When it comes to Bob Dylan’s discography, I only listen to Blood on the Tracks, so prolly I’m not a true fan. You figure Blood on the Tracks is the Dylan album for people who don’t really like Dylan. It’s the Dylan album you’d take home to meet your mom. Just about as smart, lovable, melodic and warm as a record could be (with the exception of “The Jack of Hearts,” which sounds increasingly like a not-very-good Traveling Wilburys joint).
I am, however, a Beatles (and Bowie) fan, and so am deeply, happily indebted to Dylan. It is certain that John Lennon and Co. would never have reached such rarefied lyrical dimensions without the inspiration (and competition, in a way) of Dylan. You know, Dylan — and his pot. Still, I can’t understand why people — critics especially! — feel the need to behave as if Dylan is still writing music on par with his best stuff. Rolling Stone just gave his perfectly lovely new record, Modern Times, five stars. (Granted, Rolling Stone is notorious for misusing its star system in these sorts of situations. That last Mick Jagger record got five too!) But in general there’s an intellectual shame zone surrounding anything Dylan related with many music critics. You must worship, or — what? Look dumb?
Nothing personal, but I can’t imagine anything off this record living in the eternity of the collective consciousness. And that’s okay, you know? I don’t need this to be a five-star album. And I don’t need to pretend that it is. His lyrics are great at times, but when it comes to inventing bizarre new song structures, indelible melodic hooks, new ways of knowing the universe and coining phrases to ignite the imaginations of millions, I think Dylan’s done his part. More than his part.
Mostly, this album is a sort of easygoing boogie-woogie-blues-lite vehicle for its lyrics. (Although the mysterious torch ballad “Nettie Moore,” with its oddball time signatures and deliciously romantic/domestic lyrics, is all right . . . “A lifetime with you is like some heavenly day . . .”) Mostly, the melodies wash through the mind like clean water and leave no mark. Obviously, there are no vocal harmonies, and Dylan’s voice, so naked and alone, reminds me of gray rock salt. Lonely gray rock salt. For a lot of people, all that’s enough. (But see, that’s why I ?am a Beatles person and not a Dylan one. At the end of the day, I gots to have my pop thrills. Some call them cheap, but they are priceless.)
This record is the sound of a man living on (“ain’t talkin’/just walkin’?”); a troubadour who’s in it for the long haul, decades past even needing to make that searing, momentary-but-timeless mark in the sky. I doubt you’ll actually hear a workingman on the Metro Blue Line at 6 in the morning humming the tune to the new ditty, “Workingman’s Blues #2.” But so what? As I said, Bob Dylan has given us enough to hum.
But. When he starts complaining about the decline of popular music, saying that it’s lost its “stature” (as he said to RS), it feels a bit disingenuous. This is the same guy who gave “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” to TV ads for Kaiser Permanente — which is, as you know, a terrible, heartless corporate HMO. Talk about workingman’s blues. Talk to the families of working people who’ve suffered (and died) because Kaiser denied them the transplants they needed.
I have to wonder: Would Woody Guthrie have sold “This Land Is Your Land” to an image-boosting ad campaign for, I don’t know, the Beef Council or Big Tobacco? Maybe. I kinda doubt it. (I am quite certain Guthrie would have done a Victoria’s Secret ad. Silly little men.)
It’s Dylan’s right to do whatever the fuck he wants with his own art, of course! But it’s a bit tacky to put such a low price on that art, and then bitch about how music today has become devalued in the culture. You can’t have it both ways. And I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad to sell songs to ads. I’m just saying, as I seem to say every week, that there are cool and uncool ways to do it.
Some music becomes sanctified over time by the collective idealism and love of many human beings. In a way, it becomes something that’s a part of all of us. I saw Dylan perform his old hits, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” 12-odd years ago on a sweltering night in Prague, his first tour behind the former Iron Curtain. Fat grown men wept and sweated in the uncooled, enclosed sports arena, and cigarettes glowed in the dark as several thousand baby boomers (they had their own postwar boom over there too, you know) met their own tragic youth face to face. I had heard stories about Dylan’s dreadful live shows, but he performed that night with a realness, a respect for the audience and the songs, that was totally unjaded. He seemed to understand that the songs had taken on a big, beautiful life apart from him in the East, and he seemed to embrace it. He let them have their Dylan moment that night. He let the songs be holy.
So, is selling such a holy song a sin? Of course not. But is it to be applauded as an act of phoenixlike self-immolation? A perky fuck you to his aging American fan base? Fuck that. That kind of cynicism would be only too appropriate for the age in which we live.
Then again, what do I expect from an American Leaguer? That was the worst part of the RS interview. The guy actually likes Ozzie Guillen of the Chicago White Sox. I mean, nobody likes Ozzie “I call people fags” Guillen. Ozzie “I publicly berate my pitchers for not intentionally hitting batters during winning games” Guillen. Ozzie “My team wins IN SPITE of me” Guillen. Ozzie “I have PRICK written all over my smug-bastard forehead” Guillen. Nobody genuinely likes him but his mama — and Bob Dylan.
You think you’ve heard a T. Rex homage or two in your day, especially lately — say, Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La,” which should have been called “Ooh La La (Gang A Bong).” You think you’re okay with it too. It’s time. And then someone goes and steals the intro to “Twentieth Century Boy,” which is only the most exciting 20 seconds in the history of rock. (See “Hot Girls in Good Moods,” off the new solo LP by Butch Walker.) You hear it, and then you go, “Actually, maybe I’m not so ready for this.” And you’re so busy with the song’s radical Bolanectomy, you hardly notice the Loverboyist title. (As for the album’s title, it’s far too long to type here.)
I’m all for references and theft. But with a grab this straightforward — almost the rock equivalent of a sample — you just can’t win. A rip-off like that says to you, the listener, one of four possible things: 1. “You’re not smart enough to know I stole this.” 2. “You know I stole this, but it’s okay because nothing really means anything anymore anyway.” 3. “I’ll never be as good as T. Rex, so why try?” 4. “Whoo-hoo!”
That last one’s okay, but the problem is, we can’t be sure that’s what he meant.
Fortunately, Mr. Walker doesn’t need you to buy his record: After toiling as a leader of a “number” band in the ’90s — neoglam rockers Marvelous 3 — he was reborn as a producer to the stars (Avril Lavigne, Pink et al.). So it all worked out.
Butch Walker & the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites play the Henry Fonda Theater, Thurs., Sept. 14, with the Adored and Damone.