “I am sorry for you, my friend.” You get it or you don’t. That’s it. As I said, to me it is never about what Dylan does, it is just the way he does it. This is the point when it comes to these covers Dylan does of the Sinatra songs. There’s to me as much energy, interest, feeling and emotion in Dylan’s heart and soul there, as it was when he was doing “Idiot Wind” in the “Hard Rain” performance. The difference is just the kind of energy, interest, feeling and emotion he displays now. He’s not anymore the one who was singing his rage out claiming for respect to his individuality. He’s already trying, as years gone by, to recover now the feelings of those days when he was a kid listening to the radio in the intimacy of his bedroom, listening to his mother singing the songs she used to sign while doing her homework back then. He’s just trying to recover the essential of his roots for all of us, because the essential in this life it is just in our memories of something like when we walked the streets holding our mother’s hand.

The critic fan would reply that it’s actually both things, what he does and how he does it, but he totally agreed with me, how he does it is super relevant. He had never been looking for the same from Bob, recognizing that evolution is a key element in his work. But he would never compare any of his recent covers to “Idiot Wind” neither. Why doing so if it’s about evolution? For him all this Sinatra galore is not historically proven anywhere, and he doesn’t know if Dylan’s mom used to sing these songs when he was young, but obviously he didn’t really care about. He would say that every time an artist throws something out he/she takes a responsibility. In fact, he thought, as many of these detractors do, that these songs are boring to him, even if they are not to Bob, in the first place, and, from his point of view, talking about this particular version of “I Could Have Told You” the performance is flat, on a flat song, and not because Bob Dylan he’s not 35 in Texas, but because it is flat, period. It is not even in, say, “Autumn Leaves'” league, or other “standards.” Then he was ending his paragraph with a kind of respectful sentence for those who still enjoyed this cover: “Glad you like it and others do too. To me it’s just an uninteresting song, sung with little interest by the man himself…”

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To be honest, I was comparing the kind of energy and motivation, not the performances, when mentioning “Idiot Wind” outstanding version of 1976 live album “Hard Rain”, ’cause being different they are of similar impact to me. I have no idea if Dylan’s mother was singing or not these songs, what I really mean is that Dylan is bringing them out from the back of his memory, from the old days when he was a kid and he used to listen to these and many other songs in the radio nights. I meant they really mean so much to him and he just wanted everybody else to pay attention to these songs, ’cause they have an essential truth in them that he may have thought is missing nowadays, or at least overlooked.

There was no much to say against, so my colleague answer was short: “Maybe you’re right, I don’t debate on that view/option.”

Using some sarcasm, I replied: “Maybe you are right from your side and I’m right from mine, maybe you and Bob Dylan are now just too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.”

As any intelligent Dylan fan would have told me, he stated: “Oh well, his power still hits me (and I don’t mean AMOUNT of energy), I wish a reset, a rethink and new inspiration… or othwerwise, can we think that everything he does is never possibly to be exposed to any critic?” My friend, still being consequent with his feelings, continued arguing: “I think he still has power and intensity and voice to sing songs, but for some reason he’s picking some that are boring to me (and to many others, if that matters) and he has left his power (of phrasing and improvising,) so sublime, on some shelf, along with his cruel weapons… war is probably over, he got some peace, good for him, less for his art… resending the same 50’s postcard, night after night, on a xerox, is not exactly the best ending for the Picasso of Rock, and bear with me, I don’t wish for any jaggerish performances here… flat repetition doesn’t really work for me. I know many will disagree but it is what it is…”

Yes -I told him- I know you, and I know what you meant. Many still agree with you, but I’m so glad Dylan is still alive and still doing what he feels he should! He just told everybody out there in this world he would never work in Maggie’s Farm no more. He’s being faithful to such statement and I really respect him for that, and feel committed myself to try to understand and get into the subject he conveys, now and forever. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any criticism anymore, I could criticize him for doing the wrong things, though I have come to a conclusion, he CANNOT be wrong, cause he’s true like ice, like fire. Whatever he does, in the moment he does, is signed and sealed with the occasional fury, disdain, passion, listlessness, sharpness, laziness, indolence, bitterness, faith or any other noble and authentic sentiment he may have at the very moment he is on stage. Being from an artist with the insightful mind and deep commitment to his work Dylan ever had, that means a torrent of emotions to me.

