Bob Dylan. He has added his slant on American musical standards to other pop singers like Carly Simon, Marvin Gaye and Rod Stewart who took a crack at singing songs popularized by Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and the Chairman of the Board; a risky endeavor for any artist. Dylan’s versions from his new album, Shadows in the Night, are so strange — sounding like a cross between Chet Baker and Willie Nelson, put through a synthesizer worsening the voice quality, imbuing each song with a shocking amount of pathos and sadness.
He sings “Autumn Leaves,” “The Night We Called It A Day,” and “What’ll I Do?” like an old man with nothing but miserable memories, heartbroken and betrayed; as if he is singing to himself, seated on a crate in the street with an empty bottle of whisky lying on the pavement beside him, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth at three in the morning. He sounds like someone you would want to ask, “What happened to you? Do you need a hug?” The sound is pure truth, simple arrangements under produced, without a note of guile.
Not much is known about the once-touted “Prophet of a Generation,” especially about his love life, but his songs show it’s been a hard road, with lots of rain to fall. His song, “My Wife’s Home Town,” is bitter, misogynistic, poetic and clever:
She can make you steal, make you rob
Give you the hives, make you lose your job.
Make things bad, she can make things worse
She got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse.
One of these days I’ll end up on the run
I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone.
I’m going inside, roll the shutters down
I just wanna say that hell’s my wife’s home town.”
Yikes! Oy vey! Now I’m curious. Recently, Dylan split from his third wife, pulling off what the tabloids say has never been accomplished by a celebrity — a secret marriage ending in a secret split. He did this not once, but twice, ending his second marriage, which resulted in a secret daughter to a backup singer, whom he married in June, 1986, then divorced. According to rumor, Bob was a world-class womanizer; many wives, both legal and common law. But, if you listen to him sing “Full Moon and Empty Arms” from Shadows of the Night, he sounds hopelessly disappointed in love, even love-starved.
I never was a fan of Bob’s until now. My father owned a famous record store. He kept 6,000 records in the basement of my childhood home. Whenever I was sad, lonely and disappointed in love, I crept down the cellar stairs, stayed up all night listening to the greatest vocalists sing the American Song Book. Lyrics filled my head the next day in school, which might account for how I flunked out of high school.
If all I studied in school was Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, I would have made the National Honor Society.
When Dylan was 23, he was asked by a reporter, “What is your response when people argue that rock and roll, the music kids listen to today, can never compare to the songwriters of the past who composed the Great American Song Book?”
“They’re probably right,” He replied. He knew even then.
Recently, Dylan said during an interview in the AARP magazine, “There’s only one guy who did it all, and that was Irving Berlin. He wrote the melody and the lyrics. This guy was a flat-out genius. I mean, he had a gift.”
Irving Berlin! I created an entire concert just from his music with 150 kids at McKenna Theater in 1986. Berlin couldn’t read or write music. He had a trick piano with a secret button that automatically changed keys so he would not appear musically illiterate. Berlin was completely self-taught, like Dylan, and dare I say so, not to appear ludicrous, like myself.
Dylan’s respect and love for songs some dancers in my Figures-In-Flight Dance Company think are corny. This is reassuring, especially since I often use Standards while teaching dance. The students politely put up with the tunes, occasionally rolling their eyes and giving each other knowing glances.
Dylan says, “These songs on my album have been written by people who went out of fashion years ago. I’m probably someone who helped put them out of fashion. But what they did is a lost art form. Just like daVinci and Renoir and van Gogh … a song like “I’m a Fool to Want You” — I know that song. I can sing that song. I’ve felt every word in that song. It’s like I wrote it … It can’t be outrun. It has to do with human emotion, which is a constant thing. There’s nothing contrived in these songs. There’s not one false word in any of them. They’re eternal, lyrically and musically. I love these songs, and I’m not going to bring any disrespect to them or treat them irreverently.”
In his early interviews he is cocky, saying words that seem so idiotic now — “groovy, uptight” — like a sixties parody. He has been both a devout Christian and Jew. He has performed for presidents Obama and Clinton, the Queen and the Pope, whose ring he kissed on camera. His song “Like A Rolling Stone” was named by Rolling Stone Magazine “The Greatest Song Of All Time.” Dylan has eleven Grammy Awards, one Academy Award and one Golden Globe Award. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in May 2012. In February 2015, Dylan accepted the MusiCares Person of the Year Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, in recognition of his philanthropic and artistic contributions to society. In 1997 he was a Kennedy Center honoree.
Dylan is 72. He’s been on the road a long time, following his destiny, which is a word that repeats often in his memoir Chronicles Volume 1. It’s a destiny that has led him to sing “Stay With Me,” the main theme from the 1963 film The Cardinal composed by Jerome Moross. It’s my favorite song from Shadows in the Night. It’s also the saddest. It seems as though it was recorded decades ago, something familiar yet completely new. It’s worshipful, yet not reminiscent of any particular religion. It’s a man talking to God, admitting weakness, wrongdoings and describing being cold, lost and humbly beseeching not to be deserted in his darkest time of loneliness and need. Although sad, what comes through is the voice of a man who no longer wears a public persona. It’s Dylan’s authentic self without the hype, awards, rumors and myths. It’s where his destiny has led him, to his true self, his true voice. These songs were a risk. Many people will not like his simple scratchy renditions of such monumental music. After all, “Stay With Me” was made popular by Frank Sinatra.
After hearing Bob Dylan’s version I listened to Sinatra’s recording. To my amazement, I like Dylan’s more. His hits deep into the soul without the need for 101-string orchestra to back him up.
I am proud of him. Maybe he still is the voice of my generation after all.