Bob Dylan may be the Charlie Chaplin of rock & roll. Both men are regarded as geniuses by their entire audience. Both were proclaimed revolutionaries for their early work and subjected to exhaustive attack when later works were thought to be inferior. Both developed their art without so much as a nodding glance toward their peers. Both are multitalented: Chaplin as a director, actor, writer and musician; Dylan as a recording artist, singer, songwriter, prose writer and poet. Both superimposed their personalities over the techniques of their art forms. They rejected the peculiarly 20th century notion that confuses the advancement of the techniques and mechanics of an art form with the growth of art itself. They have stood alone.
When Charlie Chaplin was criticized, it was for his direction, especially in the seemingly lethargic later movies. When I criticize Dylan now, it’s not for his abilities as a singer or songwriter, which are extraordinary, but for his shortcomings as a record maker. Part of me believes that the completed record is the final measure of a pop musician’s accomplishment, just as the completed film is the final measure of a film artist’s accomplishments. It doesn’t matter how an artist gets there — Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie (and Dylan himself upon occasion) did it with just a voice, a song and a guitar, while Phil Spector did it with orchestras, studios and borrowed voices. But I don’t believe that by the normal criteria for judging records — the mixture of sound playing, singing and words — that Dylan has gotten there often enough or consistently enough.
Chaplin transcended his lack of interest in the function of directing through his physical presence. Almost everyone recognizes that his face was the equal of other directors’ cameras, that his acting became his direction. But Dylan has no one trait — not even his lyrics — that is the equal of Chaplin’s acting. In this respect, Elvis Presley may be more representative of a rock artist whose raw talent has overcome a lack of interest and control in the process of making records.
Presley is the only rock artist whose records have consistently failed to list a producer. When they are great, they represent the triumph of his natural ability over everything that surrounds him — songs, musicians, recording equipment. We remember him, not the record. He creates the illusion that he can do anything he wants to, but never has to be more than he is. It is enough that he sounds like Elvis Presley. Even at his worst, his records sound complete. He defines himself.
For many years I believed that Dylan could do that too. But for many more I doubted it. Through Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s originality as a performer, singer, songwriter and presence haunted a generation — and had an incalculable effect on my own life. But while Elvis Presley never had to rely on anything but himself to see himself through, Dylan needs his specific talents to make himself felt. Since Blonde on Blonde they haven’t served him well enough to compensate for his indifference to the process of making records. And in retrospect, it now seems clear that indifference has marred much of his work.
Dylan has often said that his goal in the studio is to catch the feeling and the way he does that best is by keeping things simple: light rehearsal, a few takes and on to the next song. The artist knows how he works best, so there may be no alternative. But the shortcomings of the approach must be noted. Dylan’s electric albums have often been pointlessly sloppy, sometimes badly recorded and not nearly as good as some of the material warranted. To me, Planet Waves sounds like nothing so much as a rough draft of an unfinished work, a sketch of planned painting, something to be worked on, not released.
When Dylan recorded by himself, there was something primitively satisfying about his voice-guitar-harmonica performances that made even the weakest cuts on the four purely acoustic albums sound finished. But he produced his craziest and greatest work with rock bands and I think his reputation will finally stand or fall on the basis of what he has done with them.
As a rock artist there were times when he so charged a recording session with the power of his words and voice that nothing else mattered. Coincidentally (perhaps not) these usually took place when the accompaniment was at least adequate and sometimes brilliant. I’m thinking of such personal favorites as “She Belongs to Me,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a good half of Blonde on Blonde, the singles “Positively 4th Street” and “Can You Please Crawl out Your Window?,” the “Basement Tapes” and Albert Hall bootlegs, “All along the Watchtower” “Down along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” on John Wesley Harding, “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy” (and maybe another two from New Morning) and a matter of taste — but the Band itself has never sounded more lifeless and colorless. The best music on that album doesn’t hold a candle to the worst music on The Band, let alone anything so majestic as “The Weight,” “King Harvest” or “Stage Fright.”
To bring it all back home: The paradox of Bob Dylan’s reputation is that he is regarded as our greatest rock artist without having made the records — the completed works — that should support that reputation. When compared to people who are thought (usually mistakenly so, in my view) to have made their records in the same natural, unproduced style in which he has made his, I find him wanting: He has made no single cut to equal Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Breathless,” Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” If compared to the records of musicians whose work is thought to owe its quality to production, I find him wanting: He’s made no single record to equal the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” or Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave.” If compared to contemporary rock & roll bands, I find him wanting: He’s made nothing to equal the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” the Who’s “My Generation” or the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (or “Get Off My Cloud” or “Tumbling Dice”). If compared to the trash-rock of the bar lounges, I find him wanting: He’s made no records to equal Gary (U.S.) Bonds’s “Quarter to Three” or Joey Dee and the Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist.”