He knew where I was being weak and, as expected, he had the right answer: “That ‘Farm’ can’t be his own body of work, right? I’m glad too he is free to do what feels he should, never wanted anything different, but then again ‘he CANNOT be wrong’? 🙂 even though I know what you mean with the words that follow, well… I think that supporting that couldn’t be useful to any artist in the world, but you know that, even without me stating the obvious…”

No, mate -I excused myself- I was being sarcastic, with those capital letters word. It was just a boutade. Of course he can be wrong, and yes, he’s wrong indeed, at least from your point of view, and there is a lot of things we could criticize, such as not changing the setlist at all anymore. As for that “Farm” I was referring to other people wanting him to do what they expect him to do… “They say ‘Sing!’ and I get bored.” And no, not every artist in this world remains faithful to its own feelings. Not everybody is so true… Many have even recognized they do it for the money or are clearly sold themselves to multinationals or any other economical interests. But once again, regarding the static setlists, nobody criticized Paul Simon, Paul McCartney or most performing artists for doing exactly the same show night after night. Why we must expect him to do what he always did? And yes, he might choose a setlist including new vibrant arrangements of the old songs, covers of amazing songs he never did before, as he did in the early 90’s, or even new songs he never performed yet, such as “Life Is Hard”, from “Together Through Life” album or some abreviated versions of “Tin Angel” or “Titanic” (I mean “Tempest” title song)… But why should he do that being 75, endlessly hitting the road since 1988 and already being the Living Legend he is in his own right?

As an example, Paul Simon declared on his last interview that he’s thinking about retirement once the present tour promoting his new album is done. Said that it is tiresome and declared that the showbusiness has no interest for him anymore. No doubt, being still on the road requires some strength and willingness at a certain age.

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But when it comes to Dylan, I think there’s still a lot he can do and what he’s doing is good for me. He can still get some stirring feelings out of my guts and he does that singing the way he did “That Lucky Old Sun” in San Sebastian, Spain, last year, or this one of “I Could Have Told You” the other day.

My good opponent threw me the following answer: “We all do say ‘Sing!’ – you too.” And more: “Everything is possible. Or not. I don’t really care to call other names, like the two Paul you mentioned, indeed we are exchanging opinions in a Bob group, not anywhere else, and why should we ask him to do what he always did, let’s say being an expeditioner? Wasn’t that what he said in ‘No Direction Home’ docummentary? Expeditioner, right? I don’t know. Why should we expect him to be what he is? We should not, if you put it that way, but we don’t really sit at his table giving him tips. We, instead, participate to a virtual roundtable, discussing art and passion. He actually caged himself in this Sinatra and xeroxing practice (not only the setlists but the phrasing, accents, stresses, nuances, colors.) So what’s the point of asking that?” (I think he refers to my question about why expect him -Bob- to do the same he always did) “What’s the point of being active in communities (online and not)? What if not speaking our minds without, though, looking for ‘alibis’ (you know what I mean) in other artists pattern? To me it is stimulating when we -passionates- exchange opinions, but I wouldn’t abandon his recorded (pun intended) history to evaluate the present.”

Then he asked himself: “Why xeroxing, which is the exact opposite of what his human/artistic/creative history tells us and the world? That, I don’t know and wonder… it has nothing to do with what he is or has been, I don’t care if there have been other phases when the setlists were stuck, I could articulate why it is different, but it’s a long story, we all know it was different… and the paradox is: HE IS doing what we expect him to do, now more than ever! …and I’m not joking unfortunately… night after night, since almost 3 years now… we could even -ironically- add ‘sing, and I get bored.’ I’m being a pain in the ass, I know…” Then he laughed out loud.

