Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#11)


Arriving now at #11. Find out who after the jump.

bobdylan1Wherever he was, Bob Dylan took it to the brink. He was the rebels’ rebel, the poets’ poet, the protesters’ protester. If you were doing something that he wanted to do, he went further, and likely made you look like an amateur fool for even trying. He took chances and razed conventions. He is the undeniable poet laureate of rock music. He managed to be a wandering troubadour and a pop superstar at the same time. His very name became its own musical genre. His importance cannot be understated and his career cannot be copied. There’s not much left unsaid about him; he’s simply immortal.

Once upon a time, I (somewhat inaccurately) decided that he rarely strayed far from folk/blues/rock roots, which is one of the reasons why he is so beloved, and one of the reasons why it took me so long to engross myself in his catalogue. In my youth, lacking an affinity for folk music and finding his distinctive nasal pierce to be rough going at great length, I viewed my elders’ fascination of Dylan with, well, perhaps not contempt but certainly a dismissive attitude that basically suggested, “That’s just music for old people who don’t know what they’re missing with this rebellious alternative rock stuff all the kids are goin’ crazy for.” Oh, to be so naïve. Oh, to be so daft.

I’m not suggesting that maturity is needed to appreciate Dylan’s restless talents, but I can’t imagine that anyone could immerse his or her self into his songs without feeling a little older, a little wiser. Whether as a restive, baby-faced upstart or a weathered veteran, he had an uncanny ability to use symbolism, vague imagery, metaphors, and elliptical progression to cut right to epiphanies of portent, honesty, grief and absolution. He could be slight and fidgety at times, but rarely to the point of wasted-time dismissal. Even Dylan’s most rigorous and devoted fanatics bobdylan7agree that he’s produced his share of “lesser” material, oftentimes in long stretches of his career between masterful outings, but Dylan wasn’t a studio man. Including his bootleg series, he has nearly fifty studio albums to his credit, but he is, was, and always will be a feverish touring performer, always on the road and always ready to share, entertain, enlighten and embolden.

With the rise of rock n’ roll, folk music seemed to be gasping a last breath by the start of the 60s, but a revival was underway and Robert Zimmerman came out at the perfect time to coincide with it. As a teen he was a rock n’ roll kid with a desire “to follow Little Richard,” but was soon after attracted to folk music for its deeper, more realistic message. So he ditched the electric guitar, picked up an acoustic one, and headed for New York. After signing with Columbia (who would release nearly every record he would ever produce), he changed his name to Bob Dylan and recorded his eponymous debut, comprised almost entirely of traditional songs and covers—needless to say, it didn’t exactly set the scene on fire. But inspired by topical folkies like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, he set out to make his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with nearly all original material, many of them protesting the likes of war, injustice, racism, and more. A star was on the rise.

By the release of The Times They Are A-Changin’, Dylan had developed a considerable fanbase (even if he’d still failed to become a hitmaker on the singles chart), and people were starting to call him the “voice of an entire generation.” Like Kurt Cobain three decades later, he was neither humbled nor inflated by such an honorific and responded by becoming even more iconoclastic and surreal—dressing wildly, letting his hair turn into a “comb’s nightmare,” and being tart, bobdylan2confrontational and evasive during interviews. His output reflected the same, with strange imagery, obscure verses, and cynicism dominating the songwriting. His faithful followed him through these “diversions” (which, admittedly, was producing some of his most intriguing and memorable work to date), but even the fanbase wouldn’t stand their folk hero plugging in. His infamous “going electric” appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 was greeted with outraged boos, though some argue that the catcalls came because of poor acoustics and reports that the set would be cut short. If it was a reaction to the type of guitar, I wonder how “faithful” those fans were—were they not paying attention to the first half of Bringing It All Back Home earlier that year?

Those in the folk community who criticized the move got their response in “Positively 4th Street,” and time favors Dylan, as Bringing It All Back Home began a year-long tear where no one else in popular music—not the Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, or anyone—was operating on his level. In addition to Home, Dylan gave the world Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, widely considered his two greatest masterpieces (in a catalog with a half dozen or more full-lengths that could make claim for such an aggrandizing designation). If not for the motorcycle accident in July of 1966, who knows where he could have gone.

But it wouldn’t have been in Dylan’s nature to keep feeding his audience the same “explosive” material that defined the mid-60s pinnacle. After more than a year of being reclusive following his recovery (of which he has acknowledged injury but that much of the seclusion was an attempt to bobdylan3escape the rigors and attention of being in the spotlight). He wouldn’t tour again for nearly a decade and he began producing lighter, looser, more country-tinged albums like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. It’s hard to dispute that as the 70s kicked off, Dylan hit a slump—with precious few live appearances and mostly banal material filling his records, many were quick to write off the folk rocker as being far past his prime and descending rapidly. He devised a few quality tunes during that period (such as “The Man in Me” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) but no consistently engaging albums—the fact that all five of his LPs in this span went Gold emphasized the artist’s stature and resonance even during feeble times. But in three fell swoops in the mid-70s, he leaped back on top: the release of his oft-bootlegged Basement Tapes with the Band and two original records, Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Though the latter is remembered best for its first two tracks that overshadow the rest (“Hurricane,” “Isis”), Blood is perhaps the only album since the 60s that can be seriously argued beyond individual personal taste as being his most lasting and powerful statement.

