So I gotta tell you.
I'm pretty stoked about the new Bob Dylan album Modern Times that arrives in stores this Tuesday. But what I'm not gonna do here is bore you with a lot of analytical bullshit about Dylan.
Well, at least not too much. You see, I'm not really that much of a Dylanologist.
I actually came to the party relatively late in the game, as we will shall soon see in the paragraphs about to unfold. But I am a fan. A huge fan.
And as such, I have gone through Dylan's various ups and downs as an artist every bit as much as the obsessive types who've been known to traipse through his garbage cans in the dead of night. As much as any fan looking for any clue in the way of a lyric as to just what makes this man — this icon if we are to be truly honest — really tick.
Based on my own personal experience with this artist, I'll simply tell ya what I know.
There's been a lot of Dylans over the years. There's been the heir apparent to Woody Guthrie Dylan that horrified the folkie purists when he strapped on an electric guitar at Newport (brilliantly captured for posterity in Scorsese's No Direction Home documentary).
There's been electric wiry haired protest "spokesmen of the sixties" icon Dylan.
There's been the "non-smoking" Dylan who put out the silky smooth vocals heard on Nashville Skyline in 1969 (quitting smoking was his explanation at the time for the dramatic vocal change).
There's been the "song and dance man" Dylan that did a tour in greasepaint and put out out the album Street Legal (vastly underrated in my personal opinion) and the Rolling Thunder tour and Renaldo And Clara movie.
There's been the "born again Christian" Dylan of the Slow Train Coming era…
And I mean it just goes on and on. It really does. Which is what makes Bob Dylan so uniquely fascinating as an artist. So right now, I'm going to try to put all of this into a personal context as to how I came to appreciate Dylan.
Like I said, I'm certainly no Dylanologist. When I first heard "Like A Rolling Stone," I may have been ten years old. But even then I recognized the difference between what I was hearing, and everything else on the radio at the time in the sixties. Which was basically a lot of Beatles, a lot of Motown, and a smattering of the other folk-rock artists doing Dylan songs like the Byrds ("Mr. Tambourine Man") and The Turtles ("It Aint Me Babe") that were changing the shape of top forty radio at the time.
As that Buffalo Springfield song said so appropriately, "there's something happening here."
I was far too young to realize what was really going on at the time of course, (and we won't even go into the "soundalikes" of the time like Donovan and Barry McGuire). But I still recognized, even at my young age, that there was a new sound emerging on the radio. I distinctly remember a trip in my parents car from Seattle to Yakima as the time I first noticed it. The radio was playing John Sebastian's Lovin' Spoonful and John Phillips' Mamas and Papas. There was clearly something in the air and on the airwaves.
The next time I really noticed Dylan was in 1969 when he put out Nashville Skyline. I still wasn't a full fledged fan — my tastes ran far more to the psychedelia of the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors as an emerging thirteen year old hippie wannabe in the sixties by that time. But I did notice the raspy voice of songs like "Highway 61 Revisited" (songs I knew by this time), had been replaced by the smooth croon of "Lay Lady Lay."
I also knew that I liked it. A lot.
By the time I graduated high school in 1974 and Dylan booked his first tour in forever with The Band, I still wasn't what you would call a fan. But I was aware (very much so) of who Dylan truly was and I knew I had to check it out. So I went down to what was then the Seattle Center Coliseum (now Key Arena), the day of the show and hoped for the best I could without a ticket.
And damn if some stoned out hippie type didn't give me a ticket to the sold out hottest ticket in town. Talk about hitting paydirt.
Like I said, fortune was with me that night. And as an 18-year old high school graduate I went strictly on a lark. But it was on that night that I GOT Bob Dylan. I've seen the man several times in concert since, and Dylan in concert is definitely a hit and miss proposition. But that night was absolute magic for a Dylan acolyte like me.
I became a life-long fan.
People who criticize Dylan usually criticize his voice first. They don't dare criticize his songwriting. But it was his voice that truly got me that night. In particular it was his phrasing.