Dylan invented the modern singer/songwriter form and there’s no question that he remains the best of the lot, but how any of them will finally stand as recording artists no one can yet say. Most of them display some of his flaws in record making, while others use production to hide a lack of substance –something no one will ever accuse Dylan of. (Only one, Joni Mitchell, seems to have solved the problem by inventing a form of production on Blue that doesn’t sound like production at all.)
Consider this: Dylan is supposed to be the standard against which so many have measured rock for the past ten years. But if the reader can allow that any record by performers obviously lacking Dylan’s broader artistic credentials equals or surpasses his, then his position as a premier recording artist is called into question.
It didn’t matter that Charlie Chaplin may not have been a great director or a great anything else. He made great movies. But it does matter whether or not the sum total of Dylan’s talents has added up to the making of great records. By and large I don’t believe that they have and, if the unit of rock & roll art were only what survives on vinyl, exclusive of anything else and undivided into its component parts, then I don’t believe that Bob Dylan would qualify as a great rock artist.
If Dylan isn’t a great rock artist per se, he is a great artist, period. He has transcended his limitations more successfully than anyone else in rock. He succeeded in making himself indispensable. The records may be indispensable in only the first moments in which they are perceived, but they can transmit as much force in those moments as others do in hours, days and years.
Dylan considered in total — as a man, myth, singer, writer and, yes, maker of records — hasn’t been merely immediate and urgent: He’s given rock its drama. He creates tensions within his audience beyond anyone else’s reach. If he isn’t as good a record maker as Chuck Berry, he’s a much better actor. As an actor and as a personality, Dylan hasn’t handled every role with equal skill. He was unconvincing as the happy homeowner. People who criticize that phase of his work never intended to deny him the right to be exactly what he wanted to be. But they reacted to the fact that he couldn’t make that experience as real as he could the emotions of anger, pain, hurt, fear, loneliness, aloneness and strength. Like James Dean and Marlon Brando, he was better at playing the rebel than the citizen, the outsider than the insider and the outlaw than the sheriff.
Much of the critical enthusiasm for Blood on the Tracks is really a sigh of relief that he’s shaken off the role of contentment that Jonathan Cott also has found never rang true. But in returning to his role as disturber of the peace, Dylan hasn’t revived any specific phase from the past, only a style that lets his emotions speak more freely and the state of mind in which he no longer denies the fires that are still raging within him and us. He is using elements of his past to make an album about his past.
The record itself has been made with typical shoddiness. The accompanying musicians have never sounded more indifferent. The sound is generally no more than what Greil Marcus calls “functional,” a neutral environment from which Dylan emerges.
But the singing is much better than on any recent album. He turns up with beautiful lines and phrasing on “Tangled Up in Blue,” “You’re a Big Girl Now,” “Shelter from the Storm” and “Buckets of Rain” (but the snarl that he resurrects from “Like a Rolling Stone” in order to sing “Idiot Wind” sounds like a shadow of his former self).
The writing is the source of the record’s power. It’s been a long time since Dylan has composed a melody line as perfectly suited to his voice as “Tangled Up in Blue,” and though the lyrics are both confessional and narrative, Dylan makes it all sound like direct address. There are times when he sounds closer, more intimate and more real than anyone else.
If in Dylan’s world of extremes there’s room for a middle ground, that’s where I place Blood on the Tracks. It’s his best album since Blonde on Blonde, but not nearly as good. If it contains nothing so bad as the second version of “Forever Young,” only “Tangled Up in Blue” comes even close to “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” To compare the new album to Blonde on Blonde at all is to imply that people will treasure it as deeply and for as long. They won’t.
But, for the moment, which is when this record was made for, I like everything about it; the good, the bad and the ugly. It all matters: the title “Tangled Up in Blue”; and the way that song propels itself relentlessly forward (even though it is about the past) and always winds up leaving Dylan and us standing in the same place; the lines, “I helped her out of a jam, I guess/But I used a little too much force”; the way that the song sounds so right for the Byrds of 1965; the compassion, not rage, of “You’re a Big Girl Now”; the lines “I can make it through/You can make it too”; the innocence and unqualified beauty of Dylan’s reprise of his folk music roots on “Buckets of Rain”; the awkwardness of the music for “If You See Her, Say Hello”; the childishness (without any redeeming childlike wonder) of so much of “Idiot Wind”; the holiness of the last verse of “Shelter from the Storm”; the extension of the apocalyptic mood of his earlier work into something still forceful, but mellower, more understanding, more tolerant and more self-critical; the indifference to the subject of women as a generality and his involvement with women and love as something specific, and above all, the arrogance — that defiant indifference to whatever it is others think he ought to be doing. He still stands alone.
Blood on the Tracks will only sound like a great album for a while. Like most of Dylan, it is impermanent. But like the man who made it, the album answers to no one and was made for everyone. It is the work of someone who is not just seeing through himself, but looking through us — and still making us see things that we haven’t seen before.