Friday, August 24, 2012

Bob Dylan: We Are The World?

This was sent to me recently. I think whether you are a Bob Dylan fan or whether you'd rather listen to a chorus of dying cats sing, you'll enjoy this video.
I think this video brings up a number of issues, and not all of them are bad. First of all. it is pretty cool to see Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Lionel Richie, and Quincy Jones all in one room. And it's cool to see Quincy Jones "produce" the session. I'm sure he had to manage a LOT of egos throughout the session. (If you don't remember, or you were born in the 90's:"We Are The World" was the song, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and featured the singing of a boatload of 80's music icons, which sold as a single, the proceeds of which went to help famine in Africa.)Also, it's kind of unbelievable to watch Stevie Wonder act as "rehearsal pianist" for Bob Dylan. And when Wonder sings the melody....let's just say that the contrast between Dylan's "style" and Stevie Wonder's GOD-LIKE voice is pretty amazing.

I've never really been able to get past Bob Dylan's voice. I'm not a vocal snob; I think distinctive individual character can be more important than having pipes of gold. For some reason, Dylan's voice never appealed to me. However, I think his "interpretation" of the melody in this case is kind of cool. (I mean, I'm thinking that after watching this thing a few times.) But can we agree that, if Dylan isn't actually high in this video, that he does look somewhat lost, or at the very least, rather intimidated. (When the modulation UP A HALF STEP happens, he goes, " uhhh....What's THAT?") And it's also fascinating to see how Jones and others are cheering him on. (It feels a little over the top at times.)

I sort of wonder whether Dylan's interpretation of this was conscious. When you hear Wonder sing the melody, it's the correct melody. I wonder if Dylan is just trying to sing along the best he can, or if he said to himself, "I'm going to sing it my way." It's true, what he sings works, although it is pretty much based around one note. But it is kind of blues-y.

It seems like they wanted him to sing over the modulation, and this is where I start to wonder if Dylan is tone deaf. And then everyone hugs! With all respect to Bob Dylan's career and influence, I think folks who had never heard of this song might be mystified as to why this leather-jacketed man was being asked to record in a room where Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie were sitting idly by.

I've been telling myself for years that I'm going to try to figure out how to like Bob Dylan. Maybe this will finally be the day. I think one great thing about American music is that we have a lot of singers who aren't really great "singers" but have a sound of their own. Indeed, many of the Blues and Jazz greats maybe didn't have the prettiest sounds, but they made it work because they had something to express. And certainly, Dylan sounds the best doing his own stuff. You tell me, how does this sound?


  1. Start with Blood On the Tracks-- no mp3s, either cd or vinyl. Then, Blonde On Blonde.

  2. That's hilarious!
    I hear you, George, Dylan doesn't always do it for me. If you're looking to get into him, maybe "Don't Think Twice It's Alright"

    or maybe his "Blood on the Tracks" album?

    For a chuckle, though, it's hard to beat this most recent "Must Be Santa" video

  3. "It's all over now baby blue." Also Time out of mind, Infidels. His writing is without peer, and his rhythmic feel on these lyric-heavy pieces is pretty strong and consistent. But, yeah, not a pretty sound. Read "Positively 4th Street" or Dylan's own "Chronicles." He's as important a figure in the history of music as Louis or Monk or Trane. Really.

  4. Or this...

  5. Was that Quincy Jones saying "perfect" and "fantastic"? Obviously he was lying, and I'm sure it was fully conscious and intentional. Bob Dylan knows that his performance is no good, and he says so, several times. He even said to Quincy Jones "I know you know", which I interpret to mean that he knows Quincy Jones is lying to him.

    Bob Dylan either doesn't know the melody or couldn't find it due to being overwhelmed by the harmonies in the backing track. He is usually speaking, rather than singing sustained pitches, but when he does sustains a pitch the note is in the chord, so he's not tone deaf.

    With some singing lessons Bob Dylan could learn how to sing the melody along with that backing track. I've had singing students who sounded worse that I've been able to make great improvements, and I presume that's the case for most singing teachers. But he's not going to improve at all if nobody is willing to speak the truth to him. Assuming Bob Dylan knew the melody but couldn't find it, someone could have helped him by guiding him to the correct starting note and insisting they not go on until he could sing the first phrase correctly. Unfortunately Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones, and Diana Ross all failed to do that.

  6. It appears that I can't edit my comment. Where I wrote "that I've been able to make great improvements" I meant to write "that I've been able to help make great improvements".

  7. Jerry Garcia was the best interpreter of Dylan tunes, IMHO:

  8. Yes, Blood on the Tracks for some of Dylan's least idiosyncratic singing. And for simply great tune after great tune, the run of albums around the turn of the century: Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times.

    Alternatively, you can do like lots of people I know do: they don't like his voice, but they love his songs. Lots of great covers of his tunes out there. Garcia did lots of them, as mentioned. Greg Brown has done dozens live, but recorded none!

    And then there's your old bandleader Cassandra Wilson, who's done some brilliant Dylan covers. I especially like her version of "Shelter from the Storm."

    And here's a list:

  9. Thanks for the post; I did enjoy watching the video. I think you made the key point: "what he sings works." It does seem like he had a little trouble after the modulation because (as he mentions) that took him to the top of his vocal range of comfort. Eventually I think that part worked pretty well but didn't feel as comfortable for him as the first part---but that's probably what was bugging him, he wasn't able to hit what he was trying for up there, at least not easily. I enjoyed hearing the variations on phrasing in different takes of the part before the modulation---there were several of those that I think were good enough to go on record, and quite different from each other. There are times when the Dylan style starts to get a bit monotonous for me, when listening to a lot of similar tracks at once, especially on records that have a lot of what are basically blues. But mostly, I can dig his singing as in its own way, usually quite expressive and poetic, and musical. In fact, I think his vocal style, like Billie Holiday's, is a unique and personal creation. The scoops and falls don't usually come across as out of tune... they work. I'll take it over slick but bland any day.

  10. Dylan's vocals here are awesome. What a powerhouse. Dogshit song though.


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