Never Just One Thing, Part V: Don't Overlook Dylan's Musicality

When I wrote about Idiot Wind in the last Dylan post I analyzed just the words and presented them on the page. Like poetry. But really, the words are inseparable from the music, and the depth of the impact those words have had on me are directly related to the strength of both the melody and Dylan's vocal performance. Dylan certainly emphasized this point in his lecture when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was under no delusion that what he produces is poetry. What he produces is songs. And they work on the mind and being and spirit in a wholly unique way. Indeed, if the only way I had ever encountered Idiot Wind was on the page, I probably would have read it and moved on. The song form helps you to stick with verse and internalize it.

Consider these the lines from Idiot Wind: Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy / I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory /And all your ragin’ glory. When I wrote about them in that last post I definitely was hearing in my head the way Dylan exclaims the first line and drags out the last. Let's pause here. There likely has not been another singer who draws out so many implications and makes so many insinuations with his tone and phrasing. Sure, the style became easy to parody, but that's only because it is so utterly distinctive. And for the most part, I would say, he avoided becoming a parody of himself. This is because he kept changing. It's fun sport to identify how many "Dylan voices" there have been. The early Woody disciple, the peak mid-60s voice blending scorn, Zen, and surreal whimsy, the country voice of the Woodstock years, the pure Dylan voice of the 70s, the soulful, jazzy singer of the gospel and Infidels period, the grizzled bluesman voice of the later years (which, I confess, tests my limits). And I don't think I got them all. Let me just pause and say that I think his singing on Infidels is the best of his career, approaching, as I suggested, the sophistication of a jazz singer. So much pliability and imagination. 

Also, like a jazz musician, Dylan is always changing up the way he approaches a song. For example, there are many outtakes from the Blood on the Tracks sessions, but for years there was one alternative version of Idiot Wind that was a very popular bootleg. It was somber and reflective instead of raging and accusative. There was no way to choose which one was better. In his recent book, Philosophy of Modern Song, he made sure to emphasize this: that a good song can can be done any number of ways, in any number of styles, at any speed. Considering what a craftsman of song he is, it's amazing how devoted he is to multiplicity of performance. The truth is that I don't think he thinks in terms of there being such thing as a definitive version of a song, which is why his bootlegs and outtakes tend to be as good or better than what went on the album. Speaking of which, I don't get the sense that Dylan is really that focused on making perfect records. I think that for the most part he knocks out a bunch of songs that he thinks go together well and make the point he wants to make and moves on. People have always been mystified why he left Blind Wille McTell off of Infidels, considering it's a better song than any of the ones on the album. But he just doesn't think that way about recordings. 

Another jazz-like habit -- or at least his habit during his early peak in the 60s -- is that in the studio he will only do single takes of a song, all the way through. All the musicians playing together. No punch ins, no going in after the fact to fix stuff. Again, he might be a craftsman of song, but he sure does value feel. And freshness. Dylan is legendary for not really rehearsing songs with the studio musicians beforehand, or explaining them either. He just starts in with song and they feel their way through it. The spirit of discovery is key. That can really imbue the recorded artifact of the song with life. 

Back in the day, many people would say that they like Dylan's songs, but they prefer to hear other people sing them. I love Dylan covers as much as the next guy, but you are missing a lot, all those intimations, implications, and insinuations, if you don't listen to the master sing them himself.

Up top I have posted the excellent film of Dylan performing Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight with his outstanding Infidels band: Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare on drums and bass, Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on guitar, and Alan Clark on keys. Best band he ever had. Why didn't he stick with them? Well, he just doesn't do that sticking thing. 


Part I: Dylan’s Mysterious Musical Maturation

Part II: The Nature of Dylan’s Art

Part III: Dylan's Verbosity and the Path to Poetry

Part IV: Close Reading Dylan's "Idiot Wind"

Part V: Don't Overlook Dylan's Musicality

Part VI: On Dylan's Identity Tricksterism

Part VII: What Dylan Knows and Doesn't Know

Part VIII:  Dylan, Taylor Swift, and Genius Inflation

Part IX: Close Reading "Simple Twist of Fate"


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