Some young people these days – people under 60 – have asked me, “What’s the big deal with Bob Dylan? What makes him so great?”
I can understand their questions because most haven’t heard a lot of Dylan songs, and others don’t like his singing voice.
I try to explain to young doubters why Dylan is so special. Here’s why:
• The brilliance of his lyrics in songs are often composed of utterly original blendings of street slang, intense poetry, biblical references and allusions to a wild profusion of sources (to name just some: card games, carnival images, politics, visual art, courtrooms, jails, storybook characters, outlaws, saints, the animal world, landscapes).
• His raw-but-evocative singing style. He’ll never make the Sunday choir, but his voice is perfectly suited to evoke the subtle nuances of the meanings and emotions in his songs.
• The staggering variety of musical genres he explored, absorbed and reconfigured, including his stunning marriage of folk with rock.
• His audacious way of thumbing his nose at convention, breaking the rules and making up his own time and again.
• His uncanny knack for expressing what’s “really” happening beneath the surface of society and in “reading” the future like a cranky, wise prophet.
• Last not least, (and this can’t be said about many singers-songwriters), Dylan’s songs have changed the way we see and react to the world around us. He is one of the most quoted writers since Shakespeare. I’ve long considered him a modern, hipster Shakespeare.
Music in the last century (at least popular music) can be divided into B.D. and A.D. (Before Dylan and After Dylan – post 1963). It’s a far cry from “Hot diggity, dog diggity, boom, what you do to me . . . “ (Hot Diggity, 1956, Perry Como) to “They’re selling postcards of the hanging; they’re painting the passports brown; the beauty parlor’s filled with sailors, the circus is in town . . . “ (Desolation Row, 1965, Dylan)
This is from a B.D. song, Little Deuce Coupe, 1962, Beach Boys.
“Well I’m not braggin’, babe, so don’t put me down
But I’ve got the fastest set of wheels in town
When something comes up to me he don’t even try
Cause if I had a set of wings, man, I know she could fly
She’s my little deuce coupe . . . “
Like many Beach Boys songs, that one’s a toe-tapping charmer, but it’s just about like every other pop tune of its time: sophomoric lyrics, teen-oriented, basically “bubble gum.”
Here’s a verse from a Dylan song, Highway 61 Revisited, 1965.
“Oh, God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’
Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’
God say ‘No.” Abe say ‘What?’
God say, ‘You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.’
Well, Abe says, ‘Where you want this killin’ done?’
God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’
That jaunty, nerve-jangling rock-blues gem showed a new, complex way of songwriting. Dylan alludes to the Bible’s Abraham-Isaac story, but he frames it in a startling “hip” modern context complete with street slang, with the third line echoing the rhythm of a “knock-knock-who’s-there?” joke. The song is sinister, but it’s couched in Dylan’s trademark sly, cheeky, hipster humor.
Here’s the opening from an A.D. song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, 1967, Procol Harum:
“We skipped the light fandango,
turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor.
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more.
The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away . . . “
That song’s kind of hushed, mysterious, surrealistic lyrics, evoking a post-midnight mood, are definitely influenced by Dylan. It’s similar to his breathtaking surreal hymn, Visions of Johanna, 1966.
In this A.D. world, a lot of music is obviously not influenced by Dylan, at least not directly, although some claim that even rap music can be traced way back to Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1964.
Diehard Dylan fans (dubbed “Bobsters” these days) know how difficult it is to explain or to summarize his achievements. Those songs, more than 1,000 of them thus far, are so original, so varied, so dazzling, so influential it takes the breath away. Suffice to say some of the very best songwriters-singers in the world wouldn’t be working their magic if a young Minnesota college drop-out hadn’t grabbed his guitar, bound for glory in Greenwich Village way back in 1959.