At this point I could only say: “Oh well, I think there’s no argument I could use. It is just the way it is. He does what he does… Whatever you may call it. And no, I never expected him to do 2 consecutive albums on old Sinatra stuff or any Christmas recording. I could never expect him to become the amazing crooner he has become. And I didn’t want that. But now that he did, I am grateful he did, ’cause he renewed himself in a very unexpected way and made me discover songs and emotions I never thought I could be aware of.”

Then my colleague tried to rebut my words and make me understand that this style chosen by Dylan is nothing new for him: “He was crooning already in 1961, and he was already amazing, we have tapes to proove it… not to mention the crooning in 1969-71” He smiled, and added, to be kind, though ironically, I guess: “I’m glad you find emotions you thought you could never be aware of, if that works for you, that’s all that matters.”

I had to admit: “Yes, he was crooning, but never the way Bing Crosby or Dean Martin used to do”

But he replies: “Really? what about ‘When I Got Troubles’ – 1959, I think you have it, right?”

To me it is quite clear, so I defend my point of view: “It was a different performing concept, I believe… He did never sing this way before, until he covered Dean Martin ‘Return To Me’… And it looks like he found a new mine to explore. Don’t you think he’s still being an expeditioner when doing these 2 albums, performing them in the quality he’s doing with such emotional load and carefully tuned?”

The disenchanted fan still argues: “No, I think his unique way to dig emotions is getting lost when he phrases that close to those original recordings, I think the emotions he can stir in me get lost when he’s not singing the way he can, with his unique style, which makes his the most emotional voice of the century, in line with such Billie Holiday and people of that dimension. Sinatra is empty and not interesting… I am not looking for a bel canto, it wasn’t that different, check that one, maybe you don’t remember it properly? Or maybe ‘The Two Sisters’, 1960? I’m serious, it wasn’t a different performing concept at all… it was a different voice, a different age, carrying more illusions maybe, but the approach was really that one… he could sing the irish way, folkie, bluesy, country, ballads, he could croon, yodel, already at 20. He sings at 19/20 a few songs with the very exact voice he delivers on Nashville Skyline. The Wallace Tape already proves all that.”

I absolutely disagree with him on that, though I didn’t want to make a thesis (I’m smiling right now), so I just replied: “Can’t say anything else about that, my friend. It is beyond my understanding to find the necessary arguments, if there’s any. He does it in a way that you feel boring? Nothing I could do to help you out of such conviction. You think his approach to songs like ‘Remember Me’ or ‘When I Got Troubles’ in 1959 (or to the covers he did in Nashville Skyline era) was the same as the one he’s applying now to these songs? I can’t believe you! But, anyway, I can’t help, that’s your own perception. I think he has gone a further step since he started his commitment with this old material, since he decided to do a DJ work on TTRH (Theme Time Radio Hour). He has actually changed, cause as he stated, he used to care, but Things Have Changed.”

Now my opponent defends his view: “I’m not saying it is EXACTLY the same, I’m stating that crooning is not something that was forbidden to him, he had already access to that dimension more than half of a century ago, which means he is a natural, BUT he was using his unique style back then (and up ’til recently), while now, this Sinatra stuff is really impersonal and moreover repetition, in absence of his ‘personal voice,’ and so the vital flow that improvising has always been to him won’t achieve any better… but if approach means age, if it means that now he can ‘feel’ more those standards because now that he hit that age, well… I’ll stand and say NO (smile) that doesn’t implicitely adds value to his singing (hence the 1958-60 material reference), someone has to explain me where this further step is, and not intellectually, emotionally instead… indeed the improvising in the singing is vital force, has always been to him, like a well to draw fresh water from. It’s not weird, muses and all that, it was fire running through. It’s not accidentally that no more improvising overlaps with a lack of emotions, as the mastering skills are ruling now. He can totally control his voice and sing ‘perfectly’, which critics always thought it was impossible for him. Now he’s showing them he really can, and he’s doing it every single night… but there’s a price to pay. I’m not saying anything bizarre, I think…”

No, you are not saying anything bizarre, but the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind: “You have already explained yourself what I was unable to explain myself. Yes, he has a quite different approach, he’s NOT using his unique style anymore, he’s trying to apply the mastering skills others like Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Dean Martin achived, but he’s doing so in the gloom of his personal vision, making them songs his own stuff when they were once as popular as if they were public domain, and of course his personal vision has to do with his present age and the way he looks at the world now, with the wisdom and experience he has got over the years. That’s the new approach, the further step he took.”

