Bob Dylan and me

I spent most of my youth protesting my hatred of Bob Dylan. Partly because, when I was young and fond of the kind of hyper-airbrushed, synthesised, poppy harmonies and energetic dancing of various manufactured bands, the Bobster’s nasally voice, irritating habit of making very long songs and the complete oddity of an organ thing every time he paused for breath. And then, of course, because you get older and automatically hate everything your dad likes, or at least claim to.

And then, somehow, I gave in on being cool and started listening to what Bob had to say. Now, let’s get one thing straight right here and now: Bob Dylan cannot sing. He cannot hold a tune on his own, and as soon as you put him in a duet with anyone else, their voice immediately shows his up for how weak it is. This cannot and should not be denied. Even his biggest fans would never, surely, say that what attracted them to his music was his voice. Because it just can’t have been: that would be a lie. Nor is he particularly a style icon, and whilst he may have had an electrifying stage presence, that isn’t exactly what comes across in footage or images from the early days. And as for the whole electric guitar thing, that’s just a bit odd…

No, the reason I, the reason anyone, listens to Bob Dylan, is for his lyrics. Talking about song lyrics as poetry is a cliché, and yet if you read some of his lines out of context, that’s probably what you’d think they were. It is the words that matter, and that’s why his voice doesn’t. And why anyone else singing his stuff (and since just about everyone seems to have done Bob Dylan covers, that happens quite a lot) just doesn’t quite seem right. It doesn’t seem to fit the sentiment somehow, trying too hard with the harmonies and accompaniment, speeding it up or making the choruses catchy. He isn’t catchy. He is indignant but without being angrily self-righteously preachy: these are the kind of lyrics that make you think, rather than choke on their earnest message. When you hear a Bob Dylan song, you know it’s him. And that, I suppose, is when you realise just what a cultural icon is.

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