No one will ever accuse Bob Dylan of having the five octave range of a Mariah Carey, for example. But the man knows what to do with what he has. The way Dylan uniquely bites off his lyrics — on that particular night it was a rearrangement of "Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine" that struck me most — is simply unmatched in music for my money.
For me, that incredible phrasing alone qualifies Dylan as a vocalist of the highest order. Dylan bites off his lyrics (particularly in the way he reinvents his songs in concert) as though the point he is making depends on it.
So by this time I was pretty much hooked. As in a full fledged fan.
In later years, like so many other new fans, I delved into the lyrics and I went through the various changes. Going backward, I learned to taste Dylan's more biting tone in songs like "Ballad Of A Thin Man" directed towards the journalists who couldn't see "that there's something happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones." By this time I was discovering Dylan the lyricist. I was looking a lot deeper.
In the late seventies, when Dylan made a series (a trilogy actually) of albums directly resulting from his conversion to Christianity, I saw the same biting tone in Dylan's songs like "When You Gonna Wake Up?" as I did in "Ballad Of A Thin Man."
The uncompromising righteous indignity, even if directed in an entirely different direction, lost not one iota of it's original bite. Not for me anyway. And not at a time when I was feeling much of the same things, and asking myself much of the same questions that this guy was talking about.
I was definitely learning to love Dylan. Maybe for different reasons than the masses of hippies who had already embraced the man as the "spokesman of a generation?" Perhaps. In spite of the apparent paradox, I was still learning to love Dylan all the same. If nothing else, you had to admire the man's integrity.
So a lot has taken place since then. No denying that, There's been the highs and there's been the lows. We've seen, for example, Dylan "the song and dance man." This was the guy who put out Street Legal (which had some great songs on it like "Changing Of The Guard" for example). By the way, I love that album. We've seen that for one thing.
We've also seen the guy who put out a whole lot of wildly uneven albums in the eighties.
On the one hand there was uninspired crap like Knocked Out Loaded and Empire Burlesque. On the other there was the brilliant, if frustratingly spotty work on albums like Infidels and Oh Mercy.
Neil Young fans will no doubt remember the eighties when Young was trying to rediscover his voice through the crappy experiments of albums like Trans and Old Ways right? Well, being a Dylan fan in the eighties was similarly frustrating. But in the end you had to give both artists the benefit of the doubt. Guys like Dylan and Young are so gifted you more or less have to let them work their way through the inconsistencies. You've gotta have the patience to tough it out. But ultimately that same patience will be rewarded if you're willing to endure the wait.
And in Dylan's Case? Well, the wait through much of the eighties and nineties was indeed worth it. Bringing us to the brilliant work he has given us these last few years.
On his last two albums, Dylan has given us some of the best songs of his entire career. Songs like "Love Sick" from Time Out Of Mind or "Mississippi" from Love And Theft. Absolutely brilliant stuff befitting the legacy of a true American icon.
So I have to be honest here. I haven't listened to a note of Modern Times yet. Though I know there's downloads aplenty available online. Nope. I'm waiting until Tuesday, and heres why: I want to be surprised. And I want to be surprised in a good way. Because I'm kind of hoping for some validation here. The advance buzz out there is that Modern Times is the final word in the gutteral, bluesy, lyrical trilogy that began with Time Out Of Mind, and continued through Love And Theft. That's what I'm really hoping for.
And the pre-release signs out there are damn good.
The tour is already booked. Kings Of Leon, Acoustic Foo Fighters, and Jack White's Raconteurs are already on board as the support acts. So it's gonna be a damn good tour judging by the signs already out there.
Thats all well and good. Dylan is also as topical as ever these days. I particularly got a kick out of his recent comments to the press about how all current music sounds like shit. Amen, Brother. Talk about a man preaching to the choir.
I just hope that my man Bobby D stays true.
I fully expect he will. And I'll tell ya what. I'm counting the days till this Tuesday — D-Day — to find out. Stay tuned for my review.