Bob Dylan's voice was always bad, but now it's irritating

MIKE LITTWIN

October 19, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

In case you missed it, and saved the $19.95, the no longer exactly freewheelin' Bob Dylan was on pay-per-view Friday night from Madison Square Garden, not exactly the Village Gate.

It was quite a show. What seemed like the entire rock and roll Hall of Fame showed up to sing Dylan songs in a huge celebration that brought back memories of the Concert for Bangladesh (for you youngsters, that was a pre-MTV Live-Aid), with two important differences:

* One, this was not a concert for anyone in need. Not for hungry Somalians or war-torn Bosnians or wind-swept Floridians and certainly not for Bangladesh, which may or may not even be a country anymore. (Ten bonus points if you can find either Bangladesh on a map or any of your old Ravi Shankar records in your closet.) Tickets at the Garden started at 50 bucks for the nosebleed seats, and maybe 20 million more got the pay-per-view, and the money went where? To Columbia Records? To Bobby "You Gave the Bums a Dime in Your Prime" Dylan? Bob Roberts was right. The times, they are a-changin' -- back. Who was the promoter, Donald Trump?

* The other difference is that Dylan -- sorry Kermit -- now sings like a frog.

I can hear you objecting even from here. I can hear you saying, "Hey, wait a minute, pal. What are you talking about? Dylan always sang like a frog."

That is not technically correct.

Dylan used to sing like he was having an allergy attack. Dint yeewwww? We used to sit around and wonder what he'd sound like if some kindly doctor would just prescribe a decongestant. Was he really Bobby Vee with a stuffed nose?

But actually, we loved the nasal sound. The untamed voice was the point of Dylan. He wasn't supposed to sound like Sinatra. He was supposed to sing songs of protest or songs of love that sounded like songs of protest and generally get on our parents' nerves and/or change the world.

Now, he's on my nerves. He's been on my nerves for a while.

And it isn't what you think. It isn't because old guys shouldn't sing rock and roll. Face it, we didn't die -- most of us, anyway -- before we got old. (Although it was a great career move for some, say the no-talent Jim Morrison, who Oliver Stone tried to tell us was Keats on acid. If Dylan had died in that motorcycle accident, he'd be James Dean instead of a guy who sounds like an amphibian).

I like the old guys, if they can still hack it. Is there some rule that says I have to either listen to Jesus and Mary Chain or surrender my rock-and-roll credentials? I caught the last Rolling Stones tour -- twice. I just saw Neil Young, who actually still makes great music. He and Clapton stole the Dylan show. Young did "All Along the Watchtower" Hendrix style, and Clapton did a bluesy "Don't Think Twice" that had people in the Garden thinking it was 1969. Roger McGuinn sang "Mr. Tambourine Man" with Tom Petty. They rolled out Lou Reed, Richie Havens, Stevie Wonder, George Harrison, the Band, even Johnny Cash. Everyone but Norman Greenbaum was there.

Sinead O'Connor, fresh from her "Saturday Night Live" appearance, showed up, got booed, screamed out some Bob Marley lyrics about child abuse and left the stage crying, apparently forgetting to tear up a picture. I mean, the pope was fun, but I was hoping she'd go after somebody important this time, say Admiral Stockdale, who was seen in the audience saying, "Who am I? Why am I here?"

In other words, the show was tremendous until Dylan appeared.

The songs are still great, and then he tries to sing them. Did you see him do "Masters of War" on the Grammys last year? He sang a five-minute song in 38 seconds, sounding like the guy who did the rapid-fire American Express commercials would if he had a head cold. There are many of us who thought that the latter-day Dylan intentionally ruined his songs just as sort of a final, perverse, anti-establishment statement. But in the BobFest Friday night, you could understand the words and recognize the tunes and just wished you couldn't.

Now, Dylan combines the nasal with this guttural noise that is only slightly less appealing than smoker's cough to produce a sound that, if he played in France, would put him in danger of having his legs sauteed.

Fortunately, the old Dylan is still available to us. If you want the essential Dylan, get the Biograph box set or any of the early albums up to Blonde on Blonde. I'm listening to Positively Fourth Street right now. It sounds positively great.

Mike Littwin's column will appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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