Tuesday, August 13, 2013



In Defense of Dylan’s Voice

If you have been following Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, online or in person, you’ll notice that a lot of people, even some who are self-professed Dylanologists, have been complaining about the roughness of his voice. To these critics I say: Complaining about Dylan’s voice is like complaining that your scotch tastes too peaty. If you want something sweet, get a colorless spirit that easily surrenders to the overwhelming invasion of fruit juice. Otherwise, let his voice burn your ears just as it sounds like it is blistering his throat when he sings.

Stephen H. WebbSince it is little more than decayed vegetation, peat is actually not a bad metaphor for Dylan’s voice, which has never sounded fresh and youthful. It was old when he was young, and now that he is old, it sounds ancient. Just as barley dried on a mossy fire adds flavor to whisky, creaky and rusty vocal folds (or so I imagine what a laryngoscopy would find) add timbre to Dylan’s singing. Would anyone really want a doctor to smooth the fibrous tissue or remove the bumpy nodules on his vocal cords in order to make his voice sound “better”?

What I have said about Dylan can be said about beauty generally, but that does not make it less true. Both scotch and Dylan are reminders that beauty emerges out of and redeems, rather than opposes and destroys, the ugly. A little bitterness makes the scotch taste sweeter, and wavering off key makes the difference between a good singer and a great performer.

There are many imitators of Dylan (and many types of bourbon that aim at scotch’s greatness), but you cannot fake peaty stench or smoke-aged vocal cords. Think about how a beauty mark can make someone who is merely attractive appear perfect, and then think too of the curious phenomenon of Monroe piercing, which is the insertion of a metal ball above the left side of the upper lip, in homage of Marilyn. You can’t buy the kind of ugly from which beauty is made.

Dylan has always been an unconventional singer, but he knows, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 12:9–10), that strength comes from weakness. He knows, that is, how to sing against the weaknesses in his voice in order to reveal its strength just where it is most limited.

That is surely not easy to do, nor is it easy to describe. Indeed, the sonic character of any voice, perhaps because voices are both intimate and invisible, is hard to pin down with any accuracy or detail. If so, consider that it would take a writer as skillful as John Updike, who indeed was sensitive throughout his work to the literary challenges of sound, to describe a voice like Dylan’s. In fact, early in his career, before Dylan became Dylan, Updike took on the challenge, describing him as having a “voice to scour a skillet with.” That seems about right for detail and accuracy but misses what lets Dylan get so deep inside your head.

Dylan himself was skilled at describing the voices of singers. In his memoir Chronicles, he describes how Woody Guthrie “would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch” and how Johnny Cash’s “voice was so big it made the world grow small.” Dylan writes like a singer, just as he sings like a writer.

To paraphrase the Bible again, this time a comment made about Jesus (Matt. 7:29), Dylan sings as one having authority, not like the pop stars who just want to please. When critics complain about Dylan’s voice, they sound like they are whining, which is exactly what they claim Dylan sounds like. Perhaps what the critics miss most is how Dylan’s voice gives sound to suffering while still being uplifting and, yes, entertaining.

In Chronicles, Dylan documents the period, right before the making of Oh Mercy, where he felt like he was losing his vocal touch. The whisky, he says, had “gone out of the bottle,” and his songs felt like “a package of heavy rotting meat.” He had lost not his voice but his purpose, since he “wasn’t keeping my word with myself.” He needed to recall his music “up from the grave.”

He recovered his voice when, taking a walk one night, he heard someone singing in a nondescript bar. He doesn’t name the singer, but he does try to name the experience he had. “I knew where the power was coming from and it wasn’t his voice, though the voice brought me sharply back to myself.” To paraphrase the Bible one last time (Matt. 11:15), Dylan sings as one who has ears to hear.

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.

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8.13.2013 | 1:54am
Rick says:
When I first heard Dylan on a phonograph back in 1965, I didn't like him. But he is definitely an acquired taste, and after two or three years, I recognized him as a superbly gifted musical poet. After that, the voice didn't bother me. I listened to the poetry of the lyrics.

Earlier this year, I went to a Dylan concert at our university here in Kentucky. The voice was raspier and more guttural than ever. But that didn't bother me. What bothered both me and my wife (a professor of poetry) was that we couldn't make out what he was saying over the amplified instruments. All the magic of his poetry was lost. Maybe I should just look for transcripts of his current songs.
8.13.2013 | 4:11am
Joe Z says:
Sed contra: the picture at the top of the page. Why not do him the favor of taking him seriously?
8.13.2013 | 7:40am
david says:
I love Dylan as a vocalist, and agree with Stephen Webb's descriptions/analogies, Dylan's songs are wonderful, his voice is an acquired taste. But I've also witnessed a handful of live performances where his voice was bad, or at least disappointing and frustrating to me. His body of work is undeniable. What would be a reasonable expectation for a singer on a Never Ending Tour with six decades as a performer in the rear view mirror?
8.13.2013 | 9:34am
Tom Connelly says:
A humorous treatment of this issue by folk singer Eric Bogle, a Scotsman now residing in Australia.