If his time in the 60s was the extent of his legacy, he’d still be a legend. If he had quit after Desire, he’d be one of the unequivocal all-time greats. But Dylan is Dylan, and nothing short of Grim Reaper’s callous touch is going to stop him. For twenty years, it seemed that pop music had moved past him, with punk and disco shuffling him out and the 80s’ fair weather fads and crassly commercial pop keeping him down. And when that alternative rock thing took off in the 90s, dumb little whippersnappers like myself had no interest in paying attention to the dinosaur. He wasn’t fading, but there was a hint of “cruising” in his studio efforts, with his most noticeable “efforts” being concerned with Christianity—which didn’t soar (Slow Train Coming)—and remaining viable—which worked only in considerate reflection (Oh Mercy). But then he pulled off that always rare, always impressive feat: a major comeback in the eyes of both critics and fans (as well as people who barely paid him heed before, ahem, ahem). Suddenly, the tirelessly rambling performer and bobdylan4studio quickie extraordinaire (or at his worst, hack job) was taking his time and awaiting inspiration. Discounting a Christmas record in 2009, he’s released only four albums since 1993, all of them better than nearly everything he’s done since Blood on the Tracks. All separated by three to five years, Dylan was no longer churning the stuff out, but concentrating on the craft and fine-tuning the songs—suddenly, a new album from ol’ Bob became an actual event in the large-scale music community again, some forty or so years after he first appeared—2006’s Modern Times even became his first #1 album in three decades. No one else has managed a “comeback” like that.

But Dylan probably hates that whole “comeback” tag as much as his “voice of the [yada yada ya-tever]” title. Who were these people to treat his occupation and body of work as something requiring a measuring stick and motivation of being a spokesperson, especially for a “pop musician”? He was the first popular music performer to win the Pulitzer Prize, and no sensible person can argue that he didn’t deserve it. Although he could crank out a solid hook, driving rhythm, snare kick that “sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” and wail like a beast on his harmonica, its his verbal monuments that he’s best known and loved for. No matter what one thinks of his work as a musical performer or even his most seemingly aimless and dreamlike phrases, there is no doubt that he’s a master of language as both a storyteller and poet (or, as he preferred, “trapeze artist”).

bobdylan5There are many people who consider Dylan to be the greatest lyricist in all of popular music. I sometimes hesitate to make the same bold claim (though its inarguable that he’s up there with the best), but there’s no doubt he was more critical to the development of verbal dynamic and thematic depth in rock music than anyone else by a huge margin. Before Dylan came along, rock n’ roll was sheltered by, “She rocks to the east, she rocks to the west, but she’s the girl that I know best,” and, “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain. Too much love drives a man insane”—fun, but it ain’t exactly deep and meaningful beyond catchphrases and hormones. But then Dylan shows up and takes the lyrical verses of the era’s folk music and starts twisting them, painting more colorful pictures and then blurring them like you’re getting closer and closer to a Seurat. It could have been enough just to let his abstractions pretzel the grey matter, but then the act of unraveling reveals hidden meanings, reasoned by the individual, wildly varied in each person’s account and interpretation, and just elusive enough to never bring dull focus to the smear.

He mastered Beat poetry and social commentary, he was accusatory and conciliatory in perfectly spaced breaths. He told of a war-ravaged place “where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten, where black is the color, where none is the number,” and he makes you believe you were in the thick of it. He says to “get born, keep warm, short pants, romance, learn to dance, get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success, please her, please him, buy gifts, don’t steal, don’t lift, twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift,” and you marvel at his cross-section of Pete Seeger folk and Jack Kerouac “slapdash” beat. He transposes Biblical references with depictions of a prostitute on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and he tributes Jeff Buckley in “Mississippi” while detailing phrases of universal esteem like, “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime could never do you justice in reason or rhyme.” His work could often contain allegorical references bobdylan6and religious allusions, especially when he became a born again Christian in the late-70s, but much of it could be appreciated even by non-believers. And people sometimes forget that he could also be downright hysterical, like on “I Shall Be Free No. 10” when he sings, “My telephone rang, it would not stop. It's President Kennedy calling me up. He said, 'My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?' I said, 'My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren.' Country'll grow.”

But that biggest point of contention in my deaf, dumb and blind youth was Dylan’s voice. Whether the rusty whine of his formative years or the cigarette-stained deep gravel of his modern sound (as David Bowie would describe on Hunky Dory, “a voice like sand and glue”), he lacked that “traditionally appealing” singing style. But for someone who inadvertently came to define the counter-culture movement, it’s fitting that he was so far from the standard harmonies of pop music. It was raw, heartfelt, defiantly un-regal, and filled with bottomless character. A habitually “pleasing” voice could not have sold his words. And whether he liked it or not, Bob Dylan was a salesman—a card, a cad, a trickster, a demon who had a way with words and merchandise that people bitterly craved. He brought it, we bought it. And if you have buyer’s remorse, I suggest you get a clue, kid.

Girl from the North Country
The Times They Are A-Changin’
North Country Blues
It Ain’t Me Babe
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Outlaw Blues
Positively 4th Street
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
I Want You
Just Like a Woman
Drifter’s Escape
Shelter from the Storm
If You See Her, Say Hello
Blind Willie McTell
Cold Irons Bound
Lonesome Days Blues
…and the album Highway 61 Revisited

Also endorsed: Joan Baez, Donovan, Ryan Adams

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Matt Medlock


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