Bluesy Dylan works to deliver the words more than the tune

May 24, 1991|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Everybody knows that Bob Dylan is a rock-and-roll legend. That's why he was honored during the Grammy Awards earlier this year, why so much attention was devoted to the recent release of "Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1," and why so many praises have been sung in connection with his 50th birthday (which, by the way, is today).

Be honest, though -- do you really think the guy can sing?

Sure, he's written some great songs. But most pop fans would as soon hear someone else sing them, be it Peter, Paul and Mary ("Blowin' In the Wind"), the Byrds ("Mr. Tambourine Man") or Jimi Hendrix ("All Along the Watchtower").

And, certainly, his influence has been enormous. Listen close, and you'll hear echoes of his sound in the work of John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler and countless lesser lights. Turn on the radio, though, and you're far more likely to hear a Dylan acolyte than the singer himself -- unless he happens to be with the Traveling Wilburys, where George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty frequently drown him out.

Why? Because as most pop fans hear it, Dylan's voice is little more than a tuneless whine, a grating, rusty-gate groan that carries a tune about as easily as a sieve carries water.

Nor has Dylan done much lately to dispel that impression. His concerts these days tend to be cacophonous and confusing, while his rendition of "Masters of War" on the most recent Grammy show was so noisy and obtuse that even dedicated fans had trouble naming the tune. Listening to him, it's hard not to wonder if the whole thing wasn't some sort of grotesque self-parody.

Which, of course, would be a very Dylanesque thing to do. It might even explain why some fans keep attending his concerts even after being burned repeatedly.

But what Dylan does and what he can do are two very different things. And hard as it might be to believe, one of the things Bob Dylan can do is sing.

He's no Smokey Robinson, it's true, but he certainly knows how to handle a melodic line. Trouble is, some of his "best" singing -- that is, his most conventionally convincing work -- has been on records few fans listen to these days.

"Gotta Serve Somebody" is a perfect example. Dylan's command of the vocal line is absolute, allowing him to navigate its bluesy twists with supreme confidence. But because this was the single that introduced the Christian fundamentalist phase of Dylan's career (a period that tried the patience of even the most devoted Dylanites), most fans would as soon forget about it.

That's just half the story, though; the rest has to do with our notion of just what it is a singer is supposed to achieve. In the pop mainstream, what matters most is melodic fidelity, meaning that the singer should be on pitch and in tune, delivering the tune as accurately and effectively as possible. That's what Whitney Houston, and dozens like her, have always done.

But Bob Dylan has never been a part of that tradition, and approaches his material from a different perspective entirely. Dylan's roots are in folk music and the blues, music that emphasizes emotional expression and narrative flow over melodic line and regular meter. At root, its idea is to communicate the way a bard or storyteller might, and present each song so that the melody flows like conversation. And Dylan is a master of the technique, happily pushing a note off-pitch if it would add emphasis to the lyric, or serve the intent of the song itself.

It's not always an easy approach to follow, particularly for those whose knowledge of folk singing extends no further than Joan Baez or Tracy Chapman. But it's a noble American tradition, and one which works as well for Dylan as it did for Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly or Jimmy Rogers.

Besides, once you understand the musical logic behind Dylan's music, the brilliance of his career and collected work will shine with such intensity that you may even find yourself among the eternally hopeful, watching and waiting for Dylan's genius to reveal itself again.

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