The Italian fan answer was: “That doesn’t really work for me nor make me happy, haha”

And I wanted to clarify first: “As always, Dylan is much better performer and artist when he becomes intimate, when he talks about his own feelings, personalizing the speech.”

Then I replied to him: “Hahaha, my friend, that’s a different question.”

Adding the following end to our debate: “But you must agree with me, he’s taking away from those songs the pattern of ‘popular’ stuff, in the worse sense of the term, songs that were probably sounding too cheesy and are now getting deeper in his voice and what you call ‘xerocopied’ style.”

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I should explain here that Dylan may have always sung romantic ballads or any kind of popular melodies, he could certainly undertake any style he wanted, but the way he did, even more in the Nashville Skyline era, had nothing to do with the authority, the testimonial seriousness and insightful depth of the current performances. He treats them, the Sinatra songs, as real dramas, to the point to even become melodramatic, but still keeping them within the limits of the in-depth range of Dylan’s vision. I believe these 2 last albums are actually as relevant and committed to the heritage of the human kind as “Tempest” was.

Fortunately, I am not the only one to find his live performances of this old material profound, emotional and engaging. At the Rogovoy Report (A compendium of cultural news and observations by Seth Rogovoy) in his review of the Tanglewood, Stockbridge, MA show from July 2th, 2016 which he entitled “Behind Every Beautiful Thing There’s Some Kind Of Pain,” Rogovoy wrote that the show “was a profound work of music-theatre that relied less on his setlist and more on the moods his particular song choices evoked.” And a few lines below he stated, “But those who simply opened themselves up to what was happening in the here-and-now were repaid with a concert that was as fierce and engaging as any a Dylan fan has ever likely witnessed.” Later on, talking about the pre-rock stuff, such as “The Night We Called It A Day,” “Melancholy Mood,” and “How Deep Is the Ocean?” among others, he declares “Those songs, interspersed as they were for the most part in between original songs… sung with surprising beauty and delicay, served more as a bit of lightness and relief after the devastating blows, the prophetic raging, the accounts of apocalyptic violence and the musical thunder of tunes including ‘Pay In Blood,’ and more …portraying a scarred battlefield of humanity betrayed, sung in a voice desolated and torn.”

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Bob Dylan Tanglewood, Stockbridge, MA July 2th, 2016

These two last Dylan albums, are then not a mere Frank Sinatra tribute but more a tribute to the men who wrote those songs, as Rogovoy says. The legendary songwriter “staking a claim for them as his own, as tunes written by men just like him who found betrayal in every promise, who behind every victory found deceit, who know that ‘behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain’.” In fact, if we think about the titles of both albums, “Shadows In The Night” and “Fallen Angels,” we realize they are both about the obscure side of life, betrayal, lost souls and desolation angels. And whatever they mean for Bob Dylan himself, both of them have him crying in the wilderness.

The Hipnotist Collector

Bibliography:

Kuntzman, Gersh (May 24, 2016) At 75 Years Old, It’s Time For Burnt Out Bob Dylan to Retire. Retrieved July 2, 2016 from  http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music/75-years-old-time-burnt-bob-dylan-retire-article-1.2647932

Dwyer, Jim – The New York Times (June 28, 2016) Could This Be the End of Paul Simon’s Rhymin’? Retrieved July 4, 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/nyregion/paul-simon-retirement-stranger-to-stranger.html

Rogovoy, Seth (July 2, 2016) (Concert Review) Behind Every Beautiful Thing There’s Some Kind of Pain: Bob Dylan, Tanglewood, 7.2.16. Retrieved July 4, 2016 from http://rogovoyreport.com/2016/07/04/bob-dylan-tanglewood-review-seth-rogovoy/

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