Wednesday 28 September 2016

Bob Dylan: 75 years of total misunderstandings

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan

They used to say that Bob Dylan wasn't as good as Keats or Shelley. Some academic would embark on a 'study' which would take the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs and place them alongside the works of the great poets, proving beyond any reasonable doubt that the little man from Minnesota wasn't really up there with the giants of the game.

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This would then be reported in the papers, as if some higher authority had now spoken, and the matter could be laid to rest - Dylan was just putting out a slightly superior brand of 'pop' music, and if his words could be called poetry at all, they were inherently inferior to anything which might be taught in a university.

Now that Dylan has just turned 75, and they're talking about dedicating whole departments of universities to the study of his ouevre, we are starting to get some sense of the magnitude of all that bourgeois foolishness.

But really, a child could have told them, that it was a false comparison in the first place, because Dylan was not a 'poet', he was also a singer and a guitar player - and he was often accompanied by a band.

So, if he had intended his words to be the sole expression of his art, he would not have added these musical embellishments. Yes, a mere child could have led these learned men to this higher understanding.

And by the way, if there is any validity to such comparisons, you've got to say that Dylan is, in fact, unquestionably a greater artist than Keats or Shelley, because when you add it all up, his 'poems' just sound more beautiful - what with the singing and the playing and so forth, which the professors apparently had not considered when they originally pronounced on this matter.

So, at the end of this week of celebration, we should consider more deeply one of these apparently simple propositions which, for all that simplicity, has received very little attention during the 75 years of Bob Dylan.

Indeed, it was left to Dylan himself to articulate it most accurately, when he told Nat Hentoff in an interview in 1966 that he felt he was as good a singer as Caruso, saying: "I happen to be just as good as him - a good singer. You have to listen closely, but I hit all those notes. And I can hold my breath three times as long as I want to."

In one account of the interview, this is described as "a cryptic joke" which Dylan threw in at the end, as if Dylan would joke about something like that, something which pertains so fundamentally to the nature of his talent.

No, I don't think he was joking about that at all, cryptically or otherwise.

Like Oscar Wilde, he had a profound understanding of the idea that most of us are wrong about everything, most of the time, and that the easiest way to arrive at the truth is to turn everything upside down.

Dylan, whose singing is often denigrated and even used as an example of how a 'non-singer' can succeed, was no more joking about the actual greatness of his singing than Wilde was joking when he said that he had nothing to declare but his genius.

Certainly, there is a widespread acceptance that Dylan's voice has been 'distinctive', that you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard it. Yet so few have gone on to extrapolate from this the notion that this may be due to the fact that he is very, very good singer - maybe even a great one.

We accept his greatness in most other ways - as a songwriter, a visionary, a star - yet we can be quite dismissive of the voice which delivered all that.

A friend of mine who doesn't actually like Dylan all that much, but who has some respect for some of his songs, which he believes were performed much better by 'proper singers', once said: "Dylan made a few half-decent demos for other people, that's all."

Personally, I would go with Dylan on this, agreeing with him that his voice is a magnificent instrument, that it was not just his songs which separated him from the 100,000 other folk singers who were trying to catch a break in New York in the early 1960s.

But, for once, it is not my view which is the most important here - it is Dylan himself I am thinking of, and the way that this one element can direct us towards a wider understanding.

Because if you are Bob Dylan, and you think you are a singer as good as Caruso - indeed you know you are as good as Caruso, pound for pound - and for all these years you've had to listen to allegedly smart people saying that you're hardly a singer at all, that you sound, indeed, like "a dog with his leg caught in a barbed wire fence", it would probably confirm any ideas you already had about the wisdom of listening to public opinion - or private opinion, if it comes to that.

And it helps to explain why he has made himself so elusive to the multitudes as we try in vain to know the man.

All that matters is that he knows us.

The Ponzi Man, the new novel by Declan Lynch, published by Hachette Ireland, is out now.

Sunday Independent

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