Note: re-submitted because I believe the first link was incorrect.
8.13.2013 | 10:12am
John Willson says:
The real problem is, Dylan has never been able to carry a tune.
8.13.2013 | 12:07pm
Craig Payne says:
Remember the famous comment from Jimi Hendrix: "At first I thought I couldn't sing, but then I heard Bob Dylan...."
8.13.2013 | 1:06pm
DeGaulle says:
We should all be very grateful for Mr Dylan. He ploughs an ideological furrow diagonally opposed to most of his colleagues in rock music. He is a believer in all the old values that most people that post here hold dear. Indeed, he doesn't seem to like modernity at all, and his songs are steeped in archaic language and ideas. As such, there are very few like him. He is the first person I can recall attacking the notion of equality('My Back Pages' from 1964), and condemning moral relativism-which he described as every man 'having his own truth'. His latest album, which I believe is one of his best (yet!) is well-served by his extremely time-worn voice. Songs about his own death are more poignant sung by a man who threatens to drown in his own phlegm. But, it is a great Christian work, even featuring Our Lady a few times.
8.13.2013 | 1:22pm
Gregg says:
Bob Dylan is an acquired taste, to be sure. But my take is, he's kind of putting everybody on. In other words, he wants to see how bad he can sing before people say "Enough!" It's in tune with his askance bemusement at popular culture, in general. It's like America has become France. That is to say, we (claim to) like Dylan BECAUSE he's so bad, just to thumb our nose at convention. It's like pretending you love modern art. It makes us feel good.

But most people much prefer the concept of Bob Dylan to that of his real music. If everyone who claimed to "looove" Bob Dylan actually bought his albums, he'd make Paul McCartney look like a pauper.

If you really want to get into a guy who "can't sing," then Tom Waits is your man.
8.13.2013 | 1:50pm
I am in my 50th year as a Dylan fan and I have taught a Dylan course nine times at the institution where I am library director. Michael Gray, in his _Dylan Encyclopedia_ cites favorably an article I published some years ago in _On the Tracks_. I participated last year in a review forum of _Tempest_ in _The Bridge_. I've experienced Dylan live at least 20 times, beginning in 1974 and continuing nearly annually since 1993. But I have almost sworn off his live shows and find I am listening to his newer albums less and less. For all the apologia in the article and comments above, one can't help but mourn Dylan's diminished abilities as a singer and also as a songwriter. A careful listen of most of his songs since _Love and Theft_, though there are exceptions, reveals an artist grasping for rhyme at the expense of coherence of theme and logical song progression. And listening to vocal performances like that on "Copper Kettle," "Moonshiner," or most anything on _Desire_, not to mention a boot of the rehearsals with the Grateful Dead before hitting the road in 1988, or the hair-raising, chill-inducing 1995 duet with Patti Smith of "Dark Eyes," causes me to sigh deeply and nearly weep. My young friends tell me they will keep hearing him live as long as he has breath. And they are occasionally rewarded with unforgettable performances like the recent cover of "The Weight" with Jeff Tweedy and Jim Jones. For me, though, I will think twice before putting down $100 for hollow versions of "All Along the Watchtower" or a jumpy, piano-driven "Tangled up in Blue." There is one song I would love to hear live, however, and that is "Forgetful Heart." Maybe chasing that possibility is worth getting frisked another time or two as I pass the turnstile at one more venue, waiting to hear that familiar announcement, "Ladies and gentleman, Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!"
8.13.2013 | 2:05pm
For those who believe that being a great singer means hitting all the right notes in all the right places, time after predictable time, I have just the act for you: The Eagles, man.
8.13.2013 | 2:18pm
AF Zamarro says:
I've seen Dylan live four times, and I've heard him indecipherable and quite clear. He played the Boston Garden about ten years ago with Van Morrison and Dylan had the whole crowd on its feet - no small feat at a show where the median age looked to be 60 or so, and with Boston crowds not being inclined to dance.

I also admire how he never sings a song the same way twice. You can never sing along at his concerts. He has refused to become a relic of the sixties, or to stop creating.

Whatever else can be said, Dylan is a performer and he knows how to "move" an audience. I look forward to my next chance to see him.
8.13.2013 | 2:38pm
Brian says:
What then of Tom Waits, Shane MacGowan, Tim Armstrong and other "bad" singer s that end up sounding good.
8.13.2013 | 3:10pm
Vergilius says:
After decades of finding the Dylan mystique elusive, and finding his work in its totality unattractive, a friend finally helped me to gain enlightenment. He styled Dylan's work as "People's Music". In that understanding, ordinary canons of assessing the quality of a musician simply do not apply.
8.13.2013 | 3:20pm
Dylan once told Keith Richard that whereas he (Dylan) could have written "Satisfaction", Richard and Jagger could not have written "Mr. Tamborine Man". True enough.

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